Cultural studies: a cancer on the academy

The death of Stuart Hall is a useful moment to reflect on the corrosive effect of cultural studies on the promotion of knowledge.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Who should decide what students learn at university? Traditionally, especially in the humanities and social sciences, individual academics have constructed a curriculum based on an established body of knowledge, often encapsulated in the works of canonical authors. More recently, the academic project of transmitting knowledge to the next generation has been called into question. Instead, the idea that students themselves should be able to determine the content of the curriculum has come to the fore. Economics students from Manchester University have been lauded for challenging the neoliberal, market-driven assumptions of their course and their success in having the curriculum changed to reflect the impact of the latest financial crisis has been celebrated.

Some academics do bemoan the fact that ‘my students are trying to run my course’ and blame this trend on the prioritisation of the ‘student experience’ in universities. Elsewhere on spiked, I have argued that frequent soliciting of the student voice erodes both the autonomy of both academics and subject knowledge. However, this offers only a partial explanation as to why lecturers capitulate to students’ demands on the curriculum; it’s also important to look at what has occurred within academic disciplines as well as policies that have been imposed on academics. With the recent death of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, it is time to assess the impact of cultural studies on higher education. The Australian academic Toby Miller, a leading light in cultural studies, argues his subject has had a profound impact ‘on a host of disciplines’ and that it ‘accretes various tendencies that are splintering the human sciences: Marxism, feminism, queer theory, and the postcolonial.’

Cultural studies began life at the University of Birmingham in 1964 led by Richard Hoggart, academic and author of The Uses of Literacy. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was to play a leading role in Britain’s New Left, a loose political grouping influenced by Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and so-called structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers like Louis Althusser. The key moment was when Hoggart invited Stuart Hall, founder of the New Left Review, to join him at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964. In 1972, Hall took over as the Centre’s director.

The New Left itself arose out of disillusion with Stalinism abroad and the failure of the working class to bring about revolution at home. Hall acknowledged as much when he wrote: ‘The Centre for Cultural Studies was the locus to which we retreated when that conversation in the open world could no longer be continued’ (emphasis in original). The New Left rejected the perceived economic determinism of Marxism and argued that the hegemonic role played by contemporary culture cohered the working class to the dominant ideology of the ruling elite. The founding assumption of cultural studies was that mass or popular culture needed to be studied in order to understand ‘what was wrong with Britain in particular and capitalism in general’. In other words, the working class had been duped by popular culture into accepting capitalism as natural; only through studying topics such as the pervasive influence of the media could some people hope to understand the deception at play.

In his 1990 article, The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities, Hall argued that cultural studies ‘emerged precisely from a crisis in the humanities’, which had arisen because they ‘were conducted in the light, or in the wake, of the Arnoldian project. What they were handling in literary work and history were the histories and touchstones of the national culture, transmitted to a select number of people.’ Hall was critical of the elitism inherent in the ideas of both Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis. Leavis and Arnold argued that it was possible to discern quality in the arts and that educators had a duty to promote high culture. Through cultural studies, Hall sought to develop ‘an ideological critique of the way the humanities and the arts presented themselves as parts of disinterested knowledge’ and did not allow contemporary cultural forms to ‘constitute a serious object of contemplation in the academic world’.

From the outset, then, cultural studies relativised academic content through its rejection of high culture and focus on popular culture. Indeed, the word ‘culture’ itself came to be disassociated from the arts and was instead used to refer to everyday experiences. Cultural studies began by applying the tools of literary criticism to mass culture to expose the interplay of culture, power and politics. Hall’s aspiration was to develop an entirely new theoretical approach to analysing popular culture that drew on sociology, linguistics, Lacanian psychotherapy, and an array of methodological approaches drawn from other disciplines. This approach, in relation to both content and method, has since had an impact across much of academia. When all subject knowledge is considered equally worth studying, it is more difficult for lecturers to defend their content over students’ preferences.

Furthermore, cultural studies was built on the assumption that all content is political, that knowledge is reducible, as Michael Young describes it in Bringing Knowledge Back In, to the experiences of knowers and ultimately to an ideological expression of power relations. As such, Hall reportedly ‘half-joked’ to friends that ‘his cultural studies project was politics by other means’. Hall’s former colleague at Marxism Today, journalist Suzanne Moore, wrote recently that ‘Cultural studies, as practised by Hall, was never a smug academic activity, but one that often involved facing awkward truths about oneself and how one was deeply, painfully implicated in existing power structures… It was the study of how power operates in the everyday.’

Toby Miller describes this commitment to exposing power structures for ‘progressive social change’ as being ‘animated by a desire to reveal and transform those who control the means of communication and culture’. This belies any pretence to truth or objectivity, values previously fundamental to the academic enterprise. Instead, as Young says of the sociology of education in the 1960s and 1970s, the truth was known in advance, it lay in the link between power and knowledge, and the aim of academics was to show how this truth manifested itself. Hall claimed his aim was ‘to take the whole system of knowledge itself [and] attempt to put it at the service of some other project’. Certainly it is the case that a suspicion of truth claims and an assumption that knowledge is political is now endemic throughout humanities and social-science departments.

The instrumental use of education to serve political ends led to some peculiar tensions within the discipline concerning what ‘counted’ as mass culture and whether it was to be celebrated or critiqued. Miller describes cultural studies as offering a celebration of the counter-culture as opposed to the ‘achievement-oriented, materialistic, educationally driven values and appearance of the middle class’. This patronising view elevates working-class culture in a celebration of ignorance. Jonathan Rose’s excellent study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, provides numerous examples of people overcoming huge obstacles of time, money and lack of formal education to gain access to classic works of literature. Such autodidacts were not fighting to have their daily experiences celebrated; on the contrary, they wanted access to a world beyond their everyday lives. The 1945 Labour Party manifesto made the bold claim that ‘we desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation’.

Thirty years on from this, cultural studies illustrated the extent to which the New Left had lost touch with the aspirations of ordinary people and, having emerged from political defeat, began to look on the masses with disdain. In The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey describes how Roland Barthes, a critical theorist whose work influenced cultural studies, ‘”decodes” various items of popular culture (all-in-wrestling, steak and chips) to show how their real meaning, discernible to the intellectual, escapes the gullible masses’.

In his 1990 article, Hall acknowledged the limitations of cultural studies in bringing about social and political change: ‘Anybody who is into cultural studies seriously as an intellectual practice, must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything.’ Others are quicker to claim impact on Hall’s behalf. As Suzanne Moore argues: ‘Well, maybe he is the godfather of multiculturalism, but as he increasingly understood race through the modality of class and vice versa, as he understood gender politics as an unsettling challenge, we can see that… is not new; that Hall’s work embodies it, that he is more pioneer than prophet. His insistence that identities shift and drift, that new forms of power and opposition are always emerging, is still vital.’

So, cultural studies may not have changed the world. However, its impact on academia has been substantial. As Miller notes, ‘the “cultural” has become a master trope in the humanities’ and intersectionality and identity politics now hang over the social sciences. Of more impact than any of this is the fear of knowledge and a suspicion of truth that pervades the academy. Cultural studies has contributed to the intellectual hollowing out of the university. Today, when students challenge the content of curriculum, they are pushing at an open door, as many lecturers have given up on the traditional academic project of promoting knowledge and truth. Back in 1990, Hall was proud to suggest ‘the contestation that cultural studies was partly responsible for putting on the agenda has been taken into the humanities themselves’. In 2014, I would argue that this contestation has been taken into all areas of the university – and that it is time for academics to reclaim the values of knowledge, objectivity and truth.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today