Letter to the editor
Cultural studies are vital
Cultural studies scholarship in our universities is on a decline. The discipline is underfunded, and is virtually unheard of amongst the general American public. It is not surprising, then, that our universities fragment cultural inquiry through specialization. Whereas distinguished international institutions such as the University of Amsterdam allot the discipline a single department and research centers, our universities force cultural studies scholars to be housed under various departments such as communication, English and film studies (as is the case at USC).
This reality threatens to suppress cultural studies scholars’ critical thought, by way of binding them to discursive arenas that might restrict the nature of their inquiries. This means that a practitioner of a discipline inquiring about cultural variables is limited in her ability to communicate her common concerns with a counterpart housed in another department. She will generally be confined to her department’s theoretical groundwork, even if her true inclination leans towards interdisciplinarity; likely because she is dependent on grants specific to her department. As a result, the study of culture in America is not only studied in fragments, but intellectual exchange amongst its scholars is both hindered and limited to different fields.
The solution to the fragmentation of the study lies in convergence, as put forth in the European model, through the creation of cultural studies departments in our universities. Conducting all cultural inquiry via one discipline might also put an end to cultural studies critics’ number one claim — that it lacks scientific method. Alas, these critics rarely fail to point out that the discipline is unstructured, making it difficult to hold researchers accountable for their claims. Yet, their criticism fails to address the likelihood that this so-called lack of structure directly results from the very fact that the field is scattered throughout a smorgasbord of disciplines; which hinders any real chance at fostering a solid disciplinary methodology. Furthermore, cultural studies as a discipline — at its core -— is structured in its interdisciplinarity between the humanities and social sciences, which makes it vital for its scholars to be housed under one roof in order for researchers to properly communicate, collaborate and theorize.
A common failure to understand “culture” as a holistic and multifaceted concept might be at blame for this widespread ignorance, the correction of which is essential in improving the status quo of the field. It seems that the majority of people wrongly define culture dichotomously as being either high culture (opera), low/popular culture (reality TV), or both. Cultural studies intelligently approaches culture as fluid, as prevalent in everyday life, and as directly linked to notions of politics and responsible citizenship.
On these grounds, individuals should understand culture as all the way(s) in which human beings create meaning and identities within the framework of their society. By way of this definition, cultural studies invaluably aims to find out how a particular medium or message relates to ideology, social class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality and/or gender. It studies the meanings and uses people give to practices of everyday life and cultural artifacts.
This could be any cultural product ranging from a hairstyle, to a reality television show, to the theatre. Another tasteful definition of cultural studies is that of cultural-critic Ziauddin Sardar. In his book Introducing Cultural Studies, he argues that the field aims to examine its subject matter in relation to power, to understand culture in all its complex forms, to commit to an ethical evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action; and that culture is not only a subject of study, but a location of political criticism and action.
Indeed, the understanding and shaping of culture can be utilized to better societal ills. As such, forming a cultural studies department is not only significant, but more relevant today than ever before. Our day and age, in which social media has the capacity to turn around dictatorships, calls for supporting a discipline that at its core seeks to understand and utilize the potential of such phenomena. This very political aim, in fact, is what uniquely differentiates cultural studies from other departments where the majority of U.S. cultural scholars are currently housed. Many cultural studies scholars end up working as high level consultants for think tanks that implement such political strategy — we all have a stake in the future of the discipline in our universities.
As a future scholar of culture in the U.S. – I am gravely concerned. Concerned for myself, for my fellow colleagues, but most of all for the ignorance and unawareness that exists among American citizens vis-à-vis not only the field but the significance of cultural inquiry at large. Through consciousness-raising and support for the creation of unified cultural studies departments in our universities, the discussed lack of awareness and understanding will be challenged; as a growing number of individuals will inevitably become acquainted with the study. It’s already happened overseas, so why not here and now?