Cultural Studies: The Basics


Jeff Lewis

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part One: Forming Culture/Informing Cultural Theory

    Part Two: Cultural Locations

  • Copyright

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    To Jay and Sian

    List of Tables, Figures and Plates

    • 1.1 The modern/The Postmodern 23
    • 5.1 Structuralism and Poststructuralism 119
    • 7.1 Modern and Postmodern Literature 183
    • 10.1 GNP per capita as % of OECD-Developed World regions' GNP 323
    • 1.1 Culture, the media and meaning-making 5
    • 3.1 The dialectics of Hegel and Marx 58
    • 3.2 Marx's base-superstructure model 62
    • 4.1 Leavis's culture 86
    • 4.2 Stuart Hall's culture 102
    • 1.1 Six Months after the Tsunami in Arugambay, Sri Lanka 13
    • 1.2 The 2006 World Cup Football, Germany 25
    • 1.3 Cremation Ritual on Nusa Lembongan 25
    • 3.1 Slum Tourism in India 74
    • 4.1 The Beauty Economy 105
    • 6.1 The Slums of Mumbai in India where Women and Children are the Poorest of the Poor 170
    • 7.1 Terry Batt, Forthcoming Attractions (oil and wax on canvas, 6′ × 7′) 206
    • 8.1 Girl Power for Sale 244
    • 9.1 Busting Air 283
    • 10.1 Gugenheim Art Museum at Bilbao 313
    • 10.2 Real-estate sale on Nusa Lembongan 318
    • 10.3 The Shot Tower 318
    • 10.4 The Harbourfront, Montreal 318
    • 10.5 The London Eye 321
    • 12.1 Abu Ghraib 384


    Together, we weave what we can from the warp and woof of one another's experience. For the scholar, I suspect that he had unburdened himself … He left here knowing that he had contributed important information to the map I had in mind. (James Cowan, A Mapmaker's Dream)

    I introduced the first edition of this book through a reference to James Cowan's novel, A Mapmaker's Dream. The mapmaker is attempting to conceptualize his vastly expanding horizons; his cartography, however, is perpetually frustrated by the exquisite, even miraculous, vitality and detail of the world. Even so, the frustration of the cartographer, as with his servant scholars, is ennobled by the splendour of the journey - that expedition of knowing which is both transient and endless, and which is ultimately the expression of our singular and collective dreaming.

    My aim in writing the first edition of Cultural Studies was to make a similar contribution to this journey of knowing. I attempted to create a textual cartography which drew together the rich and complex intellectual genealogy that marks the formation of the cultural studies discipline and our understandings of contemporary culture. Since completing the first edition, however, I have found my own horizons expanding, eliciting new insights into the nature of meaning-making in a globalizing cultural setting. Internationally significant events like 9/11, along with the seemingly intractable momentum of globalization, have contributed to a distinct shift in the consciousness and formative modes of cultural meaning-making. This second edition of Cultural Studies, therefore, is once again attempting to map the dynamic state of the world, bringing forward my own dynamic understandings and apprehensions of this miraculous cultural sphere.

    As in the first edition, I have sought in this new edition to present and critique the major modes of cultural analysis; I have used this critique to develop a specific theory of culture which is then applied to the study of specific cultural sites and spaces. However, I have attempted in this new edition to account for changes in the discipline itself, as well as in the significance of the sites being analyzed. I have added an entirely new chapter on the culture of terrorism. This has proved an essential addition, not only because of the preoccupations of contemporary global cultures, but because these changes have stimulated some compelling revisions within the discipline itself. In particular, events like 9/11, the ‘war on terror’, the oil wars and conditions of global warming, are all stimulating a revival of cultural studies' deep roots in cultural politics.

    To some extent, the interest in political violence and global terrorism is part of a broader cultural and disciplinary development, most particularly associated with globalization. As I outline in Chapter 1 of this new edition, globalization has numerous effects, and cultural studies is extremely well-placed among the social sciences and humanities to account for these ‘expanding horizons’. To this end, this new edition of Cultural Studies is projecting a more globally focused interrogation of culture(s). This broader focus on globalism and the conditions of global insecurity is a critical part of my own scholarly journey.

    This new edition of Cultural Studies represents another dimension of this expedition and of our shared project of contemporary cultural mapping.


    My particular thanks are due to the School of Applied Communication, the Globalism Institute and the office of the Pro-Vice Chancellor Research at RMIT University. All these bodies have provided resources for the completion of this text.

    I would also like to thank the following people - Belinda Lewis, Jay Lewis, Sian Lewis, Sonya DeMasi, Kirsty Best, Alice Sherlock, Diana Bossio, Jessica Raschke, Kristen Sharp and Louise Refalo. These people have made an absolutely invaluable contribution to the Cultural Studies genealogy and to my own personal and intellectual life.

    Thanks to a range of colleagues who have supported my work - John Handmer, Paul James, Damian Grenfell, Jack Clancy, Sheldon Harsel, Christine Hudson, Alan Cumming, Tony Dalton and Brian Henderson.

    My thanks to Terry Batt for allowing me to use Forthcoming Attractions (Cover and Plate 7.1). Thanks to Thea Linke (Plate 1.2), Pia Interlandi and Devika Bilmoria (Plate 4.1), Pia Interlandi and Optic Photography (Plate 8.1), and Michael Cresswell (Plate 1.1).

    I'd also like to acknowledge the support and guidance provided by the Sage team, most particularly Chris Rojek, Jai Seaman and Mila Steele.

  • Glossary of Key Terms

    • Agency (individual agency): Studies of society and culture often debate the degree to which individuals have control of their own destiny. This capacity for self-determination is called ‘agency’. It is contrasted to the power of society to control the actions, attitudes and free thinking of individuals.
    • Bricolage: The rearrangement of cultural elements and styles in order to produce new meanings and styles. For example, the reassignment of denim cloth, originally used in the US prison system, into a teenage fashion style; the reworking of African rhythms, Caribbean music, rhyming couplet poetry and talking blues to form rap music (rhythm and poetry).
    • Capitalism: The economic system based on trade and private ownership that begins in Europe in the Middle Ages and flourishes during the modern period (from the seventeenth century).
    • Class (social class): Capitalism inevitably produces differentials in power and financial success. Karl Marx argued that there are two principal classes of people in a modern, industrial society: the bourgeoisie (middle class who own capital and property); and the proletariat (who have nothing to sell except their labour). While Marx was describing the developed societies of the nineteenth century, recent commentators argue that class is more diffuse and complex. Even so, in most modern societies there exists a very small group of people who are extremely wealthy, and a much larger group who are quite poor. Between these extremes is a broad social group often called the middle class.
    • Codes: A code is a meaning system which may be based on language, images, colour, sounds, music, etc. Coded meanings may be clear, broadly shared and understood, and literal (e.g. an English language statement such as ‘I am hungry’, or the red light in a traffic signal). A code may also be subtle, restricted and abstruse (e.g. the metaphoric coding in Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man).
    • Commodification: The idea that capitalism is taking over all aspects of social life, converting everything into a form of commercial product or commodity. Thus, we can talk about the commodification of love, women or ‘the body’ inasmuch as advertising and other commercial codes present human experience as a sellable commodity.
    • Cultural imperialism: Powerful social groups have historically invaded and occupied the territory of other social groups. In the modern period this form of territorial expansion by one nation over another has been called ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ (the creation of empires). Colonial administration was supported by a symbolic conquest through which the invaders imposed their culture over the invaded group. While the direct colonization of other national territories is no longer regarded as politically legitimate (with some exceptions), the symbolic ‘control’ of other national groups' cultural consumption practices is regarded as a legitimate part of capitalism and cultural trade. The concept of cultural imperialism suggests that powerful nations like the US are able to dominate global cultural markets with their information, news, media, fashion and styles. Through these products, cultural imperialists are able to influence disproportionately the ideas, ideology, belief systems and overall culture of other nations.
    • Cultural materialism: A theory of culture that draws on Marxism and anthropology to explain social inequality. In particular, cultural materialism suggests that the uneven distribution of cultural materials (products and artefacts) in a society is directly linked to differences in social power and access to the resources of meaning-making. Cultural materialists seek to understand the mechanisms used by powerful groups in a society (e.g. media owners and governments) to exploit and control more vulnerable groups. This theory is often associated with Raymond Williams and his followers.
    • Culture: An assemblage of meanings which are generated and consumed by a given social group.
    • Deconstruction: An analytical strategy pioneered by French philosopher Jacques Derrida which focuses on the historical and cultural assumptions that inform a belief system and its discourses (language). For Derrida and his disciples, the core of every belief system is ultimately constructed around these assumptions. In Western civilization such assumptions are formed in a language that is fundamentally binary in structure(e.g. present/absent, truth/untruth, culture/nature). Deconstruction exposes and deconstructs these binaries and their correlative assumptions in order to present a new mode of thinking which liberates a broader spectrum of social ‘difference’.
    • Diaspora: Originally referring to the dispersal of Jews across Europe, diaspora now refers to any human group that has no clearly defined homeland. Many of today's refugees, for example, may be seen as part of a new global diaspora.
    • Digitopia: A utopia formed around digital technology. Digitopians are those individuals and communities who believe that digital, computer based technologies will provide the answer to the world's political and social problems.
    • Discourse (discursive): This term was popularized by Michel Foucault, who used it to describe the interdependence of meaning systems (such as language), social power and knowledge. Foucault argues that meaning systems or ‘discourse’ shape knowledge and vice-versa. Both knowledge and the meaning system are formed through relationships of power. Therefore, the term discourse is usually deployed in order to indicate that meanings are always shaped in relation to what Foucault calls power/knowledge.
    • Emancipatory Politics (liberational politics): Since its inception, cultural studies has been interested in issues of power, hierarchy and social inequality. In its recent incarnations, some areas of cultural studies have been focusing on individual subject's potential for personal emancipation through new expressive modes of pleasure, creativity and self-actualization. This approach to emancipation believes that freedom is only possible through the liberation of subjects from all fixed structural forms. Thus, a ‘collective’ freedom is only possible through the liberation of each individual, rather than by replacing one oppressive system with another (as in the communist revolutions of the twentieth century).
    • Epistemology: The study of knowledge - what it is and how we acquire it. This was a central focus of philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From this period, however, epistemology has been supplemented by an interest in the way knowledge is shaped by language.
    • Essentialism (see ontology below)
    • Globalization: Process of increasing contact between people from different nations and cultural backgrounds. It is usually identified as a modern process which has been accelerating over the past fifty years as a result of increased volumes of trade and new forms of global communication.
    • Governmentality: A concept established by Michel Foucault and used by a number of more recent cultural analysts. Governmentality describes the broadly distributed strategies and techniques that modern societies employ to manage complex relationships and material conditions. While recent analysts often use the term in relation to government and policy processes, Foucault refers to a much broader expanse of bureaucratic processes, material management and hierarchical systems in a society.
    • Hegemony: This term was popularized by Antonio Gramsci. It refers to the forms of ‘leadership’ which are infused in significant social institutions - political, economic, educational and religious. As it has been more broadly applied in cultural studies, hegemony refers to an authority which is expressed through institutionally sanctioned meaning systems. This authority is not entirely closed, and people have the opportunity to influence their leaders and their authority in a modern society. Thus, meanings may be generated by powerful groups (governments and mass media corporations), but individuals are able to rework or ‘negotiate’ how these meanings are to be deployed in terms of their own personal life circumstances.
    • Hybridization (hybridity): Globalization has brought different peoples and cultural elements into greater interaction and contiguity. Some theorists argue that this process is leading to greater global homogeneity, particularly as it is dominated by cultural superpowers like the United States. However, others believe that this contiguity transforms older cultural elements, creating new and hybrid forms of culture. At the ‘local’ level individuals and communities absorb and transform dominant cultural modes (music, film, clothing styles, food chains), adapting them to their own customs and practices: the mix of the internal and external creates a ‘hybrid’ cultural form (e.g. Bollywood, Asian Rap, vegetarian McDonalds).
    • Hyperreality: A concept popularized by Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard, ‘hyperreality’ suggests that contemporary culture is shaped around a new form of mediated reality. That is, contemporary culture is so dense with media texts and competing meanings that reality itself has been utterly transformed. For Baudrillard, in particular, a hyperreality is characterized by meaninglessness, or at least an agitated and dynamic process whereby everything is merely an imitation (simulacrum) of everything else.
    • Identity: The way an individual sees him- or her-self, and projects that self into the world. This concept marks a key debate in contemporary cultural studies. An individual's ‘identity’ is shaped by biological, social and personal factors. Some theorists believe that identity is rooted in deep history, culture and ethnicity; others believe that identity is almost entirely constructed in culture and discourse. The first of these positions is essentialist in that ‘identity’ is seen as something fixed and largely immutable. The second suggests that individuals have a degree of choice about who they are and which cultural elements they wish to mobilize in order to express their identity. In effect, our individual identity is both conditioned by external forces, and by our own choices and sense of expressive agency. Identity has become a critical part of contemporary cultural politics - for example, in the notional ‘war on terror’ a great deal of popular, governmental and academic debate surrounds the condition of ‘being Muslim’ and the ways in which identity is being mobilized in cultural agonisms.
    • Ideology: This is an extremely complex term which is frequently debated in cultural studies. At the simplest level it is a system of beliefs and attitudes which are formed politically by a given social group. Adapting the ideas of Karl Marx, however, Louis Althusser argues that ideology is really the mechanism by which powerful elites impose their own interests and beliefs over the masses in a given society. It is the difference between the things people believe about themselves and the real conditions of their lives. These powerful groups infuse their self-interest over the masses through the manipulation of a symbolic order. Media texts, government discourses, laws, education, information - all contribute to the formation of a dominant ideology.
    • Intertextuality: According to Jacques Derrida, all texts are necessarily related to all other texts through the process of meaning deferral. This simply means that the words that comprise a text are dependent upon prior (and future) meanings that are contained in other words. In order to understand the meaning of a statement like ‘the dog is black’, a reader will be tracking back to prior readings of each of these words and their formulation in grammar. If the reader goes to the dictionary, s/he will find a whole new set of words whose meanings must also be tracked to other texts and meanings. Thus, all meanings are subject to a process of ‘supplementarity’, where any given word supplements the meaning of any other.
    • Marxism (neo-Marxism): This is a set of ideas derived from the nineteenth century German philosopher and social theorist Karl Marx. Marxist theory focuses on the means of production, historical materialism, political economy and various forms of social inequality. Marxian studies focus on the man himself, as opposed to his theories.
    • Mediasphere: The notion of a ‘public sphere’ refers to citizenship (belonging to a nation state) and participation in democratic institutional processes. In its original form, the public sphere was seen as the physical and cultural spaces in which citizens engage in political discussion, information sharing, decision making and electoral processes. It is not about private profit or pleasure, but public duty and democratic participation. With the emergence of mass media, the public sphere has been transformed through a new merging of private and public cultural spaces. Political participation is now formed in relation to mediated texts, entertainments and information. The mediasphere represents the convergence of the public sphere with new forms of mass mediation.
    • Myth: According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, myths are stories and legends developed by cultures in order to resolve underlying community tensions. While Lévi-Strauss focuses on traditional and tribal societies, the same process of myth-making (as meaning-making) is evident in modern societies. Roland Barthes argues that myths are ‘naturalised’ (formed as a natural or inevitable truth) by a modern society in order to make sense of things and provide an historical density to their meaning-making. At this level, myths are not necessarily ‘untruths’ or fallacious narratives; they are an essential part of a social group's identity and sense of belonging.
    • Ontology (essentialism): This is a philosophical idea about the true and essential nature of things. Often the concept is applied to explain the essence of human nature, human spirit, the cosmos, nature, identity or history. Cultural studies is often seen as ‘anti-essentialist’ as it treats culture as constructed meanings, rather than as some mysterious or nefarious essence.
    • Patriarchy: Feminists argue that social history is marked by a significant gender hierarchy by which males have dominated females. This patriarchal system is shaped by material divisions, law and cultural meanings which insist that women are inferior to men; the world has been shaped by this fundamental belief system and the interests and ideology of males.
    • Performativity: The focus on social performance (action) which has been determined by culturally embedded discourses and laws. For example, men will perform as men because they are obeying specific social rules and expectations that are continually confirmed through repetition in movies, sports programmes, television and social interactions, etc.
    • Phallocentrism: A phallus is a symbolic penis. It represents the belief system that surrounds patriarchy and male political and cultural power. Phallocentricism refers to the subconscious male ego.
    • Political economy: This concept is drawn from Karl Marx and usually refers to a critical framework for studying society. This framework focuses on the interdependence of politics and economics as the core of social relationships and inequality.
    • Polysemy: This concept was developed through semiotics (see below). It is the idea that a sign (unit of meaning) may carry many potential meanings. However, the selection of a dominant meaning is generally shaped by dominant social groups. For example, the word ‘democracy’ is politically charged and subject to considerable debate between national, ethnic and religious groups across the globe. This potential for multiple meanings is nevertheless subject to the dominant interests of, for example, the United States government and its cultural power.
    • Position (to): A number of cultural studies scholars argue that a text and its ideology ‘position’ readers and their meaning-making. Thus, some feminists might argue that fashion magazines position teenage female readers, creating the urge to imitate thin, heavily made up, high consuming models. The text positions or situates the reader in terms of specific identities and ideologies (capitalism, patriarchy) and behaviours (consuming, wearing make-up, dieting).
    • Postcolonialism: An analytical framework designed to explain the cultural and political experiences of peoples in formerly colonized territories. Such analyses usually point to the evolution of complex power relationships in countries that were once directly administered by colonialists such as Britain, the US, France, Spain and Germany. They will study, for example, the contemporary experiences of indigenous people in countries like Australia and Canada. The ethnic, racial and political disharmonies associated with colonization, foreign settlement and de-colonization in Africa, India and the Middle East are also common sites for postcolonial analysis.
    • Post-Fordism: Henry Ford perfected the system of mass, assembly-line, industrial production (Ford motor cars). Many historians believe that we have entered a new economic phase in which mass production has been replaced by flexible, low scale and creative industry (typified by tourism, hospitality, media and information industries). It is argued that this post-industrial society is characterized by flat management styles and a flexible, highly trained workforce. The major OECD countries are seen as post-Fordist, while emerging economies like China remain in a typically Fordist phase.
    • Postmodernism (Postmodernity): Usually refers to a set of texts and ideas that are characterized by multiplicity of meanings and forms that are self-challenging and self-reflexive. In particular, postmodernism challenges the notion of an integrated, modernist, unified and absolute truth. To this end, we might think of ‘postmodern’ films like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, literature such as Joseph Heller's Catch-22, paintings like Andy Warhol's Green Coca Cola Bottles, and architecture such as the Sydney Opera House. Postmodernity describes the historical phase in which postmodern ideas and texts are pre-eminent. A number of scholars argue that we have entered such a phase, claiming that time and space have been compressed and there is no overriding truth or reality in a globalized cultural context.
    • Poststructuralism: A philosophical idea which focuses on the way language shapes knowledge and power. It is ‘post’ structuralism because it challenges the idea that language, society and history are constructed around durable, fixed and powerful ‘structures’. Poststructuralism claims that meanings are dynamic, elusive and often unstable. Power is treated as a contingency of relationships, rather than as something that is historically fixed, as Marx claims.
    • Reflexive (reflexivity): This concept is associated with postmodernism. It refers generally to a social or aesthetic perspective which reflects upon and challenges itself. Thus, in a multiple irony, reflexive text such as Mulholland Drive, the storytelling reflects on the processes of storytelling, narrative and creating film.
    • Representation: The re-presentation of experience or phenomena in discourse and text. In cultural studies ‘representation’ is not merely the reproduction or mirror reflection of reality in text; rather, the process of representation is ultimately one of engagement between the self and all other cultural elements. Reality (or more precisely meaning) is created through representation. This is why many cultural studies scholars treat everything as a potential text, including lived experience, bodies and nature as well as recognizable media texts in film, literature and television.
    • Semiotics (semiology): The study of ‘signs’ as meaning systems. Semiology has a more scientific demeanour and is centred in French scholarship.
    • Signification (signifiers, signifieds): Signification is the process of making meaning through sign systems. Signs are formed in any meaning system such as language, colour schemes like traffic lights and so on. A sign is divided into the signifier (the material sign such as a word or traffic light), and signifieds (the mental concept or potential meaning to the signifier). Thus, in a sign such as red light on a traffic signal, the signifier is the bulb and colour red, while the signified is linked to the meaning of stop.
    • Simulacra: Literally refers to simulations or imitations. Jean Baudrillard uses the concept to explain his hyperreality in which everything is an imitation of everything else; thus, there is no distinct or valid meaning within a hyperreal cultural context.
    • Society (social formation): Society is the assemblage of people into a mass organizational unit, most often constituted in modern history around the nation-state. A ‘social formation’ is also an assemblage of people with a distinct organizational and/or ideological purpose (not necessarily the nation-state). Thus, the workers in a multi-national corporation, global Islam, or an intra-state ethnic community may be seen as a specific social formation.
    • Structuralism: This concept most often refers to the idea that invisible social structures provide the essential framework of a society. Such structures are carried through history by durable institutions and their belief systems, ideology and fixed meanings. Karl Marx, most famously, refers to social class as the primary and defining social structure of modern society. Many other social theorists have also seen society as being based upon social structures (such as patriarchy) and related institutions (such as the family). A number of language theorists (e.g. C.S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure) believe that society is largely determined by the structures and recurring patterns that are inherent in all language.
    • Subculture: For theorists who believed that culture was a relatively fixed system of meanings attached to a relatively fixed and stable social group, ‘subculture’ denotes a social sub-section which deviates from the majority or dominant group and its ‘norms’ (sense of normality and values). Subcultures are usually seen as a distinctive and separate group with their own norms, beliefs, rules, clothing styles and cultural practices. Thus, analysts might append the notion of subculture to drug-user groups, motor cycle gangs, criminals and so on. Scholars who believe that the concept of ‘culture’ implicates difference and multi-forming constituencies are less inclined to use the concept of subculture because it suggests that there is a fixed main culture and deviant appendices.
    • Subject (subjectivity): An individual member of a social group is called a ‘subject’. Subjects pertain to a culturally formed ‘identity’ or ‘subjectivity’ (sense of self) over which they have a degree of control or choice. Subjectivity is thus formed in discourse and culture. It is the new focus of an emancipatory politics which encourages choice and the liberation of subjectivity from socially determined rules and prescribed beliefs and practices.
    • Televisualization (televisual culture): As meaning production, dissemination and consumption are the central processes of culture, different cultures may thus be characterized in terms of their dominant communications technologies. The notion of a televisual culture refers to the pre-eminence of image-based mass mediation. Televisualization clearly affects the consciousness of individuals and hence their shared meaning-making and sense of reality.
    • Text: In cultural studies ‘text’ refers to any organized set of discourses (and meanings). A text may be related to particular media forms or publications as in film, television and literature. However, we might also refer to ‘the body’ as a text which has meanings inscribed on it and which may be ‘read’ or interpreted. Thus, a body can be decorated and clothed according to a given meaning system (punk, businessman, prostitute, etc); it may also be read according to biologically determined tags such as age, ‘colour’, gender, etc. Landscapes, social practices and built environments may also be read and interpreted as texts.


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