Doing Cultural Theory


David Walton

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    While this book carries my name, books are always, in varying degrees, collaborative efforts and I would like to offer my thanks to a number of colleagues and friends.

    Thanks go to Patricia Bickers from Art Monthly for contacting Hans Haacke on my behalf and to Hans Haacke himself for giving me permission to use his photos of his ‘MetroMobilitan’ installation (Figures 14.1 and 14.2). Also, thanks go to Bas Beentjes for permission to use his E$$O photo (Figure 15.1) and to John Harris who was very generous in terms of sending me valuable feedback on the photo he took of Lesley Boulton at the ‘Battle of Orgreave’.

    Figure 14.1 Hans Haacke's MetroMobilitan shown at the John Weber Gallery (1985) © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society
    Figure 14.2 Photomural of a funeral procession depicting victims shot by South African Police (detail)
    Figure 15.1 Culture jamming in action

    I would also like to thank the anonymous readers at SAGE for their valuable comments. I did not always agree with the points they made but they undoubtedly helped me to refine my ideas and reconsider a number of features. Thanks must go to Elizabeth Ezra who generously offered to read the opening chapters at a very early stage. Her comments, advice and encouragement have been very important in terms of giving me the energy to complete the book. Nuria Urzaiz not only gave me encouragement but kindly offered to give very detailed feedback on the first drafts of a number of chapters from the point of view of the kind of reader I was aiming at. Many thanks, too, to Verónica Morales who offered me her support by reading some of the later drafts of the final chapters. My biggest debt is to Mila Steele, my editor at SAGE, for her very constructive criticism, encouragement, support and advice. Mila helped me to perfect the overall structure and content, and has been there at every stage of the book's development. I would also like to thank Sarah-Jayne Boyd (Mila's assistant) for her advice and help and efficiency, especially in the final stages of completing the book.

    Finally, I would like to recognize the support and encouragement of my family and my many friends and colleagues who have helped in a million small (and not so small) ways – sometimes without knowing it. Special thanks go to Cathy Staveley, Liz Murphy, María Reyes, Juan Antonio Suárez, María González, Asensio López, Raquel González and Andy Sotiriou and, last but not least, Dan Walter. Without them the writing of this book would have been a much more arduous task. As it is, the process has been thoroughly enjoyable. Finally, thanks must go to my students who have often helped me to refine my ideas by showing what works and, often, what does not.

    Introduction: How to Use This Book

    Who Is This Book Written for?

    You may have come across terms like semiological systems, signification, the problematic, symptomatic reading, deconstruction, logocentrism, the big Other, anti-essentialism and the postmodern subject, but not have been sure about what they mean or how they might be used in practice. If this is the case this book should be able to help you. This book, then, is aimed at readers who already have some knowledge of cultural studies but who want to get a firmer grasp of the way cultural theory relates to practice. However, those who have little or no knowledge of cultural analysis, but who feel they have the academic experience and confidence to tackle cultural theory and practice at a higher level, will also find it useful. With this in mind, the first chapter is designed to take account of different possible readerships. On the one hand, it helps to show how the theories and ideas explained and illustrated in this book fit into a larger historical picture. On the other hand, it can serve as valuable revision for those readers who are already familiar with the area or a basic introduction for those with no previous knowledge.

    General Aims and Approach of This Book

    This book can be seen as akin to the viaduct – a conduit which carries something or someone from one place to another (a kind of ‘theory-duct’). One aim of this book is to describe the different theories, however complex, in an accessible style. However, I have not avoided the use of complex terms and have tried to describe them as clearly as possible in relation to how they relate to various forms of cultural analysis. This raises the problem of up to what point a technical vocabulary is necessary. As Lawrence Grossberg has said, while scientists who describe the physical world are expected ‘to use languages not available to most people’, those who explore social reality are often expected to write so that anyone can understand. Yet ‘human reality’ is not necessarily any less complex than the world of subatomic particles. Thus, ‘sometimes we need complex and nonobvious explanations of what's going on’ (1992: 30–31). We can try to explain quantum mechanics or computer science in ordinary terms but to get to the finer subtleties it is more often than not necessary to learn specific concepts and ways of thinking.

    The specialized vocabulary introduced in this book, then, is not an elitist attempt to put ourselves above others but part of an effort to immerse ourselves in the language of a particular discipline. The understanding of theory is constantly explained with an eye to how it may function in practice. In this way its application is a little like a voyage of discovery, where the world is experienced in new and perhaps surprising ways through the assimilation, adaptation and refinement of concepts previously unknown (or vague) to us. The general approach adopted in this book assumes that interpretation and analysis are always a product of, and dependent on, very particular shaping strategies, something which makes the critic a maker or ‘fashioner’. One of the other main aims of the book, then, is to help the reader to become articulate in these theoretical ‘languages’.

    I would describe most of the theories introduced in this book as ‘radical’ in the sense that most of them have been used to challenge fixed ideas and have often been used in efforts to change the world for the better. Marx's point that philosophers ‘have only interpreted the world, in various ways’ but the point is ‘to change it’ (Marx, 1845/1976: 65) can be seen as one of the most important ethical tenets underpinning much cultural studies. I have tried to reflect something of this ethical concern (and utopian project) in the various theories I have introduced, regardless of how they have been labelled. Finally, this book has been written in the belief that learning to understand theory (and putting it into practice) may be challenging but it does not have to be a chore and that cultural studies can be a bold, stimulating and even exciting enterprise.

    Strategies for Using This Book

    As indicated above, the opening chapter will familiarize the reader with something of the history of the cultural studies tradition and reflect on key movements, definitions and strategies. Readers who are already familiar with definitions of culture and the (mainly British) cultural studies tradition (including the work of Matthew Arnold, the Leavises, the Frankfurt School, the ‘culturalist’ writers like Hoggart, Thompson and Williams, and the early work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies) can skim (or even skip) this chapter. Readers who want to begin experimenting with concepts without any preamble can start with the chapters dedicated to structuralism. Ideally, the chapters should be read chronologically because I introduce important concepts in the early chapters which I develop and refine later on in the book. Readers who read systematically will realize that a number of different thematic threads are developed which provide narrative strands which weave in and out of particular chapters to provide multiple points of comparison, cohesion and a sense of continuity and development. Of course, this does not preclude more creative approaches where readers can dip into the chapters that most interest them.

    What Can I Realistically Expect from a Careful Reading of This Book?

    A careful reading of this book should help to provide a detailed knowledge of some of the key theoretical trends that have shaped much thinking and interpretation within cultural studies. It should also help readers to develop their interpretive skills and knowledge because many of the concepts are not only described and explained but illustrated with practical examples. Where possible, advice has been given on further practice to aid interpretive independence – the main idea of the book being to help readers get to that ‘other place’ of the specialist.

    What Are the Chief Pedagogical Features of This Book?
    • Each chapter begins with an explanation of its content, the main learning goals and a list of the key concepts that will be explained and illustrated.
    • All key concepts are introduced in bold type to help readers navigate through the chapters.
    • Regular help files, practice sections and summaries are introduced to consolidate learning and aid practice.
    • Ideas are often clarified with reference to examples drawn from the world of popular culture (although not exclusively) and there are some playful, creative sections designed to aid further understanding of complex ideas (for example, in one chapter the idea of postmodernism is expressed in both the form and the content of the section).
    • The chapters progress in terms of difficulty so readers can build on their knowledge of previous examples.
    • Theories and individual concepts are always related to the ways they may help to elucidate various forms of culture.
    • Each chapter is concluded with a brief summary of the main points and followed by sections on further reading.
    • There is a full glossary of key terms at the end of the book to help in the assimilation of the material.
    The Organization of Chapters and Basic Content

    Following a brief introduction to (British) cultural studies the content can be described as going from structuralism and poststructuralism to postmodernism and beyond. This strategy encompasses the major theorists and includes approaches which have been, and continue to be, of interest to cultural studies scholars concerned with questions of things like gender, class, sexuality, race/ethnicity, ideology, identity politics, post-colonialism, discourse, popular culture, history, media, consumerism, commodification, globalization, new social movements and neoliberalism.

    The ‘beyond’ mentioned above describes the content of the last two chapters which consider ways that cultural analysis can complement or supersede approaches focused on the dominant themes developed within structuralism, poststructuralism and postmodernism. In fact, one of the ways this book attempts to depart from most books dedicated to theory and practice in cultural studies is in the way it helps readers to map out their place within the multinational, corporate world of late capitalism. As stated above,Chapter 1 will go into more detail about the structure of the book and how it relates to general trends within (mainly British) cultural studies.

  • Glossary: A Mini-Dictionary of Key Cultural Concepts and Terms Used in This Book

    Words printed in bold refer to other entries in the Glossary to allow cross-referencing.

    • Anchorage: A term used by Roland Barthes to describe how the signifieds of a linguistic message help to limit the possible meanings generated by images.
    • Anti-essentialism: A term commonly found in poststructuralism and postmodernism that indicates an approach to knowledge which questions the idea that the discourses of the sciences can discover and reflect objective, essential truths which are not products of those discourses.
    • Arbitrary closure: A notion recommended by Stuart Hall where the critic uses deconstruction but subordinates its more radical potential to strategic political ends (and avoids becoming a slave to it).
    • Arborescence: A concept used by Deleuze and Guattari which describes vertical tree-like structures that fix order and can be used to describe more traditional political structures that rely on a vertical model where power centres, connected to hierarchies, dominate the functioning of the party. See rhizome.
    • Big Other: A highly ambivalent concept found in Jacques Lacan's work which very generally refers to the place of the Symbolic (with all its rules and structures) or, more specifically, can be experienced as benign or malicious hidden agencies controlling things behind the scenes (like the Christian God or a horrifying paranoiac agency).
    • Binary oppositions: In structuralism cultures are seen to make sense of the world through distinguishing between foundational opposites like life/death, good/evil, freedom/repression, etc., where one term is often taken to have positive connotations and the other negative.
    • Breakdown of the high verses low culture distinction: Drawing on the work of Jean Baudrillard, critics like Fredric Jameson and George Ritzer argue that this is one of the fundamental premises of postmodernism.
    • Code: In structuralism, signifiers and signifieds can only produce meanings if they are organized by a code (like a system of grammar).
    • Coded iconic message: According to Roland Barthes this is where meanings are created for images through deliberate patterning and manipulation, as opposed to the non-coded iconic message.
    • Cognitive mapping: Given the deconstructive tendencies of postmodern thought and cultures, Fredric Jameson argues that there is a need for a more globalized form of politics to resist global capitalism and a new political art that is capable of formulating new forms and strategies that might offer special insights into our place within multinational capitalism. See high-tech paranoia and the homeopathic strategy.
    • Commodity fetishism: A concept drawn from the writings of Marx which Fredric Jameson argues is fundamental to postmodernism. For Marx, once an object becomes a commodity it becomes ‘transcendent’ and is treated in such a way that the labour that went into producing it becomes invisible. In this way it is fetishized. See late captitalism.
    • Communicative rationality: In his essay on modernity as an incomplete project Jürgen Habermas rejected the basic premises of poststructuralism preferring the idea of ‘communicative rationality’ which posits that individuals, with a will to communicate and understand, can reach consensus through reasoned debate. Jean-François Lyotard rejected these ideas because he believed they were only another way of reformulating the grand narratives and the old totalities and certainties that he rejected.
    • Connotation: This describes meanings produced through suggestion or association as opposed to the explicit literal meaning of denotation.
    • Consumer society: Jean Baudrillard argued that advanced capitalist societies were at the point where consumption was invading every aspect of life and that the act of consumption was not just about consuming commodities but messages (signs, brand icons, etc.) in such a way that late capitalism was becoming increasingly a question of not who we are but what brands we consume and what lifestyles we adopt. In this way postmodern identity is not something outside consumption but negotiated within it.
    • Crisis of (or incredulity towards) metanarratives: This is a phrase used by Jean-François Lyotard to describe a condition where society no longer believes in the ethical, philosophical, social, political metanarratives that were once thought of as providing the justification for education, learning and the production of knowledge. See the postmodern condition, grand narrative and legitimation.
    • Critique of reason: A common notion found in poststructuralism and postmodernism (but not exclusive to them) and given emphasis in the work of Michel Foucault who did not reject reason per se but posed thoroughgoing questions about its nature, limits, historical effects and dangers. See knowledge, discourse, truth and power.
    • Culturalism: A simplifying label that has been used to describe the work of Richard Hoggart, E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams which emphasizes the lives, cultures, experiences and resistance of ordinary people and their capacity to be active agents of change, rather than dupes of history.
    • Cultural logic of late capitalism: Fredric Jameson sees this cultural ‘logic’ at work when art and culture are fully complicit with the values of late capitalism (unlike the products of high modernism). This is part of postmodernism as he understands it.
    • Cultural schizophrenia: Adapting ideas from the work of Jacques Lacan, Fredric Jameson argues that in postmodern cultural forms there is a loss of progressive temporality where the experience of ‘existential time’ and ‘deep memory’ (of high modernism) gives way to dislocation, fragmentation and the loss of ‘coherent experience’. See depthlessness, parody and pastiche and waning of affect.
    • Cultural studies: This is a loose miscellany of self-reflexive, inter-disciplinary approaches (spread across many nations) which Grossberg et al. (1992) claim has no precise methodology – practitioners typically drawing on whatever discipline is necessary in order to produce the knowledge required for a given project. Cultural studies often politicizes the understanding of culture (understood in its widest sense) by exploring how cultural products and practices relate to concepts like class, race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ideology, representation and relations of power. All these features complicate the identity of cultural studies, even while they help to establish dominant ways of thinking about and understanding it.
    • Culture: A notoriously difficult word to define but which, according to Raymond Williams (1983), describes processes of human development with relation to the cultivation of the mind, behaviour or society. In the most general sense it describes language, art, knowledge and belief but also things like law, ethics and customs. Williams emphasized that (in its modern sense) it should be located in the social and political changes brought about by industrial capitalism and linked to ‘a whole way of life’ and include not only ‘high’ culture but the understanding of institutions, the organization of production, social practices, sport, entertainment and everyday behaviour. Many contemporary critics stress the importance of understanding of signifying practices, and things like consumption habits and relations of power as a means to understand culture. However, while these lists of possibilities are very useful at a more general and abstract level, any attempt to limit the definition at the level of particular objects of analysis is futile because as the world changes new possibilities (or domains of interest) for the understanding of cultures are constantly appearing.
    • Culture and civilization tradition: This sums up nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers like Matthew Arnold and F. R. and Queenie Leavis who tended to privilege high cultural forms (and especially literature as the best that had been thought and written) as the means by which civilization could be defined, preserved, propagated and assessed. See minority culture.
    • Culture industry: This is a term used by Theodor Adorno and other Frankfurt critics to refer to forms of mass culture produced for profit and associated with the rise of mass entertainment and mass communications within industrial capitalism. Adorno saw mass culture as depoliticizing and pacifying the exploited masses, while acclimatizing them to the degrading conditions of their lives, while impoverishing them materially, emotionally and intellectually.
    • Culture jamming: This is a strategy of semiotic warfare where activists or ‘subvertizers’ sabotage, alter or deface advertisements (or intercept radio and TV programmes) in the interests of questioning the messages they transmit, often as a way of challenging the abuses of the major corporations. See new social movements.
    • Death of the author: An idea taken from Roland Barthes’ writings which challenges the idea of limiting a text's meaning to the author's intentions. For Barthes, once the text is written the author is effectively dead in the sense that s/he cannot serve as a basis for grounding or controlling interpretation.
    • Death of the subject: A notion used by Fredric Jameson to convey the idea that in contemporary postmodern theory there is a loss of the centred subject, a demise in the capacity to feel (once expressed in angst) and a breakdown of the unique style associated with the great writers and artists of high modernism. See the waning of affect and depthlessness.
    • Decoding: Within semiology decoding describes how messages are deciphered by receivers with relation to pre-established codes within a given medium. See encoding.
    • Deconstruction: A complex system of thought initiated by Jacques Derrida which questions and undermines the basis of Western forms of thought through a series of (anti)concepts, wordplay, stylistic inventiveness and tortuous argumentation. See poststructuralism, intertextuality, différance, difference, deferral, trace, structure, transcendental signified, logocentrism and phonocentrism.
    • Deferral: Together with difference this term forms part of Derrida's deconstructive (anti)concept of différance which undermines the possibilities of fixed meanings. See poststructuralism.
    • Delegitimation: Within the context of performativity, Jean-François Lyotard argued that the crisis of grand narratives results ‘from the ends of action to its means’ (1987: 37) in such a way that science no longer relies on these grand narratives to legitimate it – hence the term delegitimation. In the postmodern condition each science establishes its own criteria for acceptance, through the consensus of experts, rather than referring to criteria outside themselves. See the crisis of (or incredulity towards) metanarratives.
    • Denotation: This describes the literal meaning of words as opposed to the associative meaning associated with connotation.
    • Depthlessness: A term used by Fredric Jameson to define the cultural logic of late capitalism. See postmodernism.
    • Desire: A multifaceted term used by Jacques Lacan which is seen to be the product of the subject's entry into the Symbolic, rather than something which pre-exists or stands outside inter-subjective relations. See need.
    • Destratification: A concept used by Deleuze and Guattari that can be used to describe how things or spaces can be de-colonized and transformed by new powers or forces. See territorialization and reterritorialization.
    • Difference: Along with deferral this term forms part of Derrida's deconstructive (anti-)concept of différance which challenges the possibilities of stable meanings. See poststructuralism.
    • Différance: This is a key (anti)concept within Derridean deconstruction which plays on the concepts of difference and deferral in such a way that meaning in discourse is constantly divided and indefinitely postponed. In this way no text has an intrinsic meaning.
    • Disaster capitalism: An idea put forward by Naomi Klein where governments (aided and abetted by free-market economists) push through emergency measures when the public is vulnerable and severely disoriented. It consists in waiting for (or provoking) a major crisis then deregulating the markets, breaking down trade barriers and radically reducing public spending as part of a massive effort to sell-off national assets which tend to favour global capitalists and the multinationals at the expense of national interests. See the shock doctrine.
    • Discourse: Michel Foucault emphasized that knowledge and truth cannot be understood outside the discourses (branches of knowledge) which produce them and which are, in turn, regulated by key institutions. It is in these discourses that society generates its regimes or general politics of truth which exercise power over subjects. See also Panopticon and gender as performative.
    • Double reading: In Althusserian Marxism a double reading takes account of, on the one hand, the gaps and silences that reveal the ideological limits of the discourse (the problematic) and, on the other, the way texts inadvertently answer questions they never pose. See symptomatic reading.
    • Empire: A notion found in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri which understands the world economy as dominated by global capitalism and the multinationals (linked to the interests of the US and its allies) and supported by organizations like the G8, NATO the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. This is the (Roman-like) ‘Empire’ in late capitalism that guarantees the economic inequalities that maintain huge accumulations of capital and the perpetuation of poverty.
    • Encoding: Within semiology encoding describes how messages are structured into a particular form with relation to a given medium. See decoding.
    • First- and second-order semiological systems: These describe Roland Barthes’ approach to understanding how images are read in semiological terms. The first-order system (the simple recognition of the image) functions as the signifier of the second-order system, which describes the culturally loaded meaning(s) of the image (which corresponds to connotation). See modern mythololgies.
    • Frankfurt School: This is the name given to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt to which important Marxist critics like Thoedor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin were affiliated. They helped to fuse Marxist thinking with other important approaches like, in the case of Adorno and Horkheimer, psychoanalysis to create trenchant criticisms of contemporary culture and society. See the culture industry.
    • Genealogy: A Nietzschean term used by Michel Foucault to construct an approach to the writing of history that challenges more traditional accounts which assume it pre-exists historical writing and can be reduced to more or less ‘objective’ narratives, origins and ends. Foucault's approach is anti-essentialist and questions the neutral disinterested view that seeks continuities, forces and universal laws.
    • Gender: A widespread term used in much cultural criticism, especially that focused on feminism and gender studies. More specifically, it is theorized in the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, the latter defining it against concepts like sex and sexuality. For Butler gender describes the characteristics that a given culture understands as masculine or feminine, dependent on social interactions and the assimilation of social norms. However, gender is seen as a cultural construction, not in terms of something given by nature.
    • Gender as performative: When discussing gender, Judith Butler uses this term to argue that carefully selected features associated with femininity or masculinity within normative social discourses are used to signify some interior essence. However, this inner essence, which seems to be described by the discourses, is actually a product of them. The implication of this for Butler is that gender is conceived of as the repeated performance of the chosen traits which stand for being woman or man and are made to perform gender. See gender, sex, sexuality and gender subversion.
    • Gender subversion: Judith Butler argues that parodic and hyperbolic practices like drag can serve to ‘denaturalize’ the body in such a way that what are commonly taken as the ‘natural’ characteristics of gender are exposed as the performative cultural constructs they are. See gender as performative.
    • Grand narrative: Jean-François Lyotard argued that, traditionally, science legitimated itself with relation to philosophical or political metanarratives (or grand narratives). The production of knowledge was justified with reference to criteria outside itself: that it is a good in itself or in the best interests of the people or the nation. However, the postmodern condition marks a point of the crisis of (or incredulity towards) metanarratives. See performativity and delegitimation.
    • Hegemony: This term derives from the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who used it to describe how, in modern democracies, political power and leadership, while ultimately backed up by force, depend on alliances and the winning of consent through compromise and negotiation. This challenges more simplistic notions of ideology that assume that ideas and values can be linked in deterministic ways to particular classes. These ideas have been used to describe all kinds of power relations, including those which govern the (de)valuation of different forms of culture.
    • High culture: This concept is used by critics, like those of the culture and civilization tradition, to refer to the most worthy and valuable cultural forms in opposition to what are seen as trivial and debasing products of popular (or mass, industrial) culture.
    • High modernism: A term Fredric Jameson uses to distinguish what he regards as the generally inferior cultural products of postmodernism from those of the most distinguished modernists. For him high modernism refers to movements like abstract expressionism in painting, existentialism in philosophy, and writers like Eliot, Stevens, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka and Faulkner (in poetry and the novel), or the auteur directors like Bergman, Kurosawa, Hitchcock and Fellini (in cinema). See the cultural logic of late capitalism.
    • High-tech paranoia: Within the writings of Fredric Jameson this refers to contemporary narratives (like cyberpunk) in which the impossibly complex circuits of global computer networks are linked to the convoluted intrigues of rival information agencies. For Jameson, these narratives can help to understand ‘the impossible totality of the contemporary world system’. See cognitive mapping and homeopathic strategy.
    • Historiography: This idea is often used to describe the writing of more traditional historians who assume that historical narratives can more or less reflect the past in objective ways with relation to periods and movements. See poststructuralism, postmodernism and genealogy.
    • History of sexuality: This refers to one of Michel Foucault's major projects where he showed how sexual practices had been gradually reduced to a set of social and scientific discourses that could produce truths and forms of knowledge and power which would enable the social control and regulation of the sexualized body (while opening up discursive spaces for non-normative sexualities).
    • Homeopathic strategy: Within his conception of cognitive mapping Fredric Jameson recommends this tactic where an artist uses the very thing which is considered corrupt (like advertising images) to criticize the institutions in which they circulate. Thus, the corrupt form is used as a means to critique it. See cognitive mapping.
    • Hyperreality: Jean Baudrillard used this concept, which is often seen as a key notion defining postmodernism, to describe the condition in late capitalism where one-to-one relations between signs and the referential world are lost and individuals find themselves adrift in the infinite proliferation of media images, information and advertising (simulacra). This is hyperreality because it indicates simulated reality in excess where reality is confused with its simulation – it is simulation.
    • Ideological state apparatuses: Louis Althusser associated these apparatuses with politics, education, religion, the law, family, trade unionism, communications and culture (in general) which were conceived of as having a secondary repressive function – that is, secondary to the repressive state apparatuses.
    • Ideology: A notoriously difficult concept fundamental to Marxist analyses that, at the simplest level, describes the dominant ideas, beliefs and values that govern individuals, groups, processes or political parties or economic policies. It is sometimes contrasted with Gramscian hegemony theory. Roland Barthes discussed the notion with relation to mass culture seeing collective representations as sign systems that transform (petit-bourgeois) culture into nature. See also modern mythologies, and Althusser's notions of ideological and state apparatuses, material and imaginary aspect of ideology, overdetermination and interpellation.
    • Imaginary: A concept used within Lacanian psychoanalysis which deals with how subjects construct and misrecognize themselves (and identify with others) through images (or fantasies) that give the illusion of a unified identity. From this point of view the self is structured on a series of illusions; however, the Imaginary also establishes the basic coordinates of the self that enable the subject's functioning in the world. See master signifiers.
    • Imaginary aspect of ideology: This refers to Louis Althusser's idea that in ideology subjects do not express their ‘real’ relation to their conditions of existence but the way they live that relation. See material aspect of ideology.
    • Interpellation: In Althusserian Marxism this describes how ideology functions to shape individuals into ‘subjects’ subject to capitalist society and culture.
    • Intertextuality: A complex term coined by Julia Kristeva and used by Roland Barthes and often associated with poststructuralism. At its simplest level it refers to how texts incorporate others into themselves (through quotations, references, etc.). At a more complex level language itself can be seen as radically intertextual and thus any utterance or text is already implicated in complex networks of linguistic usages, sayings, tags, etc. before anything is formally cited or referred to.
    • Knowledge: In the writings of Michel Foucault knowledge is linked to regimes of truth. From this point of view it is not divorced from the exercise of multiple networks of power. See truth and discourse.
    • Langue: In structuralism this refers to a pre-established (but negotiable) system of common rules and conventions (which make up a code) which, within a given community, can be used to produce meaningful utterances (or paroles).
    • Late capitalism: Fredric Jameson argued that this characterized the post-industrial ‘multinational’ stage of capitalism associating it with postmodernism. This is where the whole world is dominated by the narrow interests of the ruling, capitalist classes whose activities transcend the nation state. See the cultural logic of late capitalism.
    • Legitimation: Jean-François Lyotard, when discussing the postmodern condition, claimed that in modern societies science does not only seek the truth of things but is also under an obligation to legitimate ‘the rules of its own game’. These justifications, which are political or philosophical, are what Lyotard thinks of as discourses of legitimation which contain metanarratives. See crisis of (or incredulity towards) metanarratives.
    • Little narratives: For Jean-François Lyotard the little narrative avoids the universalizing principles and overarching claims of grand narratives which he felt, within the postmodern condition, were bankrupt and could no longer be justified. See crisis of (or incredulity toward) metanarratives and delegitimation.
    • Logocentrism: A term Jacques Derrida used to define a characteristic of Western thinking where meaning is grounded in the metaphysics of presence, and where presence (and speech) are privileged over absence (and writing). See deconstruction and phonocentrism.
    • Mass culture: This term is normally used by those who regard mass-produced culture for commercial ends as trivial and dangerous to those without the appropriate intellectual training to see through their dubious allurements. See the culture and civilization tradition and the culture industry.
    • Master signifiers: A term used by Jacques Lacan to indicate those signifiers which function to provide the basic coordinates of identity (gender, nationality, religious belief, class, sexual preferences, etc.) but only give the illusion of meaning because they are all dispersed through other signifiers. However, if a person does not rely on the master signifiers and internalize the basic rules laid down in the Symbolic (the rules symbolized by the Name-of-the-Father) the result would be psychosis. See the subject and the Imaginary.
    • Material aspect of ideology: This refers to Louis Althusser's idea that ideology is not just a question of thoughts, values and beliefs but is manifested in the official practices of everyday behaviour governed by rituals. See imaginary aspect of ideology.
    • Message without a code: Roland Barthes referred to non-coded iconic messages in this way meaning that the simple, literal (iconic) recognition of objects is a form of communication although there is no underlying code – unlike in the case of coded-iconic messages.
    • Military–industrial complex: This describes the intricate relations between arms manufacture and central government. The concern is that if national economies are dependent on the production and sale of armaments (and the sector employs significant numbers of people) those representing the armament industries may have an unfair and inordinate influence on the decisions taken by politicians, thus compromising the democratic process.
    • Minority culture: this is associated with the culture and civilization tradition where writers argued that narrow cannons of ‘high culture’ (the great poets, novelists, dramatists, etc.) needed to be preserved by the few enlightened minds capable of assessing and deciding what counts as culture. See mass culture.
    • Mirror Stage: Within Lacanian psychoanalysis this describes how a child, at the pre-linguistic Imaginary stage, undergoes identification with ‘itself’ on the way to becoming a subject within the Symbolic.
    • Modern mythologies: Roland Barthes used this term when analysing the products of mass culture and treating ‘collective representations’ as sign systems in such a way that he was able to uncover the mystifications that transform ‘petit-bourgeois culture into universal nature’ (Barthes, 1957/1972:11). See ideology and semioclasm.
    • Motivation: From Roland Barthes’ point of view the modern myth (or ideological message) is drawn from the common stock of pre-existing meanings. These meanings are what ‘motivate’ the meanings of modern mythologies. See also first- and second-order semiological systems.
    • Name-of-the-Father: A concept found in Lacanian psychoanalysis that does not refer to an actual father (or the particular image of him that individuals may have) but is purely symbolic of the laws that govern cultures that provide the necessary structures for the Symbolic order so necessary to the structure and stability of the psyche.
    • Need: In Lacanian psychoanalysis the origin of organic need is found in the Real but the expression of need in the Symbolic (as desire) leads to constant deferral, frustration and lack. This is because the satisfaction of need is constantly deferred by its transmission through signifiers.
    • Negotiated readings: When discussing television discourse Stuart Hall used this to describe how audiences, while influenced by dominant codes of interpretation established by the producers of the message, may resist (or fail to recognize) aspects of the hegemonic preferred reading. See encoding, decoding, and oppositional readings.
    • New social movements: This term describes activists who form alliances (or networks) to keep a constant eye on things like human rights abuses and the environment. Rather than rely on well-established political parties with their formal organization and overarching ideologies (and members) they prefer to be independent of the political structures they see as antiquated, bankrupt and corrupt. These are often thought of as a postmodern approach to politics. See culture jamming and rhizome.
    • Non-coded iconic message: In Roland Barthes’ work this describes how objects are recognized as images before any secondary meanings are attributed to them, as opposed to coded iconic messages.
    • Objets petit a: A complex and ambiguous term coined by Jacques Lacan which is short for objet petit autre (‘the little object of the other’) that Lacan refused to define in any strict way. One way of understanding the idea is to associate it with the importance given to things that are experienced as parts of, or complements to, the self and not understood or experienced as separate from it.
    • Oligopoly: This term is related to monopoly and describes a tendency in late capitalism where large corporations and conglomerates progressively gain greater control over markets by buying up the competition and monopolizing the manufacture and supply of particular products.
    • Oppositional readings: With reference to television discourse Stuart Hall used this concept to describe how audiences, while recognizing the meanings produced by the dominant codes of interpretation established by the producers of the message, resist aspects of the hegemonic preferred reading. In this way the audiences deliberately interrupt the relations between encoding and decoding. See encoding, decoding, and negotiated readings.
    • Organic intellectuals: This idea derives from Antonio Gramsci's writings and describes a class of intellectuals who could theorize culture and communicate counter-hegemonic ideals to a new revolutionary class.
    • Overdetermination: When discussing repressive and ideological state apparatuses, Louis Althusser adapted this Freudian concept to explain the complexity and relative autonomy of ideology (rather than rely on a more simplistic notion where the material base determines the ideological superstructure).
    • Panopticon: An idea created by Jeremy Bentham that Michel Foucault adapted to argue that the modern state, through pervasive surveillance mechanisms, produces subjects characterized by self-regulation.
    • Parody and pastiche: Fredric Jameson makes a distinction between these two notions to emphasize the differences between modernism and postmodernism. While they both imitate a recognizable style, Jameson values parody (associated with modernism) over pastiche (associated with the postmodern) because the former contains a ‘satiric impulse’ which is lost in the latter, which merely evokes previous styles. See pastness and depthlessness.
    • Parole: in structuralismparoles are meaningful utterances which result from langue (systems of pre-given rules and conventions which make them possible).
    • Pastness: Fredric Jameson argues that postmodern cultures manifest a crisis in history in the way that they no longer evoke historical referents (something real that actually happened with actual historical content) but only construct the past through nostalgic references, which means that the past is merely a question of ‘stylistic connotation’. See depthlessness and the cultural logic of late capitalism.
    • Patriarchy: A disputed term referring to power relations where women are subordinated (partially or wholly) by men in the interests of preserving male domination.
    • Penis envy: A controversial and contested term (especially in feminist discourses) which is found in Freud's theory of psychosexual development where girls, on discovering that they lacks a penis, envy it and all that it represents in terms of power and authority. This discovery brings with it self-loathing and rejection of the mother. See Phallus and the Name-of-the-Father.
    • Performativity: For Jean-François Lyotard this term describes the tendency in the postmodern condition for society to become increasingly dominated by a skills approach to knowledge, which is ruled by performance and efficiency without reference to its emancipatory or speculative values. This is where input is minimized and output maximized and where the ultimate goal of the backers of research is power. See crisis of (or incredulity towards) metanarratives and deligitimation.
    • Phallus: This is a controversial and ambiguous term found in Lacanian psychoanalysis which does not refer to the genital organ, as such, but symbolizes things like authority, power, security and wholeness of being. While the concept is rooted in patriarchal notions of male power, either sex can aspire to what the Phallus represents. See penis envy and the Name-of-the-Father.
    • Phonocentrism: Jacques Derrida used this term to indicate that in Western thinking there is a tendency to privilege speech (as closer to the origin of production) over writing (understood as being secondary). Thus, speech is given priority over the written word because it is seen as more authentic. See deconstruction and logocentrism.
    • Photogenia: A term coined by Roland Barthes to describe the way aesthetic factors like posing, placement, lighting and trick effects influence the interpretation of images. See photographic message, anchorage and coded iconic messages.
    • Photographic message: A term used by Roland Barthes to describe the relations between texts and images (especially in the press) where headlines, captions and the article influence the way an image is understood. See anchorage.
    • Popular culture: a term often linked to mass culture and the culture industry (see the Frankfurt School) which usually describes the entertainment, tastes and choices of ordinary people and is contrasted with high culture.
    • Post-colonialism: This refers to a complex set of discourses which focus on the historical, economic, political and other cultural legacies of imperialist expansion.
    • Post-industrial society: A term popularized by the sociologist Daniel Bell which is used to describe societies founded on computers and telecommunications where knowledge replaces material goods as the most important commodity for production and exchange, as opposed to industrial and pre-industrial societies. See the postmodern condition.
    • Postmodern condition: For Jean-François Lyotard, this term defines society when it has developed its technologies to the point where information itself is the central commodity and society no longer believes in the ethical, philosophical, social, political narratives that were once thought of as providing the justification for education, learning and the production of knowledge. Lyotard's basic approach was to position these transformations in the context of what he called the crisis of (or incredulity towards) metanarratives. See legitimation, grand narrative, performativity and little narratives.
    • Postmodern feminism: Susan Bordo argues that when gender is meticulously fragmented by things like class, race, ‘historical particularity’ and subjected to difference in such a way that its meaning is ‘constantly deferred’ then we are in the presence of postmodern feminism.
    • Postmodern identity: This is associated with Jean Baudrillard's idea that identity in late capitalism is not be understood as something outside consumption but negotiated within it. See consumer society, simulation, simulacra and hyperreality.
    • Postmodernism: A complex set of (sometimes contradictory) discourses which attempt to characterize the cultures, thought and experiences of late capitalist societies. See post-industrial society, postmodern condition, postmodern feminism, postmodern identity, late capitalism, hyperreality, simulation, simulacra, crisis of (or incredulity towards) metanarratives, cultural logic of late capitalism, depthlessness, the waning of affect, death of the subject, parody and pastiche, pastness, cultural schizophrenia, new social movements and high-tech paranoia.
    • Poststructuralism: Generally speaking the term refers to the work of writers who use concepts taken from Saussurean linguistics, but who subject them to radical questioning. However, sometimes writers, like Michel Foucault, who do not use structuralist concepts in a systematic way, are related to the concept because their work shares certain thematic concerns with those deemed poststructuralist. See deconstruction, différance, difference, deferral, trace, structure, transcendental signified, logocentrism and phonocentrism.
    • Power: In Michel Foucault's writings he constantly stressed the relations between truth, knowledge and power. Power is a complex notion not conceived of as exclusive to dominant groups but something exercised at every level, moving in complex ways with relation to multiple contexts. See discourse, self-regulation and surveillance.
    • Preferred reading: When discussing television discourse Stuart Hall used this to designate an interpretation that corresponds to the intentions of those who encode a message. See encoding, decoding, and negotiated and oppositional readings.
    • Problematic: Within Louis Althusser's work this describes the theoretical or ideological limits of a text. Another variation is the ‘invisible problematic’ which is a symptom manifested by (and repressed in) the original problematic which is revealed by symptomatic reading. See double reading.
    • Real: Very simply put, in Lacanian psychoanalysis the Real (to describe this in Althusserian terms) is an absent cause and that upon which the Symbolic works. It can be understood as defining a baby's being prior to its identifications in the Imaginary and its symbolization and stratification in the Symbolic. See need and desire.
    • Relay: A term used by Roland Barthes to describe how words like ‘earlier’, ‘later’, etc. can be attached to a series of images to convey a sense of temporal progression.
    • Repressive state apparatuses: By this phrase Louis Althusser referred to things like the legal system (linked to the police, the courts and the prisons) and the army; apparatuses which are understood as key instruments of direct social control backed up by the secondary ideological state apparatuses.
    • Reterritorialization: A concept used by Deleuze and Guattari that can be used to describe how things or spaces can be re-colonized and re-stratified after a process of destratification, thereby transforming existing powers or forces. See territorialization.
    • Rhizome: A concept used by Deleuze and Guattari which can be used as a metaphor to describe any process which spreads and disperses power horizontally rather than rely on the more traditional vertical power structures associated with what they call arborescence. See new social movements.
    • Self-regulation: A concept found in Michel Foucault's work where he associates the rise of the modern state with an increasing reliance on the internalization of values by subjects who are characterized by self-control. See surveillance and Panopticon.
    • Semioclasm: A neologism coined by Roland Barthes where he combined the terms semiotics and iconoclasm to describe his general method when discussing modern mythologies. Semioclasm exposes the bourgeois class interests camouflaged in the culture of everyday life where history or culture is constantly dressed up as nature. See ideology.
    • Semiology: In structuralism the study of the relations between the signifier and the signified with relation to a code (otherwise known as semiotics).
    • Sex: A pervasive term used in much cultural criticism, especially that focused on feminism and gender studies. More particularly, it features strongly in the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, the latter defining it against concepts like gender and sexuality. For Butler it functions within discourses to create debatable distinctions between males and females by emphasizing things like biological differences, chromosomes, hormonal characteristics, internal and external reproductive/sex organs, etc.
    • Sexuality: An extensive term used in much cultural criticism, especially that found in feminism and gender studies. More specifically, it is theorized in the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, the latter defining it against concepts like sex and gender. Butler emphasizes that sexuality concerns how individuals are categorised with relation to sexual attitudes, choices and behaviour, which are often used to define what is properly or intrinsically male of female.
    • Shock doctrine: An idea put forward by Naomi Klein that holds that the narrow interests of powerful capitalists are, and have been, imposed all over the world through shock tactics where economists, on behalf of governments, plan austere privatization measures which often attack civil liberties. These strategies are applied to all kinds of crises whether they be ‘natural’, provoked by wars, or by economic meltdowns. See disaster capitalism.
    • Sign: In Saussurean linguistics the sign is made up of the signifier and the signified. It is fundamental to an understanding of structuralism.
    • Signification: Within structuralism this refers to the study of the relations between signifiers and signifieds to show how they produce meaning with relation to codes.
    • Signified: In the structuralist theory of the sign the signified designates the concept or idea attached to a signifier.
    • Signifier: Within structuralism this is the form a sign takes – this can be a word or anything that that is capable of conveying meaning and is related to its counterpart the signified.
    • Simulacra: This term, often seen as a key to the definition of postmodernism, is used by Jean Baudrillard when theorizing his notion of hyperreality. Simulacra describe images which, in advanced capitalism, cannot be traced back to an origin or cause in such a way that truth, knowledge and reference to a primary reality are no longer possible. See simulation.
    • Simulation: Jean Baudrillard used this concept to explain a key idea with relation to his theory of hyperreality, an idea that has become important to some definitions of postmodernism. To simulate is to pretend to have something that you have not got, meaning there is nothing behind appearance (as opposed to dissimulation, which is where someone pretends not to have something they have, in fact, got and, thus, there is something behind mere appearance). See simulacra.
    • Structuralism: This is associated with the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of the sign as a combination of signifiers and signifieds. From this point of view meaning is not produced because words refer to things but because pre-established codes allow the organization of paradigmatic elements to generate meaningful statements. Thus, structuralism is not referential but relational. These ideas have helped to develop a general theory of the sign and have been applied beyond language to many aspects of culture. See semiology, syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations, binary oppositions, langue, parole and poststructuralism.
    • Structure: This term is used in a very particular way by Jacques Derrida who argued that within Western philosophical thinking it tends to provide a centre or a stabilizing point of reference within a discourse and thereby limit its ability to signify indefinitely. Deconstruction challenges this. See différance, transcendental signified and logocentrism.
    • Subject: Within structuralism and poststructuralism (particularly in the work of Jacques Lacan) the term is generally used to challenge the idea that the self is prior to the entry into symbolic and cultural networks. Here the subject-self is a product of these things. See subjectivity and desire as an inter-subjective phenomenon.
    • Subjectivity: Within structuralism and poststructuralism (and particularly in the work of Jacques Lacan) the term indicates that what is understood as the self is the product of language and it is through it that humans are constituted as a subject.
    • Subject supposed to know: A term used in Lacanian psychoanalysis which indicates a living person (or an imaginary figure) who provides the grounds for belief, thereby displacing the authority for faith or knowledge onto others. See the Name-of-the-Father.
    • Surveillance: Michel Foucault saw surveillance as a key part of the modern state where subjects exercise self-regulation and control because all kinds of apparatuses create an atmosphere of permanent visibility (a surveillance society) which ensures the automatic functioning of power. See Panopticon.
    • Symbolic: In Lacanian psychoanalysis this concept refers to language, culture or any system through which meanings can be produced. Once immersed in the Symbolic the subject comes into existence and is effectively cut off from the Real because it is now mediated through signifiers and subject to signification.
    • Symptomatic reading: This describes part of Louis Althusser's double reading which involves acknowledging the gaps and silences that underlie the structure of a text. See problematic.
    • Syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations: In structuralism this refers to how (syntagmatic) combinations of elements (paradigms) create meanings (paroles).
    • Territorialization: A concept used in the work of Deleuze and Guattari that can be used to describe how things or spaces are taken control of or colonized. See reterritorialization and destratification.
    • The end of this or that: Referring to this idea Fredric Jameson argues that it characterizes an important strand of thought within postmodernism. This is where, since the Second World War, all kinds of ‘ends’ have been announced, like end of ideology, social democracy, ‘man’, social class, the welfare state, art, communism, etc.
    • Trace: An important term used by Jacques Derrida which posits that signs always mark an absence of a presence and indicate the absence of an authorial origin. See death of the author and deconstruction.
    • Transcendental signified: A term coined by Jacques Derrida within deconstruction that refers to something outside a system that would suspend the indefinite play of signification. See différance, logocentrism and phonocentrism.
    • Truth: According to Michel Foucault truth is not something other worldly or beyond politics or above the complex workings of power but something produced by them in discourses which create the conditions for its production. See critique of reason.
    • Two interpretations of interpretation: This refers to Jacques Derrida's point that interpreters can be grouped into those who dream of recovering truths and origins to discover fixed meanings and those who affirm textual play and renounce full presence and fixed identities (like the practitioners of deconstruction).
    • Waning of affect: A concept used by Fredric Jameson to express the idea that feeling, emotion and subjectivity (consciousness) are ebbing away in postmodern culture. It is important to understand that it is a lessening, not a complete disappearance. See cultural schizophrenia, depthlessness, death of the subject and logic of late capitalism.
    • Youth subculture: An important area of study within cultural studies that focuses on things like the social background, groupings, practices, values, concerns, styles, behaviour and consumption patterns, and meaning-making activities of young people. Other key notions are the production of generational differences and rebellion.


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