Cultural Studies: Methods & Popular Objects
This course is primarily intended for students interested in designing research projects on topics in popular culture, though it can also serve as a more general introduction to the methods and conceptual frameworks of cultural studies, specifically the Birmingham school and Stuart Hall’s work. The course will focus on a particular tendency within cultural studies, what Richard Johnson calls its object-driven dimension, which emphasizes how the study of popular objects and the tracing of their movement across the boundaries of institutional knowledge formations produces self-reflection on and critique of disciplinary concepts and their limitations. Our particular focus will be on how key concepts of literary studies get reworked in popular contexts, including such categories as the author, the text, the reader and the reading process, literary value and value hierarchies (high and low, art and mass or commercial culture, originality and formula or banality), and literary language or the relation between literature and rhetoric.
This approach stands in partial contrast to the definition of cultural studies as a theoretical formation (primarily a synthesis of Marxism and structuralism/post-structuralism [i.e., Stuart Hall’s “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms”]), or the association of cultural studies with cultural politics and ideology critique – that is, with multiculturalism or “new” social movements, as highlighted within the history of the reception of the Birmingham school within the U.S. This course’s approach to the significance of studying popular objects also stands in partial tension with the Foucauldian emphasis on how we construct our objects of analysis and the power/knowledge relations involved in such constructions; instead, we will be pursuing more of a negative dialectic, in Adorno’s sense of privileging the position of the object over the subject of knowledge. What kind of materiality do objects of analysis have, within the critical traditions of cultural studies? We will necessarily have to consider how the emphasis on popular culture overlaps with these other ways of defining cultural studies, of course.
The course will combine some theoretical readings with a focus on case studies or touchstones in the history of cultural studies work on popular culture objects, along with some selection of primary works. The objects we will consider, or which will be considered by the critics we read, will include genre fiction (especially science fiction, fantasy, and romance, though possibly also some detective fiction); fan fiction and other forms of fan culture; visual culture, including film, but especially television and comics or graphic novels; music, subcultural style, and fashion; and new media and internet culture, especially interactive fiction, with some gestures toward gaming. We will be interested in how to negotiate the tension between general, transmedia forms of textual, narrative, or ideological analysis and the specificity of the formal apparatuses of different media and genre formations. We will also discuss the theoretical and methodological significance of specific practices of popular cultural production, such as varieties of realism and anti-realist narrative disruptions; collaborative or “shared-world” authorship; fan fiction or “textual poaching”; ret-conning or retroactive continuity; and the textuality of “vast narratives,” including serial publication or broadcast, the comics’ model of the “shared universe,” and hypertext linkages.
Students will choose either to write one long final paper or 2-3 shorter papers over the course of the quarter.
Much of our reading will consist of shorter essays or book chapters, but I will probably order the following books, many of which we will only read selections from: Kuan-Hsing Chen and David Morley, Stuart Hall.