Key Concepts in Critical Cultural Studies

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This volume brings together sixteen essays on key and intersecting topics in critical cultural studies from major scholars in the field. Taking into account the vicissitudes of political, social, and cultural issues, the contributors engage deeply with the evolving understanding of critical concepts such as history, community, culture, identity, politics, ethics, globalization, and technology. The essays address the extent to which these concepts have been useful to scholars, policy makers, and citizens, as well as the ways they must be rethought and reconsidered if they are to continue to be viable.

Each essay considers what is known and understood about these concepts. The essays give particular attention to how relevant ideas, themes, and terms were developed, elaborated, and deployed in the work of James W. Carey, the "founding father" of cultural studies in the United States. The contributors map how these important concepts, including Carey's own work with them, have evolved over time and how these concepts intersect. The result is a coherent volume that redefines the still-emerging field of critical cultural studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An unusually full and rich—and sometimes passionate—conversation on communication and culture, this volume offers a selection of illuminating and provocative responses to the life's work of James W. Carey.”—Carolyn Kitch, author of Pages from the Past: History and Memory in American Magazines

“A creative approach to connecting key elements in a sometimes abstract field. Recommended for students and scholars of critical and cultural studies.”—Lee Wilkins, coeditor of The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252076954
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2010
  • Series: History of Communication Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda Steiner is a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and the coauthor of Women and Journalism.


Clifford Christians is Sandage Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and coauthor of Normative Theories of the Media: Journalism in Democratic Societies.

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Read an Excerpt

Key Concepts in Critical Cultural Studies


Copyright © 2010 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03506-7


Working the Hyphens in Critical-Cultural Conversations

Linda Steiner and Clifford Christians

This volume addresses the ways and extent to which key concepts in critical and cultural studies remain useful to scholars, to policy makers, and to citizens—or the ways they need to be rethought and reconsidered if they are to continue to be viable. The essays, individually and taken as a whole, engage in debate about culture and communication and about cultural and critical studies. In responding to emerging political, social, and cultural problems, the field has changed over the years. Thus the meanings, significance, and interrelationships of its central concepts have changed, as the authors here show. Nonetheless, these terms are consistent and remain at the fore and center.

This book's title signals its inspiration from Raymond Williams, whose various editions of Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society underscored the importance of recording and investigating problems of meaning but also emphasized how meanings change, as do the social formations and practices in which those meanings are embedded. Others using the genre of Williams's Keywords offer, as he did, an encyclopedic but necessarily abbreviated alphabetized list of many words. We have chosen instead to trace the intellectual and historical trajectories of the major terms defining the field. Moreover, we use the term keywords, but we do so in a slightly different way. First, we use the term to refer to significant concepts, not to refer to search terms used for targeting and retrieving relevant information in a database. Second, our concern here lies more with the relationships among literatures rather than with the historical origins and evolution of individual dictionary entries. Carey, for example, listed culture, communication, technology, community, time, and space as "the key words" of Communication as Culture (1989, 243). As Barbie Zelizer observes in the epilogue, using keywords in the Williams tradition enables us to juxtapose ideas. This allows the concepts individually to provoke a variety of trajectories, while collectively they suggest interlocking patterns for productive scholarship. Each concept points to its own projections of meaning; at the same time composites of these terms open new vistas. Meanwhile, as Williams (1983, 15) noted, each provokes ways of both discussing and seeing many of our central experiences.

As critical-cultural studies enters what might be called its middle age, it becomes important to take stock of key terms and see the extent to which consensus has emerged on the meanings and usefulness of the central concepts. We want to figure out how and when these concepts work. We want to evaluate how far these concepts take us and determine where they cannot take us. To what tradeoffs—with more or less self-consciousness of the deals struck—do they point? Indeed, as the epilogue notes, keywords in Williams's sense not only provide a guidebook showing us how to navigate a world but also help us imagine new worlds where we have not traveled. This book responds to a call for a coherent, consistent volume that establishes the form and substance of critical-cultural studies and takes stock of an increasingly influential body of work.

An oft-cited remark from Kenneth Burke describes how these chapters deal with the crucial concepts in critical and cultural studies:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Burke 1974, 110–11)

Thus we enter into that ongoing and lively context. We pay particular attention to the way these crucial terms were developed and elaborated in the work of James W. Carey, arguably the founder of cultural studies in the United States. We consider the evolving understandings of these terms, including Carey's own engagement with them. Thus, we continue a conversation with Carey, who exited both far too early and well before it was over. Having listened to often heated debate, we recognize that we cannot, even together, capture it all. Nonetheless, we believe we have caught the tenor of the argument. Notably, Philip Selznick (1992) insists that definitions in social theory be kept weak, value neutral, and uncontroversial. Nonetheless, he urges us not to eliminate controversy but to transfer it to the formulation of theories, which should be normative. So, in offering arguments about the status of dynamic concepts and claims, we fully invite and welcome the discussion that will continue, as it should.

The authors here agree on the importance of grounding scholarship in specific practices, experiences, and communities. Just as the contributors call for scholars individually to be politically and intellectually embedded and engaged with the nitty-gritty of life, so we try to connect scholarship to real problems— problems in democracy, urban life, and popular culture. Certainly these essays are grounded in a sense of ethics, for, as Clifford Christians says in his essay, our field understands morality not in terms of an apparatus of neutral standards but as a cultural domain that unfolds dialectically in human interaction. Moral commitments are embedded in the practices of particular social groups, and they are communicated through a community's stories. Nor do we neglect the importance of understanding these concepts. We address their real-life consequences—political, social, or moral.

The essay here by Lawrence Grossberg—who has edited a "new" keywords text (Bennett, Grossberg, and Morris 2005)—features the role of culture in cultural studies, directly examining how the changing geo-historical context challenges cultural studies today. Grossberg sets Carey's work in the historical context of British cultural studies. Carey relied on John Dewey's pragmatism and the Chicago school of social thought but also engaged in dialogue with his "British cotravelers." Other terms in Carey's version of cultural studies have a Canadian context. The notions of time and space, empire and bias, and technology famously emerge from serious consideration of Harold Innis and the University of Toronto's Program in Culture and Technology. Keywords establish a field's always shifting and uneven terrain. Yet, as a whole, the field has a recognizable shape. This book provides a distinct opportunity to engage these concepts across their history and geography and to present them alongside one another as an overview of critical-cultural studies today.

Just as Carey criticized Marshall McLuhan not for the questions he asked but for "weaknesses in the way he framed and presented his arguments in answering these questions" (1997m, 41), so we consider the strengths and deficiencies in various arguments resting on these concepts. In contrast to McLuhan, who was inattentive to the political dimension, the essayists here are acutely sensitive to politics. Lana Rakow, for example, takes issue with Carey's critique of identity politics and uses the campaign rhetoric of 2004 and 2008 to show the importance of "identity work." The authors represented in this volume are also attuned, as Carey (2005) put it, to the brittleness of the economy and the vulnerability of the new world order. Not merely technology but everything must be embedded in the vital world of politics, economics, religion, and culture. Technologies are never autonomous in their origins or unidimensional in their consequences. So it is with all these concepts.

Some of these terms are enormously difficult to break open. All are complex. One early anthology on "community studies" described the term community as a "god word": "we are expected to abase ourselves before it rather than attempt to define it" (Butterworth and Weir 1970, 58). Precisely because several of the concepts in cultural and critical studies have tended to operate as god-terms, the intention here is to demystify them, although certainly without thinning out their richness. Indeed, noting that cultural scholars have an abiding "faith" in cultural investigation, Quentin Schultze traces that faith to specific religious narratives; he sees this motivating and operating in at least three ways in cultural studies: a faith in diversity, a sense of realistic hope, and a commitment to sacrificial love.

Jack Bratich has offered the notion that keywords can be used to unlock new doors. Making the metaphor even more contemporary, he suggests understanding cultural studies terms as passkeys or passwords—not in the sense of monopolizing (i.e., unlocking secrets otherwise never shared) but in the sense of allowing thresholds to be crossed, allowing unfettered access to worlds of meaningful possibility. These essays are not keys to closed-ended puzzles; rather, they evoke an open-ended set of debates and arguments.

More concepts from both cultural and critical studies could have been included. Including news, for example, would provide an opportunity to rethink how the concept of news as a social practice has changed (or not) over time and space and in the context of access enabled by new technologies; indeed, important negotiations continue over the meaning and uses of news. One also thinks in this context of the terms narrative, memory, audience, modernity, authority, governance, regulation, and colonialization. Carey himself might have objected to the inclusion of such words, given his growing distress with the overly theorized pretentiousness of cultural studies. Moreover, some of those themes and concepts come into greater visibility at certain times, receding into the background at other moments. A few essays here respond to specific troubles, issues, or problems that plague us at certain "key" moments before fading from view (without ever being fully solved). For many of the authors here, choices about which literatures to foreground reflect our intellectual homes in media studies, albeit an interdisciplinary approach to media studies, rather than in more traditional humanities. As a result, different essays use terms in ways that reflect contemporary dilemmas and even, sometimes, professional and academic fads. Some ideas respond to new directions in communication, as well as in history, sociology, philosophy, and literature.

One constant here is the complexity of terms. Alan Durant (2006) notes how Williams's entries typically asserted that the word in question was difficult. Williams began his research when he realized just how complicated culture was. Many words were called "the most complex," or "among the most complicated," or at least "among the most difficult" to use in the English language. Durant's point is that such difficulties partly reflect historical changes in meanings. It is also a matter of polysemy; under political and social pressures, people extend or transform meanings such that words acquire multiple senses. On the other hand, or perhaps in response to that complexity, all the contributors here see both critical and cultural studies as having been considerably transformed over the years. While once these two areas were regarded by many scholars as separate fields, networks of flexible but robust bridges run between them.

As a result, this book is about critical-cultural studies, and we continue to posit, nurture, and work that hyphen. We should also note that the title of this book refers to critical cultural studies (without a hyphen), pointing to the emergence and continuing evolution of a "critical" version of cultural studies. The title of this introduction, however, recalls the challenge Michelle Fine (1998) issued to ethnographers to reject the notion of a singular, unified identity and explode fixed categories and boundaries. Fine describes "working the hyphens" as thinking about "how we are in relation with the contexts we study and with our informants, understanding that we are multiple in those relations" and "creating occasions to discuss what is and what is not 'happening between'" (135). Our introduction's title, then, recalls that "play" in a mestiza consciousness.

Various critics and defenders of these concepts have taken off in many directions. The articulation of the concepts is responsive to critique. So, returning to Burke's language, in dipping our oars into the never calm, always roiling seas of cultural studies, we respond not to static ideas but to moving targets. For example, take Carey's ritual model of and for communication, the centerpiece of several essays. Conceding the compelling elegance of Carey's description of the ritual model, one critic notes the theory's assumptions about consensus and its corollary inattention to discord (Ettema 1990). At the time, this observation was a fair critique. Yet Catherine Warren uses ritual to understand the furor over Seymour Hersh's exposé of the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib and over the "news" of photographs of those abuses. Arguably Carey's (1998b) essay on rituals of shame and degradation—discussed at length by Frederick Wasser in his chapter on democracy and politics—itself addresses the complaint that discussions of ritual inherently overemphasize consensus and ignore conflict. Carey had used the 1987 hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork to discuss how both official, sanctioned ceremonies and the customs of daily life can render—perhaps unfairly—a sentence of permanent exile. Carey's point was that such "episodes of high, systematic and sanctioned misanthropy[,] when the power of the state, public opinion or both is inscribed on the body" (42–43), did not conform to the model of communitas, reconciliation, and reunification suggested by an understanding of media events as providing consensual symbols and promoting solidarity (Dayan and Katz 1992). But this was a mere suggestion. Several chapters here underscore both the misuses of claims to community and the ways that symbols can fail. And, of course, there is more to be done with such provocative and productive terms.

Not surprisingly, these essays intertwine. Each discussion refers to other concepts. Each references an overlapping set of key figures plowing the cultural studies field: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, John Dewey, Raymond Williams, Walter Lippmann, and Stuart Hall. Carey himself continued to pose questions about the ways various key concepts worked together—or did not. He put globalization, democracy, and communication in the title of a 2003 speech, asking whether we can have all three. His answer, by the way, was that desires for these three complex goods are not mutually supportive; furthermore, the nation-state forms an important but otherwise undisclosed fourth term that would be necessary to close the analytic loop but also sets the terms of the contradiction. This book addresses those four terms as well as several other notions mentioned in that speech, including transportation, space, time, empire, technology, and specific technologies.

Consistent with this, then, John Nerone's chapter on history references notions of professionalism—the concept elucidated by Stuart Allan—to underscore how, at least in the nineteenth century, professional historians both erected formidable barriers around their field and, even more controversially, insisted on grounding historical narratives in the emerging archives of nation-states— Nerone also, of course, describes various scholars' interest in the history of technology and histories of technologies. Meanwhile, Allan uses the history of journalism education—centering on Joseph Pulitzer's vision for the Columbia Journalism School, where James Carey taught after some decades at the University of Illinois—to consider a journalism without professional journalists. Thus, in asking what can or should be taught about journalism, Allan also raises issues of pedagogy, which Norman Denzin critiques in an essay on radical pedagogy that also asks questions about culture and politics.


Excerpted from Key Concepts in Critical Cultural Studies Copyright © 2010 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Working the Hyphens in Critical-Cultural Conversations Linda Steiner Clifford Christians ix

Part I Contexts

History: Looking for the Subject of Communication History John Nerone 3

Education: Critical Pedagogy Norman K. Denzin 17

Space: The Possibilities and Limits of the Conversation Model Angharad N. Valdivia 26

Religion: Faith in Cultural Studies Quentin J. Schultze 40

Community: Community without Propinquity Linda Steiner 54

Part II Culture

Culture: James W. Carey and the Conversation of Culture Lawrence Grossberg 73

Popular Culture: Asking the Right Questions Joli Jensen 88

Oral Culture: Oral Culture as Antidote to Terror and Ennui Mark Fackler 103

Ritual: The Dark Continent of Journalistic Ritual Catherine A. Warren 115

Identity: The Politics of Identity Work Lana F. Rakow 128

Part III Consequences

Professionalism: Journalism without Professional Journalists? Stuart Allan 145

Politics: Media Power, Status Politics, and Partisanship Frederick Wasser 158

Ethics: Communication Ethics in Postnarrative Terms Clifford Christians 173

The Public: Philosophical Foundations and Distortions in the Quest for Civitas Robert Fortner 187

Technology: The Digital Sublimation of the Electrical Sublime Steven Jones 199

Globalization: Counterglobalization and Other Rituals against Empire Jack Bratich 212

Epilogue: How Scholarship Matters Barbie Zelizer 227

Acknowledgments 239

Works Cited 241

Editors and Contributors 261

Index 266

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