Cultural Studies in the Undergraduate Program

6461 Words26 Pages
Cultural Studies in the Undergraduate Program

Any discussion of cultural studies must begin with an attempt to define culture. I say attempt because the word 'culture' is so steeped in historical, psychological and political meanings and counter-meanings it has become, in the jargon of literary theory, overdetermined, i.e., so full of meaning it threatens to become meaningless. So instead I will begin with a statement about art which I think goes to the heart of our conceptions of culture.

In 1973, Ray B. Browne--an acknowledged pioneer in the field of popular culture studies--wrote that "One of the significant new realizations is that there is no real distinction between 'elite' and 'popular' art, that all aesthetics are on one horizontal continuum ..." (PCE 2). While that may have been a "new" realization in 1973, I believe it was premature, because I think we could agree that even in 1995 there is probably not a single campus where it is generally accepted that such distinctions between high and low art do not exist. I would say the same prejudice still exists about what we mean by the word culture. For instance, in the supposedly sophisticated cyberdiscourse of the Internet, where dozens of discussion groups on cultural studies list hundreds of postings from thousands of cultural studies pioneers, still there persists an assumed distinction between the high and the low, only now it is referred to as the difference between the study of capital 'c' Culture and all other kinds. Ray B. Browne's optimism notwithstanding, apparently in the ensuing two decades we have merely traded the rhetoric of high and low art for that of upper and lowercase culture.

It is a persistent myth of most societies but particularly of American society that popular art and its attendant culture are somehow a fundamentally different "thing" than whatever it is we mean by high art and its culture. In fact, I would assert that the word culture itself still means for most Americans the opera, the symphony, museums--places and rituals associated with money and privilege. In other words, culture is a synonym for class--or rather, for high class. To counter that myth, cultural studies begins with the understanding that all citizens in a society both consume and produce culture; that there are no absolute distinctions to be made between upper and lowercase culture. To quote David Trend on this idea (and by the
Open Document