In the previous lesson we saw how complex the concept of culture could be. In this lesson we will look at the history of Cultural Studies.
Most accounts of the history of Cultural Studies point to the origins of the discipline in the West, and also draw attention to the difference between the British and American variants of Cultural Studies. When we talk of Cultural Studies in India, we need to note that British Cultural Studies has certainly been an important influence. However, the emergence of the area in the Indian context has also been determined by developments in the disciplines of history, art history and the study of cinema. Moreover, much of what we may today view as early work in Cultural Studies was in fact not called Cultural Studies.
A working definition of Cultural Studies would be that it is the study of culture in order to understand a society and its politics. While attempting to trace the history of Cultural Studies we need to look at approaches and areas that are clearly related to what we identify as the concerns of Cultural Studies. These would be
— the focus on everyday life and its practices
— a shift away from classical or elite cultural forms to popular or industrially produced forms (such as cinema, television, radio, popular magazines) and
— the focus on ways in which power and authority are exercised in cultural practices Cultural studies uses a wide range of materials from the realm of popular culture (click here to find out about books on popular culture) including films, cartoons, advertisements, newsreports, new media such as the internet, actual spaces such as cinema halls and other urban locations (you will come across some of this material in the lesson Country and the City).
It also looks at legal documents, government records and 'high' art. While shifting the emphasis from the written to the visual, to the topography, to the imaginary, these methodological innovations question the presumed centrality of the written text. Also critical is the notion of culture as a set of meaning making practices. Or in other words, culture is the manner in which a society makes sense of the world.
For the student of culture therefore, an important task is to interpret social and cultural practices in order to arrive at what they mean in a particular context. Like the anthropologist, the student of Cultural Studies would study commonplace or supposedly trivial practices like watching television and more conventionally ‘cultural’ practices like celebrating religious festivals to analyse what they mean to the people concerned. This range of material is studied in order to understand the relationship between what we describe as cultural practices and the acts of representation that form the matter of this culture.
‘Representation’ is a complex term and takes on a number of meanings. You have already come across this concept in the previous lesson. Here is an example that will allow you to see why the concept is of importance to cultural studies.
If there is a picture of a woman superimposed on the map of India, we automatically take it to be more than a picture of a woman, or that of the geographical outline of India. We have—because of the common sets of meanings and concepts that we share—learnt to recognize this as representing mother India, which implies that the nation is being re-presented as the mother. In doing so, a Cultural Studies student would point out, woman is being re-presented as a mother figure, who in turn is equated to the nation. These layers of meanings that get attached to the image of Bharat Mata, were crucial for bringing together people for a nationalist struggle. Further, this important role was played by calendar art, which was a ‘low’ art form. (Click on Bharat Mata to see various visual images linking the Indian woman and the nation).
How did Cultural Studies emerge in India? Let us trace the beginnings of Cultural Studies in India by tracking back in time each of the characteristic features that we now understand as Cultural Studies.