Ioan Davies' Teaching Site
Cultural theory in Britain: Narrative and Episteme.
The two empires which block this cold war are called `nay-toe' and `double-you-toe.' This is perhaps because they meet along the
margins and are `toe-to-toe' with each other. Within each toe there are subsidiary tribes, clients and toenails, such as `Great
Britain' (where I am cooped) which is a little satrapy of nay-toe used by its officers for parking their nukes.
E.P. Thompson, 1988: 221-222
Britain had now acquired a new radical intelligentsia. It overflowed from higher education into broadcasting, journalism,
publishing, architecture, design and a multitude of white-collar jobs of which computing was the largest. After the war marxists
such as John Saville, Raphael Samuel, and later the contributors to the New Left Review, had been marginal men. Now in the
seventies they appeared as epic figures on campus.
Noel Annan, 1990: 381.
The importance of William Morris today lies in his radical aesthetic conservatism, which proposes an alternative view of work to
that advocated within contemporary Labourism and Thatcherism alike. Morris offers a vision of men and women engaged in
creative and decorative labour, in union with nature, and at peace with each other and the world. Their satisfaction in work
derives from the fact that they are able to derive pleasure from what they do.
Peter Fuller, 1990: 289.
The English, like any major industrial society, had forms of `cultural studies' long before the term was coined. Dr Johnson's Dictionary was
an idiosyncratic venture into providing a lexicon of English habits and rituals, while Hazlitt, Addison, Steele and Bagehot tried to come to
terms with the nuances of political and everyday life as they saw it from their privileged positions; Thomas Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, Alexis
de Toqueville, William Blake, John Stuart Mill, and Coleridge were at pains to account for the culture of the English at the beginning of the
nineteenth century; while, throughout that century, an ongoing array of novelists, theologians, historians, poets, essayists, art critics,
dramatists, tried to peel away the various layers of the culture. Equally, by examining other cultures, anthropologists and archaeologists told
us as much about the dominating values of their own society as they did about those they were investigating. The diaries, letters, poems,
novels of women (mostly of upper-class background) sketched out a potential feminist cultural studies, while the voices of blacks, convicts,
workingmen are to be found in the letters and songs that were distributed widely across the Empire.
To understand the culture of the English it is therefore enough to read what was written, look at the paintings, wander round the buildings,
and engage in one's own self-reflection. Or is it? The challenge of `cultural studies' was that these readings should be connected - by
theory, by political engagement, by being conscious of one's personal situation in relation to that of others. Even though others had argued
for this before - notably in the early twentieth century by D.H.Lawrence, T.S.Eliot, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell and F.R.Leavis, all in
the field of literature - they seemed a far cry from the great totalizing schemas of the Continent, or even the attempts at synthesis in the
United States. What England needed was a theory that was not ad-hoc, piecemeal, fragmentary. It needed a theory that was grounded in a
consciousness of practice, and which was capable of making connections across quite discrete areas, but from the inside, as it were, from
the situation of the individual as part of a collective on the road to cultural agency. Marxism was the theory that had to be encountered and,
if necessary, transcended.
This cultural Marxism was born in the late ninteen-fifties , by being liberated from both Stalinism and a regimental base-superstructure
model. It required not only a rethinking of Marxist theory but also of the ways that the story of British Society, Politics and Culture had
been told, recorded, interpreted. From the founding of the New Reasoner and the Universities and Left Review in 1956 and onwards the
debate, theorizing and research on British culture from a more-or-less Marxist perpective assumed remarkable proportions, in which
concepts, metaphors, theoretical frameworks, and, above all, social, technological, and political experiences, unthought of in previous
Marxisms, became centre-stage, if only in some cases for momentary existences.
As a postscript to Thatcherism and its not-so-silent minorities, to the `end' of the cold war and the decline of the USSR, and the
re-establishment of a US hegemony through military means, it is important to take stock of the trajectory of this vast intellectual and
political productivity and ask where it leaves us now. What I will argue is that throughout the late 1960s and the seventies, the analysis of
Culture in Britain was firmly anchored in a strategy of political struggle, that its priorities were those of an elaboration of the cultural
problems facing the left at the time, that it had created a vibrant, intellectual left culture. By the 1980s, however, British Cultural Marxism
had entered a new phase. Was it less Marxist and more Culturist, carried along by its own academic institutionalization, shadow-boxing
with itself and only indirectly contributing to political practice? One of the frequent arguments advanced, particularily using the reformation
of Marxism Today and the emergence of cultural journals that came into being in the last few years of the decade, is that it became caught
up in the process which it had set out to criticize. There is something to be said for these critiques, but I would like to argue that the
process was much more complex and that the legacy is far more hopeful. But to do that it is important to begin, as it were, at the beginning.
In November 1956, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a
telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch
ended with these words: `We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.' What did this sentence mean?
Milan Kundera: "A Kidnapped West, or Culture Bows Out." Granta, 11, 1984: 95.
The starting-point, of course, is the shattering of three illusions. 1956 was a year in which the Russians destroyed socialist resistance and
turned Budapest into an armed camp and also when the British, French and Israelis immobilized the Suez Canal. Thus the various
cultural-political movements, so dear to the heart of the British left - international Bolshevism, Socialist Zionism and the British `civilizing
mission' (symbolized by the Left's relationship with India) - were revealed as little more than fronts for naked imperialism, though in
retrospect they might be seen as desperate ventures of powers on the run. Equally it was clear that after 1956 within British political parties
there was emerging a consensus at the centre which governed the sense of what politics was about, a consensus which was is many
respects a liberal response to complex issues, not least of which was a reaction to the strident Cold War tactics of Stalin and the
Americans. The term `Butskellism' (coined from the merger of the names of R.A.Butler, the left-Tory pragmatist, and Hugh Gaitskell, the
centrist socialist) became the neologism that was used a little later to express the coalition of like-minded Keynesians in all parties who saw
a mixed economy as the core of a British tradition which reached back at least as far as Lloyd George and Asquith, and perhaps even
further back to Gladstone. Anthony Crosland brought out The Future of Socialism and John Strachey, the erstewhile Bolshevik, with
R.H.S. Crossman (whose collection The God That Failed became the bible of Red-bashers) discovered Karl Popper and why the Open
Society had philosophical enemies like Hegel and Marx. Meanwhile at the LSE Michael Oakshott was teaching a Political Philosophy
which excluded Marx because, as he told a conference of social scientists in 1960, he only included thinkers who had written "at least one
major theoretical book."
The appearance of the New Left Review (NLR) in 1960 was therefore propitious. The merger of the New Reasoner(NR) and the
Universities and Left Review(ULR) represented the apparent fusion of two distinct tendencies in British Marxist thinking. NR, initially
edited by Edward and Dorothy Thompson and John Saville from the North of England, was the product of a humanist, oppositional
tradition in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). ULR evolved in Oxford out of a "left student generation of the 1950s which
maintained some distance from `party' affiliations." (Hall in Archer et al, 1989: 15). It was initially edited by a Canadian (Charles Taylor), a
Jamaican (Stuart Hall), and two British Jews (Raphael Samuel and Gabriel Pearson). Different intellectual formations, different political
backgrounds, different cultural milieux: these were the juxtapositions of fusion. The new journal therefore played at the edge of Marxist
theory, releasing it, in the first editor's words, from the "reductionism and economism of the base-superstructure metaphor." (Hall, op cit:
25). It was also initially a journal of movement.
By 1961 there were 39 New Left Clubs across Britain, with the London Club holding weekly public meetings as well as having a series of
discussion groups based on education, literature, new theatre, race relations. The Clubs also acted in many cases as the organizing centres
for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in many other cases were created out of the local groups of the Workers Educational
Association and the National Council of Labour Colleges. The New Left was therefore bourne along by the animated presence of existing
bodies of labouring intellectuals plus the few middle-class intellectuals who saw the meaning of their work as having presence in the
life-blood of those whose ideas were generated by their everyday experiences.. But the intellectual base of the Left in the 1950s was very
metropolitan-centred, and the Thompsons and Saville had to go North to get NR off the ground.
The early editorial board of NLR included a large number of people who worked a long way from London and Oxbridge: Ken Alexander
and D.G.Arnott in Scotland, Alan Hall in Staffordshire, Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rex at Leeds, John Saville in Hull, the Thompsons in
Halifax, Peter Worsley in Manchester, Raymond Williams in Sussex, many of them in Extra-Mural Departments or working for the
Workers Educational Association.... NLR from issues # 1 - 12 was a journal devoted both to the sense of social movement and to the
exploration of the political implications of a modernist culture. In attempting to pull together the diverse strands of the Left in the early
1960s it tried to walk a tightrope between a popular style of writing and a theoretical one, between the exploration of popular culture as
well as the nuances of power. The format was that of a magazine rather than a journal and the articles ranged from the journalistic to the
carefully researched and theoretical. Each issue also included reports on Club activities, though in retrospect it is clear that the idea of a
New Left `movement' was based more on consolidating and exploring the possibilities for action within existing networks than imagining
new ones. The idea of the Clubs being the intellectual vanguard of the proletariat, the intelligentsia and youth was not very far away. As an
editorial in the first issue of NLR put it:
The Labour movement is not in its insurrectionary phase: we are in our missionary phase. The Left Clubs and New Left Centres -
the New Left in general - must pioneer a way forward by working for socialism as the old missionaries worked: as if consumed by
a fire that is capable of lighting the darker places in our society. We have to go out into the towns and cities, universities and
technical colleges, youth cubs and Trade Union branches, and - as Morris said - make socialists there. (NLR, No 1 (Jan-Feb 1060:
In this form it was not to be. After issue # 12, barely two years after it started, Stuart Hall resigned, the London Club closed, and Perry
Anderson and a group of younger scholars from Oxford, who had meanwhile been publishing The New University, took over. Thereafter,
theory, apparently sundered from social movement, took central space. NLR changed format to a standard academistic one, though
singlemindedly, through the journal and, later, from 1971, its publishing house, pursuing an agenda of translation from (mainly) European
texts from the Frankfurt school, the French structuralists and post-structuralists, Italian post-Gramscian marxists, and a reexamination of
the work of Lukacs as well as some Latin Americans (though oddly enough no Africans, Asians or even Russians), and attempting to
integrate this work into a rethinking of the nature of British Society, Politics and Culture. It was a formidable agenda, announced in Perry
Anderson's article "Components of the National Culture" (reprinted in Cockburn & Blackburn, eds, 1969: 214 - 284) which made a
distinction between those European intellectuals (Wittgenstein, Namier, Popper, Berlin, Gombrich, Eysenck, Malinowski) who provided a
"tremendous injection of life... [to] a fading British culture" by being willingly appropriated to it, and those, "the `Red' emigration, utterly
unlike that which arrived here... [who] did not opt for England, because of a basic cultural and political incompatibility." ( 231-233). Thus
the Frankfurt School, Neumann and Reich, Brecht, Lukacs, Thomas Mann, who chose to migrate elsewhere, were set against those
Europeans who came to Britain to be appropriated by the dominant culture and receive knighthoods, thus maintaining an "insular reflex and
prejudice". "For the unmistakable fact is that the traditional, discrete disciplines, having missed either of the great synthetic revolutions in
European Social thought, were dying of inanation." (232) The task of the new NLR was thus to rewrite the agenda of British intellectual
life, and to provide the theoretical foundations for "a revolutionary practice within which culture is possible." (277)
Thus the agenda for the New Left was turned on its head. Movement took a back-seat to ideas. The last clearly political intervention by
the New Left was the publication of the May Day Manifesto in 1968. The Clubs disappeared, with NLR playing a role on the British Left
similar to that played by Les Temps Modernes in France over the previous two decades, though, in many respects, a more exploratory
and dynamic one because nowhere was the possibility for creating a vibrant, intellectual culture more inviting, and probably nowhere had
an agenda been set for re-examining a national culture through a systematic programme of international and comparative theoretical
scholarship. But not everyone saw it this way. By 1963 virtualy none of the original board members of NLR remained. A privately-funded
magazine, Views, for a short time became the writing stable of those who felt that they were publically disenfranchised by what they saw as
the Anderson putsch. Many, of course, continued writing for the academic journals started in the 1950s as part of the rethinking of
Marxism (Past and Present was certainly the most significant of these, and The Critical Quarterly played a part in the study of literature)
and for a series of weeklies, fortnightlies and other periodicals which acted as the communicative foundation of what many members of the
New Left saw as the core of their public presence (magazines such as The New Statesman, New Society, The Listener and Peace News
were certainly important, but so was Time Out and City Limits in London, not to speak of the range of `alternative' papers that appeared in
the late 1960s-early 1970s).
But by the early 1970s new centres of activity had emerged and with them their own publishing arms. The Socialist Register, an annual
edited by John Saville and Raplh Miliband, came out first in 1964, in many respects initially catering to the same public as read The New
Reasoner. Screen and Screen Education grew out of the Society for Education in Film and Television and became rapidly a source of
critical (but mainly post-structural) thinking on Film and the other performing arts. The History Workshop was established and by 1975
was producing its Journal and collections of articles, procedures of conferences. Various feminist journals (notably m/f, Feminist Review,
and Spare Rib) as well as Virago, the Women's publishing house, were established, arguing implicitly that British Marxism was patriarchal.
Radical Philosophy came into existence in 1971. Several new publishing houses came into existence that clearly had a Left (if not New
Left) agenda: Merlin Press, Pluto Press, Alison & Busby, Zed, Harvester, Writers and Readers, while Penguin Books and Lawrence and
Wishart were transformed into willing vehicles for New Left manuscripts. The Institute for Contemporary Arts in London embarked on a
high-profile exercise in Public Education. Among the caring professions, radical social workers issued the CASECON manifesto in 1975,
which set out an agenda for radical social work. Within the universities there were a number of significant developments. In 1962 the
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was launched by Richard Hoggart (under the aegis of the department of English) as a graduate
research centre at Birmingham and by 1968 Stuart Hall was the effective Director. The Centre first started publishing stencilled papers, the
Occasional Papers, and, later, books which thematically collected material researched by members of the centre. E.P.Thompson and
Royden Harrison established the Labour Research Department at Warwick in the mid-1960s. Ralph Miliband moved from the suffocating
atmosphere of Oakshott's LSE to the vibrancy of northern Leeds. At various other universities (notably Essex, Sussex, Warwick, York
and Lancaster) new degree programmes or research units owed much to their contacts with the New Left, as did sociology and, later,
cultural studies departments in the Polytechnics. Finally, the Open University, owing much in its curriculum and personnel to pedagogical
ideas worked out on the left, became functional in the 1970s.
The critical feature of all of this was that the Left in the 1970s redefined the nature of its activities. It ceased to be based on a set of
interconnected clubs related to a central source. New Left culture in Britain became decentred, while at the same time creating new
institutions which arose out of the exigencies of time, space and relationships. Above all, it celebrated the liberating power of theory which,
perhaps for the first time in British history could be tried and tested against other people's theory and experiences. A major element in this
was the publishing and editorial policy embarked on by NLR in 1963. Much of the subsequent debate on the Left was on the
appropriateness of different theories to the British practice. Without the bold publishing venture of NLR it is doubtful if any of that would
have happened. An important by-product of this was that, for a Britain that was entering the EEC, the intellectual grounds were established
for a discourse between the British and the European Left.
I think that the success of a revolution in an advanced capitalist society will come from the spreading out of political power from
a number of strategic localities, where it first emerges, into a nationally co-ordinated process.
(Williams, 1979: 424)
The consequence of all this was an interesting dynamic. First, the idea of the New Left being a movement had to be rethought in what might
be seen subsequently as classically postmodernist terms. The social structures, as well as the patterns of thought that were associated with
them, that had been transmitted from the 1930s to the 1960s,underwent a transformation. The idea of the New Left Clubs, referring back
to the Left Clubs of the 1930s, were in many respects equally a spin-off from a parallel tradition, that of the Workers' Education
Association and the local centres for some University Extra-Mural Departments. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, with which
some of the clubs were closely associated, had its own antecedents in the various Peace movements, the Quakers, the Anarchists, the
Rambling Associations, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, probably also the John Howard/Elizabeth Frye Societies, and a
host of other groups which inter-related with each other. These parallel histories and multiple temporalities could hardly be fused together
by a common ideological concern, though as CND showed, and, later ECND and Charter 88, it was possible to provide a common
minimalist platform from time-to-time. The `death' of the NL Clubs was therefore in many senses inevitable. The growth of new universities
and the upgrading of technical colleges and polytechnics to degree-awarding institutions (perhaps the single most important intellectual
legacy of the various governments of the 1960s) provided both a realization of much of the educational campaigning on the Labour left
(bringing with it the wider opportunities for students to get degrees and also for New Left intellectuals to get jobs), but also a challenge to
the self-help education of the Extra-Mural departments and the WEA who not only lost some of their leading teachers, but who also,
further down the road under Thatcher, would lose most of their funding.
Strategically, therefore, the decentering of the New Left was a release. It was, in part a release from the heavy hand of an ex-Communist
commitment (E.P Thompson's vitriol poured over Perry Anderson's apparent coup, is, in large measure, related to the Form within which
the left could make itself into a presence. Thompson reserved for himself the Form, while preferring to couch his arguments in terms of
content. In a very important manner, his conduction of the ECND campaign, preserved the Form of campaign as a dissident Marxist, while
occluding content as a phenomenological reality). But it was also a release in that it allowed the Left, not only to explore its own roots, but
also to examine the possibility of alternatives. If everybody on the Left was marginalized, then the issues were surely to explore that
marginality. One of the major effects of this was a remarkable output of research in the 1970s, a fair amount of it stimulated by those new
research centres and professional associations that had emerged in the 1960s. Of this the moment of culture was a significant and powerful
one. Its roots, as Anderson noted in his article on the National Culture, did not lie in philosophy, economics, political theory, sociology or
anthropology but in literary criticism: "in a culture which everywhere repressed the notion of totality, and the idea of critical reason, literary
criticism represented a refuge" (ibid: 276). In many respects it was the work of Raymond Williams that set the process in motion, though
E.P.Thompson's William Morris and The Making of the English Working Class and Richard Hoggart's Uses of Literacy established the
groundwork for constructing an alternative narrative of British life.
Williams' early work, in particular Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961), set the tone for a British critical theory by
tracing an ongoing tradition from 1780 to 1950 in cultural writing, while at the same time providing a framework for rewriting conventional
accounts of British history, culture and politics. Several recent studies have explored Williams' work in some detail, and it would be
inappropriate to go over the major themes again, particularily as Williams himself, ten years before his death, engaged in a searching
reappraisal of his own work which has provided the basis for all subsequent readings of his remarkably wide-ranging output. Williams'
achievement (drawing on the literary critical tradition represented by the Leavises, his reading of Marxist critical theory, and his strong
sense of colonial marginality derived from his Welsh roots) was to give to cultural studies a focus on text, social movement and subcultural
dissidence which became integral to the development of British cultural Marxism from the Sixties to the Eighties. In many respects he was
pivotal in creating the cultural/political sociology which Anderson saw as absent in the British intellectual tradition. He did this, not by taking
the external theories as the point-of-departure, but by establishing the internal experiential and textual resources as the base from which
theorizing might be possible. It was therefore a cultural studies that was always open to external ideas (Williams saw himself as `European'
rather than `British') but which saw the appropriation of other theories as an occasion to bring into sharper focus the understanding of
`home'. Thus, although Culture and Society, The Country and the City, The English Novel, or even The Long Revolution were basically
about the English, they were about the English with a Welsh/European theorist looking over the shoulder. It was this sense of the
insider/outsider that gave Williams' work its most powerful force. Or, as George Simmel, the German sociologist of the late nineteenth
century, might have said, Williams' work was based on the stranger who decided to stay, but who also asked `how is this Society
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s these questions were central to all the cultural studies' debates in Britain, and thus redefined both
the sense of the individual and of the collective in Marxist theory. The thrust of a cultural theory is partly based on an engagement with the
communications institutions within which we all have to work. Williams' writing provides such an engagement: university, adult education,
journalism, television, drama, radio, language. It is also an attempt to connect the fragments of political experiences of others who are
concerned with creating emancipatory practices. The direction of the debate and the writing in Britain took several forms of which the
following might be seen as the most salient:
(i) The peculiarities of the English.
E.P. Thompson's article of this title, first published in the Socialist Register in 1965, set a critical standard for asking what comparative
social theory is for. If Thompson's outrageous pomposity was directed against what he saw as the callow and naive appropriations of other
societal models by Anderson and Tom Nairn, the net effect of the article was to demand of the British left a reading of its own history
against the acquisition of (foreign) theory which seemed to denounce (domestic) tradition and practice: "what their schema lack is the
control of `grand facts', and England is unlikely to capitulate before a Marxism which cannot at least engage in a dialogue in the English
idiom." (Thompson, 1978: 64) The most important work of the 1970s was precisely based on rethinking `foreign' theory in trying to
understand `the peculiarities of the English'. The work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham and of the History
Workshop were notable for teasing out theory in the context of English experience. The theoretical collection, On Ideology, and its
`empirical' application, Policing the Crisis, were monuments to the working out of Gramscian-derived theories of the State and Culture,
finding Althusser heuristic but not definitive. What Althusser had done was to codify Gramsci's idea of Civil Society so that culture might be
seen in institutional terms. This allowed a number of writers to get a `fix' on cultural projects (Paul Willis' Learning to Labour is a notable
example, but so too is Coward and Ellis' Language and Materialism) though the danger that Althusserianism might be simply a Marxist
version of functionalism was ever-present. What the debate ultimately did was to produce a Marxist cultural studies that seemed to have
three interlocking premises:
(i) "Cultural processes are intimitately connected with social relations, especially with class relations and class formations, with sexual
divisions, with the racial structuring of social relations and with age oppressions as a form of dependency".
(ii) "Culture involves power and helps to produce assymetries in the abilities of individuals and social groups to define and realise their
(iii) "Culture is neither an autonomous nor an externally determined field, but a site of social differences and struggles." (Richard Johnson,
Most of the work produced at the CCCS, through the History Workshops and in the writing of individual authors involved a working out
of these problems, though often divided between those who saw that it was important to study cultures, as Johnson puts it, "as a whole, in
situ, located in their material context," and those who "stress[ed] the relative independence or effective autonomy of subjective forms and
means of signification" (50). Although the debate between Perry Anderson and E.P.Thompson seemed in many ways to hinge on these
dichotomies, in that Thompson clearly adopted a totalistic, situated perspective, while Anderson seemed to argue from a structuralism that
owed much to the linguistic turn in marxist theorizing, the debate on British culture as it evolved in the 1970s and early 1980s was much
richer than these abstractions would suggest.
The real debate on British culture was on which parts of the past made sense in confronting the present. Thompson ultimately took the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as the major vantage-point (both in The Making of the English Working Class and in Whigs and
Hunters) and much of his attack on the writing in NLR is derived from this and from his own experience in the CPGB. For Stuart Hall, the
CCCS and the History Workshops, the crucial period was "the profound transformation in the culture of the popular classes which occurs
between the 1880s and the 1920s... The more we look at it, the more convinced we become that somewhere in this period lies the matrix
of factors and problems from which our history - and our peculiar dilemmas - arise. Everything changes - not just a shift in the relations of
forces but a reconstitution of the terrain of political struggle itself." (Hall in Samuels, ed., 1981: 229) Corrigan and Sayer in their superb
historical overview argued that the defining moment was much earlier, using a span from the great Revolution to the present to argue that
the moment of that past was now. It was this sense of the periodisation of history that gave full force to the writings of Gramsci in much of
CCCS work and later to the catch-phrase "post-Fordism" which dominated the `post-modernist' writing of Marxism Today in the 1980s.
The Anderson history agenda as it turned out involved neither of these senses of periodization. His own research involved a comparative
study on the nature of absolutism and a rethinking both of the concepts `feudalism' and of the `asiatic mode of production', emphasising the
acquisition of private property as the main distinguishing feature. Subsequently Anderson argued against both a reading of history as being
homogenous, "in which each moment is perpetually different from every other by being next" (he was criticising the work of Marshall
Berman) or evolutionist in which, as in Lukacs, "time...differs from one epoch to another, but within each epoch all sectors of social reality
move in synchrony with each other, such that decline at one level must be reflected in descent at every other." (Anderson, 1984: 101-103)
Instead he argued that Marx's conception of time "was of a complex and differential temporality, in which episodes or eras were
discontinuous from each other, and heterogeneous within themselves." (101)
The net result of the debate on the peculiarities of the English was therefore both to set the English experience in relation to global ones and
to posit the crucial moments within British culture when ideology, class formations, the state, as well as capitalism took different directions.
Much of the most valuable work in the 1970s precisely explored these issues.
(ii) The Peculiarities of the Un-English.
It was inevitable in a country whose Imperial pretensions had been pricked away that much of the discussion should hinge on the
repercussions of imperialism. One of the marked features of writing in the 1970s was a series of exposures on the culture and politics of the
English margins. Tom Nairn's The Break-up of Britain (1977), Gwyn Williams' studies of Welsh cultural and social changes, and Raymond
Williams' novels and periodical articles on Wales (see O'Connor 1989 for bibliographical details) provided some powerful material for
rethinking the situation of the `Celtic Fringe', topics which had been largely absent in the 1960s debates, and which had tended to be
relegated by the English Left and Right to lunatic politics. In this material the Europeanness of Celtic as opposed to English culture is
constantly stressed, but so also is the problematic role of the state, particularly by Nairn, although in his earlier work the idea that the
British state was on the point of break-up had a nostalgic ring to it, based largely on the successes of the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists in
The other attack on the Englishness of English culture came from studies on Blacks and Youth in Britain. Two studies by the CCCS,
Resistance through Rituals and The Empire Strikes Back, dealt with strategies of resistance by teenagers, by Blacks and by immigrant
Asians. For the most part these were `ethnographic' studies, providing a theoretically-based documentation of their subject-matter. The
political underpinning of this research was contained in the volume Policing the Crisis, where the general thrust was rather different from
Nairn's. The emphasis was on the crisis of hegemony due to an upset in the "balance of the relations of class forces" and of the increasing
"reliance on coercive mechanisms and apparatuses already available within the normal repertoire of state power, and the powerful
orchestration, in support of this tilt of the balance towards the coercive pole, of an authoritarian consensus." (Hall, et al: 1978: 217) The
strength of this research was that it located the fragments of British society and brought them into the centre. It confronted the problems of
nationalism and ethnicity as integral not only to a rethinking of the problem of class in a changing capitalism, but also (through its reading of
Gramsci) provided a reading of the state as a vehicle both for coercion and for the genesis of a rejuvination of capitalist ideas.
One book out of these concerns displayed the problems of taking subcultures as the point-of-departure. One of the contributors to
Resistance through Rituals was Dick Hebdige. His book Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) has become something of milestone in
cultural studies. It was based on a study of white rock music and Black reggae as the occasion for looking at Punk. As with most of the
CCCS material at the time it took an interpretation of hegemony as the launching-pad for its analysis of culture and at the same time used
the work of Roland Barthes as the basis for exploring style. It thus attempted to connect two apparently discrepant fields in working out
the issue of Why the Punks now? The book was literate, drawing on Jean Genet, T.S. Eliot as well as a range of sociological sources on
deviance subculture. But in the end it was a Barthean book, exploring the gap between `reality' and `myth', the reader and the `text'. By
proposing a merger between a phenomenologically-based marxist cultural studies and a semiological one, Hebdige instead revealed the rift
that would dominate the subject for the next decade, where the surface of `style', `simulacrum', `textual representation' competed with the
located specifics and totality of everyday struggle, though Hebdige's own work has tended since to opt for the stylistic. (iii) Feminism.
The debate on the nature of English society and on the culture/subculture of the margins revealed throughout the 1970s the strong
patriarchal basis of New Left discourse. Juliet Mitchell's "Women - the Longest Revolution" (its title a deliberate play on Raymond
Williams' The Long Revolution) had appeared in NLR 40 in 1966, followed in 1971 by Women's Estate and in 1974 by Psychoanalysis
and Feminism. Its point of departure was the work of Jacques Lacan and the linguistic grounding of psychoanalysis, and thus a rethinking
both of ideology and feminism. In the introduction to Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Mitchell approvingly quoted the French feminist
manifesto Psychanalyse et Politique which argued that Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis provided the theoretical equipment in
understading how ideology functions. Her work, and to some extent that of Jacqueline Rose, was concerned with teasing out the issues of
"how adequately does psychoanalysis analyse ideology and sexuality, and if it does so, what is the political practice that follows from this
theory?" (Mitchell 1974: xxii)
The keywords of this investigation, superbly set out in Mitchell's two early books, were "sexuality", "phallocentrism", "femininity",
"production", "patriarchy', "ideology", "reality", and, of course, "culture" . Its centre of analysis was a structuralist/Marxist/Freudian
feminism, setting itself quite distinctly against what it saw as a bourgeois North American feminism which repudiated all pre-feminist theory
as not only being phallocentric but pre-modern. This critique ultimately suggests that North American feminism is bereft of theory, dealing
largely in mere polemic, precisely because it denies the concepts of consciousness, the unconscious and of production: "When critics
condemn Freud for not taking account of social reality, their concept of that reality is too limited. The social reality that he is concerned
with elucidating is the mental representation of the reality of society." (Mitchell 1974: 406)
Thus Marxist Feminism brought into Cultural Studies several fundamental issues which transformed the nature of all subsequent analysis.
Significant, first, was the rethinking of the notion of the subject, which, bypassing the phenomenological issues of the purely social
construction of reality and, equally, the merely biological base of most accounts of social differences, argued for the subject as being a
linguistic construct. But it is a subject that is capable of redefining itself. And that redefinition is contingent on understanding a patriarchal
power structure which uses language to appropriate biology to define the social. As Mitchell argued at the conclusion of Psychoanalysis
and Feminism, "It is not a question of changing (or ending) who has or how one has babies. It is a question of overthrowing patriarchy."
(416) With this agenda, Marxist Feminism also developed further the structural analysis of media and a use of semiotics that could not be
seen merely as yet another tool for `reading' texts, but a politically potent one. It was a reading that had far-reaching consequences.
Throughout the 1970s and into the '80s the influence of structuralist/marxist/feminism became centre-space for any study of the media.
Screen, in many senses, was dominated by the concerns expressed by the opening to the structuralist/feminist Left. In female and male
production, from Laura Mulvey to Stephen Frears, it is impossible to avoid the sense that the Eye/I sees all, that the task of production is
not to manufacture consciousness (as in the social realism of earlier Marxist-derived documentaries), but to assist in the creation of the
self-reflexive eye....The task both of producing and making film became much more complex.
But British feminism did not only grow out of a neo-structuralist reading of Freud, even if, for a while that seemed like the most pronounced
influence. The academic antecedents of British feminism were as powerful as they were for the whole of the left: literature, history,
anthropology, and sociology (using whatever theoretical equipment that seemed to be useful) were important catalysts. The work of Sheila
Rowbotham, Ann Oakley, Angela McRobbie, Terry Lovell, Valerie Walkerdine, Barbara Taylor, Catherine Hall, Caroline Steedman,
Judith Williamson has drawn on a variety of disciplines and theoretical perspectives which have siphoned off from their male counterparts a
territory which had appeared to be hermetically sealed-off from the institutional practice of the everyday life of the whole. For example, the
work of Sheila Rowbotham, while inspired by E.P. Thompson's uncovering of the history of the dispossessed, not only incorporates
gender into the exploration, but begins to write a narrative in which Thompson would have to rethink himself and his work in relation to a
wider whole. Valerie Walkerdine's Schoolgirl Fictions (1990) reaches into Foucault, Basil Bernstein, Lacan, and many others in order to
"represent a journey, a process of coming into being of a woman who, at last, ceased to be a schoolgirl." Because Feminist studies is
necessarily innovative, it is not surprising that its work should be innovative, trying to establish connections across an interdisciplinary
terrain, unsuspected by masculine theory.
At one level, therefore, feminist writing, as with the most imaginative black or Third World writing, is a Rennaissance exercise: We start by
making new connections across an unchartered intellectual landscape. At another level it is not. In some aspects we have been here before.
Feminist work not only provides inserstions into the ongoing practices of male thought, but it also seeks to redirect our entire practices.
Such a venture clearly brings with it the problems of relating theory to practice, which are present in any revolutionary activity.
Anti-academism is an ongoing battle in feminist writing. Dorothy Smith, writing from Canada in the late 1980s, has produced a succinct
account of how biographical accounts might be incorporated into a Marxist/feminist theory. The implications of such work for cultural
studies are clearly political. But, following this, she elaborates on the problems inherent in the project:
Though we might be able to write a method of inquiry and a method of writing texts that will construct a knowledge of society from the
standpoint of outsiders to the relations of ruling, we deceive ourselves if we think that the critical moment is complete in finding new
methods of writing sociological texts. Methodological strategies, such as those proposed here, do not transform in and of themselves. They
make, or should make, texts that will work differently in coordinating discoursive relations, hence the relations forming political
consciousness and organization. But they do not work magic. Such strategies themselves become merely academic if they are contained
within the relations of academic discourse, even a feminist discourse....The critical force of these methods is contained and
"institutionalized" if they are not articulated to relations creating linkages outside and beyond the ruling apparatus, giving voice to women's
experience, opening up to women's gaze the forms and relations determining women's lives, and enlarging women's powers and capacities
to organize in struggle against the oppression of women. (Smith 1987: 224-225)
The crucial issue about this is that Smith, using the issue of feminist research, has opened up, once again, the question of the relation
between having `academic' bases and having active political commitment. But the issue, surely, is not whether the discourses will be
"contained within the relations of an academic discourse" but by what dialectic relationship the academic and the wider discourses will
relate to each other. The solution is by no means determined, though having academic research which is directed to external practice, or
alternatively dictated by external practice has been decided long ago by business and totalitarian governments. Feminists, like every else,
need to direct themselves to the issue of the ongoing dynamics of academia as the base for research, funded by the State or someone else,
and the roots of dissenting culture. This essay, I hope, displays some of the logistical problems.
The impulse of feminist research has been to elaborate a a culture of difference, a political economy of woman in relation to
production/reproduction, and an aetiology of the the present situation. The issues are necessarily interrelated. What is, perhaps, clearest in
this trajectory is that feminism in Britain, as with its male counterpart, is less concerned with acquiring power within the given structures (as
North American feminism is), nor overthrowing them (as few feminisms anywhere are), but understanding how women cope with their
everyday lives. This may have pushed the study of culture, economics and politics a little towards being aware of feminist concerns, and
even provided more women in academe, but it is questionable whether it has shifted the society very far on the road to feminist renewal.
(iv) Cultural Studies, English Literature and Sociology.
The ultimate problem, forewarned in Dorothy Smith's quote above, was that cultural studies would move from being part of a social
movement to being an appendix of academe, so institutionalized that it became simply an continuation of the Classics and Humanities
traditions which had for long acted as the basis of a critique against the disciplinariness of the universities. But, of course, Cultural Studies
had roots which were independent of academe, just as Classics had its roots in the church and in the Imperial Civil Service. And yet they
were curious roots, part social movement, part the commonsensicality of a declasse lumpenintelligentsia. And with one or two individual
exceptions (Raymond Williams at Cambridge, Terry Eagleton at Oxford, and in both cases under the aegis of Literature), Cultural Studies
did not become accepted at the old, established universities, with the exception of Birmingham where it snuck in through the back-door, as
it were. And yet, its publications and its influences were everywhere, so much so that throughout the 1980s Paul Johnson devoted a
weekly column in The Spectator fulminating against the `control' that Marxist culturism appeared to have on sections of the media (notably
the BBC, Channel 4 and The Guardian).
Anyone reading this material in, say, 1982 would have been struck by how much the debate which had been generated by cultural
Marxism had done to give Marxist thinking an agenda for political action. The critique of the state had been appropriated as a cultural
reading/misreading of the space that everyone was inhabiting, writing on the national and ethnic `margins' of British society suggested what
were the problems at the core, feminist writing and group action were undermining the very basis of a patriarchal society, and the general
sweep of cultural studies was questioning not only the academic disciplines' sense of themselves (were they a push-over?) but also the
conventional wisdoms of the media, the politicians and the apparatus of state, schooling and business. Not only was all of this being
debated, but also the idea that the real point of culture was to understand suface appearances independent of the social structures which
might ostensibly have given meaning, had become part of the rhetoric of both academic and public cultural writing. Gramsci's sense of
creating a counter-hegemony became a point of action, and in some ways was put into action (witness the GLC between 1981 and 1986)
And yet Marxist (or even radical) cultural studies seemed to be cripled in the early 1980s, limping around in its own Platonic Cave. If most
of what has been said before represents Cultural Studies as it seemed to be in the early 1980s, two other themes need to be taken into
account before we re-collect this argument. The first, because it speaks of judgement and distinction, is aesthetics. The second, because it
speaks of power and the reading of hegemony, is Thatcherism.
(v) Take aesthetics first. In 1971 John Berger produced a series of programmes for BBC television called Ways of Seeing, accompanied
by a book of the same name (Berger, 1972). In part, it was influenced by Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Work of Art in an Age of
mechanical reproduction" (Benjamin, 1970: 219-253) and in part it was a reaction to Kenneth Clarke's BBC series Civilization. The
message of Berger's essay was clear enough:
The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters
now is who uses that language for what purpose...A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose
and act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why - and this is the only reason why -
the entire art of the past has now become a political issue.
(Berger, 1972: 33)
In juxtaposition to that interpretation of art, Peter Fuller argued against the `reductionism' of all aesthetics to "the prevailing ideology,
excreted by contemporary cultural institutions" (Fuller, 1980: 235).
I believe that by learning to look, and to see, one can - admitedly within certain limits - penetrate the veil of ideology in which the art of the
past is immersed. The Mona Lisa may be a good painting or not; but because one emperor, once, had no clothes does not mean that all
emperors, or empresses, everywhere and at all times are necessarily parading themselves naked. Indeed, the point of this excellent little
story has always seemed to me to be that courageous, empirical fidelity to experience can, under certain circumstances at least, cut through
ideology. Experience is not wholly determined by ideology: it is very often at odds with it, causing constant ruptures and fissures within the
ideological ice-floes. (235)
What both of these positions ultimately hinged on was the relationship of art to nature, the dichotomy between technology and human
liberation, the problems of authenticity and periodization. In the long run, however, the distinction between Berger and Fuller must rest on
the separate routes taken from their inherited Marxist phenomenology. For Berger the route is that of the storyteller:
The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about...To approach experience, however, is
not like approaching a house. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many
lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems that it preceded me. In any case
experience folds upon upon itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear, and, by the use
of metaphor which is the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is
near with what is distant.
(Berger, 1985: 14-15)
Painting and photography are other ways of telling, and with painting this telling is a pushing against the limits of medium, ideology,
conventions in order to create "a fully original discovery, a breakthrough....It is intrinsic to the activity of rendering the absent present, of
cheating the visible, of making images" (1985: 203) Berger's critical theory is therefore grounded in collective experience, narrative and
Fuller, on the other hand, was ultimately concerned with establishing a canon of British painters who
insist that the roots, if not the branches, of aesthetic value lie in the elements of our experience which have a relative constancy
about them - rather than in the shifting movements of history or mechanism. Thus they affirm precisely that of which Late
Modernism lost sight. At a time when there is a growing recognition that the roots of both ethics and aesthetics may be
ecological, this continuing tradition acquires growing significance. (1990: 23)
Ultimately Berger's art criticism led him to develop a strong identification with the peasantry of France and the Third World, from which he
established a vantage-point to examine art and writing. Peter Fuller's Marxism ultimately became an English Conservatism arguing against
what he saw was the decadence of all contemporary American art and criticism. That they both seek salvation on the land is not without
significance, nor is the attempt to provide ideal types of art. In many respects they display the dangers of a phenomenology which is
ultimately rootless, and has to invent its base of commitment.
Both Fuller and Berger are very critical of `theory', by which they mean structuralism, post-structuralism and semiotics, echoing with
approval E.P. Thompson's critique of Althusserianism. In this way they manage to bypass most of the critical aesthetic theory of the 1970s
and 1980s, though the work of Benjamin, Marcuse and Max Raphael is systematically echoed, though nowhere dealt with in any depth,
though Raphael becomes a trope for Berger's book on Picasso. What have they missed? The answer is to be found both in coexisting
work on painting and sculpture and in other Marxist-informed writing on aesthetics.
On the visual arts, the most serious, researched, contributions were made by T.J.Clark, Michael Baxendall and Norman Bryson, while on
aesthetics as a whole the major contributions were by Raymond Williams, Jacqueline Rose, Janet Woolf, Terence Eagleton, Dick Hebdige,
Victor Burgin and Michelle Barrett. Michelle Barrett's cri-de-coer, while piggy-backing on Max Raphael's work is probably the most
salient (Barrett, 1988). If we want to know where we are that's where we start.
The issue is taken up by Perry Anderson in his "A Culture in Counterflow" (Anderson: 1990), though it takes `art' alone (though with
side-views at literature) as a special prerogative of the aesthetic . The major disputes in Marxist writing about the arts have operated in the
twin influences of Marxist-derived issues of ideology, and post-structuralist issues of decentering the subject. The net effect of this work
has been to bypass all questions of aesthetics and either priorise the ideological content of art objects or to scan all objects d'art with
relativistic impartiality, from King Lear to a collection of sports cards in order to deduce meaning. The subsequent debate in Marxist
aesthetics (in the work of Eagleton, Williams, Burgin) attempted to pull these strands together. Dick Hebdige's Subculture: the Meaning of
Style was perhaps the apogee of the debate at the level of popular culture. But the problem has remained that aesthetics has been given
short shrift by British neo-Marxists. As Barrett wrote:
Raphael's usefulness, in my view, lies in the fact that he tries to explore the ways in which meaning is connected both to aesthetic
form and to the senses. This project is difficult, and one that few contemporary writers address in its complexity: it is not
currently considered very important. (1988: 712)
Anderson's quest, to find a return to aesthetics, might in some ways appear close to Barrett's, but ultimately they must be seen as operating
on different trajectories. Anderson's project is nothing if not an attempt to find the totalizing theories via a reading which derives from
non-popular arts (music, painting, architecture) which "remain specialized and discontinuous from any common capacities" (Anderson,
1990: 90). Michelle Barrett, on the other hand, is puzzled by Fredric Jameson's account that "pleasure is finally the consent of life in the
body, the reconciliation - momentary as it may be - with the necessity of physical existence in a physical world." (Jameson, 1983: 13)
She adds, "This is a curiously grudging description (consent, reconcilliation, necessity) that makes one wonder what could constitute
un-pleasure." (1988: 700) The distinction between Anderson's search and Barrett's is therefore quite clear: Anderson is concerned with a
`meaning' which is validated through elitist arts, while Barrett is concerned with aesthetic pleasures that we can all share. Thus Barrett, who,
like Berger and Fuller, uses Max Raphael as her starting-point, is concerned with a popular conception of aesthetics, while Anderson
focuses on an aesthetics which sits over and above that of the common people.
The grounds, from Berger and Fuller to Barrett and Anderson have shifted, of course. Berger and Fuller operate as if post-structuralism
and post-modernism did not exist (though with an odd twist over their shoulder recognizing that it is there), while Barrett and Anderson,
fully conscious of what is there, take a low and a high road to discussing what to do about it. The problem remains, however, in knowing
how to take the sensual and the meaningful together, and whether there is a way of teasing a radical, Marxist aesthetic out of the jungle of
contemporary art creations and the reception of past art objects.
The problem of developing a convincing aesthetic is based on a number of substantive issues. If the thrust of contemporary cultural studies
has been to study popular culture and to absorb all forms of art into a common schedule in order to more fully understand the politics and
interpersonal meanings ascribed to everyday living, aesthetics (see footnote 25) does not rest merely on isssues of `superior' taste or a
sense of beauty and pleasure, but surely on the grounds on which any judgement is made. In making this distinction it is surely important to
rethink how contemporary aesthetics is possible. In the period since the industrial revolution (and even more so since the beginning of the
twentieth century) debates on aesthetics have hinged not only on the temporal issues of how art replaces art and whether `new' art is Art
(the perennial struggle of the avant-garde to legitimize its own activities, witnessed at present by the debates on post-modernism), but also
on the way that aesthetics is itself integrated into a socio-historical theory of experience, for artists and all of us. The site of this distinction is
not only the ideological terrain of fashion, taste, appearances, manners, customs or even the opposition between the various bodies within
society (physical, political, linguistic, temporal) but in the technical continuities and discontinuities that characterize the very specialisms that
are at the core of how the aesthetic transforms itself. The debate around aesthetics therefore involves a pronounced conflict between the
ideologically-located interpretations of the `artistic' and the much more materially and historically situated considerations of the matter and
skills that the artist employs in creation. Peter Osborne indicates in his article on Greenberg and Adorno that the distinction between these
two issues is blurred by post-modernist critics of modernism, while Perry Anderson levels a similar criticism against Terry Eagleton's The
Ideology of the Aesthetic: "one might say that while a rhetoric of the body, as undifferentiated site of experience, does generate an ideology
of the aesthetic, it is the discrimination of skills that founds its reality." (Anderson, 1990: 97)
All of this clears the ground for indicating what a Marxist aesthetics might be. The actual work, however, has barely commenced, in a large
measure because the connecting theories have not been explored.
What all the debate currently occupying the far left is about is the breakdown not just of Leninist communism but of Marxism.
For years people who call themselves Marxists have been saying that does not mean support of Russian communism. But what is
left as they move at ever-increasing pace to defend private ownership? Wouldn't it just be more sensible for them to change the
name of Marxism Today while they are in the business of changing names? What about "Next Ideas" if they want to catch the
feel of dated modernity and obsession with fashion? David Blake, "Communist Parties Play the Name Game," Sunday Correspondent,
November 26, 1989.
By the late 1980s cultural studies was institutionalized, internationalized and, from some perspectives, apparently depoliticized. The
institutionalization was clearly a consequence of the cultural void that Perry Anderson had noted in his article, "Components of the National
Culture." Cultural studies, because of its immediacy and its European theory, had a presence which appeared to shatter the pretences of
insular academia. And, in many ways, because it was concerned with the media, it was able to use the media to get its points home. It was
strategic that the Open University was staffed by people from the New Left and that journals like New Society, New Statesman, Time
Out, and the various Times Supplements had many contributors who saw the media as the site of a voice/pen from which academia could
be exposed and (hopefully) a new readership might be galvanized. The Left certainly produced `organic intellectuals' -but for whom?
The temptation was to be culturist for the sake of culturism, for New Left Marxism was, by the eighties, vying for a different hegemonic
position, that is as the arbiters of aesthetic taste and lifestyle for a largely bourgeois audience. The New Universities of the 1960s had
created interdisciplinary faculties of the humanities and social sciences, and many of the Polytechnics, following degree-granting status in the
early seventies, established programmes in communication, humanities and cultural studies. None of this is to argue that cultural studies
became part of the Establishment, but rather that there was an established area of scholarship into which it easily might be inserted, or with
which it might compete on academic, rather than political, terms. That there might be different kinds of cultural studies with different
political agendas is becoming clear once again. Auberon Waugh has argued an extreme elitist version of seeing culture as an essential
element in class struggle. But even in academia cultural studies is not the preserve of the Left. Noel Annan, quoted above, saw himself as
the continuity of a Bloomsbury culturalist tradition. At the University of East Anglia, for example, the School of English and American
Studies has for many years been the centre of programmes in cultural studies, whose concerns are about as random and `liberal' as the
American Popular Cultural Association, where anything that is shared by any group of people is `popular' and worth studying. As David
Punter argues in an East Anglia collection on Cultural Studies, "we need to be reluctant to offer a definition of culture; to define it is already
to collude in a herarchy of meaning." (Punter, ed., 1986:14)
The institutionalization of Cultural Studies necessarily brought with it a publishing industry. Although the output from CCCS dwindled in the
1980s, the Open University, Verso, Commedia, Methuen, Macmillan and Routledge produced a steady supply of texts on aspects of
cultural studies. Several new journals appeared, notably Cultural Studies, New Formations, News From Nowhere, 10/8, Block, Textual
Practice, and Theory, Culture and Society. Cultural studies was exported - to Australia, Canada, Italy and the United States, in most cases
emerging out of departments of Communications or English. For the most part, the work fed into an international caravan of travelling
scholarship which debated the finer points of deconstruction, modernism, postmodernism, gender, neo-colonialism, postmarxism, even
postfeminism. Such political roots that cultural studies might have had were rarely in evidence, though Arena in Australia and Social Text in
the United States retained a dogged sense of purpose.
Thus the debates on Marxism and culture which had been central to the Left's sense of practice in Britain became part of a peripatetic
avant-garde that migrated from Bologna, Rome, Paris, Bordeaux, Oxford to summer events in New Orleans, Toronto or Urbana.
Although the theoretical advantages that came from appropriating European theory and testing it against British experiences were evident
enough in the 1970s, by 1990 it was clear that the post-structuralists had taken over. Critical theory had become a performance for the
academic cogniscenti, and the debates could only be appreciated by an international bourgeoisie. To understand why, it is important to
return to Britain and see what had happenned to the Left's use of its own cultural analysis.
In different ways, the arrival of Thatcher had been predicted by Stuart Hall, Tom Nairn, Raymond Williams and Perry Anderson. The
collapse of the old consensus was on the cards after MacMillan's resignation in 1962. It was a central theme of Policing the Crisis, The
MayDay Manifesto, Anderson's articles on Sweden, and The Break-up of Britain. From 1956 to Thatcher's election in 1979, Britain
lurched from one crisis of economy, law'n order, external relations, purpose, to another. All of these were carefully monitored by the left.
What happenned after the Thatcher coup was a redefinition both of the rules of the game and of what constituted hegemony. In his
collected essays, The Hard Road to Renewal, Stuart Hall argued that "Since the break-up of the great Liberal formation in the early years
of this century, the British political system has shown an increasing tendency, in periods of crisis, to turn to Caesarist solutions." (66) He
also saw Thatcher as the culmination of this process. And yet, something had changed between the beginning and end of the book. It is a
change which is at the heart of what gnaws away at the heart of the British Cultural critique.
Stuart Hall's great achievement was to teach a whole generation of students how to read politically. His article, "Encoding/Decoding",
ostensibly a piece about television, (and in spite of a number of serious counter-critiques) was perhaps the most important guide to any
student, anywhere, on how to interpret the material at hand, encompasing a Marxist theory of production, a structuralist theory of the text,
and a phenomenological sense of knowing. More than any of Raymond Williams' studies or the many long essays in NLR, this was the
pedagogical piece that turned people on to critical/cultural theory. It was a piece that they could take out of the classroom and apply to
whatever they were about. They could apply it to the state, to the welfare office, to the local school board. Above all, they could apply it to
the language and performances of politicians.
But a few things happened between "Encoding/decoding" and the moment of Thatcher. The first was that the Thatcher regime looked as if
it would last forever and thus became the "common sense" of continuity (Anderson's warnings about heterogenous culture and discontinous
time went unheeded). The second, picking up from the `fragments' of culture (including Blacks, Asians, Celts and Women), was that a
theory was obviously needed to include them all, as well as the working class. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, using a paradigm of a
discoursive `civil society', seemed to provide a means of reconnecting the fragments by using a Foucouvian notion of Decentred politics,
though, unlike Marcuse, without `necessary' violence. The third was that culture was ultimately about atefacts, which might be read as
bric-a-brac anywhere, but probably in our living rooms. And the fourth was that, ultimately, any form of culture was about individual, not
Thus Thatcherism, which had initially posed a challenge to the left because it looked like a Caesarist solution to everyday life, became the
common-sense basis for understanding any of our problems. The monetarist paraphenalia of Britain's `economic miracle' was taken as
read. No more discussion about workers' control of the means of production, but an acceptance of the `mixed economy' as a fact of life. A
slogan had taken over. `Post Fordism', which had seemed like a good idea at the time, was elided with `Thatcherism'. But that elision
displayed a formidable distrust of Marxist cultural studies' own legacy, which was not only based on theory (from whatever its source) but
on the lived experience of workers in their everyday lives. Although the discourse seemed oppositional, it was oppositional within the same
framework as the (new) established version.
An example of this tendency is displayed in the collection of articles put together by the editors of Marxism Today in 1989. New Times:
the Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s is a consmerist manifesto, unalloyed by such modernist problems as power, class, hegemony,
aesthetics, feminism, production (even reproduction). Even though Marxism Today may have ceased to be Marxist in all but name, it
preserves the brittleness of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric ("New Times," "Green Times," "Power to the Person," "The Power of the Weak,"
"Tartan Power," etc) which, when fused with its consumerist thematic, provides an agenda for a politics which takes the surface symbolism
of everyday experience as its point of departure, rather than providing a diagnosis of the rooted fields of political struggle. In the 1960s
Michael Young, while trying to promote a Consumers' Party, spun off What? and Where? and a whole series of advocacy groups and
journals. It is difficult to see whether Marxism Today is doing anything very different.
Angela McRobbie has argued that the crisis in Marxist cultural studies is based on those who "endorse an economic marxism, where
culture is seen to reflect, or express, or to exist in a mimetic relation to, `the base,'" and the New Timers who can "testify to the
unadulterated pleasures of visiting, for example, the IKEA furniture warehouse on the North Circular Road in London, or indeed the
Armani Emporium in Knightbridge without attempting to put those pleasures in their social or historical context." In both cases, Raymond
Williams' structure of feeling, and the search for a common, humane culture, however vague it might have seemed at the time, is sacrificed
for the glitter of the marketplace. But it is precisely the marketplace (as well as the workplace or the powerplace) that is not being taken
seriously in New Times (as in Bush's "New World Order") though it receives due rhetorical space in the prefatory `manifesto'.
The problem with all this is that the substantive work in British cultural studies during the 1970s promised something rather different. The
thrust of the work on feminism, race, subcultures, the police, ideology, economism was precisely directed against a society that was
market-driven. If in some ways this could be interpreted as a `consumerist' cultural critique, that was only part of the analysis. By far the
most telling work concerned itself with the power structure, traditional culture and the components of civil society. Both Policing the Crisis
and Resistance Through Rituals certainly dealt with consumerism, but as an aspect of resistance. Hegemony, as Lawrence Grossberg put it,
summarizing Hall, was "a struggle over `the popular,' a matter of articulating relations, not only within civil society (which is itself more than
culture) but between the State (as a condensed site of power), the economic sector and civil society." The analysis thus incorporated
cultural studies into a critique of political-economic forces, which was, as Hall argued, related both to the symbiosis between the media and
the masses and between political leadership and popular articulation. These concerns provide the crux of what Angela McRobbie has
described as the "middle ground" of cultural analysis. Continuing to explore these issues, she says, "would entail a return to an integrative
mode of analysis and would avoid the temptations of the `textual trap'.In a sense it was the appeal of textual analysis in media and cultural
studies in the early 1980s which allowed the neo-marxist critics to appear to be providing all the answers when they entered the field of
debate on postmodern culture." (15)
As with aesthetics, so with cultural studies as a whole, the route to a critique was complicated by methodological entrapments, which, as
with positivistic empiricism, rapidly took on the nature of a dominant theoretical paradigm. The slippage from structuralism to
post-structuralism to post-modernism was a direct one, and one which took place by failing to develop a theory of culture in society which
was other than piecemeal. What Eagleton writes of Foucault's The Use of Pleasure might stand for much of the encounters with British
culture in the 1980s:
As with Nietzsche, Foucault's vigorously self-mastering individual remains wholly monadic.Society is just an assemblage of
autonomous self-disciplining agents, with no sense that their self-realization might flourish within bonds of mutuality. The ethic in
question is also troublingly formalistic. What matters is one's control over and prudent distribution of one's powers and pleasures;
it is in this ascetic that true freedom lies, as the freedom of the artefact is inseparable from its self-imposed law. (Eagleton, 1990:
But if post-modernism produced a sense both of the autonomy of the individual (and hence of the decentredness of what Raymond
Williams called `militant particularism') and of the in-built self-defined temporality of all cultural objects, so it bypassed any sense of the
past (except as artefact) or of the self (except as self-fulfilling actor), or of politics (except, as with Lyotard, as failed utopias that send us
back to a clean slate). There are two crucial missing features in all this. The first of these is a reading of history which is not merely a
reading of history as artefact, but of a developing social structure and hegemony, and of lived, everyday experiences. In forgetting this,
much of contemporary criticism chooses to bypass history, except as the nightmare from which it wants to awake. And, curiously, the
work of the major sociological writers - Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons - have been absent from this rethinking of history.
Textuality (and, hence, the dispossessed artefact) has become all.
But, of course, texts are lived and woven into a tapestry of an ongoing narrative. The crucial issue was how theory was read to establish
their saliency for understanding British culture. Drawing on a somewhat different tradion (that of Talcott Parsons), Roland Robertson, has
written of "the responses to and interpretation of the global system as a whole" (Robertson: 1988: 20). By this he means that people
everywhere have to "sift the global-cultural scene for ideas and symbols considered to be relevant to their own identities. This consumption
and syncretization of culture is, perhaps, the most neglected aspect of the revitalization of culture as a sociological motif (21)." However
banal this may sound, it does suggest both that there is a whole range of theory (in sociological, anthropological, philosophical, political
economic traditions) which has received short shrift from those writing in cultural studies, and also that theoretical connectedness between
the individual and the global totality have only been hinted at in neo-Marxist cultural writing. British cultural studies has continued to display
its own national proclivities. As Robertson puts it:
The British concern has been not so much with the relationship between socially shaped interests and knowledge (the German
focus) or between social structure and modes of thought (the dominant French perspective) but with the natural intimacy of
culture and social relationships and structures - culture as the way of life of a people (as in the work, inter alia, of Leavis, Eliot,
E.P.Thompson and Raymond Williams). Robertson, 1988: 13.
If the emphasis of cultural studies in various societies is so different, then of course the factors that govern the conceptions of culture must
also be different. Thus any attempts to learn from other societies' modes of enquiry will necessarily be transmuted into the cultural matrices
of that society. The questions of cultural relativism and of cultural dominance are therefore crucial not only in understanding what culture
means but also whether it is an interpellation in the structural processes or a necessarily a precondition for them.
One of the curiosities of British cultural studies is that, in spite of its intentions, it was easy to position it within a way of thinking about the
everyday without necessarily changing the everyday. The reasons for this are not far to seek. Although some impressive work was done on
the political economy of the culture industry (Simon Frith's Sound Effects is perhaps the best example and John Keane's recent long essay
on The Media and Democrcy suggests yet another route) Cultural Studies did not contribute much to the reformulation of political
economics as such. In abandoning the simplistic base-superstructure model, which was left largely to Ernest Mandel, the editors of
Socialist Register, and Thatcher's economic advisors to pursue, no alternative political economy was formulated which would take into
account the major force of the cultural critique. The Laclau-Mouffe decentering of political agency begged the questions both of the
multinational nature of capitalism and of the exponential growth of human consumption. Curiously, the `green' implications of
anti-nuclearism did not lead to a `green' economics, and although feminism suggested routes to a rethinking of economics in everyday
practice, it did not, as the economists would say, produce a `macro' economics. The cultural turn in Marxism, shorn of a politico-social
foundation, was therefore bound to become yet one more manifestation of the avant-garde, a glittery gad-fly on the wall of history. Its
success (or its doom - depending on how we read our place in history) is therefore, up to now, largely aesthetic. But that aesthetic, pace
Marcuse, might yet be the moment on which a new political economy will be built. But we have, up to now, been very bad at these things.
The pawnbrokers are waiting in the wings.
Send comments to: Ioan Davies
Professor of Sociology and Social and Political Thought,
York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York (Toronto), Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3