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  • We Lost it at the Movies
  • Michael Sprinker (bio)

“There must be some way out of here, Said the joker to the thief.”

—Robert Zimmerman

It is generally agreed that what in the Anglophone world is now vaguely—but not entirely fortuitously—termed “cultural studies” grew out of curricular innovations introduced into post-secondary educational programs for non-elite students taking degree courses outside Britain’s ancient and, at least initially, its regional universities. 1 Cultural studies would soon come to embrace, logically enough, the very forms of mass culture that such students themselves were reared on, notably popular music, film, and television. 2 This frankly populist tenor continues to inflect the overwhelming majority of critical writing in the field. And to the extent that it lays claim to displacing some of the older and better established administrative structures [End Page 385] within universities (the departments of national literatures pre-eminently, but also comparative literature, and perhaps even film and television studies themselves), the programmatic realizations of cultural studies almost without exception privilege the products of mass culture over those of minority or elite culture: film and television over novels and poetry; pulp literature over the classics; popular musics over the Western classical repertoire; Hollywood over avant-garde or art film.

It is surely necessary to reflect on this aspect of cultural studies, which is now so much taken for granted as to be virtually coincident with its definition as a distinctive intellectual tendency. In doing so, two aspects of the question can be distinguished from the outset: (1) the historical conditions that initially cast cultural studies in its populist mold; and (2) the theoretical consequences of this originary populism for current research and pedagogy.

The names of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and Edward Thompson are most often invoked when the history of cultural studies is being told. 3 The publication of The Uses of Literacy (1957) and Culture and Society (1958) is said to mark the moment when the hegemony of Cambridge English began to tremble slightly, leading on to Hoggart’s founding of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in 1966; thence to Stuart Hall’s assumption of the Centre’s directorship and the publication of several famous and influential Centre-sponsored or Centre-inspired volumes (The Empire Strikes Back, Sub-Cultures, Policing the Crisis); ultimately to the migration of a number of Hall’s students and acolytes to the United States, culminating in that ambiguous moment of ostensible stock-taking and palpable turf-marking, the 1990 conference held at the University of Illinois that produced the volume Cultural Studies. The latter is likely for the foreseeable future to remain the closest thing to a sacred text of which the field can boast. 4

Cultural studies was the offspring of non-elite, extra-mural higher education in Britain; its politics were in that setting palpable and [End Page 386] obvious. As it came to be legitimized and institutionalized in university programs, the patina of oppositional politics was retained, but the audience for whom it had first been conceived would no longer constitute its mass base, not, at least, in the United States. Many of the more prominent figures in the field here no longer teach in working-class institutions, and while the pretense of breaking down entrenched forms of intellectual elitism remains, the sites on which their interventions focus are determinately professional: the academic conference or journal, book publication with a high-profile publisher. While much of the early Birmingham Centre work circulated only in mimeograph form, there now exists a raft of journals to which one can send essays; nor can any self-respecting academic press be without its cultural studies titles or series. Bluntly, it is one thing to develop course syllabi for the Open University, quite another to publish a book with Routledge or an essay in New Formations or Social Text.

The subject matter of cultural studies has thus not altered dramatically. Analyses of popular or mass culture, the media, and so forth still constitute the overwhelming majority of the work produced, and most of the courses that announce themselves as programmatically affiliated with cultural studies (as opposed to...

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pp. 385-399
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