The field of cultural studies is commonly seen, by both friends and critics as an adjunct of the political left. For its critics - like columnist Andrew Bolt, writer Keith Windschuttle and academic Gregory Melleuish - these studies exhibit obscure and complex theories, plus a political correctness which is in danger of strangling intellectual diversity in the arts and humanities.
Graeme Turner and Elspeth Probyn, leading academics in this field, respond by pointing out the diversity and social value of ideas emanating from cultural studies. Significantly, cultural studies is one of the few fields in which Australian researchers can claim international and recognised leadership.
Yet a deep tension remains. There are clearly a diverse range of positions, perspectives and issues considered in cultural studies. These positions are well known to those in the field. However, other academics have consistently drawn attention to the alignment of cultural study with the left of politics. If the main critical argument is that the validity of one’s arguments can be connected to their contribution to the political left, they do seem to have a point.
On many occasions various academics have affirmed their affinity with the left. Stuart Hall observed that cultural study’s purpose was to develop “organic intellectuals” who could critique a capitalist hegemony on behalf of “emerging movements” and possess the clout to challenge it. More recently, at the Illinois Crossroads conference, organisers insisted that for academics and researchers to remain silent is “to be in collusion with the Bush regime”.
The issue is not whether groupings of cultural studies academics may tend to be left-of-centre. Groups - teachers, graziers, builders, estate agents, radio-hosts, or retired officers- tend towards a political direction. Cass Sunstein’s Law of Group Polarisation suggests that this is inevitable. Rather the main question is whether cultural studies, as an area of teaching, research and scholarship, is inherently left wing?
I propose three, inter-related, points:
- Theoretical, and methodological resources of cultural studies are only comprehensible if linked to a left wing standpoint.
- The degree of alignment of arguments within cultural studies towards a leftist-standpoint is such that one can determine the validity of any intellectual argument on its basis of relationship to left- politics.
- If one did not, demonstrably, hold left wing views, it would be, in principle, impossible to have one’s work considered to within cultural studies, however much the study deals with any form of culture.
If these points constitute what cultural study is and does, and also what it means to be a cultural studies researcher and academic, I would argue that such an intellectual constitution of the discipline is unwise, even for those sympathetic to such leftist arguments and principles.
An historic problem with defining cultural study as inherently left, is that this links it to the “big theories” of the anti-Capitalist Left, notably Marxism, and in ways that not all cultural practitioners might agree with. The origins of such studies are linked to the “New Left” of the 60s and 70s, but its relationship to Marxism has always been tense.
Pioneers like Stuart Hall have theorised about the extent to which, in focussing focuses on popular culture and the complexities of ideology, cultural studies challenged left-wing orthodoxies. Indeed, more orthodox left wing academics, such as critical political economists, have expressed concern that - in focusing on the pleasures of consumption and popular culture - cultural studies is not left wing enough.
Another problem is that by defining cultural studies as “left wing”, we could lose insight into the complexities of culture itself, sieving everything through a political power-grid.
Popular culture will never actually be left wing.
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