Renewing Cultural Studies

1Renew is an awkward word. Its prefix seems to make its idea of something 'new' impossible. And everyday experience further underlines the contradiction. My first memory of using the word 'renew' was related to the anxiety of library overdue books: renewing those books was a pragmatic way to avoid the impending fines.

2This is a useful starting point for pondering any cultural moment of renewal. Renew describes the impetus towards change while acknowledging the past's weighted effect on producing any transformation. It articulates a challenged continuity rather than a break or discontinuity with a particular past. Where I would like to take this idea of renewal is into the realm of cultural studies and its continuing intellectual project through two efforts or essays.

Essay 1: Recombinant Culture

3There are no doubt many ways to characterise the value of cultural studies. What I want to emphasise here is how cultural studies worked to transform the basic conceptualisation of culture itself. These are familiar paths but to identify some of the principal intellectual traits for rethinking and fundamentally renewing the definition of culture:

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  1. the contested terrain of the popular; the hegemonic restructuring of culture through winning and building of consent as a moving and transforming force; and
  2. the concentration on the making of the "other" and the "other's" process of piecing together cultural sense

5Through all these paths the real power of cultural studies has been its ability to migrate into disciplines and work to renew their internal directions through challenge. Although naturalised homes for cultural studies have been found in media and communication programmes, this has been partly possible through their roughly contemporaneous emergence and partly through this sister intellectual project's capacity to deal seriously with popular culture. Where renewal has been more brazenly articulated is in sites such as geography and its turn to culture and space issues, English and its transformation of its object of study, or musicology with its rereading of popular music and its cadence of cultural meaning and, to a lesser extent sociology and history. What cultural studies has been is a migrating source of renewal across the humanities and social sciences.

6The core of cultural studies, which is much more difficult to define except in a listing of key concepts and strategies of cultural engagement through intellectual work (of which I provided only a partial list above), has not necessarily gone through this same pattern of renewal over the last 20 years.

7What I would like to propose here is a moment of rethinking what constitutes cultural studies. This goes beyond Richard Johnson's historical reading of what is cultural studies. Using a new metaphor to describe its approach may begin this renewal of the core. Cultural studies can be rearticulated in terms of its capacity at recombining. As I have indicated, cultural studies has worked to juxtapose its redefinitions of the cultural against and over these 19th century disciplines and has produced quite dramatic shifts in approaches within the disciplines and across the disciplines.

8Recombining then is the intellectual practice of cultural studies. It generally analyses the form of recombinations that emerge on the contemporary scene. Some have labelled this process hybridisation -- the work of Iain Chambers and Lydia Curti identifies the movements through borders and boundaries both physical and psychical. As a practice, cultural studies can debate and discuss the moments of rupture of the continuous (what previous approaches might call the ideological and naturalised veneer of historical continuity), but with the comprehension of how the rupture negotiates with the past and its ideological weight. In other words, cultural studies' practice is one of perpetual renewal through its study of recombinant culture.

9These moments of recombination can be seen in the structure of identity and cultural politics, where the stable structures of identity serve as much as political tactics as structures. Most visibly, recombinant culture can be the way to understand how new technologies are used and reformed through use by different cultural communities. Popular music provides a model for this continuous flow of recombining for both renewal and a shifted cultural significance. Sounds are sampled; past songs are layered into a significantly different music and use in current dance music. Recombinant culture may also be studied from the perspective of cultural industries and their efforts to incorporate new technologies into different forms in order to reconstitute audiences in ways that in their distinctiveness produce value that is exchangeable as capital. Understanding the constant negotiation of recombinant culture is where cultural studies should relocate its energies and renew its vitality.

Essay 2: Refocussing on Cultural Production

10One of the successes of cultural studies is its well-developed reading of the practices of reception. The active audience approach has led to understanding how audiences use and contextualise cultural forms. Specifically studies in television, popular music and, to a lesser degree, film have benefitted from this rereading of popular culture and audiences.

11Clearly underdeveloped in cultural studies is an analysis of production. Yet the massive work on the active audience approach is fundamentally a study of cultural production, albeit in the terminology of reception. What is embedded in the active audience reading of cultural forms is the audience's will to produce the text. This reproduction of the text by the audience not only transforms the text, but also points to the very desire (by cultural studies' research itself in the same way that the researcher's reading of a subculture's political and cultural will was refracted through sartorial style and a cultural politics of street appropriation) for the will to produce in the audience.

12There is a moment in our recombinant culture that certain technologies have intensified the will to produce, if not production itself. The Internet and the World Wide Web have provided cultural studies a clear shift towards a production ethos that has altered the formal boundaries of what constitutes production. The user of the Internet actively plays the role of producer and audience, not just in terms of a heightened pattern of interactivity but in the regularity and routineness with which Websites appear as part of the general system of cultural production. Because all Websites are distributed and disseminated in one system or network the delineations that used to give television networks their nearly exclusive voice and image of authority are not as easily made via the Internet. This moment of production flux and the cultural politics it has generated is already contested as large media corporations work to differentiate content and "quality" so that websites are hierarchised into different registers of cultural value.

13What I am arguing for here is a renewal of study that now looks at a different starting point in the cycles of production and consumption for cultural studies. Production in this recombinant culture always implies a process of reception and recontextualisation of the past meanings into current objectives and directions. Cultural studies needs to investigate this current blending of production and consumption more vigorously. For instance, how does Napster shift the play of the production outwards into a myriad of possible recombining producer/consumers who make their music available for others? How is the large music publisher Bertelsmann engaging in a process of capitalising in some way on this process of dissemination through their negotiations with Napster? We are seeing enacted in this one case the changing landscape of cultural production and cultural consumption where the product, the property and the service are no longer clearly defined in either industrially or culturally agreed-upon standards.

14New media culture in general is operating on different criteria of cultural production and cultural consumption: products seem to be continually in process and in that process include their consumers into the process of production. This is clearly evident in the development of computer games as they include their core "audience" in transforming and improving their "product". The digitalisation of cultural forms has permitted the development of "soft-products": that is, products that can be changed and recombined and are therefore not so easily end-products but as entities are continually in process.

15Because cultural studies has such a well-developed understanding of the process of the transformation of meaning through its study of active reception, it is particularly valuable in interpreting how this recombinant culture is operating in and through new technologies. In a sense, cultural studies can be deployed in making sense of this transformed cultural economy. Through a shift in focus from consumption to production (but fundamentally working with the same insights about cultural meaning, activity and production), the intellectual project of cultural studies can successfully renew itself.