POPULAR CULTURE AS A ‘SITE OF RESISTANCE’: SOCIAL. MOVEMENTS, RESISTANCE AND SUBCULTURAL. IDENTITIES
The distinctions between high/low culture and serious/popular culture within a modernist frame of reference have been increasingly broken down by the emergence of cultural studies. Sheridan (1995:89) describes cultural studies as a wide-ranging area of enquiry which includes media studies and popular culture, and which incorporates ‘everyday practices and cultural habits as well as texts and institutions’. As she goes on to note, ‘cultural “representations”.. .have to be understood as including not only the images or textualisations of modern social experience but also the processes of their production, circulation and consumption’ (ibid.).
In this respect the early emphasis within feminism on the study of media representations of gender has shifted to more broadly conceived questions about the status of these representations within the context of cultural difference and diversity. As Sheridan notes, these questions ‘go beyond the modernist dichotomy between serious and popular culture and its gendered associations’ (ibid). They raise questions not just about media representations per se but whose interests they serve, how these representations are constructed and circulated, and (in this context) how social subjectivities are constructed.
The shift in emphasis in cultural studies, has been charted elsewhere (Tester 1994; During 1993a; Grossberg 1993). Grossberg (1993:22) claims that cultural studies has always been a contested terrain, within which ‘the boundaries of the tradition are themselves unstable and changing, sites of contestation and debate’. He goes on to note that the contestation within cultural studies was not only around competing theories of cultural politics, but also around competing theories about ‘the nature of cultural and historical specificity’ (Grossberg 1993:23).
Cornell West, in his essay ‘The New Cultural Politics of Difference’ (1993), calls this new direction within ‘the politics of culture’ the ‘culture of difference’. He defines it as a global movement made up of a range of different social movements. As During (1993a:13) notes, these cultural theorists were interested in studying culture and theory in culturally and historically specific terms, within fragmented models of culture and society. The emphasis of cultural studies shifted from one which positioned a reading of culture ‘oppositionally’ in terms of the hegemonic state to one which affirmed concepts of ‘otherness’. New expressions and modes of resistance emerged from feminist, ethnic and women’s groups ‘committed to maintaining and elaborating autonomous values, identities, and ethics’ (During 1993a:15).
The work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Birmingham, England) was representative of this new focus in cultural studies. The emphasis of the Centre’s work was on the development of a positive engagement with mass- mediated popular culture, complicating earlier models of cultural politics based around class with the politics of race and ethnicity. Sheridan maintains that in theoretical terms
they rejected not only the liberal humanist idea of culture as the expression of the ‘human spirit’ but also the economistic Marxist model of culture as the reflection of ruling class interests and ‘mass culture’ as the sedative pap designed to be consumed by the workers.
The emphasis of the ‘new’ cultural studies was on agency, that is on the agency of ordinary people in contesting and producing cultural meaning. Meaghan Morris powerfully expresses this concept of agency as follows:
This means studying not how people are in a passively inherited culture (‘tradition’) but what they do with the cultural commodities that they encounter and use in everyday life (‘practice’) and thus what they make as ‘culture’. Inflected by post-structuralist theories of reading as well as by empirical audience research.. .this shift enabled a crucial redefinition of popular culture not as a stratum (the ‘low’) one of aesthetic practice but as a social ‘zone of contestation’, in Hall’s famous phrase—the ground in and over which different interests struggle for hegemony.
(Morris 1992:10, cited in Sheridan 1995:92)
Sheridan contends that two senses of ‘agency’ emerge from this approach. In the first instance there is ‘the sense of people producing meaning rather than passively consuming it, through their exchanges with cultural commodities’ (Sheridan 1995:92). Second, there is a concept of political agency implied in ‘notions of struggle and contestation, resistance and subversion ’ (ibid,.). As Tester contends, drawing on the work of Bennett (1980, 198la, 1981b, 1986) and Hall (1980, 1992a), cultural studies ‘became a means and a training centre for the new cultural politics of the resistances and constructions ofhegemony’ (Tester 1994:21). He cites Hall’s assertion that ‘we are trying to find an institutional practice in cultural studies that might produce an organic intellectual’ (Hall 1992a:281).
The concept of the ‘organic intellectual’ was introduced by the Italian neoMarxist Antonio Gramsci. ‘Organic intellectuals’ were seen by Gramsci as the vanguard of the attempt to construct new hegemonies, and would be at the forefront of struggles to speak for and on behalf of different interests. Tester states that Hall uses Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual to validate what Hall sees as two important dimensions of cultural studies: first, that cultural studies should be ‘at the very forefront of intellectual theoretical work’ (.ibid’); and second, that cultural studies has a political role outside the purely academic sphere in that it has, as Tester (1994:21) claims, a ‘responsibility to become a force to be reckoned with in the material world of day to day relationships, day to day oppression and the lived experiences of struggles of hegemony’.
The problem with Hall’s analysis of the role of the organic intellectual is that he does not explain who the organic intellectuals are ‘organic’ to, for or with. Bennett attempts to resolve the problem by claiming that they have a responsibility towards ‘the people’. The definition and constituency of ‘the people’ is as ‘a group and an identity which is only constructed in and through the struggles and strategies of popular culture’ (Tester 1994:23).
Feminist theorisation of the notion of ‘resistance’ within identifiable subcultural contexts has clarified and grounded some of the more abstracted theoretical debates initiated by male cultural theorists. McRobbie claims that as
class no longer underwrites the critical project of cultural analysis and ideology seems too monolithic a category, too focused on social passivity and conformity to be usefully alert to the more micrological level of dispute and contestation, we can scale down the field of study and abandon claims on unity or totality in favour of pursuing what Laclau has called the ‘dignity of the specific’.
She shows how this operates within a traditional model of subcultural analysis, maintaining that to subcultural theorists patterns of participation and consumption represent ‘only the moment of diffusion, the point at which the oppositional force is incorporated or “recuperated” back into society through the processes of commodification’ (ibid.). The process of commodification into a mass market depoliticises the potential within the subculture for contestation and as a result makes it more viable for popular consumption. McRobbie maintains elsewhere that this class-based and genderised subcultural model is less relevant for an analysis of patterns of ‘resistance’ within a model of ‘cultural production’. She contends that subcultures are less significant to working-class girls than ‘the intimate world of magazines’ which they can use ‘as a means of creating their own space in the school, the youth club or even in the home’ (McRobbie 1991: xvii). Sheridan (1995:93) maintains that girls and women are more likely to construct their own imaginary social space from these cultural commodities rather than ‘a material subculture’.
Understanding femininity and its relationship to feminism is now more complex. McRobbie maintains there is a greater degree of fluidity about what femininity means and how exactly it is represented in social reality. She states that as a result there is ‘a greater degree of uncertainty in society as a whole about what it is to be a woman, and this filters down to how young women exist within this new habitus of gender relations (Bourdieu, 1984)’ (McRobbie 1994:157).5
One area of popular culture which highlights the shift away from the traditional inscription of gender relations is romance. McRobbie (1994:167) notes that while feminist academics (Radway 1984; Modleski 1982) have done a great deal to restore the status of romance by reclaiming it as a hidden pleasure of femininity, it is now no longer a situation of those with the cultural capital ‘who know (feminist academics) and those are the “victims” of ideology (girls and women)’. Charlotte Brnnsdon (1991/1992:4) has argued that there has been quite a dramatic realignment between feminism and the lived experience of femininity (and its textual representation).
McRobbie uses the examples of TV series such as Heathers and Twin Peaks to suggest that young women may prefer ‘the quirky postmodern subjectivities’ offered in these narratives. As she contends, ‘while the TV series deployed an intensely heightened sexuality in its cast of exceptionally beautiful female characters and good looking men, it was sex, danger, terror and “strangeness” rather than love or romance which held the fragmented structures of the episodes together’ (McRobbie 1994:167). She goes on to note that femininity is no longer the ‘other’ of feminism and that femininity is constructed as the product of less stable, emergent subject positions which tally with the more fluid subjectivities of postmodernism.
Feminism has been enormously instrumental in the reformation of the ‘new’ cultural studies. As Grossberg (1993:26) notes, ‘it is fair to say that there is no cultural studies which is not “post-feminist”, not in the sense of having moved beyond it but rather in the sense of having opened itself to the radical critique and implications of feminist theory and polities’. The negation of metatheory and narratives together with the affirmation of otherness in cultural studies can also be linked to the emergence of the ‘new cultural politics of difference’ (West 1993), in part a product of the globalising of cultural production and distribution from the 1970s onwards. As During (1993a:17) notes, globalisation meant that the role that subcultures and the working class occupied in earlier approaches within cultural studies began to be replaced and transformed by communities and movements outside the west or ‘internal migrant (or “diasporic”) communities’. Such developments involved new theoretical and political problems.