Jeremy's Midterm Keyword Wiki: The Circumference of Culture

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File:Culture crime.jpg
"Culture is Not a Crime" by Dawn Endico (from [http://flickr.com/photos/candiedwomanire/15899841/


Talking of “culture” as one, monolithic signifier conjures the old adage that’s been applied variously to the divine, the universe, or the absolute: “It is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” [1]

Whether a collective term defining the production and consumption of the arts, a designation of practices amidst a geographically-defined ethnic group, or even in the precise scientific language of tissues or cells, any use of the signifier “culture” carries traces of other uses. Associations, personal experience, context, and the other vagaries of reception endow culture with, paradoxically, one of the most robust and the most vague (or, as Williams says, "complicated") evocations in the English language. In wiki terms, the entire field of cultural studies appears to be one big “disambiguation.” On second thought, perhaps it isn’t accurate to assign these activities to “the field.” Perhaps, as opposed to place- and action-based cultural studies, what we’re referring to are the sidelines--strategies are formed, orders are shouted, and celebrated leaders are baptized in Gatorade. That said, this wiki doesn't attempt the traditional, quasi-authoritative tone of traditional wiki entries, since the over-arching entries exist elsewhere. Instead, this article will explore the vectors of positionality in the uses of culture, how they relate the individual to the collective (and vice versa), and where irreverence toward assumed values can shed light on those cultural assumptions.



To avoid taxonomic redundancy, we could simply nod to Raymond Williams’s Greatest Hits and keep on dancing. The danger, still, lies in Roland Barthes’s caution against (in John Storey’s words), “the attempt to make universal and legitimate what is in fact partial and particular; an attempt to pass off that which is cultural (i.e., humanly made) as something which is natural (i.e., just existing).” (Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, p. 3) Our productions of culture are humanly made; so are our meanings. The genealogies, while often not top of mind, will affect conscious and subconscious inferences in our uses of culture(s), either in subtle, interpersonal uses or, as Yudice says, “whereby diverse social groups struggle to establish their intellectual, cultural, and moral influence over each other.” (Keywords for American Cultural Studies, p. 72)

File:Culture lips.jpg
"Different Cultures, Same Lips" by Carlo Nicora (from [http://flickr.com/photos/fchouse/2448695064/


The cases where reflexive inquiry hits a brick or rubber wall are usually bouncing between the edges of a hyphenated blueprint--high culture, low culture, youth culture—or an assigned ownership of culture—yours, mine, theirs. In the OED’s recognition of “refinement of mind, taste, and manners,” there’s also the reflux of populism that dismisses any charge of refinement as “elitist” or otherwise tied to class, wealth, or pretense. In this case, is the way of thinking obstructed by the term or the reception?

File:Appreciate culture.jpg
"Appreciate Culture of Hutong" by xiaming (from [http://flickr.com/photos/xiaming/51399314/


Any critical project that interrogates cultural production could be a legitimate enterprise, but so, too, could any cultural production that pushes beyond the status quo. In the scattered field of postmodern art, satire, pastiche, cultural mashups, and an array of other techniques have the potential to breach those occlusions of thought in the arid field of pure theory. These products may be appreciated on several levels, such as Saturday Night Live’s short film, “Ras Trent”. At face value, the co-opting of incongruous or barely-understood ethnic cultures may appear absurdly earnest at best and repulsively appropriating at worst. What Andy Samberg and the creative team at SNL accomplish, however, is a “trojan horse” of popular culture, using humor and novel stereotypes to encode a comment that keen observers can both laugh at and reflect upon.

Moving toward further development in this course, the uses of satire may be one focus that has not been as exhausted as other approaches. Every question addressed in this project--genealogy and use, critical projects, occluded thought, and keyword constellation--can find an example through the lens of satire. More than a glib or aggressive use of its content, successful satire is an epi-phenomena of a certain saturation point of that content. The collective associations of the target audience must share a salience with the topic in order for the set up and the skewering to work.


In the Zen Buddhist tradition, humor is often used as a shortcut to satori, jostling you out of a habit of thought or behavior with an unexpected smack. The koan is a special breed of interruption, in that it uproots certainty and leaves it floating between either/or, to a place of no-mind. Is there a place for this playfulness in cultural studies, or is it so encumbered by the weight of its topics that it must always take itself seriously? Wright employs humor in his essay “Dare We de-Center Birmingham?” (formerly titled, “Take Birmingham to the curb”) though he's a little too straight-faced in the introductory remarks about the origins of "cultural studies proper," in the sense that the sarcasm is not aggressive enough, hence easily missed. Properly used, it's possible to have sarcastic, absurd, and even silly means to serious ends. After all, since Birmingham truly has been “de-Centered,” the center must be everywhere, and the circumference was last seen fleeing the scene.