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social sciences

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Cultural Studies  
page: 1  2  

As Stuart Hall proclaims in what has become something of a cultural studies catch phrase: people "are not cultural dopes" but "active"--and often critical--participants in the production and negotiation of meaning. This insistence on the active capacity of popular consumers has led cultural studies to explore the myriad ways in which culture is used and transformed by "ordinary" and "marginal" social groups.

The long and influential tradition in cultural studies of theorizing subcultures, especially youth subcultures, is a good example of this critical attention to everyday modes of popular resistance. Cultural studies understands subcultures to be engaged in overt, if complex, processes of aberrant identity production in which cultural consumption is used to articulate distinctive modes of social selfhood and to foster alternative cultural values.

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Glbtq Bricolage

The term often used for this process of resistant subcultural consumption is "bricolage," the adaptation of existing forms and commodities to produce new significances unintended by their original producers. It is a process widely evidenced in queer subcultures, where glbtq people regularly appropriate texts and objects from mainstream culture--films, songs, celebrities, fashion--and imbue them with new queer meanings and values.

That this practice can assume vital political significance is neatly illustrated by the bricolage strategies of AIDS activist groups in the early 1990s, such as ACT UP and Gran Fury, whereby various mainstream texts from Nazi symbols to Benetton advertisements were recycled in order to critique and challenge institutional and complacency in the face of the AIDS crisis.

Media Fandoms

A slightly different site of popular resistance and one that has also been the focus of sustained critical attention in cultural studies is media fandoms. Cultural studies refutes dismissive views of popular culture fans as immature or pathological, arguing instead that they are involved in significant and often highly sophisticated processes of what Paul Willis terms "symbolic creativity," reworking media commodities to accommodate the fans' own social needs and desires.

Glbtq people have long cultivated fan-based practices around various popular media forms, and the cultural studies reading of media fandoms as creative agencies offers a productive frame within which to consider and make sense of these practices. To offer but one example of many, Henry Jenkins's examination of glbtq fans of the ever popular television series Star Trek demonstrates how these fans engage in extensive and skillful interventions with the text in order to claim it for queer investment and use.

One particularly striking queer fan practice surveyed by Jenkins is "slash fiction," a form of fan writing that takes same-sex characters from popular media forms--such as Kirk and Spock in Star Trek--and features them in fictional homosexual romance narratives. While slash fiction might seem an innocuous, if quirky, act of projective fantasy, Jenkins suggests that it is in fact engaged in subversive processes of "semiotic guerrilla warfare," whereby the ideological norms of the original media material are upended and replaced with utopian queer possibilities.

Significantly, this particular fan practice is not limited to glbtq-identified fans alone--indeed, its most popular adherents seem to be straight-identified women. As such, it serves to highlight that manifestations of queer resistance, like queer desire, are surprisingly unpredictable.

Critical Interventions

When cultural studies engages with the popular and the "ordinary," it does so primarily to understand--and thus to try to change--the power relations that shape the most intimate and/or quotidian details of our lives, power relations that are ordinarily no more apparent or remarkable to us than the air we breathe. In this respect, cultural studies is not a disengaged mode of academic knowledge but a political practice in its own right.

Most fundamentally, cultural studies seeks to promote an understanding of the competing possibilities and constraints of everyday culture, thus enabling both the development of critical knowledge and the production of new cultural forms and spaces consonant with emancipatory interests.

The commitment of cultural studies to developing a transformative critique of contemporary culture--one that exposes social inequities and divisions while equally promoting modes of tactical resistance--renders it an invaluable critical practice for glbtq people.

Not only does it furnish tools with which to dismantle oppressive hierarchies of power, such as heteronormativity and homophobia, or help recover the important histories of ordinary and marginal social groups, but cultural studies also ultimately helps work toward the realization of what Laclau and Mouffe term "radical democracy": "A society where everyone, whatever his/her sex, race, economic position, sexual orientation, will be in an effective situation of equality and participation, where no basis of discrimination will remain and where self management will exist in all fields."

Brett Farmer

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Creekmur, Corey K., and Alexander Doty, eds. Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

During, Simon, ed. The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Gelder, Ken, and Sarah Thornton, eds. The Subcultures Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Gross, Larry, and James D. Woods, eds. The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Hall, Stuart. "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular.'" People's History and Socialist Theory. R. Samuel, ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. 227-240.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

____ and John Tulloch. Understanding Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Dr Who and Star Trek. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso. 1985.

Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Williams, Raymond. "Culture is Ordinary." Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism. Robin Gable, ed. New York: Verso, 1989. 3-18.


    Citation Information
    Author: Farmer, Brett  
    Entry Title: Cultural Studies  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated July 6, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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