CULTURAL STUDIES REVISITED: A BITTERSWET FEELING

I have spent a good portion of my morning today working on a talk I’m giving next month at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela. The topic is Cultural Studies, specifically my point of view on their evolution in Spain. As happens, I was invited ten years ago to lecture on this very same topic and this neat figure offers a good chance to consider what has happened in the last decade. Since I have decided to use only one third of my talk for an introduction to the matter and focus in the other two thirds on a practical example, today’s post has the double function of serving as a complement to the talk and allowing me some room for reflexion.

One obvious problem of Cultural Studies is that we are constantly in need of defining what it consists of, particularly in comparison to ‘Filología’ (I’m using the Spanish word to distinguish it from English ‘philology’, which is the discipline in charge of guaranteeing the preservation of ancient and old literary texts). ‘Filología’ refers to the study of a given culture on the basis of its language and its literary canon, to the exclusion of other texts either because they are regarded as inferior in quality or because they are not based on writing. Cultural Studies, in contrast, considers as texts worth studying using its multidisciplinary methodology any cultural manifestations susceptible of being read and interpreted. I’m aware that this is a tautological definition for Cultural Studies both defines and articulates as texts what it studies. Thus, you might not think of the popular drink Red Bull as a text but the moment you approach it as the object of your research, it becomes a text worth exploring in all aspects of its cultural impact. And no: this is neither Anthropology nor Sociology, it’s Cultural Studies.

Ten years ago the new degrees based on the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) were implanted in Spain and that seemed a turning point in the evolution of the old-style ‘Filología’ into the new-style ‘Estudios’. Many degrees were renamed in this way, whereas in other cases ‘Filología’ was replaced by ‘Lengua y Literatura’. The label ‘Filología’ still survived in the nomenclature of some BA degrees and in the names of Departments, which did not change. Thus, I work for the Departament de Filologia Anglesa, even though our BA carries the label English Studies (the one, by the way, recommended by our national association AEDEAN). The truth is that ‘Filología’ was not generally dropped from the degree titles because there was a widespread need to extend the field of Cultural Studies but because it was a label unpopular with students. They simply stopped attaching any meaning to it and it was expected that the new labels might help prospective studies to understand better what we do and, hence, enrol in our courses. I have already commented on this question several times here in this blog but I’ll mention again that, as much as like the idea of being a teacher of ‘English Studies’ I find that graduates with that degree lack a professional title similar to the old ‘filólogo’.

Thanks to the efforts of my colleague Felicity Hand my Department has been offering Cultural Studies since 1992 (well, my Department actually means she, our friend Esther Pujolràs, and myself). Prof. Hand was the organizer of the first Cultural Studies conference in English Studies in Spain, back in 1995–probably an absolute first in Spain. She was also a member of the core group, together with Rosa González (UBarcelona), David Walton (UMurcia), and Chantal Cornut-Gentille (UZaragoza), which founded the Culture and Power conferences, of which the UAB meeting was the first. There were fifteen annual and biannual meetings until 2015 and the same number of proceedings volumes. Besides, Antonio Ballesteros became in 1998 the first coordinator of the Cultural Studies panel for the AEDEAN conference and in 2001 the Iberian Association of Cultural Studies (IBACS) was born. Other associations, such as SELICUP (Sociedad Española de Estudios Literarios y Cultura Popular) also welcomed Cultural Studies, though coming from a very different perspective.

My personal impression is that the implantation of Cultural Studies in Spain is a partial failure. On the one hand, if you check the titles of the post-2009 BA and MA degrees offered in Spain, you will notice an increase in the number of titles that do use the label ‘Estudios Culturales’. On the other, not a single Department has taken yet that name and I know of very few scholars who call themselves Cultural Studies specialists. If you care to check Dialnet you will find a list of publications on the topic (see for instance Chantal Cornut-Gentille’s Los Estudios Culturales en España: Exploraciones teórico-conceptuales (2013) and the proceedings of the I Congreso Internacional de Estudios Culturales Interdisciplinares Cultura e identidad en un mundo cambiante (2018)) but I don’t think that Spanish academia has truly accepted Cultural Studies. It is a still marginal discipline.

This marginality is usually attributed to the conservatism of the Spanish university and I would agree that this is indeed the case. I marvel that in 2019 students are still being told that no dissertations should be written on Harry Potter or Star Wars but this is still happening. It is my belief, however, that other factors need to be considered.

To begin with, although the Culture & Power circle, to which I myself belonged, did much to introduce Cultural Studies into ‘Filología Inglesa’ we had zero impact in Spain because our publications were in English, including David Walton’s excellent handbook Introducing Cultural Studies (2007) published in Britain by Sage. The language is a barrier but so is the territorial division of the Spanish university. Thus, the Universidad Carlos III offers a programme in Cultural Studies which combines aspects of the degrees in the Humanities, Sociology, and Media (both Journalism and Audiovisual Communication) but no ‘Filologías’. In Britain the degrees in Cultural Studies are closer to Media Studies than to English but the case is that those of us who had first access to the original bibliography in English failed to connect with other areas of study in Spain and make ourselves visible. This has generated strange distortions: for me, any text originally in English is part of the field of Cultural Studies, whereas for many Spanish specialists in Media Studies I might be guilty of intruding into their field by exploring texts which are not literary (like film, series, or videogames). As long as we publish in different languages this is not a problem but territorialism has certainly prevented us from establishing a common ground.

On the other hand, despite the efforts of AEDEAN to make networking more fluid within English Studies we still suffer from a chronic state of disconnection. By this I mean that since the Ministry does not publish the list of R+D+I subsidized projects in any accessible way (you need to check the Boletín Oficial del Estado year by year) it might well happen that your neighbour in a close-by university is doing very similar research without your knowing about it. There have been, then, several groups doing Cultural Studies without being aware of each other, and without being even aware of the existence of IBACS and of the Culture & Power seminars. This means that many young researchers in the field have no idea about how their path has been eased by us, the senior researchers, nor is there a sense of tradition but a constant reinvention of the wheel. This also means a certain stagnation instead of accumulative progress.

Within the Culture & Power circle what happened was that, progressively, each of us started focusing more narrowly on our field of interest. To name a few persons, Rosa González put all her energy into Irish Studies and Felicity Hand into Post-colonial Studies. I myself focused on Gothic and science fiction. Each Culture & Power seminar, then, had to have a wide-ranging topic that could encompass many different interests and eventually we started having the impression that the conferences were too open. The reason why they have been discontinued then has to do, if only partly, with their no longer being necessary because other conferences welcome now Cultural Studies specialists. The AEDEAN panel, I think, suffers in contrast from another kind of indefinition: it has a too large presence of papers about Literature and too little research based on other texts, though films and TV series are also present. Of course one can produce Literary Studies with a Cultural Studies approach but there is too much dependence on what I can only call standard Literature.

There is also another matter that I’m not really at liberty to discuss in all detail because I should have to name persons that might feel offended by my partial vision of events. I’ll go, however, as far as I can. Something which is never discussed in academia is how personal feelings affect the expansion and consolidation of research areas but this does affect Cultural Studies. I don’t mean jealousy or anything remotely in that line, I mean a perplexing inability to stay in touch and go on working together. Or to click, for lack of a better word. What appeared to be promising connections failed in a variety of cases. Persons who seemed friendly had an aggressive agenda in mind, others remained friendly but oddly inapproachable. Then, within the group we may have made mistakes, such as not taking the road to become a research group, for which I myself have been blamed. My point of view is that we were too diverse to cohere in the terms which the Ministry requires and I still think this is a correct perception, but maybe this is me being mulish. I also think, and I’m sorry to say this, that we lacked a strong leadership. As you can see, I’m talking about the past because in a way the generation that introduced Cultural Studies into English Studies in Spain is approaching the end of their careers and the ideas that have been abandoned will not be retaken.

I have then a bittersweet feeling: I think that English Studies is the study area most welcoming to Cultural Studies in Spain but I don’t think this means that it is fully consolidated. I’m happy to see that researchers apply its methods often without being 100% aware that this is what they’re doing but I worry about the backlash from right-wing academics constantly arguing that Cultural Studies is nothing but left-wing activism. Of course, that’s the whole point–questioning how ideas and values are formed, though the politics of Cultural Studies are a matter for another post.

To conclude, I should say that whereas Cultural Studies as we practice them in English Studies in Spain has radically changed the way we think of identity–exploring nationality, ethnicity, gender, age and other factors–there is still an obvious shyness about breaking textual barriers and fully accepting variety. Popular music and videogames are still mostly virgin territory, and as I know first hand as a reader of science fiction, not all genres are equally appreciated.

I don’t think that we are ready for Literature to take less space in our degrees (and research) but this is happening in the world around us and sooner or later we’ll have to consider this question. And truly welcome Cultural Studies.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.