the practice of cultural studies: theory as practice

On my last post about the importance of the humanities during a recession, a visitor requested that I provide specific examples of how Cultural Studies has impacted society. Perhaps the post would have been more effective if I had included individualized examples, but I intentionally did not include specifics  in order to keep the idea of Cultural Studies as open and broad as possible.

However, I have re-thought my initial hesitation and have decided to share a few examples from my experience in high school, undergraduate and postgraduate to discuss how Cultural Studies has affected my life. I can’t speak for the entire discipline, but I can speak from my own experience.

First, I think it’s important to point out that Cultural Studies is a contested term and discipline. The strength and weakness of Cultural Studies is that it can be interpreted and manifested in many ways; its existence is contingent on the people who produce and employ its ideas. For example, my undergraduate program Comparative History of Ideas (CHID), which was my alma mater’s unique localized version of Cultural Studies, differs greatly from my postgraduate program Cultural Studies. Both programs are interdisciplinary and draw heavily from critical theory (e.g. Marxist, feminist, and post-colonial studies), but CHID is much more focused on political science, international relations, and the history of science, whereas Cultural Studies at Edinburgh is much more centered on visual culture, architecture, and film studies. Both programs have had a tremendous impact on the way in which I think about and act in the world.

In many ways, I began practicing Cultural Studies long before I entered university or even knew that it existed. During high school, I worked for the Seattle Young People’s Project (SYPP), a youth-driven non-profit organization based in Seattle that empowers youth to take action on issues that affect their lives. SYPP introduced me to many of the key concepts of Cultural Studies, educating me on the social construction of race, gender, age, and other markers of identity that we often take for granted. Through SYPP, I developed the knowledge  and skills to challenge and re-think traditional notions of culture.

After high school, I continued to build on my understanding of culture and politics at the Comparative History of Ideas Program at the University of Washington. Through CHID, my understanding of these issues became much more complex and encompassing. I learned to see all forms of representation — from religion to soap opera to graffiti — as entry points for exploring culture and politics.

My final year of undergraduate I wrote my senior honors thesis on the Holocaust, memory, and photography. In this project, I explored the overexposure to and desensitization of Holocaust, memory and photography. To further my investigation, I developed a model of memorialization as a way for the desensitized to analyze and personalize their experience with the past. Drawing from Gille Deleuze, Susan Sontag, Vilem Flusser, and a number of other critical theorists, I created a model of remembering that allows people in the present to critique and empathize with not only photographs, but also other representations of the past. All of this may sound overly theoretical, thinking about how we remember and memorialize the past is important because it affects the way we act in the present and imagine the future. This kind of critique is especially crucial when you are dealing with events that have been overexposed and hypermediatized.

I have continued to explore many of these issues in graduate school. One of my professors recently asked us to reflect on two essays written on the influence of digital photography  on contemporary culture in relation to our own research. While picture taking may not seem as pressing as other issues, if one looks at it closely, one realizes how much is at stake and how this medium represents the larger issues of representation, communication, and memory.

As researcher who uses photography as both a medium and object of study, it is essential for me to be critically aware of how my picture taking affects my research subjects and the way I think and remember them. For my dissertation, I will be conducting visual cultural fieldwork at a private English institute in Seoul, South Korea. This will involve taking photographs to document not only the spatial design and logos of the institute, but also, the interactions between staff, students, and parents.

When you are dealing with human subjects, it is necessary to be aware how the camera may be objectifying or distancing me from my research subjects. I try to be prudent and judicious with my picture taking, always asking myself: What is the purpose of this photograph? What does it tell us about this particular time and place? It is equally important for me to be aware of how I perceive and display photographs once they are taken: How does this photograph influence my memory of this event? How does the meaning of the picture change when I place it in different physical and electronic spaces?

While picture taking may seem like a banal everyday practice, it says a lot about how we represent, remember, and communicate. Taking a photograph is never just a politically neutral act, and it is important to be aware of how our picture taking practices impacts the way we interact with the world.

Cultural Studies has become an embedded part of my being. It’s not something I can just leave in the classroom, library, or meeting, it is something that I live on an everyday basis.

These personal examples I discussed above are just a snapshot of the ways in which Cultural Studies has influenced my life. I think it’s challenging to succinctly describe how Cultural Studies has influenced the world because its effects are difficult to quantify. However, despite its amorphous and ambiguous nature, Cultural Studies still plays an important role in the way that the world changes by impacting how people perceive culture and politics.

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