Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

14 November 2006

Cultural Studies Synthesis Paper

A new paper I finished tonight. I'm sharing these things because they're all I'm producing. Apologies.

Simon During in his introduction to The Cultural Studies Reader gives what he calls “a brief history” of the discipline (2). Of particular interest is During’s discussion of actual people in his section about French Theory: Bourdieu, de Certeau and Foucault. During writes that actual individuals are subjects on which material forces work, but that they are not only subjects. He says that in addition to being subjects, human beings are also physical beings interacting with the world. This, he argues, means that individuals can make choices in opposition to the cultural forces determining their identities. During gives four instances in which his “embodied social subjects” act against “the [material] forces they know to be positioning them” (10). Each of these instances deserves further exploration and analysis, for they seem, as a group, to suggest that though the subject is determined by a web of cultural (material) forces, there is yet some essential human ability to resist these forces and exert an essential and powerful individuality.

For his first instance, During posits that “in theory at least individuals can always make choices which take into account, and thus avoid, the forces they know to be positioning them” (10). Through our ability to recognize, then, that we live in societies determined by cultural forces, the line of thinking is that we have the ability to act in opposition to these forces or factor them into our decisions. The trouble with this argument is that by taking these forces into account when we make decisions as “embodied human subjects,” we still do not step outside of the forces that determine our identities. I may be able to recognize that what I refer to as my identity is determined by forces pre-dating my existence and outside my control. I may also be able to act in defiance of these forces. But neither the recognition of my self as an overdetermined subject nor any acts transgressing this position actually have the power to alter my determined identity. I cannot construct a new identity for myself free from cultural determinants, and even if I could, it would be a response to known cultural determinants and so determined all the same.

During also argues that “an individual’s relation to the fields [hierarchical systems] continually incorporates and shifts under the impact of contingent givens [. . .] and materials events (weather, illness, technological breakdowns and so on) which are not simply determinants of social or cultural forces” (10). He is suggesting that because humans live in actual bodies and live on actual earth, there are natural forces at work in the world that have an effect on us as subjects that are not determined by material forces. This, too, is a fallacy, however. During specifically suggests that technological breakdowns, weather and illness are outside the realm of material determinacy. All of three of these, though, can easily be shown to be manipulated and determined by cultural and material forces at work in society. The weather, just to take one of During’s cases, is affected by actions that human beings have taken in the world such as deforestation and pollution. The water we drink has been collected, stored and parceled out among citizens of any area where water is scarce. The edifice that protects a person from the weather was built with materials from the planet, the removal of which have had an effect on the weather. But even if we grant that the weather itself is not determined by cultural forces, we must concede that the weather’s effect on human subjects in the world is determined by material forces. Social and material factors determine how protected each of us is from the elements, the level of cleanliness of the air we breathe and the purity of the water we drink.

During’s third argument for individuality is that humans have an infinite capacity for using language. Language, he says, is a free, frequently exploited resource among all societies. “[L]anguage itself intervenes between the individual and the socio-cultural fields that construct his or her positions. Our sense of uniqueness is grounded on our sense that we can say what we like – at least to ourselves” (10). Language, of course, is not infinite. It has been determined by cultural forces, and though we can change it, that is, though an individual can have an effect on the language (by adding words, altering meanings or spellings, using words in new contexts, etc.), the language itself is still a social apparatus. All changes made to the language merely alter the apparatus. More accurately, these changes don’t act upon the language at all. Rather, it is the language that acts, incorporating changes into itself. A society evaluates which new words, spellings and syntactical uses it wishes to adopt and then does so, inscribing that which is avant-garde in language into the status quo. Anyone using language must use a materially constructed apparatus and is bound by its laws.

Lastly, During suggests that human beings have the capacity to believe that we are not determined by cultural and material forces and that this faith in individuality is proof enough of something deeper: “in a temporality which flows towards the unknowable and uncontainable, they may find in themselves ‘deep’ selves which cannot be reduced either to the managerial self that chooses styles, strategies, and techniques of self-formation or to the subject positioned by external fields and discourses” (11). But During is really speaking not of the human subject’s ability to see something deeper than cultural determinants, but rather his inability to comprehend that there is nothing deeper. When he says the selves found by human subjects “cannot be reduced,” he is really saying that the subjects cannot (or will not) reduce these “selves” to their material determinants, not that such a reduction is impossible.

To be fair, During states that “subjectivity primarily consists of practices and strategies” (11). Even in arguing that there is some essential self to which human beings can cling, he concedes that the subject is constructed principally by material forces. He also states that modern Western culture is fond of a subjectivity that is less determined by material forces and posits cultural studies in opposition to this view. It would appear, though, after an exploration of During’s arguments, that the case for the essential self, untouched by material determinants remains a weak one.

During, Simon, ed. The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.