During the first four weeks of our class, we have been reading and discussing numerous essays on the study of “culture”. Each theorist we have read has questions and problems about the study of “culture”. They have suggested us solutions to the problems as well. I have decided to closely analyze the essays from Richard Johnson, James Clifford, and Clifford Geertz.
In his essay, “What is Cultural Studies Anyway?” Richard Johnson goes into detail describing critique. “Critique involves stealing away the more useful elements and rejecting the rest.”(pg. 575). By comparison, Johnson defines cultural studies as a process of finding useful knowledge about different analysis of culture. Johnson explains how anglicizing of old Marxism is a good example of critique in cultural studies. By explaining how old Marxism has a significant role in forming cultural studies, Johnson implies how history of economics has a major role in forming “culture”. Johnson believes that there are three main premises where old Marxism has influenced cultural study. The first is that social relations influence culture. I agree with Johnson. Different class, sex, race, and age create different relationships. The second premise is that each individual and social group has different limits of power defining different needs. For example, homeless people have different needs than the rich. This is an example of money being defined as power. The third premise is that culture is influenced by social struggles and differences. I don’t know any culture where every individual is truly equal. There is always a struggle for power. Critique in cultural studies raises several questions for Johnson. “If we have progressed by critique, are there not dangers that codifications will involve systematic closure? If the momentum is to strive for really useful knowledge, will academic codification help this? Is not the priority to become more ‘popular’ rather than more academic? …In any case, students, now have lectures, courses and examinations
in the study of culture. In these circumstances, how can they occupy a critical tradition critically?”(pg. 577). These questions have been puzzling me as well. I don’t see how cultural studies can be more ‘popular’ rather than more academic. ‘Popular’ means majority. Johnson questions the reason for classes cultural studies. Does this mean that we need to study individually? If so, how could it become more ‘popular’? I believe that Johnson’s questions makes the readers go in circles. Another thing that puzzles me is that Johnson believes that old Marxism has a significant role in cultural studies. Marxism explains how the working group will overthrow the class system and establish a Communist society. Yet, Johnson believes that the three premises discussed earlier influence culture. Is he saying that he is against cultural studies? If this is so, I don’t see why he is a cultural theorist.
James Clifford wrote “On Collecting Art and Culture”. Clifford starts by explaining about universality and non-universality of collecting. “Some sort of ‘gathering’ around the self and the group – the assemblage of a material ‘world,’ the marking-off of a subjective domain that is now ‘other’ – is probably universal.” (no pg.#). This explains how human nature embodies hierarchies of value. “But the notion that this gathering involves the accumulation of possessions, the idea that identity is a kind of wealth…is surely not universal.” (no pg.3). This non-universal way of collecting has been around in the Western culture for a long time. Clifford then goes on to explain the different concepts of “collecting” and “fetishizing”. Clifford describes fetishism as a collection kept more in secrecy. It is hard to say if a fetish has more value than a collection. I believe that fetish has a much more personal value than a regular collection. A regular collection is put out into display because the object has value to others as well. A fetish is valuable to the individual. The difference between “collecting” and “fetishizing” brings out the question of how different objects are distinguished. Clifford distinguishes objects in the diagram call the “semiotic square”. Clifford explains how the value of an object proceeds from bottom to top and
left to right. I have several problems with Clifford’s diagram. First, with this diagram, Clifford has limited culture with just art. By reading different essays from other theorist, we can see that culture cannot be explained clearly with just the “Art-Culture System” which Clifford explains. Another problem I have is that Clifford has classified inventions and fakes, or anti-art, as a non- culture object according to the diagram. I don’t see how Clifford could classify anything as a non-culture. The changing of technology influences the changing of cultures. And fake art could be a culture. There are people who collect only fakes. Wouldn’t the collecting of fakes be considered a part of culture even if the size is fairly small? Clifford should have given us his own definition of “culture” in his essay. Another problem I have is that Clifford sates, ” There can be no direct movement from zone 4 to zone 1.” (no pg.#). And also, Clifford limits “art” as being original and singular on the diagram. I believe an old furniture with a unique design could move directly from a non-art to art. A chair, which has been reproduced for commercial use, could be a non-art in the beginning. But as time went by, the chairs could be worn out and be destroyed. Lets sat that there is just one out of many chairs has survived. Now, as people’s tastes for art changes and varies, this one remaining chair can move directly from a non-art object to an art object. I am also troubled by the use of the word, “value” is used so often by Clifford. He did not give his definition of “value”. Clifford has limited the concept of culture significantly by linking culture with just art.
In Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” he explains the limitations of using literary techniques to analyze culture. Geertz explains in great detail about the philosophy behind “thin description” and “thick description.” He gives an example of two boys rapidly closing and opening one of their eye to describe the meaning. “Thin description” would be the simple explanation of one boy opening and closing his eye very rapidly. A boy closing and opening his eyes trying to deceive explains “Thick description”
the other to make him think that a conspiracy is in motion. The other boy cannot tell if he is blinking unintentionally, winking, or fake-winking. So “thick description” is a description with an explanation or a deeper meaning to the event. The example of the two boys is told to show how ethnography is thick description. Geertz explains that, “Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct’ a reading of) a manuscript – foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tedious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.” (pg. 242). Studying past cultures is like putting a puzzle together with missing pieces. A person can put his own piece in for the missing place to try to see the whole picture. Just because his piece fits doesn’t mean that it is the right piece. “Culture” is not always what it seems. Ward Goodenough explains this perfectly. ” ‘Culture [is located] in the minds and hearts of men.” (pg. 242). Geertz way of thinking about cultural study is very similar to the way Richard Johnson feels about cultural study. They both feel that culture is just a summary and an interpretation. The difference is that Johnson sees more dangers to the study of incomplete culture. Clifford questions the reason for cultural study but does not try very hard to answer them. On the other hand, Geertz sees the benefits of cultural study more clearly. He sees it in a more positive way. “The whole point of semiotic approach to culture is, as I have said, to aid us in gaining to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them.” (pg. 252-253).
The three theorists all believe that cultural study is too generalized. I too agree with them. I have come in agreement with Geertz the most between the three theorists: “…if one looks for systematic treatises in the field, one is so soon disappointed, the more so if one finds any.” (pg. 252).