Critical/Cultural Approaches to Communication

Kent A Ono. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. Sage Publication, 2009.

Fueled by technological innovations in media such as the Internet (with staging formats such as YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace), e-mail, wifi, cell phones, Blackberries and I-phones, DVRs, and the much larger digital revolution (of which they are all a part)—as well as a rapidly increasing interest in social identities such as race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ability—critical cultural communication (hereafter CCC) has become a central part of the contemporary field of communication.

Given the recent focus of much CCC scholarship on new media and identity, newcomers to the field might imagine that because these concerns have been responsible for igniting interest in the field, they are definitive of this area of work. Certainly, recently published scholarship does suggest that research on the digital revolution and cultural identities is the main part of CCC. However, more significant to CCC are broader theoretical issues of discourse; social power relations; social inequities; political resistance; modern thought, politics, and institutions; social and political organizations, logics, and frameworks; and cultural difference. Furthermore, the study of CCC not only has strong historical roots but also aims to historicize social life and, therefore, while interested in social change and technology, is not interested only in the “new.”

This chapter is a brief introduction to CCC as a subfield of communication. The chapter begins by further defining CCC and then, by historicizing this important subfield, discussing how the terms—critical and cultural—are interconnected. The chapter then addresses contemporary issues in the field before concluding with a gesture toward its future.

Defining CCC

Four approaches to defining CCC include defining CCC by its history, by its domain of study, by its interdisciplinarity, and by its transdisciplinarity. In thinking about the history of CCC studies, one might begin with Marxism. Arguably, the broader study of critical theory inside and outside the field of communication began with Karl Marx, with many of Marx’s central ideas continuing to resonate in critical scholarship. However, the modern emergence of critical and cultural studies more aptly begins with the Annales School in France and the Frankfurt School in Germany (some would also include the Chicago School of Sociology), beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, moving forward to the work of those associated with British cultural studies in the late 1950s and after, and then primarily after the 1960s to scholarship in the general areas of critical theory, postcolonial studies, poststructuralism, feminist studies, critical race studies, queer theory, and transnational and diaspora studies, each of which will be defined more fully later in the chapter.

Another way to define this area of research is by identifying its domain and by describing what CCC scholarship does. Among other things, CCC scholars tend to investigate discourses of power and knowledge; relationships between global and local communities; cultural dominance and resistance; theory and its relationship to criticism; communication and its corresponding intersections with culture, performance, economics, social organizations, ethnography, the media (cyberspace, digital, and visual culture), and even academic disciplines themselves; as well as the broad issues of everyday life.

Yet another way to define CCC is by describing it as a discipline. But while CCC certainly sometimes looks and sounds like a discipline, because so many of its most important scholarly luminaries eschew disciplinarity or critique the modern 21st-century organization of knowledge and power of the academy into disciplines, it is more apt to describe CCC as interdisciplinary or, as I will suggest below, “transdisciplinary.” CCC is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary because it cuts across fields and subfields such as performance studies, critical intercultural communication, critical organizational studies, critical rhetoric, and media studies. Critical cultural work includes both historical and contemporary topics that emphasize careful and creative theorization, interpretation, and evaluation of the communication phenomena of “everyday life.” Furthermore, CCC scholarship goes to great pains to engage and sometimes challenge and attempt to transform disciplinary questions in multiple fields. Indeed, one could further demarcate CCC as concerned with politics, historical context, theory, textual analysis, and self-reflexivity of methodology/purpose/approach, all issues that cut across wide-ranging fields such as political science, history, sociology, literature, and the humanities and social sciences more broadly.

However, while CCC functions interdisciplinarily by cutting across fields (e.g., studying sexuality or race may require studying genetics while at the same time studying gender and women’s studies and ethnic studies), it is important to argue that CCC is also transdisciplinary, meaning it creates its own set of questions both by asking questions that are not and cannot be answered within a given discipline and by forming its own, unique questions and answers germane to its study. Thus, CCC is very similar to the field of communication, itself, in that it borrows questions and findings from other fields while simultaneously setting its own scholarly agenda. CCC has its own unique scholarly approaches, positions, perspectives, and insights; breaks down boundaries among disciplines; and attends to theoretical and everyday life concerns. Additionally, it is defined more by the questions that are posed than by a specific theory or methodology.

“Critical” versus “Cultural”

The combination of the terms critical and cultural into “critical cultural communication” is often a convenience, since they share many dimensions. However, there are also political and intellectual stakes, for both tend to challenge political and intellectual orthodoxies; both challenge systems of governmentality; and both are interested, to some degree, in the social. Thus, the two terms critical and cultural come together in important ways—for example, in the name of the Critical and Cultural Studies Division of the National Communication Association and in the title of the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. The move to unite the critical and cultural might be described as an attempt to work across both areas, to call attention to their similarities versus their differences: In a sense, bringing the terms together is a linguistic and political “double gesture” to promote both and to imply their similarities rather than their differences.

Having defined CCC, it is now useful to draw distinctions between its two key terms critical and cultural, for while it makes sense for the two terms to be paired, at times there are crucial differences that require further explanation. Briefly, critical often conjures up for people critical theory and a Marxist intellectual tradition; whereas cultural brings to mind “cultural studies” and the British cultural studies tradition, as well as interdisciplinarity, identity politics, and literary and humanistic approaches to the study of popular culture, broadly defined. In its crudest, perhaps most stereotypical, way, the distinction between critical and cultural would boil down to critical theory versus cultural studies. In this way, one could conceive of critical theory as political economic work and cultural studies as identity politics. But this kind of distinction is far too crude to address adequately or accurately the complexity of critical and cultural studies and their relationship. Thus, next, I work to explicate some of the history of critical theory and cultural studies with an eye to how they are brought into a relationship in CCC.

In providing a history of critical theory, particularly as it pertains to communication, one might begin with the Frankfurt School, starting with the members who formed the original Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in the 1930s, such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin. Key works that are often referenced during this early period include Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1972) Dialectic of Enlightenment and Benjamin’s famous essay (1992) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Building on their scholarship, Herbert Marcuse, in his One Dimensional Man (1972), suggested that the freedoms promised by capitalism were a ruse and that commodity capitalism in fact limits desire and possibilities for agency rather than expands them. Another key Frankfurt School figure was Jürgen Habermas (1989), known primarily for his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, first published in 1962, who theorized a public sphere as an ideal space in which communication can construct community and democracy. In it, Habermas, critical of bourgeois control of the mass media by private interests, laments the loss of space for public communication that makes possible unencumbered public deliberation of democratic ideals. Until that point, CCC was, if not explicitly Marxist in orientation, then at least neo-Marxist, presupposing the significance and centrality of class and class critique, with an emphasis on political change and a critique of material inequality.

While one definition of critical theory work is based in a Marxist tradition, another definition of critical theory is broader and has the potential to liaise well across both critical and cultural work. Such a definition of critical theory tends to be in opposition to, or to resist, hegemonic political and ideological formations. By hegemonic political and ideological formations, I mean the broad set of beliefs, forces, and attitudes that become ingrained within a society that make people, for example, immediately rise and put hand over heart before the national anthem is played, unquestioningly use gender-segregated bathrooms, or accept a link between biological identity markers and intelligence. Indeed, one of the principal ideologies against which many members of the Frankfurt School railed was fascism. The theories, critical methodologies, and even topics they examined were chosen so as to critique fascism and to imagine better ways of living. Thus, critical in this way is both the philosophical and the political stance taken in opposition to the reproduction of power relations in a multiplicity of forms.

Much work using this more expansive concept of critical theory includes Foucauldian and poststructural approaches that use theory as a tool for analysis. A Foucauldian position is one that draws on the work of the late Michel Foucault, a French scholar who thought carefully about shifts in public discourse around issues such as mental health, prisons, universities, and sexuality. Poststructural approaches have a tendency to seek explanations for how things are rather than assume that phenomena are easily explainable by already known methods and ways of viewing the world. Foundational scholars associated with a concept of critical theory that includes but builds beyond a Marxist foundation are Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Hélène Cixous, Michel DeCerteau, Gilles Deleuze, and François Lyotard. The work of Mikhail Bahktin and Fredric Jameson have also figured prominently, as has the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, especially their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), and Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and more recently Slavoj Žižek.

Whereas critical work often traces its historical genealogy to Marxism and to critical theory, cultural studies has a different genealogical tradition. Early cultural studies work was associated with scholars who founded and then were part of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, England. Early figures such as E. P. Thompson, Richard Hoggart, and Raymond Williams brought a class dimension to the study of culture and challenged the basic elitism of the academy and its relationship to society. However, such scholars typically found the Marxist scholarship that saw the political economy as foundational, to which all questions of marginality must return, as too narrow. These early cultural studies scholars opened up possibilities for understanding marginality, oppression, and class discrimination from a multiplicity of sites; thus, critiques of dominance, which are critiques of the dominant social institutions and ideologies, could begin from points other than class alone. In a broad sense, these early cultural studies scholars took a Marxist argument about class and retheorized it in a way that allowed others to cross-apply an analysis of class to other social phenomena (not only economic ones), such as sexuality, race, gender, nation, age, and ability.

Following earlier cultural studies scholars, key figures such as Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, Meaghan Morris, Richard Dyer, Paul Gilroy, and Coco Fusco emerged, foregrounding an interest in youth activism, black British politics, queer studies, whiteness studies, feminism, transnationalism, cinema, visual, music, and performance studies.

Also important in the historical evolution of the field of cultural studies was the publication of two key volumes produced by University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) faculty members, which created tremendous reverberations in the United States and abroad. The first, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988), affectionately known as the “big red book,” edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, emerged out of a conference at Illinois and contained many key pieces that remain important touchstones in CCC work today. Following that volume was Grossberg, Nelson, and Paula Treichler’s Cultural Studies, an even weightier volume developing out of another conference on the UIUC campus. This volume included multiple-media formats and also focused on audience studies. Scholars in this book embraced cultural studies more than did those in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, where class critique figured much more pivotally. Important to the importation of a version of British cultural studies to the United States are Lawrence Grossberg and James Carey. The UIUC, in particular, was one site, the University of Iowa, where Carey also taught for a time, another, where a relationship between Marxist critical theory and British cultural studies took shape.

Those taking a cultural studies approach often define their practice based on the kinds of questions they ask. For instance, while many cultural studies scholars, especially in literary studies, conduct textual analyses, others emphasize ethnographic and audience reception research. While some focus primarily on resistance, others are more interested in cultural identity and activism. Still others emphasize critical analyses of, for instance, governmentality, the given governing structure that allows societies to be regulated and controlled. Governmentality is one emphasis of Foucault’s work that people such as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Nikolas Rose build on and discuss. Such scholars are interested not only in a given govern-mentality, which they might object to or oppose, but also in plural governmentalities, which offer the possibility of having alternative rules and regulations within a society and emerge as a result of broad coalitions of social and political actors rather than, for instance, a narrower professional and bureaucratic group of leaders (such as U.S. senators, the World Trade Organization, or prime ministers or presidents).

As a whole, most cultural studies scholars examine multiple axes of power and oppression; emphasize inter-disciplinarity and transdisciplinarity explicitly and seek knowledge produced out of transdisciplinarity rather than a hodgepodge combination of approaches from different disciplines; and consider culture to be a starting point for theory and analysis. Cultural studies emphasizes theories and methods that are relevant and useful to the research questions posed and studies designed, which often means using a multimethodological approach—that is, using more than one methodology at a time in combination. Cultural studies also tends to emphasize art, music, and theater as much as literature and film; and new media and visual culture, while foci in and of themselves, are often addressed transdisciplinarily.

It is important to suggest that, while Marxism, the Frankfurt School, critical theory, and cultural studies are all important aspects of CCC studies as practiced in the United States, many feel that the word critical is often used as a way to marginalize particular scholars and their brands of scholarship. Thus, critical is a contested term, one that can imply that one abides by a certain set of theoretical assumptions and obligations, such as a commitment to doing theory versus doing action. The use of critical as an exclusive term often is defended because those doing critical theory have struggled to gain hard-won positions in academia. However, critical is not “owned” by a given intellectual community; hence, varied and diverse communities describe their own work as critical. Thus, critical work not only exists within a Marxist framework or a European one (French and German, in particular) but also has bases within feminist, Third World (in film studies “third cinema”), and ethnic studies frameworks (see, e.g., Chabram-Dernersesian, 2006). In this vein, critical work also emerges out of the lived experiences of women, people of color, and LGBTQ communities, and it takes class seriously but not necessarily as the overarching, determining framework.

Understandably, at times, scholars of race, ethnicity, and culture have bristled when the word critical is used as a code for European critical (high) theory tradition. Such scholars challenge the word critical to refer to work done by white Europeans and Americans, especially work that uses a lot of theoretical jargon and is, if not exclusivist, elitist. In contrast, work done by people of color, LGBTQ scholars, and women is relegated, contra critical theory, to the dustbin of the cultural.

Perhaps the best exemplar of someone whose work often traverses across both critical and cultural dimensions and whose work is centrally focused on communication is Stuart Hall, one of the significant leaders in Birmingham School history. Much of Hall’s work is used in scholarship on media and cultural studies. And some of his work (sometimes the very same work) is used in scholarship on race, ethnicity, transnationalism, postcolonialism, and diaspora. For instance, many read Stuart Hall’s (1980) essay about the dominant, negotiated, resistant reading positions available to consumers of media texts, while others draw more on his critical race essay about racial representations, “Whites of Their Eyes” (1985), and his work in Black diaspora studies. Thus, Hall traverses both more standard cultural studies and media studies, and race, ethnic, critical race studies realms, and his work gets taken up in both.

CCC work focusing on race, ethnicity, and critical race studies draws from numerous scholars, such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga, the Combahee River Collective, Asian Women United of California, Homi Bhabha, Abdul JanMohamed, Henry Louis Gates, Nestor Canclini, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Michelle Wallace, Gayatri Spivak, Manuel Castells, Kuan-Hsing Chen, Rey Chow, Herman Gray, Chandra Mohanty, Lisa Lowe, Edward Said, Lauren Berlant, Michael Warner, Inderpal Grewal, Caren Kaplan, Wendy Brown, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Anzaldúa, Rosa Linda Fregoso, and the like. These scholars often study race, nation, ethnicity, transnationalism, and postcolo-nialism and are often simultaneously engaged in understanding multiple, overlapping, and intersectional aspects of social and cultural life, such as sexuality, gender, and class.

While all work in critical theory and cultural studies is interdisciplinary, at least to a degree, some of it has been more and some of it less useful to scholars in the field of communication, or at least with a foot in that field. Currently, because of the early work of Richard Dyer, David Roediger, Ruth Frankenberg, and George Lipsitz, scholarship exists that critically interrogates the concept of whiteness, which refers to the way representations of race have functioned, on the one hand, to render racial minorities hypervisible and, on the other hand, to render those identified as white as having either no racial identity at all or an identity that functions in unmarked ways. Such scholarship has blossomed within communication studies. Thomas Nakayama and Judith Martin’s (1999) edited book Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity as well as an essay by Raka Shome, “Race and Popular Cinema: The Rhetorical Strategies of Whiteness in City of Joy” (1996), are good examples, as is the work of Lisa Flores, Dreama Moon, and Carrie Crenshaw, among others.

Traditions of feminist critical cultural work have long histories within a cultural studies framework. Scholars in this area assume that gender is socially constructed and explore its impact on women’s everyday lives. Most notable among the early scholars in this area are Meaghan Morris, Angela McRobbie, Paula Treichler, and Angharad Valdivia, and more recent work, such as that by Barbara Biesecker, Carol Stabile, Raka Shome, Radha Hegde, and Aimee Carillo-Rowe, has also emerged. Perhaps because many of these scholars were trained by an earlier era of critical theory and cultural studies scholars, their work tends to be, from the outset, premised on multimethodological and multiple-identity research, as well as to cut clearly across critical and cultural divides. Queer studies work not only draws attention to the multiplicity of sexualities and genders that exist (well beyond heterosexuals and homosexuals and women and men) but also asks how a “queer perspective,” one that works outside the traditional social norms of societies traditionally dominated by heterosexual and patriarchal figures in power, can invigorate scholarship on all topics. Examples of key figures in communication include John Sloop, Katherine Sender, Larry Gross, Charles Morris, E. Patrick Johnson, Thomas Nakayama, and Fred Corey, who have been instrumental in moving critical questions of sexuality forward in the field. (See John Sloop, “Queer Approaches to Communication,” this volume, for a more detailed discussion of these issues.)

Work in transnational and postcolonial studies that draws on the work of Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, and Edward Said, for instance, and within communication, the work of scholars such as Raka Shome, Radha Hegde, Marouf Hasian, and others have also been important. Much of this work gives not only new insight into the everyday but also new insights into the questions posed by scholars studying the everyday.

The Future of CCC

It is clear that CCC studies will continue to be a significant part of the field of communication for quite some time. Indeed, given the rapid centralization of this area in the field and change in globalization and media technologies, one can imagine vibrant new subareas within CCC work emerging for years to come. Exciting newer areas such as cyberspace and digital studies, new technologies, reality television, biotechnology and surveillance studies, cyber-cultural studies, and transnational globalization studies continue to reframe the field and require new methodologies and theories as well as new conceptualizations of communication. As new media technologies emerge and new international, social, and political stakes are discussed, new approaches using critical and cultural perspectives will be required.

The area of “neoliberalization” studies, which is the study of the way globalization and transnational capitalism work to eliminate constraints on markets (e.g., North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA) and expand inexpensive labor pools and material resources, while very much a part of CCC work, is in its early stages of development. Perhaps, there is some way to both make the study of neoliberalism much more of a scholarly area or focus of CCC work and to deepen its theoretical significance. Moreover, perhaps there is a way to study neoliberalism in a way that specifically addresses issues of communication scholarship, hence rendering it useful for those rooted in the field.

An attempt to bring political economists together with cultural studies scholars rather than have a divide between them, emphasizing areas of common agreement and backgrounding the, at times rather minor, disagreements, would help strengthen scholarly work and allow future scholars to work across these two areas with more flexibility without the fear of reprisal. Bringing the critical and cultural together in studies of communication ultimately promises a much more fulfilling project, one that can enliven, excite, and stimulate the next generation of CCC scholarship to come.