I have just finished reading John Hartley’s hugely entertaining and provocative book on cultural studies past, present and future. Called Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies, it argues that cultural studies as a discipline has ossified into a field where ‘reading’ after ‘reading’ of cultural texts accumulates to no particular end, and where those readings are based on assessments of value (some form of the ‘how critical is this?’ question) rather than any other methodology.
I’m pretty sure if I was a fully paid-up member of the cultural studies club I would be pretty aghast at the very generalised level of his account… nonetheless, a lot of his argument really got me thinking. Not least because I am trying to figure out a way to plan the ending of a paper I am writing without assessing the value (ie how critical of capitalism/neoliberalism/national identity/) of the images I am writing about. It’s a hard habit to break.
His book also has some very interesting thoughts on the methods required to deal with the nature of digital cultural production, which means methods that can engage with the mobility and malleability of digital texts and images, as well as understand the systems through which they circulate. He suggests that the traditional methods of cultural studies – the close reading of specific texts that usually depends on an unremarked mish-mash of semiology and discourse analysis, with which the question ‘how critical…’ gets answered – is simply inadequate to deal with the cultural work being done by the ‘distributed expertise’ of large populations. His critiques of the guardians of High Culture in England/English is just great, as is his discussion of YouTube viral dance-off videos as the true descendents of the eighteenth century radical presses: sex, scandal, power and all.
All of which means that the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies is going to need a pretty radical rethink, based as it mostly is on the careful analysis of ‘finished’ images…