Cultural Criticism: A Reading of Foundational Theory

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Cultural Criticism: A Reading of Foundational Theory by Abderazzak Al-Mesbahi (160 pp.). The book seeks to present an expansive, critical reading of the seminal theoretical works of cultural criticism, as embodied in the views of the Frankfurt School, the New York Intellectuals, and British cultural studies, then of the views associated with postmodern cultural criticism: namely cultural materialism, new historicism, postcolonialism, and subaltern studies. It focuses on the major impact of Douglas Kellner, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said on the transformations within cultural studies since the 1970s.

Because the book proposes an extensive journey through the foundational intellectual and critical theory of cultural criticism, it is not governed by a tendency for quantitative posturing or historiography. Instead, it seeks to employ these sources to propose new critical entry points to cultural criticism, in theory and praxis. Perhaps the most important of these proposals is the construction of a different concept of cultural criticism that does not place it at odds with literary criticism or exclude the “aesthetic” from its domain, not to mention offering a clear conception of the problem of “methodology” and the “procedural concepts” that cultural critics appropriate from various critical perspectives or themselves formulate to approach texts and discourses.

Al-Mesbahi begins with the notion that media culture and technology is at the core of cultural studies as elaborated by the Frankfurt School, and especially by Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Mercuse. While Horkheimer and Adorno found fertile ground in the United States to investigate how media affects the standardisation of ideas and modes of consumption, Mercuse went even further to argue that social classes have disappeared because they have been replaced by technology, which dominates people’s lives and drowns out their ideas and class identifications. Despite their disdain for popular culture, the New York Intellectuals embraced new cinema and the music of Bob Dylan in their magazine Partisan Review. Similarly, British cultural studies paid special attention to media culture as texts.

The three movements under study—the Frankfurt School, the New York Intellectuals, and British cultural studies—all operated on the same principles of cultural criticism, with the latter in particular advocating for a democratic society in which all classes can express themselves without fear or constant subjugation to censorship and regulation by an establishment class. The author argues that the function of cultural studies is to reveal discourses of stereotyping, coercion, and the dismantling of pluralism in favour of unilateral thinking or to produce Marcuse’s “one-dimensional man”. Further, the terms “cultural criticism” and “cultural studies” are nearly interchangeable, in that both are concerned with media culture and its complicated relationship with popular and elite culture, class, cultural production, gender, globalisation, and (post-)modernism. In Britain, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies popularised the “cultural studies” concept as a more advanced form of the Frankfurt School’s cultural criticism. In the same way, Al-Mesbahi mentions that new historicism emerged as the American version of cultural materialism, as crafted by Raymond Williams of the British school.

Moreover, the author discusses the Birmingham Centre’s introduction of “critical” as an umbrella term, to expand the scope of cultural criticism to include fields such as literary theory, aesthetics, philosophical criticism, media analysis, pop culture, psychoanalysis, semiotics, social theory, and anthropology. This umbrella frames most postmodern critical trends within cultural criticism as perspectives by which to analyse and interpret cultural forms and systems in their engagement with social transformations and modes of hegemony. For this reason, the book examines the fine distinctions that separate critical theories and practises, such as new historicism, cultural materialism, and post-colonialism, to examine their standpoints on cultural texts, procedural concepts, and analytical and interpretive strategies. This umbrella also aids our understanding of the connections and intersections of postmodern critical strategies that Abdelaziz Hammouda holds are variants of cultural criticism, including new historicism, cultural materialism, postcolonialism, and feminist critique. The author concludes that the broader objective of the foundational theories of cultural criticism is to deconstruct patterns of hegemony practised by an establishment seeking to control human beings, to standardise preferences, thought, and behaviour in accordance with its interests, and to exclude any form of action toward changing reality or rebellion against the regimes that defend that establishment.

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