//Popular is political// Richard Dyer talks to Samuel Nowak about popular culture, university and politics
Popular is political Richard Dyer talks to Samuel Nowak about popular culture, university and politics
SN: You began your academic career in the 1970s at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, a research centre which specialized in combining academic and political activity.
RD: I was Stuart Hall's student and I still think of my works as political texts. Maybe except for the book on Nino Rota. My newest book on serial killers in cinema will also have a political dimension. Anyway, that was the premise of the CCCS, not to become separated from ordinary people, especially those from working class...
And that was often a bit of fantasy…Wasn’t it?
Some of us would constantly repeat that we should take our work outdoors, but we did not know exactly how to go about doing it. One of the ways we found was to publish a community newspaper so as to make academic knowledge more accessible. We emphasized the class category because we already felt we were part of other communities such as the feminist movement and LGBT, which gave us motivation to become politically engaged. We even organized summer schools with a communist party and engaged in adult education. On the other hand, when I thought about my mother who was a great albeit not particularly well educated woman, I did not delude myself into thinking that after reading one of my articles she would start to vote Labour.
The use of theory was the main problem discussed at the Centre
There were two camps. According to one of them one should write in a straightforward and simple manner, while according to the other camp theory should be reclaimed for the use of the political project of cultural studies. We constantly tried to "translate" raw theory into a language understood outside of the university as well. What is important is that a generation of researchers such as Angela McRobbie, Janice Winship or Charlotte Brunsdon brought in a feminist perspective. Until they made their contribution we had talked a lot about feminism in the CCCS, but not always in reference to the latest publications. Anyway, it was a very difficult moment for the feminist movement because of the hostility it encountered.
Was your political engagement the result of your understanding of culture?
We dealt with a broadly defined culture, culture that previously existed outside of academia and was very political in nature. At the time this was where my interest in camp came from - it was the purest form linking politics and culture, although I am quite sure that in that period most people from the CCCS would disagree with such a statement. I even published an article in a soft porn magazine, which seemed like a perfect realization of the cultural studies’ demands- acadenic knowledge for the working class in an accessible form and a popular medium.
It is popular culture that became the cultural studies main research area. That was an important novelty at the academia, wasn’t it?
I devoted my thesis to social values and entertainment. I was particularly interested in two popular opinions characterizing the entertainment industry: that it turns off the mind and that it is an escape from reality. Finally I focused on cinema, especially musical, since it was easier to analyze than performances and variety shows or TV programmes that back then could not be recorded. But even repeatedly watching films in a cinema was a daunting task. I would go to see the same film a few times and, pencil in my hand, I would take down the notes. God only knows what people around me thought. It corresponded with the CCCS postulates - I was dealing with the industrial production of entertainment for mass audience. Of course one could study elite culture, but we were interested in how popular culture expresses values of its own group and the power relations that go with it.
Is that where the subsequent ethnographic turn in cultural studies came from?
Yes after I quit the CCCS, researchers put more emphasis on how the communities were organized, how people interact with culture, what their daily routine looks like and how they transmit values. On the other hand I think, and I know that Stuart Hall is of the same opinion, or rather I think the same way Stuart does, that such an approach is problematic in contemporary, mediatised societies. This shows the necessity of textual analysis as a method- after all it shows certain practices (what people do or say) as texts. This is what cultural studies used to be and to certain extent still are: textual analysis sensitive to the questions of morality, ethics, political and aesthetic choices of different social groups.
For quite some time now cultural studies have been criticized for their emphasis on the category of resistance, which is claimed to be ubiquitous in popular culture. It results in the accusations of populism and the villain is usually John Fiske. What’s your position in this discussion?
These accusations sound all-too familiar. They appeared already when the CCCS researchers started dealing with youth subcultures and television. In my opinion it does not correspond with one of the premises of cultural studies, especially the concept of Richard Hoggart, the father of British cultural studies. There is a difference between taking popular culture seriously and extolling it. I have always thought that all cultural artifacts, especially the popcultural ones, are a battleground between progressive, subversive and conservative meanings. I still think that in some popular texts a certain struggle is continually going on. Of course some sort of hidden Marxism surfaces here - although not exclusively - which encourages to ask questions about what can be subversive in the existing cultural traditions. There was a time when we saw every popular text as proof that the resistance existed. For example, when studies on soap operas began, Charlotte Brunsdon wrote some excellent pieces on it, it was acknowledged that since women liked this genre so much it had to be good and progressive. No one asked what kind of affirmation of women’s submission a soap opera could be though. The same goes for texts that are popular among gay audiences - they did not have to be necessarily good and subversive just because they were appreciated by gay men. This is a more complicated issue and a healthy dose of ambivalence is essential. Richard Hoggart always put criticism first, but not in the negative sense. The point was to respect popular culture through criticizing it - it was about some sort of aesthetical and political criticism… Sometimes I like to think that these are two identical issues.
You focused on the category of subversion, an idea that brings us to queer theory. You are one of the founders of lesbian and gay studies as a separate research discipline. There is a constant tension between queer theory and lesbian and gay studies. How do you perceive this ‘tumultuous relationship’ today?
I think that the problem in queer theory is the theory and not the queer (laughs). It sometimes is over-theorised and this is why I feel closer to cultural studies. Yet this tension is very creative and valuable. As I was finishing my book Now You See It, devoted to gay and lesbian cinema, I realized that this whole category fell apart. Many questions appeared: whether a film was really made by a lesbian or a gay person, or whether a particular film was gay or lesbian enough if it was shot by a heterosexual, etc. Such a perspective sometimes oversimplified the problem, narrowing everything to stereotypes and conventions. On the other hand, this was some sort of a necessity - we would not be where we are now if it had not been for such initiatives. I would have never thought that my friend would receive an award from Queen Elizabeth II for his services for the LGBT community. Or yesterday, I read an interview with Ian McKellen where he talked about the importance of LGBT rights and his political activism. It is, among others, because of such reasons that the existence of the LGBT studies project is justified. The problem with queer theory and its politicality is due to certain dispersion. One should remember, however, that queer theory belongs to a new context in which politics is understood in another way and this is something I do not know much about. This is part of Uncut and Occupy movements - great, fantastic initiatives, based mostly on social networking sites and the internet. Therefore asking for certain concrete effects that queer theory can offer such as changes in law, etc. seems to me misguided and anachronistic. The real question is how contemporary, social and theory–inspired movements can attain their goals, since they do it certainly in a different way than they used to. When I think about queer theory I appreciate its sensitivity to the fact that sexual identities differ, although all problems stem from this awful notion of "identity" which suggests some sort of entirety. I tried to deal with this issue in my book The Culture of Queers, in which I was reflecting on where gay culture and its accompanying resistance, politics and different values emerged from and were established. On the other hand, when I think about attempts to pass a homophobic law in Saint Petersburg, it seems to me we still need such clear-cut categories as gay and lesbian.
Thus we are coming back to the issue of political activism. Do you think that contemporary cultural studies, even though the notion is quite vague, can actively join ongoing political debates? What I mean specifically is the context of changes in university funding, Occupy movements and financial crisis.
I think that the idea of understanding cultural texts such as films and television as well as practices within the framework of certain social interests and ideological values - even if it slides into populism, can be valuable. Cultural studies have influenced many disciplines that are directly applicable in everyday life like management theory for example. The whole theory of workplace culture comes from cultural studies. Another question is the reflectiveness and consciousness of one's cognitive foundations, which contemporary humanities owe to cultural studies, though I do not want to sound too imperialist. Contemporarily, even though I say it from the perspective of Great Britain, this criticism is much needed. Douglas Kellner once wrote that ‘cultural studies is thus not just another academic fad, but can be part of a struggle for a better society and a better life’.[i] I think that this project still remains relevant.