Susan Sontag was against interpretation. Laura Kipnis was against love. Seven were against Thebes. Mark Greif is against everything.
That’s the title of his new book, the subtitle of which is “Essays.” Neither is completely accurate. Greif is against the way things are, but he has hopes for the way things might become. And, although “Against Everything” is put together from essays written over the past twelve years, and published mostly in the journal of which Greif is a founding editor, n+1, it is really a book on a single subject: contemporary life, more specifically, the kind of life that someone who would buy such a book, or write such a book, or read a column about such a book—in short, yourself—might right now be living. It’s meant to be consumed from beginning to end. It makes you think.
I guess “Against Everything” would be called a work of cultural criticism. I’ve always disliked that term, since it’s related to no body of knowledge and names no actual calling, unlike, say, movie criticism or book reviewing. Also, movies are movies and books are books, but culture is everything. How are you supposed to get a handle on everything?
“We are incompetent to solve the times,” Emerson said (though, characteristically, he then went on to try to solve them), and that has always seemed a sound journalistic maxim to me. The songs, the shows, the books and movies, the art-world sensations, fashion statements, political spectacles, and tech innovations, the celebrities, cover stories, foods, meds, drugs, diets, exercise regimens, and life-style themes that “everyone” seems to be talking about or taking up or disapproving of—there is just too much foreground. It’s like a classroom in which every student’s hand is raised. “Make sense of me,” they all cry out.
The problem isn’t picking out what will last. That, actually, is relatively easy. Critical reception is imperfect and it’s not always aligned with popular taste, but major oversights are rare. The problem is figuring out, in the constant bombardment of attention-seeking missiles, which ones tell us something about who we are.
The main difficulty is not knowing what’s a trend, what’s a backlash, and what’s a blip. Many years ago, when people began jogging, I predicted, with the confidence of untried youth, that jogging was a fad that couldn’t last. It wasn’t that ordinary-looking people running in public in their shorts seemed kind of unnatural, although it did. I just couldn’t see how an activity that requires only a pair of sneakers could be sufficiently commercialized to become a fixture in the national life style. Such was my ignorance about the money in footwear.
Jogging didn’t end, but it did evolve into the current professional-class practice of “going to the gym”—a more high-cap and economically exploitable enthusiasm, and the subject of one of Greif’s most devastating “against” essays. The essay is devastating even if you think you have a sensible (or lazy) person’s ambivalence about regimented exercise. You will still feel, after reading him, that you have bought into a soul-destroying managerialism that has disguised itself as a means of enhancing “life.” (Greif’s essay on another professional-class fetish, food, is similarly unsettling.) Greif’s hero is Thoreau, which gives you an idea of the radicalism of his disaffection.
The cultural critic’s conceptual enemy is the smoothing formula known as “the wisdom of crowds.” On that theory, it must be the case that the person whose favorite song is the No. 1 song, whose favorite book is a best-seller, whose favorite food just switched from kale to quinoa, is the luckiest person in the world, because the culture is producing exactly the goods that he or she enjoys. This rule would apply right down all the rungs of life-style choices within your demographic: the kind of car you drive, the number of kids you have, where you take your vacations. On a wisdom-of-crowds hypothesis, what most people who are like you choose to do should be the optimal choice for you.
The cultural critic’s answer is that if you are doing what everyone around you is doing, you are not thinking, and if you are not thinking, you are missing out on your own life. The cultural critic is the person who worries that what everyone is doing right now is distracting us from what is really important, and precisely because it’s what everyone is doing.
The trouble, usually, is identifying the alternative. For the marketplace is flooded with alternatives: that’s what all those raised hands represent. You don’t like what all those people are doing? Do what all these people are doing. There are a lot of defiance goods out there offering an adversarial experience—like high-end pop music (for which Greif has a soft spot: his most brilliant essay is an amazingly multilayered piece called “Learning to Rap”).
But you don’t want to mistake some band’s assertion of autonomy (commercially enabled, but let’s leave that aside) for your own. What you want is something that seems unattainable in a society as saturated in mediated desires as ours is: you want uncoerced choice. Greif’s argument—and this is what separates him from the usual solver of the times—is that what’s killing us is deeply embedded in our social and economic system. It’s not the gym that’s the problem. It’s the way we live now, which is making the gym seem like a solution to something.
Greif thinks that a whole lot will have to change before real choice is possible. Until then, it’s not enough to be against the box-office and the real-estate section and the best-seller list. Until then, we have to be against . . . everything.
It’s a peculiarity of this kind of criticism, criticism that takes on the whole culture, that it is often misread. Most people remember David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd” as a critique of mid-century men and women as other-directed, but he actually thought that inner- and outer-direction are mixed in everyone. (He also tied his categories to a prediction about population growth that turned out to be wildly inaccurate, and which he cut from later editions.) Many readers also thought that what Christopher Lasch called “The Culture of Narcissism” referred to a surge of egocentricity. Lasch had to write another book, “The Minimal Self,” to explain that narcissism is symptom of the erosion of ego. Few people remember that one. I don’t think readers will make a mistake about Greif, but it will be interesting to see if they do.
What is Cultural Criticism? by Johanna M. Smith / Ross C. Murfin
What do you think of when you think of culture? The opera or ballet? A performance of a Mozart symphony at Lincoln Center, or a Rembrandt show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Does the phrase "cultural event" conjure up images of young people in jeans and T-Shirts or of people in their sixties dressed formally? Most people hear "culture" and think "High Culture." Consequently, most people, when they first hear of cultural criticism, assume it would be more formal than, well, say, formalism. They suspect it would be "highbrow," in both subject and style.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In one of the goals of cultural criticism is to oppose Culture with a capital C, in other words, that new of culture which always and only equates it with what we sometimes call "high culture." Cultural critics want to make the term culture refer to popular culture as well as to that culture we associate with the so-called classics. Cultural critics are as likely to write about "Star Trek" as they are to analyze James Joyce's Ulysses. They want to break down the boundary between high and low, and to dismantle the hierarchy that the distinction implies. They also want to discover the (often political) reasons why a certain kind of aesthetic product is more valued than others.
A cultural critic writing on a revered classic might concentrate on a movie or even comic strip version. Or she might see it in light of some more common form of reading material (a novel by Jane Austen might be viewed in light of Gothic romances or ladies' conduct manuals), as the reflection of some common cultural myths or concerns (Huckleberry Finn might be shown to reflect and shape American myths about race, concerns about juvenile delinquency), or as an example of how texts move back and forth across the alleged boundary between "low" and "high" culture. A history play by Shakespeare, as one group of cultural critics has pointed out, may have started off as a popular work enjoyed by working people, later become a "highbrow" play enjoyed only by the privileged and educated, and, still later, due to a film version produced during World War II, become popular again--this time because it has been produced and viewed as a patriotic statement about England's greatness during wartime (Humm 6-7). Even as this introduction was being written, cultural critics were analyzing the "cultural work" being done cooperatively by Mel Gibson and Shakespeare in Franco Zeffirelli's recent movie, Hamlet.
In combating old definitions of what constitutes culture, of course, cultural critics sometimes end up combating old definitions of what constitutes the literary canon, that is, the once-agreed-upon honor roll of Great Books. They tend to do so, however, neither by adding books (and movies and television sitcoms) to the old list of texts that every "culturally literate" person should supposedly know, nor by substituting for it some kind of Counterculture Canon. Rather, they tend to combat the canon by critiquing the very idea of canon. Cultural critics want to get us away from thinking about certain works as the "best" ones produced by a given culture (and therefore as the novels that best represent American culture). They seek to be more descriptive and less evaluative, more interested in relating than rating cultural products and events.
It is not surprising, then, that in an article on "The Need for Cultural Studies," four groundbreaking cultural critics have written that "Cultural Studies should . . . abandon the goal of giving students access to that which represents a culture." Instead, these critics go on to argue, it should show works in reference to other works, economic contexts, or broad social discourses (about childbirth, women's education, rural decay, etc.) within whose contexts the work makes sense. Perhaps most important, critics doing cultural studies should counter the prevalent notion that culture is some wholeness that has already been formed. Culture, rather, is really a set of interactive cultures, alive and growing and changing, and cultural critics should be present- and even future-oriented. Cultural critics should be "resisting intellectuals," and cultural studies should be "an emancipatory project" (Giroux 478-80).
The paragraphs above are peppered with words like oppose, counter, deny, resist, combat, abandon, and emancipatory. What such words suggest--and quite accurately--is that a number of cultural critics view themselves in political, even oppositional, terms. Not only are cultural critics likely to take on the literary canon while offering political readings of popular films, but they are also likely to take on the institution of the university, for that is where the old definitions of culture as High Culture (and as something formed and finished and canonized) have been most vigorously preserved, defended, and reinforced.
Cultural critics have been especially critical of the departmental structure of universities, for that structure, perhaps more than anything else, has kept the study of the "arts" more or less distinct from the study of history, not to mention from the study of such things as television, film, advertising, journalism, popular photography, folklore, current affairs, shoptalk, and gossip. By doing so, the departmental structure of universities has reasserted the high/low culture distinction, implying that all the latter subjects are best left to historians, sociologists, anthropologists, linguists, and communication theorists. But such a suggestion, cultural critics would argue, keeps us from seeing the aesthetics of an advertisement as well as the propagandistic elements of a work of literature. For these reasons, cultural critics have mixed and matched the most revealing analytical procedures developed in a variety of disciplines, unabashedly jettisoning the rest. For these reasons, too, they have formed--and encouraged other scholars to form�networks other than and outside of those enforced departmentally.
Some initially loose interdisciplinary networks have, over time, solidified to become Cultural Studies programs and majors, complete with courses on comics and surveys of soaps. As this has happened, a significant if subtle danger has arisen. Cultural critics, Richard Johnson has warned, must strive diligently to keep cultural studies from becoming a discipline unto itself--one in which students encounter cartoons as a canon and belief in the importance of such popular forms as an "orthodoxy" (39). The only principles that critics doing cultural studies can doctrinally espouse, Johnson suggests, are the two that have thus far been introduced: namely, the principle that "culture" has been an "inegalitarian" concept, a "tool" of "condescension," and the belief that a new, "interdisciplinary (and sometimes antidisciplinary)" approach to true culture (that is, to the forms in which culture actually lives now) is required now that history and art and media are so complex and interrelated (42).
Johnson, ironically, played a major part in the institutionalization of cultural studies. Together with Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart, he developed the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded by Hoggart and Hall at Birmingham University, in England, in 1964. The fact that the Centre was founded in the mid-1960s is hardly surprising; cultural criticism, based as it is on a critique of elitist definitions of culture, spoke powerfully to and gained great energy and support from a decade of student unrest and revolt. The fact that the first center for cultural studies was founded in England, in Europe, is equally unsurprising. Although the United States has probably contributed more than any other nation to the media through which culture currently lives, critics in Europe, drawing upon the ideas of both Marxist and non-Marxist theorists, first articulated the need for something like what we now call cultural criticism or cultural studies. Indeed, to this day, European critics are more involved than Americans, not only in the analysis of popular cultural forms and products but also in the analysis of human subjectivity or consciousness as a form or product of culture. ("Subjectivities," Johnson argues, are "produced, not given, and are . . . objects of inquiry" inevitably related to "social practices," whether those involve factory rules, supermarket behavior patterns, reading habits, advertisements watched, myths perpetrated, or languages and other signs to which people are exposed [11 15].)
Among the early continental critics now seen as forerunners of present-day cultural critics were those belonging to the Annales school, so-called because of the name of the journal that Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre launched, in France, in 1929: Annales: Economies, Societes, Civilizations. The Annales school critics greatly influenced later thinkers like Michel Foucault, who, in turn, influenced other Annales thinkers such as Roger Chartier, Jacques Ravel, Francois Furet, and Robert Darnton. Both firstand second-generation Annales school critics warn against the development of "topics" of study by cultural critics--unless those same critics are bent on "developing . . . [a] sense of cohesion or interaction between topics" (Hunt 9). At the same time, interested as they are in cohesion, Annales school critics have warned against seeing the "rituals and other forms of symbolic action" as "express[ing] a central, coherent, communal meaning." They have reminded us that texts affect different readers "in varying and individual ways" (Hunt 13-14).
Michel Foucault is another strong, continental influence on present--day cultural criticism--and perhaps the strongest influence on American cultural criticism and the so-called new historicism, an interdisciplinary form of historical criticism whose evolution has often paralleled that of cultural criticism. Influenced by early Annales critics and contemporary Marxists (but neither an Annales critic nor a Marxist himself), Foucault sought to study cultures in terms of power relationships. Unlike Marxists and some Annales school critics, he refused to see power as something exercised by a dominant over a subservient class. Indeed, he emphasized that power is not just repressive power: a tool of conspiracy by one individual or institution against another. Power, rather, is a whole complex of forces; it is that which produces what happens.
Thus even a tyrannical aristocrat does not simply wield power, for he is empowered by "discourses"�accepted ways of thinking, writing, and speaking--and practices that amount to power. Foucault tried to view all things, from punishment to sexuality, in terms of the widest possible variety of discourses. As a result, he traced the "genealogy" of topics he studied through texts that more traditional historians and literary critics would have overlooked, looking at (in Lynn Hunt's words) "memoirs of deviants, diaries, political treatises, architectural blueprints, court records, doctors' reports--applying consistent principles of analysis in search of moments of reversal in discourse, in search of events as loci of the conflict where social practices were transformed" (Hunt 39). Foucault tended not only to build interdisciplinary bridges but also, in the process, to bring into the study of culture the "histories of women, homosexuals, and minorities"�groups seldom studied by those interested in culture with a capital C (Hunt 45).
Of the British influences on cultural studies and criticism as it is today, several have already been mentioned. Of those who have not, two early forerunners stand out. One of these, the Marxist critic E. P. Thompson, revolutionized study of the industrial revolution by writing about its impact on human attitudes, even consciousness. He showed how a shared cultural view, specifically that of what constitutes a fair or just price, influenced crowd behavior and caused such things as the food riots and rick burnings of the nineteenth century. The other, even greater, early British influence on contemporary cultural criticism and cultural studies was the late Raymond Williams. In works like The Long Revolution and Culture and Society: 1780-1950, Williams demonstrated that culture is not a fixed and finished but, rather a living and changing; thing. One of the changes he called for was the development of a common socialist culture.
Like Marxists, with whom he often both argued and sympathized, Williams viewed culture in relation to ideologies, what he termed the "residual," "dominant," or "emerging" ways of viewing the world held by classes or individuals holding power in a given social group. But unlike Thompson and Richard Hoggart, he avoided emphasizing social classes and class conflict in discussing those forces most powerfully shaping and changing culture. And, unlike certain continental Marxists, he could never see the cultural "superstructure" as being a more or less simple "reflection" of the economic "base." Williams's tendency was to focus on people as people, on how they experience conditions they find themselves in and creatively respond to those conditions in their social practices. A believer in the resiliency of the individual, he produced a body of criticism notable for what Hall has called its "humanism" (63).
As is clear from the paragraphs above, the emergence and evolution of cultural studies or criticism are difficult to separate entirely from the development of Marxist thought. Marxism is, in a sense, the background to the background of most cultural criticism, and some contemporary cultural critics consider themselves Marxist critics as well. Thus, although Marxist criticism and its most significant practitioners are introduced elsewhere in this volume, some mention of Marxist ideas� and of the critics who developed them--is also necessary here. Of particular importance to the evolution of cultural criticism are the works of Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Mikhail Bakhtin.
Bakhtin was a Russian, later a Soviet, critic so original in his thinking and wide-ranging in his influence that some would say he was never a Marxist at all. He viewed language--especially literary texts--in terms of discourses and dialogues between discourses. Within a novel written in a society in flux, for instance, the narrative may include an official, legitimate discourse, plus another infiltrated by challenging comments and even retorts. In a 1929 book on Dostoyevsky and a 1940 study Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin examined what he calls "polyphonic" novels, each characterized by a multiplicity of voices or discourses. In Dostoyevsky the independent status of a given character is marked by the difference of his or her language from that of the narrator. (The narrator's voice, too, can in fact be a dialogue.) In works by Rabelais, Bakhtin finds that the (profane) language of the carnival and of other popular festivities play against and parody the more official discourses, that is, of the magistrates or the Church. Bakhtin influenced modern cultural criticism by showing, in a sense, that the conflict between "high" and "low" culture takes place not only between classic and popular texts but also between the "dialogic" voices that exist within all great books.
Walter Benjamin was a German Marxist who, during roughly the same period, attacked certain conventional and traditional literary forms that he felt conveyed a stultifying "aura" of culture. He took this position in part because so many previous Marxist critics and, in his own day, Georg Lukacs, had seemed to be stuck on appreciating nineteenth-century realistic novels-and opposed to the modernist works of their own time. Benjamin not only praised modernist movements, such as Dadaism, but also saw as hopeful the development of new art forms utilizing mechanical production and reproduction. These forms, including radio and films, offered the promise of a new definition of culture via a broader, less exclusive domain of the arts.
Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist best known for his Prison Notebooks (first published as Lettere dal caracere in 1947), critiqued the very concept of literature and, beyond that, of culture in the old sense, stressing not only the importance of culture more broadly defined but the need for nurturing and developing proletarian, or working-class, culture. He suggested the need to view intellectuals politically--and the need for what he called "radical organic" intellectuals. Today's cultural critics calling for colleagues to "legitimate the notion of writing reviews and books for the general public," to "become involved in the political reading of popular culture," and, in general, to "repoliticize . . . scholarship" have often cited Gramsci as an early advocate of their views (Giroux 482).
Finally, and most important, Gramsci related literature to the ideologies of the culture that produced it and developed the concept of "hegemony," a term he used to describe the pervasive, weblike system of meanings and values--ideologies--that shapes the way things look, what they mean and, therefore, what reality is for the majority of people within a culture. Gramsci did not see people, even poor people, as the helpless victims of hegemony, as ideology's idiotic robots. Rather, he believed that people have the freedom and power to struggle against ideology, to alter hegemony. As Patrick Brantlinger has suggested in Crusoe's Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America (1990), Gramsci's thought is unspoiled by the "intellectual arrogance that views the vast majority of people as deluded zombies, the victims or creatures of ideology" (100).
Of those Marxists who, after Gramsci, explored the complex relationship between literature and ideology, the French Marxist Louis Althusser also had a significant impact on cultural criticism. Unlike Gramsci, Althusser tended to see ideology in control of people, and not vice versa. He argued that the main function of ideology is to reproduce the society's existing relations of production, and that that function is even carried out in most literary texts, although literature is relatively autonomous from other "social formations." Dave Laing has explained Althusser's position by saying that the "ensemble of habits, moralities, and opinions" that can be found in any work of literature tend to "ensure that the work-force (and those responsible for re-producing them in the family, school, etc.) are maintained in their position of subordination to the dominant class" (91).
In many ways, though, Althusser is as good an example of where Marxism and cultural criticism part ways as he is of where cultural criticism is indebted to Marxists and their ideas. For although Althusser did argue that literature is relatively autonomous--more independent of ideology than, say, Church, press, or State--he meant by literature not just literature in the narrow sense but something even narrower. He meant Good Literature, certainly not the popular forms that present-day cultural critics would want to set beside Tolstoy and Joyce, Eliot and Brecht. Those popular fictions, Althusser assumed, were mere packhorses designed (however unconsciously) to carry the baggage of a culture's ideology, mere brood mares destined to reproduce it.
Thus, while cultural critics have embraced both Althusser's notion that works of literature reflect certain ideological formations and his notion that, at the same time, literary works may be relatively distant from or even resistant to ideology, they have rejected the narrow limits within which Althusser and other Marxists have defined literature. In "Marxism and Popular Fiction" (1986), Tony Bennett uses "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and another British television show, "Not the 9 o'clock News," to argue that the Althusserian notion that all forms of popular culture are to be included "among [all those] many material forms which ideology takes . . . under capitalism" is "simply not true." The "entire field" of "popular fiction"�which Bennett takes to include films and television shows as well as books--is said to be "replete with instances" of works that do what Bennett calls the "work" of "distancing." That is, they have the effect of separating the audience from, not rebinding the audience to, prevailing ideologies (249).
Although there are Marxist cultural critics (Bennett himself is one, carrying on through his writings what may be described as a lover's quarrel with Marxism), most cultural critics are not Marxists in any strict sense. Anne Beezer, in writing about such things as advertisements and women's magazines, contests the "Althusserian view of ideology as the construction of the subject" (qtd. in Punter 103). That is to say, she gives both the media she is concerned with and their audiences more credit than Althusserian Marxists presumably would. Whereas they might argue that such media make people what they are, she points out that the same magazines that may, admittedly, tell women how to please their men may, at the same time, offer liberating advice to women about how to preserve their independence by not getting too serious romantically. And, she suggests, many advertisements advertise their status as ads, just as many people who view or read them see advertising as advertising and interpret it accordingly.
The complex and subtle sort of analysis that Beezer has brought to bear on women's magazines and advertisements has been focused on paperback romance novels by Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, in Loving with a Vengeance (1982) and Reading the Romance (1984), respectively. Radway, a feminist cultural critic who uses but finally exceeds Marxist critical discourse, points out that many women who read romances do so in order to carve out a time and space that is wholly their own, not to be intruded upon by their husband or children. Also, Radway argues, such novels may end in marriage, but the marriage is usually between a feisty and independent heroine and a powerful man she has "tamed," that is, made sensitive and caring. And why do so many such stories involve such heroines and end as they do? Because, Radway demonstrates through painstaking research into publishing houses, bookstores, and reading communities, their consumers want them to be that way. They don't buy--or, if they buy they don't recommend--romances in which, for example, a heroine is raped: thus, in time, fewer and fewer such plots find their way onto the racks by the supermarket checkout.
Radway's reading is typical of feminist cultural criticism in that it is political--but not exclusively about oppression. The subjectivities of women may be "produced" by romances--that is, their thinking is governed by what they read--but the same women also govern, to some extent, what gets written or produced, thus doing "cultural work" of their own. Rather than seeing all forms of popular culture as manifestations of ideology, soon to be remanifested in the minds of victimized audiences, non-Marxist cultural critics tend to see a sometimes disheartening but always dynamic synergy between cultural forms and the culture's consumers.
Mary Poovey does this in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984), a book in which she traces the evolution of female "propriety." Poovey closely connects the proprieties taught by eighteenth-century women who wrote conduct manuals, ladies' magazines, and even novels with patriarchal notions of women and men's property (Since property was inherited, an unfaithful woman could threaten the disposition of a man's inheritance by giving birth to children who were not his. Therefore, writings by women that reinforced proprieties also shored up the proprietary status quo.) Finally, though, Poovey also shows that some of the women writers who reinforced proprieties and were seen as "textbook Proper Ladies" in fact "crossed the borders of that limited domain" (40). They may have written stories showing the audacity, for women, of trying to lead an imaginative, let alone audacious, life beyond the bounds of domestic propriety. But they did so imaginatively and audaciously.
Whereas Mary Poovey, in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, viewed Frankenstein in terms of its relation to conduct manuals and novels by Jane Austen, most cultural critics who have written about Mary Shelley's best-known novel have instead read it in the context of a very different popular form: the Gothic tale. Paul O'Flinn, for instance, begins his essay on "Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein" by pointing out that the novel was published in the same year as a famous attack on the fifty-year-old tradition of Gothic fiction.
In the essay that follows, Lee E. Heller begins by treating Frankenstein as Gothic fiction and by suggesting that the interesting thing about Gothic is its "existence in both 'highbrow' and popular forms." What is true of Gothic in general, Heller goes on to argue, is especially true of Frankenstein, which in its book and movie versions has cut a wide swath of audience appeal through boundaries that usually prove impenetrable. Although it remains a classic, Frankenstein is also, quite dearly, a fit subject for the new cultural criticism.
Heller next places the Frankenstein "original" in the cultural contexts of a late-eighteenth-century debate about education and literacy. This was a period during which the "reading class" had grown to include most of the middle class, a fact that at once had allowed the novel to emerge (as a form, it is more dedicated to representing ordinary life than is poetry) and which, at the same time, had set off a somewhat moralistic debate about what constitutes proper entertainment for readers in need of instruction. That debate had been intensified by the advent of Gothic fiction, the audience for which tended to be more female than male and less prosperous than the audiences of, say, Fielding and Smollett. Should such an audience be reading a kind of writing that seemed only to excite the emotions needlessly and not to instruct? Perhaps because many people were answering that question in the negative, the Gothic evolved to combine the moral elements of the "serious" eighteenth-century novel with the entertaining, escapist excitement that it had come to be known for.
Heller's interest in audience--and in the novel as a consumer product -is as typical for a critic practicing cultural criticism as is her interest in a text that defies the boundaries between "Literature" and popular fiction. So, of course, is her concern with the "cultural work" (Jane Tompkins's phrase) done by a given form in a given historical moment. What makes Heller's version of the new cultural criticism particularly complex and exciting is that she identifies within a given literary form (here Gothic) three distinguishable forms of that form (horror Gothic, sentimental-educational Gothic, and "high" philosophical Gothic), each of which is then shown to have been doing a different kind of cultural work for a different class or kind of audience--but all within the same text.
Thus, she explains Frankenstein's ability to persist in popularity over the centuries, among a range of socioeconomic classes and via a variety of forms, by showing it to be a hybrid form, a variegated thread twisted together of sensational, middle-class sentimental, and philosophical strands. In the process, she provides a strikingly original reading, one that shows not only how a cultural debate lies behind a text but also how it is foregrounded within the text. For she shows that Frankenstein is as much about good and bad education, salutary books, and (Cornelius Agrippa's) corrupting, "sad trash," as it is about ghouls and their horrifying acts.
Finally, though, Heller's work represents cultural criticism at its best by virtue of the fact that it sets the text in its later historical periods, including our own. Through her essay, we can see the radical metamorphosis of its meaning and function in subsequent film versions (from the 1931 classic through the crop of "Freddie" and "Jason" movies); the changing ways in which we have used the word Frankenstein to speak of historical figures and atrocities (from Adolf Hitler to the atom bomb to the monstrous "wildings" that have been committed in Central Park). Thus, Heller makes Frankenstein speak in a way that critics taking other approaches to the novel can only hope to make it speak, for she shows all Frankensteins to be versions of Frankenstein and shows how the current version speaks now.
CULTURAL CRITICISM: A SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
General Introductions to Cultural Criticism, Cultural StudiesBrantlinger, Patrick. Crusoe's Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Desan, Philippe, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, and Wendy Griswold. "Editors' Introduction: Mirrors, Frames, and Demons: Reflections on the Sociology of Literature." Literature and Social Practice. Ed. Desan, Ferguson, and Griswold. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1989. 1-10.
Eagleton, Terry. "Two Approaches in the Sociology of Literature." Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 469-76.
Giroux, Henry, David Shumway, Paul Smith, and James Sosnoski. "The Need for Cultural Studies: Resisting Intellectuals and Oppositional Public Spheres." Dalhousie R eview 64.2 (1984): 472-86.
Gunn, Giles. The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture. New York: Oxford, 1987.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms." Media, Culture and Society 2 (1980): 57-72.
Humm, Peter, Paul Stigant, and Peter Widdowson, eds.Popular Fictions: Essays in Literature and History. New York: Methuen, 1986. See especially the intro. by Humm, Stigant, and Widdowson, and Tony Bennett's essay "Marxism and Popular Fiction." 237-65.
Hunt, Lynn, ed. The New Cultural History: Essays. Berkeley: U of California P. 1989.
Johnson, Richard. "What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?" Social Text: Theory/Culture/Ideology 16 (1986-87): 38-80.
Pfister, Joel. "The Americanization of Cultural Studies." Yale Journal of Criticism 4 (1991): 199-229.
Punter, David, ed. Introduction to Contemporary Critical Studies. New York: Longman, 1986. See especially Punter's "Introduction: Culture and Change" 1-18, Tony Dunn's "The Evolution of Cultural Studies" 71-91, and the essay "Methods for Cultural Studies Students" by Anne Beezer, Jean Grimshaw, and Martin Barker 95-118.
Cultural Studies: Some Early British Examples
Hoggart, Richard. Speaking to Each Other. 2 vols. London: Chatto, 1970.
--. The Uses of Literacy: Changing Patterns in English Mass Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1961.
Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon, 1977.
-- . William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon, 1977.
Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York: Harper, 1958.
--. The Long Revolution. New York: Columbia UP, 1961.
Cultural Studies: Continental and Marxist InfluencesAlthusser, Louis. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Pantheon, 1969.
Althusser, Louis, and Etienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Pantheon, 1971.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P. 1981.
--. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge: MIT, 1968.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. with intro. by Hannah Arendt. Trans. H. Zohn. New York: Harcourt, 1968.
Bennett, Tony. "Marxism and Popular Fiction." Humm, Stigant, and Widdowson.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
--. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International, 1971.
Modern Cultural Studies: Selected British and American ExamplesColls, Robert, and Philip Dodd, eds. Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920. London: Croom Helm, 1986.
Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden: Archon, 1982.
Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1988.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P. 1984.
Cultural Studies of FrankensteinBaldick, Chris. In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
Bewell, Alan. "An Issue of Monstrous Desire: Frankenstein and Obstetrics." Yale Journal of Criticism 2.1 (1988): 105-28.
LaValley, Albert J. "The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey." The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley: U of California P. 1979. 243-89.
O'Flinn, Paul. "Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein." Literature and History 9.2 (1983): 194-213.
Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Work of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1984. See especially ch. 4: "'My Hideous Progeny': The Lady and the Monster."
Rieder, John. "Embracing the Alien: Science Fiction in Mass Culture." Science-Fiction Studies 9.1 (March 1982): 26-37.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism." Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 243-61.
Vlasopolos, Anca. "Frankenstein's Hidden Skeleton: The Psycho-Politics of Oppression." Science-Fiction Studies 10.2 (1983): 125-36.