What follows is not what was initially planned. I plead guilty from the very beginning. As a result of a course on what I called ‘Archaeologies of Cultural Studies’ in the PhD program run in the Graduate School for the Humanities at Ovidius University, Constanta, I thought of mapping out a comprehensive account of contemporary developments in literary and cultural studies. The idea was to complete an already sketched outline of significant cultural epistemes from the past, containing important ideas, concepts, statements (the combined work of archaeology and episteme acknowledging an important reference to Michel Foucault) that is of use for a better understanding of what is happening today in the groves of Academe, an outline that was used in the above-mentioned PhD school course. Completing it meant, obviously, focusing on the present.
The undertaking was meant to start from the relatively ‘near past’ of the so-called American Culture Wars of the 1980s, from debates about the importance and relevance of canonical culture and of the anti-canonical orientations of what Harold Bloom called, two decades ago, the School of Resentment, after a description of slightly earlier developments in Britain in the late 1950s, the 1960s, and the early 1970s.
Initially, the ‘discontents’ of the title (the word here is obviously indebted to Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents) was, in the account of the contemporary scene, meant to refer to those who oppose some aspects of cultural populism, the debate between the elitists (the discontents) and the mainstream advocates of contemporary cultural studies positions. The ‘discontented’ positions of elitists, as briefly described in the first section of this volume, deplore and oppose culture being brought down to earth from the elevated shelves of canonical excellence. However, in the book as a whole, the discontentment is also associated with the critical attitude of a considerable number of thinkers opposing established, traditional views on what authority structures consider to be the culture that serves their interests. In this particular sense, almost anyone included in any of the three sections of the volume is a ‘discontent,’ whose critical ideas become part and parcel of the story of the rise and development of critical cultural discourses, mainly from the dawn of Modernity, then the heyday of the Enlightenment, culminating in the more or less contemporary age.
Gradually, I came to realize that what was initially designed to provide a short historical outline of what may be called a long history of cultural studies (cultural studies in a very loose, pre-institutional sense) was turning into a text of its own, and that the main part of the initial project would require a much vaster arena, even if the time slot it would concentrate on consists of a couple of decades only. This would have meant from what is now history (the impact of the so-called second wave in British Cultural Studies, for which wave Stuart Hall represents an emblematic figure) to the bewildering variety of cultural, communication and media studies in the US, which has brought new twists in these interdisciplinary fields, as well as in Britain, the ‘mother’ of the first institutionalized form, the Birmingham School of Contemporary Cultural Studies in the mid 1960s.
It so happened that the preliminary outline (the long history of Cultural Studies or cultural studies) is inevitably incomplete, relying on some basic sources (Surber’s, as well as Browitt and Milner’s accounts featuring prominently in the delineation of the general framework), giving less weight or even leaving out equally important introductions and outlines.
It refers to some seminal theoretical sources by the prominent figures of this long history, while omitting others. All this exposes my mistakes and preferences, as well as a determination to complete this preliminary work, the sketchy historical outline, before focusing on the description of the panoramic and dramatic contemporary culturescape.
Considering the vastness of this contemporary intellectual picture, as well as the importance of the issues that it deals with (not only canonical vs anti-canonical culture in a clear-cut opposition, but more insidious and ambivalent aspects of contemporary multiculturalism, representational politics, gender and trans gender studies, ethnicity and migration as key aspects of group and national identity, the current volume will stop short of dealing with them at length, leaving the field to be investigated in a following book. However, some of these issues will be outlined and briefly discussed in the third section of the volume, the first containing the preliminary discussion of culture and cultural studies, as well as the debate between cultural elitism and cultural populism, while the middle section is focusing on a selection of significant voices and directions which played a part in the gradual development of what would be called, one day, cultural studies or Cultural Studies.
While attempting to make significant connections between and among important figures, texts, and approaches which have contributed to the development of cultural studies in a broader or stricter sense, the current undertaking has avoided hierarchies and taxonomies as much as possible, thus observing the anti-hegemonic, anti-establishment approach of more revolutionary forms of cultural studies, even if, in the opinion of that particular person writing these lines, tree-like hierarchies and classifications, structuralist dichotomies are sometimes more useful than rhizomatic, hidden, elusive roots crawling underground, avoiding the light of day. Neither will there be any attempt in what is to follow to prove that everything, including gravity, is culturally constructed.