Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1991
Television and ...
Edited by John Hartley

Popular Reality: A (Hair)Brush with Cultural Studies

John Hartley

For many years, my father was a hairbrush. He, that is the hairbrush, was improbably made of perspex. The real thing died before I got to know him, so I carried this perspex hairbrush around, and it became for me the real thing. I used to kid my disbelieving schoolchums that it was wrought out of the cockpit of a Spitfire, since I had read that these things were made of the same material, and Spitfires were honorific objects on the 50s schoolboy totem. Ever since then I have been interested in ancestries, in authenticity, and in reality. I've also had a longstanding sympathy for perspex, which I like as a word, as well as a plastic. What all this has to do with Cultural Studies is, as you read what follows, for you to decide.

Pissed off and pouting?

In the wake of political developments in Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, 'the left,' as a unified western political culture, ceased to exist. Although it was true, and not only of the USA, that "the country is turning browner, yellower, blacker, more female, more unemployed and more pissed off", 1 it was not the case that these and other disaffections and oppositions saw in each other the mirror and hope of their own struggles; radicalism, like so many other aspects of postmodern culture, was fragmenting, localising, becoming suspicious of totalising metaphors of unity which would allow all-inclusive statements and actions to be made, by general intellectuals or activists, on behalf of specific interests. In consequence, it was no longer possible for radicals to presume the co-existence of an international community within which their own work could not only be understood by others but also justified to themselves; to others it might not appear radical at all. So, an unexpected casualty of the cessation of cold war hostilities was the sense of shared opposition, i.e. solidarity, so naturalised that it could appear self-evident, and therefore often remain unspoken.

Cultural political intellectual work was radically destabilised with the demolition of the Berlin Wall and its equivalent metaphorical binary oppositions, resulting in such a pervasive doubt about the existence of 'the left' - broad, ultra, sectarian or whatever - to which we all belong, that there was no longer any ready referent for the pronoun 'we' in cultural politics, including in Cultural Studies, which had until then been unquestioned as a radical academic enterprise, despite the mixed ambitions and allegiances of its practitioners.

Cultural Studies is politically a child of the sixties, when political radicalism was not only liberating but hip, when public affairs expanded to encompass the mind (and vice versa), when the boundaries between politics, music, sex and drugs became blurred, and when alternative, counter and sub cultures sprang up to claim attention like so many doggies in the window. But institutionally it came of age in the eighties, a decade whose fashion statement was, according to Australian Vogue, the pout, and the pout was "symptomatic of spoilt, arrogant, eighties behaviour". But now, says Vogue, "we'll have none of it". 2 The pout is out, at least at work (it's still permissible in the bedroom, especially on men). Meanwhile the sixties are back in, to inaugurate the last decade of the millennium. This is not total recall, however, but mannerist copy, clothes shorn of politics, bringing back to the future just enough of the sixties to hang on a fashion model's newly slimline, thinlipped and tousle-haired body.

Cultural Studies has also changed over the last thirty years, following not so much the cycles and recyclings of fashion, but rather the slower bio-rhythms of an aging intellectual generation, which is rarely brown, yellow, black, female and unemployed, even if it retains its politically pissed off credentials. In fact the question for Cultural Studies is whether it has changed enough in response to, or even in anticipation of, wider social and cultural developments, or whether it has survived into middle-aged respectability with many of its youthful prejudices intact. If so, any apparent innovations that are associated with Cultural Studies as it gains a firmer foothold in academic institutions (a process most notable in North America), may not be so bold and radical and new after all, but merely the beginning of a spoilt, arrogant, pouting phase for a discipline which has abandoned its sixties idealism and commitment to social change in favour of a belated discovery of its own 'me generation' selfishness.

Institutional Ancestors

So who are 'we;' what is Cultural Studies? Silly questions in this existential form, perhaps, but nevertheless a response is already discernible to these unasked, post-Wall questions, in new publications, at conferences, among colleagues, in journals. The response takes two forms: first, institutionalisation; Cultural Studies is no longer an intellectual enterprise of the left, but an academic subject increasingly of the centre, that is to say, taught at universities. Second, meanwhile, ancestralisation; 'we' become not so much a synchronic pattern of like-minded intellectual political workers around the world, but a diachronic succession of names. Prodigal parents (mostly fathers) are invented as ancestors, blessed by reiterated invocation in opening chapters and exegetical articles; the return of the reposed in Cultural Studies, if you like, precipitated into identity by genealogy; and Hoggart begat Williams begat Hall begat....

Ancestralisation is a tribal, or at least national, narrative. In British Cultural Studies the First Book of the Chronicles would name Williams, Hoggart, Hall and others (notably E.P. Thompson, whose devotion to history and dislike of (French) theory ensured that later on his face would be quietly airbrushed from the official photo). In North America the names would be different; Harold Innes and Marshall McLuhan would figure in any Canadian genealogy, while in the USA there are numerous autochthonic godfathers, many of whom were gathered together in the 1983 'Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture' conference, and the 1990 Cultural Studies conference, both held at the University of Illinois. In Australia the 1990 'Inaugural' Cultural Studies Conference at the University of Western Sydney, designed to launch Australian Cultural Studies as a professional association, empanelled Tony Bennett, John Frow, John Hartley, Lesley Johnson, Meaghan Morris, Stephen Muecke, Graeme Turner and John Tulloch as living proof of its pre-history. What matters, in each country, are not the names themselves, but the intercontinental drift towards 'naming the father' in Cultural Studies around the turn of the decade. The global circulation of these national genealogies is ensured, however, by publication; a good example being a book on British Cultural Studies, written by Australian Graeme Turner for an American publisher. 3

What was begotten by these prodigal parents is not easy to name. Cultural Studies is notable for its participants' squeamishness about orthodoxy, manifested positively in a commitment to interdisciplinarity, and negatively in the avoidance of authority; it has no unified theory, textual canon, disciplinary truths, agreed methodology, common syllabus, examinable content, or professional body, no bodily integrity at all. It is, in fact, getting to resemble its centenarian grandparent English, from which it recruited many of its personnel, not only among teachers and writers but, more significantly, among students, where it is beginning, perhaps, to usurp English's hegemonic mantle as 'Queen of the Humanities,' if by that might be meant a subject which attracts large numbers of disciplinarily uncommitted undergraduates, most of whom are women, interested in a general arts or humanities education which combines textual analysis with moral high ground, public affairs with artistic creativity, social change with personal skill.

Questions arise. As Cultural Studies is becoming institutionally in-stated, is it going back to the sixties to clad its post-political pout in the clothes of canonised ancestors? What has been gained in the thirty-odd years since Williams and Hoggart and Universities & Left Review (ULR), edited by Stuart Hall, came down from the high ground of literary criticism with the tablets of democratic popular culture? Have 'we' come very far since then, towards the promised land? What are the social successes of an intellectual enterprise whose only unity was the commitment of its adherents to progressive social change? What are its political achievements, given its democratic rhetoric? What is the popular resonance of one of the few academic disciplines which is truly interested in the popular (though not in popularity), theorising ordinary people as part of political struggle, and everyday life as creative in ways that had previously been looked for only in fine arts and high society?

It is far too early to answer these questions, though it may be timely to ask them; the work of Cultural Studies thus far has been intellectual ground-clearing, conceptual tillage and theoretical seed-sowing; its political harvest, social fruit and popular propagation are still to come. At least I hope so; Cultural Studies had better have a future, otherwise it may be condemned to endless re-runs of its past. It is, in some respects, still where it was thirty years ago, at least in the wider world of popular politics and political consciousness.

An Absolute Beginner

The perspex hairbrush of contemporary Cultural Studies is Stuart Hall. In 1959 in his last issue of ULR, before it transmogrified into NLR, he wrote an article called "Absolute Beginnings" in which he posed some questions:

We have very little understanding of the roots of cultural deprivation, and of its relation to the pattern of class culture and education in this country. Where does it begin? 4

Since this is, as it were, the absolute beginning of Cultural Studies, it is also appropriate that he should pose his questions around the adolescent figures of what was then called 'youth', the hope of the future, the generation of the sixties, the teenager. Hall begins to answer his own questions, and the path he takes is decisive - at least for Cultural Studies:

What we have to do is to begin to disentangle what is real and what is phoney in the responses of young people today. What is real are the feelings and attitudes involved, the interests aroused: what is phoney are the ways the feelings are engaged, the trivial and inconsequential directions in which the aroused interests are channelled. The revolt and iconoclasm of youth today arises because of the contradictions between the true and the false elements in their culture: because the wave of post-war prosperity has raised them to cultural thresholds which offer rewards unequal to the expectations aroused. Instead, therefore, most young people compensate for their frustrations by an escape into the womb-world of mass entertainments.... 5

If that isn't the Genesis of Cultural Studies, it is certainly the Exodus; fleeing the tyranny of high culture towards a promised land where culture may be analysed in terms of class, where consciousness may be true or false, where feelings and attitudes may be political not psychological, where economics (prosperity) connects with meaning, and where, crucially, it is important to understand "the womb-world of mass entertainments". It's worth adding that the article as a whole already displays some characteristic moves of subsequent Cultural Studies; it combines political with literary analysis (Hall says "Absolute Beginners is still the closest we have come to a 'British' (Mr. MacInnes is Australian!) Catcher in the Rye" 6); it is happy to use for its own purposes the statistics and discourses of the advertising industry (in the shape of a trade pamphlet called The Teenage Consumer); and - amazingly for a left publication - it is published with photographs and a design which are part of its consideration of its subject matter.

Here is the generation which entered the sixties as teenagers - somewhat younger than Stuart, slightly older than me. He calls them the 'L-P, Hi-Fi generation', describing them bodily, in terms of their hair, clothes and make-up. 'The girls are short-skirted, sleekly groomed, pin-pointed on stiletto heels, with set hair and Paris-boutique dead-pan make-up', while the boys are Italian suited, hair brushed into a 'brisk, flat-topped French version' of the crew-cut, their shirts are Continental and 'jeans are de rigeur':

A fast-talking, smooth-running, hustling generation with an ad-lib gift of the gab.... They despise 'the masses' (the evening paper lot on the tubes in the evening), 'traditionals', 'cops', (cowboys), 'peasants' and 'bohemians'. But they know how to talk to journalists and TV 'merchants', debs and holiday businessmen. Their experiences are, primarily, personal, urban and sensational: sensational in the sense that the test of beatitude is being able to get so close you feel you are 'part of the act, the scene'. 7

However, in the very same issue of ULR, Hall is already in trouble for his preoccupation with style, sensation and culture. He writes a response to a number of his critics (including representatives of sectarian socialist factions for whom "Aunty Dogma still rules the roost"), where he defends himself thus:

I do not anywhere suppose that we can read straight from advertising copy to the attitudes of working class people. True, the ad-men can only 'suggest'. But the result could be, not a break-up of the class system (a thing I never suggest), but a sense of confusion about what class is and how much it matters, and where 'class' allegiances lie. I described this as a 'sense of classlessness and a sense of class confusion', and I think if he [E.P. Thompson] got out on the knocker instead of on to the shop floor and said to the first head that came round the comer 'Vote Labour', he would see what I mean.... In other words (this was my ideological point), the superstructure of ideas (in this case, false ideas, false consciousness) is going to affect directly the course of events. And if the admission of this fact makes us reconsider some of the more primitive notions - still current - of how to interpret Marx's dictum that 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness', I, for one, can only say, 'Long Live the Revisionists'. 8

And he adds, for good measure, "I do not see how the 'feel' of the Age can be described without reference to the qualitative changes which have taken place in the media of attitude-formation and opinion manipulation". 9

Between them, these preoccupations, with "feel", style, consciousness, beatitudes as much as attitudes, the interpretation of Marx in the light of media, the relations between class and popular culture, and the consequent centrality of culture to political theory and action, are a founding manifesto for Cultural Studies. And it is remarkable, re-reading this thirty-year old document, to see how stable they have remained as its 'subject', how similar some of the intellectual controversies are, and how 'we' in the 1990s are still those "Revisionists" (who have indeed Lived Long). 'We' have yet to convince activists and adversaries alike that discourses organise practices, that the real is constructed (partly through media), and that, therefore, reality is materially affected by media discourses, that there are direct political consequences of apparently immaterial and supposedly ahistorical phenomena like feeling, style, suggestion, not to mention confusion, contradiction and allegiance.

(Girl) You Know It's True

In fact, it can be argued, 'we' haven't come very far since 1959. Here's how far we haven't come: exactly thirty years later there was still no public recognition of perhaps the most fundamental tenet of Cultural Studies that of the constructed nature of the real. Reality's status as a product simply hasn't got through, and the material effect of continuing public allegiance to authenticity is measurable, at least if you happen to be the lead singers of pop band Milli Vanilli. Their 1989 US Grammy award for 'best new artist' for Girl You Know It's True was taken away from them when it was subsequently revealed that the voices heard by ten million purchasers of the record were not their voices. 10 Now of course the record-buying public has become used to a certain amount of reality-production, finding, it seems, little to sue for when singers mime on TV and even at 'live' concerts, when the good bits on popular singles are in fact played by anonymous session musicians, or when the entire industry of music video is dedicated to breaking the nineteenth century nexus between reality and representation by dissociating sound and sight, sense and sensibility, singer and song. No matter: the buck, or in this case a few million bucks, stop here; the Board of Trustees of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has decreed that singers' voices are evidence of the self-presence of person and creativity, individuality and emotion, and neither Cultural Studies nor Milli Vanilli has succeeded in busting apart this ideology of authenticity by saying that Girl You Know It's True actually is true; truly produced reality, at least authentic enough to sell 10 million copies.

However, there's no such thing as bad publicity; at the last count Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, the offending Milli Vanilli, were

considering a number of offers to record for real, three offers to star in TV movies, two offers to sell their story in book form, and one offer to serve as spokespersons for a new board game, Read My Lips. 11

Of course, no-one will mind if the words they utter in the TV movie are written by someone else, no-one will sue if their book is ghost-written, and no-one has so far ousted president Bush after having Read His Lips and then found themselves paying new taxes. Perhaps, in fact, Milli Vanilli are doing more right now than Cultural Studies ever has done to expose the apparatus of reality construction, to convince the public once and for all that feeling, sensibility, style and culture are neither false nor authentic consciousness, but, on the contrary, they're popular reality.

Some things have changed since 1959. One of the great strengths of Cultural Studies has been the importance attached to the connection between textual and social matters; too late to save Milli Vanilli perhaps, but useful in the institutional politics which themselves have determined how and in which 'Academy of Arts and Sciences' Cultural Studies sets up shop. Traditional textual disciplines like literary studies and linguistics were at that time notoriously insensitive to the economics of production or the ideology of the texts under scrutiny. Literature, for instance, could be studied without any reference to publishing so that a novel might be made sense of as an abstract form, conveying the author's imaginative genius, but not as a physical book, with crafts, trades, and markets to account for its material form, and factories, distributors, bookshops and publicity to account for its social reach and success, and government policy, regulation and censorship to account for internal features and external impact. I remember, as an undergraduate in the latter 1960s, having a furious argument with another student about whether an unpublished novel is in fact a novel, or whether publication - and readership - is an a priori requirement for literary status. What I remember about that argument is the fury, not the outcome. Both of us were vehement; I that getting the message across is the sine qua non of the whole literary enterprise, she that imagining the fiction was enough, on the grounds that a thing of beauty is just that, whether or not anyone sees, knows or understands it. Well, in our beginnings are our ends; I went off to specialise in communication(s), she became a form designer for the Department of Health and Social Security.

Meanwhile, and conversely, the political and social sciences of the time thought themselves able to analyse the structure, ownership and power of popular media, and even to pronounce on their individual and social influence, without paying any attention whatever to the peculiarities of the textual systems through which such influence was conveyed to the supposedly unsuspecting public. Television, for instance, was divided into two distinct phenomena. Factual output became the province of sociology (an ascendant discipline of the sixties), which pronounced on the politico-social impact of news by looking at the ownership of news media, not at the news itself; while fictional output was left to the psychs (who also enjoyed a vogue in that peculiar decade of disembodied mind expansion), and they managed to tell us what TV did to other people's behaviour by looking at the people, not the TV.

Popular Reality

Well, thank god (or Raymond Williams), that's all over now. Cultural Studies combines social and textual matters, focusing on power through its textual deployment, and on the social distribution of the resources and products of sense-making, whether they be the technical and corporate 'hardwares' of the global media industries, or the codes and conventions of various semiotic 'softwares' (from language to continuity editing), by means of which people might make sense of themselves, each other, and the world at large. With such interests as these, it follows that the texts and media chosen for analysis in Cultural Studies differ from those traditionally associated on the one hand with literary analysis, where disproportionate attention is paid to elaborate works of fiction belonging to an authorised canon of art, and on the other hand with socio-political analysis, which accepts the status if not the accuracy of the established 'truth-media' like news, overstating the political power of editorials and opinions which circulate between elements of the governing apparatus through the columns of what their owners and letter-writers would like to think are 'influential' newspapers. The social diffusion of the resources of sensemaking cannot be seen from such vantage points, preoccupied as they are with high art and high politics, with the decisions of management and judgements of posterity.

However, there's another vantage point from which the doings and sayings of the high and mighty can be looked at, but not taken as the be all and end all of human meaning. From the perspective of Cultural Studies, there are anthropological and historical dimensions to meaning; how sense is made in ordinary circumstances, how the 'power of speech' is socially distributed and historically developed, what meanings have become established in the widest popular context. The aim here is to discover what is special, not about the chosen few, but about our entire species, and thus also to determine how the cutting-edges of textual productivity in the domains of politics and literature, truth and fiction, news and art, history and imagination, actually work socially. Cultural Studies has made a start on such investigations.

However, Cultural Studies has its own history, which has shaped its intellectual agenda. Its most enduring concern has been with the media. Strictly speaking, literature and cinema are media too, and elaborate, artistically shaped fiction is a central part of media fare. But in Cultural Studies, 'the media' as a term has come to signify television above all, along with the daily press (radio rarely gets a hearing, although the recorded music industry does).

What distinguishes post-Frankfurt School Cultural Studies, in fact, is not a comprehensive theory of 'the media'. Perhaps the last such attempt was Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Frankfurtian essay "Constituents of a theory of the media", first published in English in New Left Review (the successor-journal to Hall's ULR) in 1970. 12 It is also among the most challenging, prescient and as yet unanswered attempts, because since then critical-analytical attention has fragmented; for the last twenty years, during the period of its most intensive self-invention, Cultural Studies has been preoccupied not with 'the media' but with popular media, and not with how such media work internally (both textually and socially), but with how they measure up against an externally applied yardstick, namely reality. Here's why:

Any socialist strategy for the media must ... strive to end the isolation of the individual participants from the social learning and production process. This is impossible unless those concerned organize themselves. This is the political core of the question of the media. 13

So, it seems, the politics of the media is not what "the masses" are doing with the means of media production that are already in their hands, but "why these means of production do not turn up at factories, in schools, in the offices of the bureaucracy, in short, everywhere where there is social conflict"? 14 The masses ought, it seems, to leave off snapping their children, archiving their weddings and holidays, and tape-recording bird-songs, and get on with "aggressive forms of publicity which were their own", and so "secure evidence of their daily experiences and draw effective lessons from them." 15

From the perspective of the cultural politics of the late sixties, the fact that "the masses" already had in their hands the means of media sensemaking was simply ruled out of the discussion, because they didn't use these media for organised, self-consciously socialist politics. Popular reality was deemed to be what left intellectuals had decided in advance, while what the populace actually did was regarded as phoney or false. Enzensberger's argument suffers from a blind spot which is emblematic of the period; while arguing for the appropriation of the means of discursive production as an essential element of socialist strategy, it disallows the evidence of what "the masses" might actually want to do with the media for themselves.

In fact, Enzensberger's notion of "masses" is contradictory, wanting them to be active and self-determining, but only if such action is organised along existing political lines, to support existing (socialist) strategies, and only if it is mass. Evidence that populations are not masses, and that the new media technologies may suffuse popular culture in ways that challenge socialist orthodoxies, is dismissed as the result of corporate manipulation, leaving a view of the masses as, by default, passive, depoliticised and in need of organisation. But, Enzensberger admits, transforming media into an emancipatory "social learning and production" is only possible if those concerned organise themselves.

What if they don't? Do 'we' sit and wait for them to cotton on? The alternatives are either that someone organises them whether they like it or not, which is 'democratic centralism', otherwise known as Stalinism, or else that whatever they do, even self-determined political action, is not deemed to be political because it doesn't conform to the preferred model of collective organisation. The contradiction inherent in Enzensberger's argument ultimately defeats it, for any media politics becomes dependent on something else (the self-organisation of the masses) which may or may not occur, while the existing use of media by individuals is ruled out as de-political, no matter what's going on, and the disabling distinction between 'we' vanguardist intellectuals and 'they' masses is reproduced, to the frustration of the former if not the latter.

The Sorrows of Success

This problem has trickled into Cultural Studies in the form of its curriculum. Media production itself is still downplayed as it always has been, on the wrong side of the Veblenesque binary divide between 'academic' and 'practical' subjects, suited to vocational students and unpublished tutors. On the high ground of theory too, in contemporary Cultural Studies, there is a tendency to take reality-genres like news, actuality, documentary and journalism much more seriously than the same genre-industries are taken in Film and Literary Studies, which have neglected them in favour of narrative fiction (this is despite the fact that actuality genres are found on the big screen and the printed page as well as on TV, and, conversely, elaborate artistic fictions are just as common in popular TV and print media as they are in art cinema and literature). However, Cultural Studies has dwelt on popular reality as part of a more general intellectual endeavour, namely to demonstrate the way in which reality is not only constructed textually and socially, but also popularised in line with political and ideological dispositions of power.

The agenda of Cultural Studies, then, predetermines its object of study. Its interest in how political and cultural hegemony is established and maintained among the popular classes of contemporary nations has resulted in a kind of critical common sense which has created a demarcation line between Cultural Studies and the aesthetic disciplines (Film and Literary Studies), and further demarcation lines between popular and other media, between reality and art, truth and fiction. All such demarcations do violence to the facts of the situation. Cultural Studies has taken an interest in 'the media' (i.e. popular reality) in order to establish and maintain another kind of hegemony; its own claims to moral authority and intellectual leadership in the field of cultural criticism.

In fact it might be argued that the oppositional intellectuals whose early efforts established the theoretical and analytical agenda for Cultural Studies as an academic subject were interested in television's potential to manipulate the masses because sometime in the future they hoped they'd be able to have a go at doing that too. What's the point of Gramsci if not to show how the hegemonic can be countered, and, once the strategy is determined, who's going to direct it if not the strategists? Theory in this arena is far from other-worldly or impractical, it's an apprenticeship for power. So theory is also far from disinterested, nor is its interest primarily in being correct. Its interest is in success. But as Stuart Hall put it in 1959, "The gravest danger in the coming years could be that we fail to make socialists, and yet have 'success' in building another socialist sect", 16 (I think Stuart Hall was wrong too; socialists, either successful or sectarian, are not for 'us' to make, socialists make themselves).

Perhaps an interest in being correct (not necessarily ideologically correct), might have been a good idea all along, for theories of media manipulation are wrong, and one consequence of this is that the strategies for the take-over of popular reality based upon them did not work out. Certainly the utopia of self-organised masses appropriating the means of representation as part of a socialist strategy for counter-hegemonic revolution did not occur. So the potential leaders, cadres and 'democratic centralists' of popular utopia, who flocked to the Communist University of London in the late 1970s to watch Stuart Hall and other beatified culturalists strut their stuff, learnt the language of the corporate-media adversaries without getting to push the buttons and pronounce the sentences for themselves.

Long Live the Revisionists

However, some of them, in fact, ended up as TV producers. And some of those, true to their own false consciousnesses, ended up making TV drama about their dreams and nightmares. Recently repeated on Australian TV, for instance, has been A Very British Coup, which happens to be a good TV play, and which pissed off the arrogant British Tory party by showing a Prime Minister (albeit a left-Labour one) pissing in a toilet, which at least led to pompous questions in the House of Commons, if not a popular appropriation of parliament. Along the way, however, A Very British Coup, written by a left-Labour MP and co-produced by someone who might until 1990 have had trouble getting a US visa, is the true image of the kind of theorising that has cost socialism its foothold in popular reality. It's a combination of utopia and conspiracy - our utopia and their conspiracy. Harry Perkins, from the People's Republic of South Sheffield, is the true representative of the people, and the people see this, elect him, and would support his program, if only they, namely Philip Madoc done up to look like Rupert Murdoch, wouldn't conspire to use his media influence to confuse the people's consciousness and precipitate a very British coup, which is of course an anti-democratic conspiracy done up to look genteel.

This, then, is the tide-mark left round the empty bath of Cultural Studies; dammit, we ought to have won - not least because Stuart Hall is a more congenial, inspiring and convincing political theorist than Margaret Thatcher - but we didn't, so they must've manipulated the masses. Girl, you know it's true.

The masses are no more; the politics of mass organisation is redundant. But Cultural Studies needn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The aim of understanding media retains its utility, in seeking to analyse the media in the here and now, in their current dispositions of power, their social reach, diffusion and uses, and not only in their utopian potentiality. What is implicit in the politics of popular reality, these days, is a new understanding of politics, as well as of popular reality, and running through post-Wall critical analysis is a new, fragmented, politics of knowledge too, a sensitivity to the relations between popular reality and intellectual culture (where the uncertainty resides with the latter not the former), and a sense of distinction between different lefts. Whether this turns out to be nothing more historic than the post-political pout of the Old New Left, or the rejuvenating revisionism of a newly constituted field of study, remains to be seen. In the meantime, as Stuart Hall put it in 1959, the success of Cultural Studies won't be primarily to "'arm us for the struggle against capitalism"' (risking, when you get the theory wrong, "scientifically constructed bent pitch-forks"); success will be measured against a different yardstick: "I wrote my article", says Hall, "because I wanted to know". 17

Me too. Whether you'll find knowledge or bent pitch-forks in this issue of Continuum, or on this evening's edition of CNN's War in the Gulf, is not for me to say. All I know is that I seem to have lost my hairbrush.

This article was republished as the first chapter of John Hartley's 1992 book: The Politics of Pictures: The Creation of the Public in the Age of Popular Media, Routledge, London & New York.


1. John Katz, "Anchor Monster", Rolling Stone [US edn.], January 101991, pp. 61-76.

2. Australian Vogue, January 1991, p. 40.

3. Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies (New York: Unwin Hyman, 1990).

4. Stuart Hall, "Absolute Beginnings." Universities & Left Review, n. 7 (Autumn 1959), pp. 16-25. This quotation p. 19.

5. Ibid, p. 21.

6. Ibid, p. 24.

7. Ibid, p. 23.

8. Stuart Hall, "The Big Swipe: some comments on the 'classlessness controversy'", Universities & Left Review, n. 7 (Autumn 1959), pp. 50-2.

9. Ibid, p. 51.

10. Source: The Australian, November 21, 1990.

11. Jeff Giles, "The Milli Vanilli Wars", Rolling Stone [US edn.], January 10, 1991,p.24.

12. See Hans Magnus Enzensberger, "Constituents of a Theory of the Media", New Left Review n. 64 (1970). All my quotations come from the same essay as republished in Enzensberger's Raids and Reconstructions: essays on politics, crime and culture (London: Pluto Press, 1976), pp. 20-53.

13. Enzensberger, op. cit., p. 34.

14. Ibid, p. 32.

15. Ibid, p. 34.

16. Hall, "The Big Swipe", p. 52.

17. Ibid, p. 50.

New: 27 February, 1996 | Now: 16 March, 2015