Part One: Here
Does circulating information influence, inflect, or inhibit material relations in empirically verifiable ways? And do strategic interventions in the super-structural sphere actually promote sustainable social effects?
These are easily the two most vexing problems facing cultural studies research. In a previous post, this series argued that Julie D’Acci’s work has attempted to empirically apply the theoretical assumptions of the Birmingham School without emulating a social science method.
Such an approach begins with the observation that cultural processes require evaluation beyond taxonomic description. Mass communication is effective at describing media events by focusing on the relationship between evaluative (after) and predicative (before) time. In contrast, cultural studies seeks to contribute to social change among multiple lines of tactical intervention – industrial content production, information circulation, identity representation, and most difficultly, consciousness formation. Put differently, the when of social change is a central distinction between these two forms of communication analysis.
By focusing on concurrent characteristics of tangible discursive processes, opportune moments to plant seeds for democratic thought are revealed as internal adjustments to qualitative phenomena by discursive blocs. Attention to the temporality of how blocs shift their positional presence among heavily circulating codes and representations, otherwise called emergence, was a central concentration of cultural studies between the 1960s and 1980s.
Two major methodological strains came out of this period, “bottom-up” research that extrapolates scale practices through empirical study, and critical/cultural theory that evaluates circulating concepts regarding perspective, embodiment, and aspiration. Julie D’Acci’s major contribution—her refinement of Richard Johnson’s “circuit model”—can be viewed as a kind of intellectual diplomacy intent on reconciling empirical and conceptual approaches innovated from shared political investments.
The Paradox of Strong Effects in Cultural Studies
As discussed in the last post, the cultural study of media differs from mass communications over philosophical orientation regarding how social change occurs and is elicited. A communications researcher begins by identifying an event, asking a directed question about the event, measuring a response to that question across demographic categories, identifying the legacy of the event in its opinion effects, and then proposing a short-gain solution based upon the political will of the discursive bloc queried. This model of media event analysis, usually associated with Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, has been successful at communicating social processes to the hard sciences, and is accurate at accounting for opinion and predicting political outcomes that are opinion-based. A quantitative study builds context through a reverse gestalt that assembles parts into a constituted whole. A saturation of directed questions applied across demographic categories can be graphed as a topography of belief, in which utterances after an event provide a glimpse of analytical certainty.
In contrast, media and cultural studies has resisted adopting a strong effects model precisely because qualitative datum, such as imagination, intuition, and residual belief, tend to be minimized when survey findings are translated into quantified results. Survey research cannot assess how the historicity of implicitly coded information is received. Cultural studies begins with all constitutive characteristics of a phenomenon, which are then critically bracketed, detailed, and mobilized in line with a specific tactical project. A cultural analysis resists reactive delegation of a problem or position into a pre-constituted category. And uncomfortably received by social sciences, cultural research also requires acknowledgement of a kind of existential paradox, debated little since the 1980s in media studies:
Qualitative analysis resists strong effects correlations, specifically because analytic research questions predetermine a field of vision. Yet, cultural studies researchers have simultaneously held the belief that media has important role in the struggle over equity and representation. Put differently, cultural analysis believes that reception is more complex than transmission or measurement models permit, yet the method rests on the faith that circulating messages carry “strong” social effects central to the struggle over democratic participation.
Among recent responses to this paradox has been a common conclusion to simply evade this paradox, and continue with empirical mapping as a descriptive form with no intended outcome. This has led to what might be called a “third-wave” of de-theorized cultural studies in which some researchers have argued for increased attention to production blocs that carry emergent characteristics similar to discourses. In some cases, the “third-wave” has taken an additional step in de-politicization and argued that business practices are even more promising sites for eliciting social change than previously favored grass-roots interventions in public forums. While industries are worthy of close analysis, they are rarely if ever engines for equity.
Observing that businesses aren’t invested in social justice research does not reconcile a further existential dilemma that faces cultural studies. Media industries are an inseparable and permanent node in the production and circulation of representations. Part of the field must consist of analyses of the logic of capitalist entities; to do this requires a maxim for political investment, as well as healthy debate over the strengths and weaknesses of conceptual methods. Descriptive work is doomed to make evaluative claims after a social process or media event has already occurred. Cultural analysis that follows a “circuit model” centers on the continuous evaluation discursive reflexivity, as groups refine and begin to circulate their own messages.
The Circuit Model as Sublimation of Relational Distanciation
How to avoid the accidental reproduction of official knowledge? One appropriate method is to reveal inequalities as they occur. Another strong option is to genealogically analyze source concepts and practices as predicates for future social relations. A more difficult option is provided by D’Acci’s circuit model (below): to identify emergences as they’re presented among the constellation of limits of a specific context. Examining cultural emergence requires an understanding of how productive, distributive, and receptive qualities consist of series of exchanges that build valuation. Valuation of a specific coded representation increases circulatory momentum. Heavily circulating codes sublimate cultural processes and become what’s commonly referred to as a “determinant”, or a reference point for future code making.
D’Acci’s proposition is to account for this process by first identifying a 4-tiered but inter-subjective system of circulation. While its spheres—social, industrial, receptive, textual—come from Johnson, D’Acci’s system also implicates an additional methodological fourfold: empirical, conceptual, ethical, and aesthetic analysis, as a way to identify exchanges between interrelated determinants, including the internal organization of each sphere. Under such a rubric, a determinant further acts as a connective that facilitates a continuum of heavily circulating codes, while exposing contradictions opportune for change action. Circulating messages interact with cultural determinants, and the result, as argued by Stuart Hall and John Fiske, is that we can clearly identify discursive emergence.
If one sphere is cut from analysis, it recedes from sublimation into isolated divisions. Over-formalization of one node further has the danger of resulting in reproductive analysis of “official knowledge”, because representation has been cut off the process in which a code has been circulating.
A successful analysis of the sublimation between actants, objects, and processes causes even ephemeral relationships to become empirically revealed as an identifiable communicative relation that can be ethnographically described. Over time mapping of cultural representations might result in a sublated grasp of relational distanciation between circulating concepts. Sublimation of exchanges within a contextual field also reveals how degrees of duration might help to understand constitutive degrees of discursive positioning.
In terms of the ethical investments of cultural studies, devising a method to capture ephemera, subjective interpretation, and anticipatory aspirations, are a central to understanding how the performative dimensions of discourses respond to dominance. These are the sites of resistance, change, and possibility, and they are the first significations exorcised by methods of standardization.
To respond to the second question posed at the beginning of this piece: we can’t be certain if cultural analysis is able to promote sustainable cultural change in the U.S., researchers haven’t organized in a sustained way toward these stated goals. But we do have working theories from which to begin.