I haven't really been able to wrap my head around cultural studies. I took a course at McGill- and I admit I didn't pay as much attention as I should have because we had rehearsals for the Vagina Monologues on at the time, and I was largely distracted. But the question comes back ever so often-- exactly what (and why) is cultural studies?
So you take pieces of literature (or art) and put them into a cultural context, the culture of that time, the culture of this. Roland Barthes dealt with this-- 'the myth'-- the ideology we prescribe to objects. Now, some of the most fascinating conversations regarding prescribing cultural context to objects in our midst have taken place on the forums of this great website called 'Television Without Pity'. I found it quite accidentally a few years ago and frequently lurk around the boards. It mainly deals with television shows (you name, its there) but the conversations go far beyond mere plot points or casting. They read INTO the meaning of some of the better television shows- case and point, Buffy. I understood a few things about fandom and the makings of a cult through this forum- While the show tries to be 'moral', the demand is that it remain true to its story. A lot rides on poetic justice-- a character can be good, evil, grey; but the end should fit. Whedon gave a twist at some junctures- that death can be sudden, and sometimes it has no meaning. Where does this fit?
Now take Dracula; Franco Moretti's capitalist reading of him. Now, this is what the man says-- if Dracula represents capitalism, his vampire nature represents his need for consumption and threatens individual liberty. (It goes on). A Freudian analysis says [what else?] that Dracula signifies the 'Return of the Repressed'. Sex is punished in this reading- which is why Lucy, who cannot wait for her wedding day to come- dies in an unusual way, a sexual way indeed, after she has already become one of the undead.
But what I can't understand is how we can make these cultural interpretations when it was not Stoker's intention. He might just say, 'What? You are reading all this WRONG. Its just a story about a vampire!'
Now all these thoughts came to me while watching Secret of my Success. [IMDB it if you haven't seen it.] I wondered if Michael J Fox's uncle would stand for (evil) corporate America-- wasn't this movie made in the 1980's? Would it be Reganomics? And what about the young, upcoming exec's? Do they stand for a more liberal economic theory? Expansion? About the workers? Not about big business. Would this make sense? Is this a cultural analysis right here? But how can we be sure we are right?
The thing is, I don't understand- is it really possible to ascribe culture to a piece of art- a movie, a book? So it becomes a symbol- a 'myth'. Is this that elusive myth, which Joseph Campbell calls 'collective dreams'. Together, we take in something. Together, we try and discover the same meaning. We have cults- Buffy, Donnie Darko--- we have literature. Can we ever reach a conclusion? We try, and a part of this is cultural studies. Its a process.
I suppose that is the key. A common understanding of the events and art that shape our past and present. Can we all look at something and agree? Can we understand why a certain story IS. At any given time, why would my story be the way it is? Were there larger, cultural, factors at work-- even if I didn't know it. Did my culture influence me, making my work a 'symbol' of its time?
Thats the question isn't it.