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Monday, November 15, 2010

Cultural Theory Class Notes

II MA English
Class note for: 10-11-10

Some questions raised at the beginning of the hour:
Why is Marx so popularly revisited across disciplines even today, in favour of say...a Spivak?
• How is Cultural Theory different from Cultural Studies?
• Cultural Theory vs. Literary Theory?

Addressing the question on Marx before the rest, Mr. Pinto began by urging us to look at the domain of knowledge production. Knowledge is the systematic understanding and explanation of phenomena and knowledge comes from empirical, lived experience. This then leads to questions, which in turn lead to reflection. Some would then write theories to logically make sense of this. Such a process not only facilitates growth of theories but of people as well.

So we have a Plato, an Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, Heidegger, Husserl, Derrida, Foucault etc...

These people are special because they give new theoretical frameworks using which people will examine diverse phenomena across the world. But ofcourse, the labour of their predecessors is crucial to these frameworks as well (so to understand Marx we need to understand Hegel and to understand Hegel, go back to Kant and so on...); just as how their successors ensure they carry forward their works (like how the Neo-Platonists carry forward Plato, how Spivak carries forward Foucault etc.) is crucial as well.

Karl Marx comes in here as one of the crucial ‘givers’ of a theoretical framework (and not the theory). His economic analysis is so scientific and mathematical, you can’t really miss it. From his analysis he carves out the ideas of ‘labour’, ‘capital’ (capitalism, capitalist...), ‘bourgeois’ etc., and includes even ‘environment’ (the first capital comes from where? Nature!).

After Marx, we don’t have a single figure who contributed as significantly in terms of establishing a theoretical framework for understanding society and social phenomena.

And to understand Marx we need to go back to Immanuel Kant. Once that German philosopher comes into the picture, the entire British philosophical tradition comes to a halt. (Before Kant, the philosophical domain saw the likes of Locke, Newton, Hume, Berkley etc.) Kant carves out a German lineage of philosophers and finishes off the British lineage. For nearly 200 years, Kant stood undisputedly significant in the philosophical scene after which the likes of Foucault and Derrida brought back the French into the picture.

But what one can’t deny is that Kant is far reaching (both temporal and spatial). Take even universities as we see them today. The university model of the first university of Berlin, Humboldt University (1810) is a strong influence on universities across the world even today (founder Wilhelm von Humboldt was a philosopher who took over from Kant). The divisions of social sciences, sciences and humanities in universities can be attributed to Kant. [Read: Critique of Pure Reason which is his theory of ‘perception’; Critique of Practical Reason which is his moral philosophy; and Critique of Judgment which is his theory on aesthetics] He divided knowledge domains into three factors: reason, ethics and aesthetics. The sciences must explore ‘reason’, the social sciences must explore ‘ethics’ (but according to Mr. Pinto, sadly don’t do a satisfactory job of it in reality), and literature must explore ‘aesthetics’ (but again, Mr. Pinto feels it doesn’t). Philosophy is supposed to reflect on all these. That is why it asks ‘what’.

Art, literature were not spoken of before Kant. The arts such as dance, painting, etc. were a way of life. They were ‘studied’ without judgement only after Kant, within the domain of ‘aesthetics’. But once it is judged it goes into the domain of the social sciences (ethics) from the domain of aesthetics. Aesthetics for Kant is pure pleasure without baggage (intention, ownership, monetary value etc.).

And this is precisely why literary theory as a discipline fails. It is the area of aesthetics that academics 'questions'. Aesthetics is therefore, in that sense, studied ‘unethically’ with ulterior motives. E.g. Postcolonial studies will look at not aesthetics but ethics – the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of it will now shift the discipline’s domain from ‘aesthetics’ to that of ‘ethics’.

It is here that Cultural Studies enters the picture. It constantly questions and challenges this idea of how aesthetics (i.e. those constructed unethical manipulations in the name of aesthetics) tangles up with ethics.

Finally, Cultural Theory is different from Cultural Studies in that ‘studies’ must reflect upon itself to be called ‘studies’. ‘Theory’ is only concepts that are specific to domains that then interact with other domains or even within the same domain.

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