The Practice of Cultural Analysis: Exposing Interdisciplinary Interpretation.
The Practice of Cultural Analysis is an introduction to the discipline of Cultural Analysis, whose focus is "not only on contemporary culture, but also on historical phenomena analyzed and interpreted from a contemporary theoretical viewpoint, in their relevance to the present" (Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), www.hum.uva.nl/asca; accessed December 18, 2002). The book is a volume of essays demonstrating the necessity and the practical applications of a new, interdisciplinary school, in which self-reflection is central to the analysis of cultural objects, informing both academic process and interpretation as well as our understanding and experience of our own present.
Self-reflection and the effect of observation and intervention within studies of culture are not new to many of the contemporary humanities and social sciences, including Folklore and Anthropology. Therefore, for scholars within these disciplines, Cultural Analysis reinforces and creates a forum for current practice, in which interpretation of cultural processes, such as gender formation or heritage and identity building, is attentive not only to the data collected, but also to the historical moment in which scholars perform their analysis, the cultural and academic experience they bring to their studies, their relationships to previous scholars and studies, the objects chosen, and the conclusions drawn. The Practice of Cultural Analysis is "designed to promote dialogue" (325), however, and seeks to demonstrate the relevance of this approach to a variety of disciplines throughout academia. Therefore the book includes essays that discuss, for example, literature, history, art, politics, aesthetics, popular culture, gender, and film. And in turn, the book also seeks to show how different disciplines and their study help to create and strengthen the need for the new interdisciplinary school.
The Practice of Cultural Analysis begins with an introduction by Mieke Bal, Professor of Theory of Literature and a Founding Director of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis. Bal focuses on the cultural object and its significance as a "gesture of showing," a discursive act that is performative in its very nature (7). Bal and, subsequently, each of the authors seek to introduce readers to a new way of looking--one in which we are all active participants in the performance of culture and its material objects, and therefore active participants within analysis and interpretation. This concept is familiar to contemporary Folklorists and also practiced today within the context of the museum, "the kind of cultural object on which cultural analysis can set to work" (7), wherein an approach to both the cultural object and its analysis as performance places the academic or observer in the midst of a dialogue. Bal suggests in the introduction, and more in depth in her own Double Exposures: The Subject of Cultural Analysis (London: Routledge, 1996), that this may be seen in terms of first, second, and third person, wherein an exposer (or curator) communicates with a visitor about an object, respectively (8).
Following Bal's introduction and a short prelude in which Janneke Lam discusses the visualization of the process of looking through a dialogue in images between herself and Edwin Janssen, The Practice of Cultural Analysis is divided into four parts that lead the reader from Cultural Analysis practice to self-reflexivity and include essays from nineteen authors. Part I, titled "Don't Look Now: Visual Memory in the Present," discusses the presence of the past in the present and the "theoretical theme of visuality, of looking" (24). Evelyn Fox Keller considers the role of intervention within Biology, focusing on the microscope and use of x-rays. Nanette Solomon, Griselda Pollock, and Carol Zemel analyze gender 'and cultural identity in Art History. Solomon looks at images of women as culturally produced signs and studies a paradigm shift in representation within the works of Vermeer. Pollock also examines woman as sign, but her study explores gender roles and relationships within the world of art. Focusing primarily on Lee Krasner, Pollock seeks to broaden the feminist discussion of "the necessary relations between a woman who is an artist, her cultural moment, and the discursive terms available for historical analysis and interpretation" (78). Carol Zemel considers photographic images of Jewish life in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and the ways in which these representations both reflect and create national character and consciousness. Thomas Elsaesser examines the place of film and cinema and contemporary Film Studies in the history and academics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Finally Stephen Bann proposes a paradigm for the study of History, stating that "... the cultural critic is not simply someone who analyzes and reorders textual material, even to the point of undermining it and exposing its hidden ideologies ... the cultural critique works on discourses which have already been fragmented, already destroyed, if we set them within the broader historical perspective" (127).
Part II, titled "Close-Ups and Mirrors: The Return of Close Reading, with a Difference," contains essays that demonstrate close reading as a critical practice. Although the previous section suggests that Cultural Analysis applies to the study of many cultural forms, the authors in this group of essays focus primarily on written texts. Helga Geyer-Ryan examines the cultural construction of Venice as both place and rhetorical figure within literature. Ernst van Alphen discusses loss of self both within the text of Nightwood and within himself as its reader. Frank R. Ankersmit considers History and historical truth. J. Cheryl Exum analyzes various visual interpretations of the Book of Ruth, such as Philip Hermogenes Calderon's painting Ruth and Naomi and the films The Story of Ruth by Henry Koster and Naomi and Her Two Daughters-in-Law by William Blake. Isabel Hoving looks at space and identity as they relate to both Cultural Analysis and postcolonial theory, stating that "the focus on the complexity of text or image itself, and the focus on lived experience in cultural analysis, can form an antidote to the universalizing tendencies in postcolonial theory" (204). Hoving imagines that "one characteristic of such a theoretical practice will certainly be that it will welcome the voices and discourses of writers, poets, and narrators from outside the academy with the same eagerness with which dominant theories of movement are usually met" (218). Finally, Siegfried Zielinski considers standardizing praxes of expression and multiplicity within contemporary art and creativity.
Part III, titled "Method Matters: Reflections on the Identity of Cultural Analysis," presents "different perspectives that indicate the diversity of views that are compatible with, and helpful for, the kind of practice which [ The Practice of Cultural Analysis] demonstrates in the first two parts" (229). Johannes Fabian discusses his ethnographic research in the Shaba region of Zaire, 1972-1974, and the relationship between politics and popular paintings produced during that time. Both Luis Dupre and Theo de Boer set forth philosophical reflections on culture itself. Dupre investigates both the plurality of symbolic systems and metaphysical unity that are found within culture. De Boer looks at culture in order to further investigate "the function, nature, and meaning of cultural analysis in three areas that we may see as three levels of reality: unconscious reality, daily reality, and fictional reality" (272). John Neubauer considers the definition of analysis, and Jon Cook contemplates knowledge, its relationship to the institution of the university, and the effect that institutional change has on our understanding of what knowledge is and the identity of cultural studies and cultural analysis.
Finally, in the last section, titled "Double Afterwords," William P. Germano, Vice President and Publishing Director at Routledge Publishers, discusses the benefits and difficulties of publishing works that deal with interdisciplinary studies and cultural studies. Germano suggests that the label "interdisciplinary" can be problematic for many publishers, where cultural studies offers unity of theme and can be more successfully marketed. In closing, The Practice of Cultural Analysis features an essay by Jonathan Culler, editor of the journal Diacritics, in which he reflects on the field of cultural studies in both the United States and Britain and its relationship to the discipline of Cultural Analysis. Cultural Analysis does not face the same difficulties of proving legitimacy as cultural studies, he states, as its own "theoretical engagement: its reflection on the way in which its own disciplinary and methodological standpoint shape the objects that it analyzes," (345-346) ground it within academia.
The Practice of Cultural Analysis is an ambitious book. Mieke Bal and her colleagues set about to define, legitimate, and demonstrate an entire discipline. On the whole, the publication is successful. The reader is certain to understand what Cultural Analysis is, its practical applications, and its relevance to a wide variety of research topics. The book is heavily weighted toward written texts, however, and many of the authors come to Cultural Analysis with backgrounds in Literature, History, Philosophy, and Art History. The Practice of Cultural Analysis would have benefited from inclusion of more ethnographic- and museum-based studies. In her introduction, Bal discusses Cultural Analysis' direct relevance to the interpretation of the museum as a performative and dialogic cultural object, yet none of the essays really articulate this connection fully.
The essays featured in The Practice of Cultural Analysis not only provide the reader a solid foundation and understanding of the discipline of Cultural Analysis, but they also offer scholars throughout the humanities and social sciences a fresh perspective on the nature of analysis and the interpretation of culture and its material objects. The Practice of Cultural Analysis is a significant contribution in the changing landscape of contemporary academics.
Zoe-hateehc Durrah Scheffy
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|Author:||Scheffy, Zoe-hateehc Durrah|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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