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Book reviews:
Other cultural studies and critical theory books

This page features cultural studies books which don't fit [exclusively, at least] into the gender and culture books page, the queer theory books page, the internet culture page or the film studies extra page. However, if you're interested in cultural studies books, you'll want to look at those pages too.


Billingham, Peter (2001), Sensing the City through Television: Urban identities in fictional drama, Intellect, Bristol.

This excellent book relates particular TV series to social and cultural notions of the city. The back cover asks, "How do fictional representations of the city contribute to our sense of identity? Does this feed back into how we see cities and their cultures?". In fact this burble may be somewhat misleading, as the book doesn't really explore how TV shows might affect 'our' (i.e. the audience's) sense of identity. Instead, it's a book of studies of TV 'texts' -- and it's a very good one. Elsewhere on this site, we may be unkind about the value of subjective analyses of a text by an isolated 'expert'. But this is about as good as it gets, and is helped considerably by interviews with programme-makers themselves, so that the author's interpretations can't stray too far from the intended meanings, at least.

As the front cover more helpfully indicates, this is one of the first books to discuss the outstanding TV drama series Queer as Folk (taking in both series of the UK original). The lengthy discussion is perceptive, thoughtful, and happily draws out sensible interpretations of the text (instead of bewildering, hyper-imagined psychoanalytic ones, say). There's also well-informed and insightful discussions of The Cops, Holding On, Homicide - Life on the Street and Tales of the City.

Sensing the City does, of course, have interesting things to say about how these series represent cities, and how the idea of 'the city' works within each show. But the case studies of each programme are largely based around the characters - which is good, as Billingham's analyses are careful and insightful. Overall, it's a very good book for people interested in representations of the city, and urban life, in TV drama - but, more than that, it's one of the best 'television studies' books of recent years.


Macey, David (2001), The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, Penguin, London.

This astonishing encyclopedia of people, ideas and concepts is not edited by David Macey: he's written the whole thing. What an enormous amount of information, explanation and analysis! The cover could say "All knowledge is here" and it would be churlish of most students of cultural, literary and social studies to object. If a student was capable of memorising its entire contents in the summer before starting a humanities degree course, they would be at least half way along the road to success.

The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory takes a broad and up-to-date view of its titular subject matter. It's very well written. And it's as comprehensive as you could reasonably expect, with nice essays on everyone from Sergey Eisenstein to Andrea Dworkin, Germaine Greer to Zygmunt Bauman, as well as all the usual theory suspects. The essays are ideal as introductory essays on a thinker or concept that you want to get a handle on before reading further. And, to take one example, the 1,000-word piece on Baudrillard here is a better introduction to Baudrillard for beginners than the whole book Baudrillard for Beginners.

On the whole, items for entry are well selected and make this a useful reference work. The book also rewards browsers with entries on unpredictable things like 'Dead White European Males' and 'False memory syndrome'. Anthony Giddens is surprisingly denied an entry, whereas E.P. Thompson and Tel Quel get their 1,000 words each. Even if we have every respect for the nice cultural historian and the esoteric French journal, Giddens is clearly more significant in a dictionary of critical theory (broadly understood) than these. Complexity (and/or chaos) theories, which have excited some sociologists recently, are not in. 'Critical' art movements, such as Fluxus, don't get covered really, but old Ernst Gombrich gets an entry.

The author was clearly bored when doing the D's, and includes a pointless entry on docudrama, which has nothing to do with critical theory. Overall, though, the entries are informative and also harbour a very human sense of fun, with cheeky observations and far-from-essential trivia being slipped in throughout. This raises the overall pleasure factor, encouraging readers to browse and --hey! -- learn.

The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory is much more accessible than similar volumes, and great value for £8.99. It is a recommended purchase for students of cultural studies, literature or sociology.


Myers, Greg (1999), Ad Worlds: Brands, Media, Audiences, Arnold, London.

A very good, clearly written introduction to advertising. Ad Worlds covers the production, distribution and reception of ads, and Myers makes good use of examples -- often at surprising, but useful, length -- to make his points clear. There is even a chapter on advertising on the Web which is actually good (it's most unusual for a book which isn't solely about the Web to get the Web parts right). It's up-to-date and readable. I didn't even mind the occasional references to the placement of ads in Lancaster, where Myers lives, despite my usual aversion to that barren and rainswept home of all misery. So, it's a good book.


Anthony Giddens and Christopher Pierson (1998), Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity, Polity, Cambridge.

A very useful and readable introduction to Giddens's thought. Pierson asks relevant and not merely sycophantic questions, which Giddens answers with striking clarity. Unlike most books like this, you can read it from cover to cover with great ease and without falling asleep.

The theory of structuration is explained well. Rather than trying to emphasise its sophistication, Giddens risks doing down his own theory by explaining it as a quite common-sensical approach. Social life is more than random individual acts, but is not merely determined by social forces: instead, human agency and social structure are in a relationship with each other, and it is the repetition of the acts of individual agents which reproduces the structure. Giddens is dismissive of attempts to find problems in the detail of how this might work, in an 'oh, you're making it very complicated, but it's perfectly simple' style which is acceptable to me -- because it is perfectly simple -- but which may frustrate more pernickety critics.

Giddens's association with Tony Blair has become embarrassing -- which is more the fault of Tony B. than Tony G., although the latter should have seen it coming -- but this book is a timely reminder that Giddens really is a striking contemporary sociological thinker across a range of themes. His politics of everyday life, and the possibilities for change, have much in common with more conspicuously challenging theories (such as queer theory -- another 'third way' I suppose) and -- as this book shows -- are much more elegant and exciting than you might expect.


Ellen Seiter (1999), Television and New Media Audiences, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

This is a good, slimmish book on qualitative media research. Its title is misleading, however -- 'new media' seems to have been added to give it a contemporary edge, but it's not entirely appropriate, since only one chapter plus a few other bits deal with new media. Nevertheless, it contains useful discussions of a handful of areas within media audience research: a good general chapter on media ethnography, three chapters based on case studies -- qualitative studies concerning mothers, children, and television, to summarise them most simply -- and the chapter 'Television and the internet', which contains an OK summary of some things that people have said about TV audiences and internet users. And that, with the conclusion, is it. So it's not the world's fattest book, but the separate chapters -- well-written and engaging pieces -- will be good for tutors to recommend to their students.


Peter Brooker (1999), A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory, Arnold, London.

This is a nice little book, which does not deserve to be cursed with its astonishingly unimaginative cover. Get past that, though, and it's good news. The book begins nicely with a Foucault quote -- 'What is interesting is always interconnection, not the primacy of this over that' -- and is, on the whole, a treat: well-written, knowledgeable, and comprehensive.

Peter Brooker does well with those cultural studies terms associated with Stuart Hall, which nobody tries to pin down very often, like 'diaspora' and 'articulation', and his explanations of classic theoretical terms are clear, precise and accessible. Newer terms get a mixed treatment; 'Queer theory' is explained very well, but the entry for 'Cyberspace' limits itself to a bit of William Gibson, and then mutters nervously about information technology for a couple of sentences, before giving up.

It would have been nice if the entry for 'postmodernism' was a terrific, first-class summary of key ideas associated with this important term, which students always want a definition of. It isn't. You get a reasonable, slightly rambling discussion instead. He's good on 'postcolonialism' though.

Brooker is generally on solid ground with his sturdy, readable definitions of key terms. His attempts to include trendy pop culture references are somewhat less successful. The explanation of 'alienation', for example, is fine; but then we learn that the movie JFK was made in 1982 -- which it wasn't -- and is a case study of alienation and bureaucracy worth citing here -- which it isn't. (If you want to lob movies into your account of alienation, even such standard fare as Groundhog Day and Batman Returns would seem like better ideas... And in fact every film I've seen recently, from Pi to Payback, seems to be worth mentioning under 'alienation'...). Brooker's example of a 'cult' movie is Casablanca, which is surely a terrible example; cult films are ones which a minority of people love very enthusiastically, whereas Casablanca is loved -- in a less passionate way -- by a huge majority.

Brooker does not acknowledge the help of anybody for the preparation of this book, and the idea that one person could write consistently authoritative entries for so many concepts seems, well, unlikely. Nevertheless, I did find this book hard to (seriously) fault. It's an extremely useful, handy guide which explains key terms very well, and in a style which should be accessible to the student audience for whom the stupid cover is, we assume, patronisingly designed. (£12.99).


Ellis Cashmore & Chris Rojek, eds (1999), Dictionary of Cultural Theorists, Arnold, London.

An enjoyable introduction to over 200 cultural theorists. Generally well-written and accessible. Each entry is between one and two pages long -- although the book is quirky in who it gives more or less coverage to. Editor Chris Rojek's profile of R. D. Laing sets a fun standard, being engaging and eclectic, and mixing the intellectual material with gossip about R. D.'s decline into alcoholism and wine-bottle hurling (apparently). Other contributors play it more straight -- the entry on Camille Paglia, for example, is much too polite. The book avoids covering very recent 'stars', or well-known theorists of recent cultural phenomena such as the internet, but it's not particularly traditional or old-fashioned either.

Almost all of the entries are a bit too short to be really useful, but they do give a good flavour of what each theorist is about -- unlike John Lechte's rather poor and sometimes incomprehensible Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers (Routledge, 1995). And I found that several entries said that '[This theorist] has been criticised for lack of rigour', which therefore made each individual comment pointless -- we simply conclude that all well-known cultural theorists get picked on by other (jealous?) scholars.

Overall, readable and well done, and one of the better examples of this kind of enterprise (£16.99).


Martin McQuillan, Graeme MacDonald, Robin Purves and Stephen Thomson (1999), Post-Theory: New Directions in Criticism, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Well, I risk being accused of missing the point with this one, but it all seemed a bit strange to me. The idea of 'post-theory', which is related in a not-very-clear way to the 'end of theory' and -- haha -- some kind of 'beyond theory' scenario, sounds rather daft to me.

How can theoretical discussions -- of society, or literature, or whatever -- become 'post'-themselves?

A partial explanation emerges when you remember that within some literature departments, 'theory' refers not to theory but to a particular set of arguments or approaches. To some English scholars, saying that you are interested in theory actually means you are interested in applying particular ideas, often post-structuralist ones, to literary texts. So that is obviously something which you can have a 'post-' position on -- i.e. you've realised that applying a particular set of ideas to literary texts doesn't really get you very far, and it's time to move on. Fair enough. But deciding to use the valuable word 'theory' as a label for a particular set of ideas was so dumb in the first place that it should never have happened, and was always best ignored.

Funnily enough the editors of this book seem to share this view. They talk scornfully about 'Theory as a sausage machine, pouring texts in at one end, producing "new" readings at the other'. We can note that this is a good point, and also that it is extremely obvious. I don't work in English literature, but I suspect, from what I have seen, that this obvious point is actually an important criticism of the state of play there. Which doesn't mean that the editors of this book are geniuses, it just suggests that a bunch of people doing English are idiots, and that can't be right either -- can it?

Continuing their 'sausage-machine' point, McQuillan et al say, 'Theory should not be a stick to beat a canonical tradition on which it has always relied, in one form or another, but an experience of critical reading which imbricates itself in the text it reads. Ask not what Derrida can do for Jane Austen but what Jane Austen can do for Derrida'.

So that's good. Having made that excellent point, as a neat soundbite, on the second page of the book, the editors unfortunately have to fill up a further 200-odd pages. Most of the contributors wheeled in to do so agree that theory has managed to get post-itself, or is otherwise dead one way or another, but then, ironically, don't seem to have much else to write about. Perhaps the better chapters are the ones which ignore what the book is really about and talk about some other 'post-' thing instead, such as Patricia Duncker's enjoyable (if not very original) 'Post-gender'.

'Theory' emerges from this book largely unscathed. The overall message seems to be that a lot of theory hasn't been perky or self-reflexive or vigorous enough, which will be a disappointment for those people who expected this book to give contemporary theory a really good kicking.

The subtitle suggests that the book will propose 'new directions', but really many of the contributors just seem to favour a deeper and cleverer version of what we've got already. But then 'Slightly resuscitating some older directions in criticism' isn't a very good subtitle.


Joseph Natoli (1997), A Primer to Postmodernity, Blackwell, Malden, Massachusetts & Oxford.

This is an extremely good, well-written and readable introduction to postmodernism and postmodernity, aimed at first-year (or higher) undergraduates, though there is much for everyone to engage with here.

The book does not try to boil 'postmodernism' down to one simplified definition, but the author is aware that the diversity of definitions available can simply lead to confusion. Examples are well deployed in an effort to limit this problem.

Citizen Kane is cleverly used to show twentieth-century modernism starting to melt into the postmodern world of uncertainties and incomplete narratives. We also get the case for Seinfeld as po-mo TV.

The accessibility of the book is further helped by the use of dialogues (presented like a film script or play) between different characters and viewpoints. Natoli brings complex issues and debates to life. Recommended.


Michael Atavar (1997), Tiny Stars (70s 80s 90s), Rosamund St, London.

Sent to me by the artist/author, after he'd e-mailed me about my website and I'd e-mailed him back about his site four stars -- which is a brilliant demonstration of how to do a website, and a lovely art work.
This book has gorgeous design and production too. The self-indulgent introduction is a bad start: "These stories are so brutal, so honest, I'm surprised at the time that I wasn't arrested," he writes! He talks about his life "lived against much adversity and set-backs". Sigh.

But many of the pieces in the book are great, playful memories of advertising and TV blurring with shards of heartbroken reality, smudged by rain and tears and, it has to be said, other fluids. It's got gay sex, sunglasses, and a rumination on the names of sweets: "Does choosing a Drifter mean you will never, ever settle in one place? Does selecting a Club show a desperate need to belong, somewhere?". And then more sad stuff. Good.

[Tiny Stars (70s 80s 90s) -- Available from Rosamund St, BCM Box 5524, London WC1N 3XX Price 14.99 + 2.50 p&p (uk) / 4.00 p&p (overseas)].


David Thomson (1998), The Alien Quartet, Bloomsbury, London.

A very intelligent, well-written book, which is sensitive to the subtleties and potential of the Alien movie series. It re-tells and discusses the films in order, which may sound boring here, but is beautifully done. (It is no doubt helped by the fact that each movie gets about 45 pages; there would be greater scope for tedium and exaggerated 'meaning-finding' if it was about just one movie). The idea of re-telling the story is taken to another level for Alien Resurrection, the fourth and most disappointing film in the series, for which Thomson invents an alternative plot to replace the banality of much of what actually arrived on celluloid. Clever and thoughtful, and a very long way from the kind of hack job you might expect from a film journalist asked to fit writing a rather specific book into their schedule. (£10.99).


Elaine Baldwin, Brian Longhurst, Scott McCracken, Miles Ogborn, Greg Smith (1999), Introducing Cultural Studies, Prentice Hall Europe, London.

That's right - a textbook which aims to introduce students to all of the complex, often contradictory and famously 'difficult' world of cultural studies. All wrapped inside a horrid, zero-sophistication cover that looks like it's been directly lifted from a 1984 sociology schoolbook. Sounds doomed to fail, doesn't it? But in fact this is quite a triumph.

The authors have managed to include good, concise descriptions of most of the things you'd hope were in there, and make good use of examples for clarity. It's well arranged, with the textbook staples - such as boxes on key thinkers and central concepts - used effectively. Perhaps most importantly, the book does not 'dumb down' the subject, but credits its anticipated student audience with critical intelligence.

Boiling cultural studies down to one textbook runs the risk of evaporating away much of the more clever and interesting stuff in the process. But that hasn't happened here (although naturally, most of the areas will need to be followed up in other texts, as suggested by the book, to gain a deep understanding). On the contrary, this book inadvertently exposes the key problem with cultural studies, which viewers will discover when they study the 'further reading': that it does blether on so, stretching what are actually quite straightforward ideas over too many pages, until they begin to seem plain silly. When jammed into 500 pages, as here, the subject seems much more vibrant and varied. Hurray. (£16.99).


Stuart Sim, ed. (1998), The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought, Icon, Cambridge.

Rather like Introducing Cultural Studies above, this is a satisfying distillation of everything you ever wanted to know about the postmodern condition, more or less. 'An A to Z of x' books are usually superficial and unsatisfactory, but this one is sensibly divided into two parts. The first half consists of essays on 'Postmodernism and...' philosophy, art, science, television, and ten other areas. (That's 14 essays). Some of these occasionally seem to partly encourage the pointless 'I-Spy' attitude towards postmodernism, where people gain satisfaction from going 'Yes! That's postmodern!', without that 'observation' particularly telling us anything about the text or the culture that contributed to its production. The essays are generally readable and, taken together, are a nicely broad account of postmodernism.

In the second half we get an encyclopedia of people and ideas, which is pleasantly eclectic and wide-ranging: Angela Carter, Jeff Koons, Kurt Vonnegut, Brian Eno and Madonna sit alongside everyone from Kant and Adorno to Foucault and bell hooks. The key terms go from 'abjection' to 'zero degree', taking in 'cyborgs' and 'desire', as well as more traditional terms such as 'hegemony' and 'negative dialectics', and many more, along the way. It's a good mix.

Gender issues, popular culture and art are all well covered, although Sue Thornham writes that Judith Butler's is 'a lesbian perspective', which is exactly what you can't say having read Judith Butler (doh!). A more substantial, and related, problem with the book is that it provides no information on its contributors, who are just listed in one paragraph after the editor's introduction, as if he was embarrassed about them (which he generally needn't be). It's unhelpful for the curious reader, as well as being a swizz for the writers concerned. But that's a relatively minor complaint, and certainly doesn't stop this book being the definitive Christmas gift for the would-be intellectual in your life. (£14.99).


Peter Barry (1995), Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

A very nice paperback which intends to introduce the whole world of 'theory' to literature students, but it's useful for students of cultural studies in general too. 'Theory' might sound a bit broad, but in the world of literature they use the word to refer to a set of mostly recent critical theories - often post-structuralist ones. Visitors to theory.org.uk will most likely want to check out the nice introduction, pp. 3236 on theory, chapter six on feminism, chapter seven on lesbian & gay approaches and queer theory, pp. 175177 on Foucault, and the short chapter ten on postcolonial theory. Well-written and good value. (£8.99).


Nick Stevenson (1995), Understanding Media Cultures, Sage, London.

The chunky chapter 'Critical Perspectives within Audience Research: Problems in interpretation, agency, structure and ideology' (pp. 75113) is good on issues of interest to us about how people make meanings from the media they consume including brief-ish discussions of Fiske, Ang, and feminism. (£12.95).


Dominic Strinati (1995), An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London.

Chapter two is an extremely good introduction to the Frankfurt School's critique of the 'culture industry', explaining the arguments in a very clear and accessible way. The rest of the book struggles to match this high point, and some of the chapters are a bit over-simplistic and unsophisticated (e.g. on feminism, and postmodernism), but it's generally a solid introduction to theories of popular culture. Hence the name. (£10.99).


Karen Ross (1996), Black and White Media: Black Images in Popular Film and Television, Polity, Cambridge.

An important, up-to-date study. It favours the author's readings over those of other audience members; but it's nevertheless a valuable study of images. (£13.95).



Keith Green & Jill Le Bihan (1995), Critical Theory and Practice: A Coursebook, Routledge, London.

This is for literature students really, but it's a very nice book (as you can see from its lovely, if irrelevant, cover) introducing critical theories and how they can be applied to texts. (£12.95).



 

Featured on this page:
Sensing the City
Critical Theory
Ad Worlds
Anthony Giddens
TV Audiences
Cultural Theory
Cultural Theorists
Post-Theory
Postmodern Primer
Tiny Stars
The Alien Quartet
Intro Cultural Studies
Dict Postmodern Thought
Beginning Theory
Unders'g Media Cultures
Theories of Pop Culture
Black and White Media
Crit. Theory & Practice