English Literature has swelled above its own banks. No longer purely English if, indeed, it ever was, it is no longer purely literary either. We have largely done away with the literary canon and the value judgements it implied, and at the same time blurred the line between English and its surrounding disciplines. Critics are now required to be not only historians, but also interpreters of materials other than written texts: paintings, portraits, monuments, rituals, dramatic performances, cityscapes, and all the materials of everyday life.
Among the early postwar symptoms of this expansion, Cultural Studies broke away from English Literature in the 1960s. As defined by Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and others, Cultural Studies was everything that English was not: contemporary, popular, and theoretically self-aware. Its practitioners developed skills in reading visual and aural culture.
The new discipline was given a major boost by the development in
at the same moment of a form of cultural analysis that drew on structuralism and linguistics. But these French theories posed — and continue in their current incarnation to pose — a problem for the binary opposition that prevails in the Paris between English and Cultural Studies. The rationale for isolating the study of popular, contemporary culture from high culture and the culture of the past now seems largely historical and institutional. UK
I shall propose that we move towards Cultural Criticism, which, while more comprehensive than either in its objects of knowledge, would have, paradoxically, less difficulty in defining itself as a skill and justifying itself as an intellectual pursuit. Its defining strength would be a close attention to the signifier in all its forms.
Professor Belsey's main area of work is on the implications of poststructuralist theory for aspects of cultural history and criticism. Her books include Critical Practice (1980), Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (1994) and Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture (1999). Her present project is Culture and the Real, a consideration of the limitations of contemporary constructivism in the light of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Professor Belsey chairs the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, a research forum for discussion and debate on current views of the relation between human beings and culture.