A Way of Looking at Things:

Some Essential Terms in “Cultural Criticism”

We live in a physical world, but our experience of the physical world is indirect. When we walk down the street and see a big, old, elm tree, we don’t see it as a brown column with little green things on top waving in the air. We don’t think to ourselves, “This must be where the birds live.”

No. We have a word for this thing, so we just think, “tree.”

Instead of seeing the tree as a new-born baby might see it — as a shape, a purely physical form — we recognize the tree as part of a linguistic category, as a thing with a name.

Instead of encountering the tree physically, we register it mentally. The word “tree” stands in between us and the thing itself. This is what it means to say that our experience of the world is indirect. There is a filter between us and the physical world. Not all of that filter is made of language, but quite a bit of it is.

Identity Categories

The word “tree” provides us with a category for understanding some of the things we see outside in the natural world. Other words provide us with categories for understanding one another in the social world.

The social world is, arguably, more complex than the physical world. At least this is true in the sense that our interactions with the social world are far more nuanced, intricate and personal than our interactions generally are with the natural world, and far more charged with meaning.

This difference is reflected in the subtlety and the complexity of our language regarding the social world, which is to say our language about people.

While we may be able to get away with a very limited vocabulary relating to types of trees in the natural world, we all have a rather highly developed vocabulary relating to the social world we inhabit. In order to navigate this social world — or just to make sense of it — we have all sorts of terms that provide us with social categories and social concepts.

These categories are important because they define us. They provide us with identities. They give us ways to identify others.

Just as we learn to “read” the physical world around us and develop a vocabulary to define and describe it, we also learn to “read” the social world. Our culture instructs us in this regard, telling us as we grow up how to understand “who is who” and how to make sense of the social fabric we’re a part of.

Language & Mediation

Before moving on, it is important to note that the way language works to filter our experience with the physical world is the same way language works to filter our experience of the social world.

When we encounter the elm tree, we often don’t look closely at it. This is true in large part because we don’t need to spend time figuring out what it is. We see a brown and green thing sticking up from the ground and our brain supplies the term, “tree.” Having placed the object into a proper category, we can move on without really stopping to think about the specifics of that particular elm tree. (In a real way, we don’t see the tree itself with its unique branches and leaves. Instead, we only recognize it as a member of a category.)

The word “tree” comes in between us and the tree. Put another way, we look at the world through the filter of language, matching objects to terms from a learned lexicon. Our language organizes our experiences for us, which is essential and good. But certain problems can arise that will become clear soon.

We engage with the social world similarly. When we encounter a person, we quickly match them to a set of categories. Man. Woman. Boy. Girl. Young. Old. White. Black. Latino. Wealthy. Trendy. When we speak with them, we find even more categories to assign. Educated. Uneducated. Smart. Non-native-English speaker. Quick-witted. Weird. Funny. We often do this category matching without thinking about it. The language in our brain seems to work on its own.

In this way, language filters our experience. Another common way to express this same idea is to say that the concepts contained in language mediate our experiences. We don’t necessarily see the world itself. Instead, we see the concepts we have been taught to recognize.

Cultural Criticism

The seemingly automatic nature of social categorization is something worth discussing. While it is certainly true that we can amend and change any judgments we make about people in our lives, we will have a much harder time doing it if we don’t realize we’ve made any judgments in the first place.

How can you change your mind when you aren’t aware you’ve made a decision?

This is one of the most important points to be made regarding cultural criticism. And it ends up being very political in its implications.

Let’s stick with our tree analogy to clarify the main idea here and get a sense of why this is an important point.

The word tree, for most of us, is a neutral term that describes a set of things that exist in the physical world. The word isn’t associated with ideas of good and bad. But let’s imagine for a moment that “tree” is a word that does have some value attached to it. Let’s imagine that the word “tree” is associated with danger.

Maybe in this hypothetical culture, trees are known to fall over without much notice. When they fall, people get hurt. So, when you see a tree, you think “tree!” and the word brings to mind the idea of threat and danger (even though you’ve never been hit by a falling tree or seen a tree fall on anyone else). The stories told by the culture at large have convinced you that trees are a threat.

Now when you walk down the street, you will avoid walking next to the tree. You won’t have to think about it. You’ll just do it because the term “tree” carries the connotation of danger. The association between the term and the idea of danger is automatic. It is a connection that your culture has made for you.

The analogue for our social world might be plain to see at this point. It’s important to recognize that our relationship to the social world is far less neutral than our typical relationship to the natural world. Many of our social terms, if not most (or even all of them), are freighted with value-laden connotations. Again, these are connotations that we do not create for ourselves but that our culture creates for us.

Basic terms like “man” and “woman” feel like they should be neutral descriptors. They feel like terms that shouldn’t do anything more than indicate an objective biological category. But that’s not how things work. Even the basic terms “man” and “woman” carry associations that connect them to value-oriented ideas (like strength, beauty, “domesticity,” emotionality, etc.). The terms are not cut-and-dry categories. They’re enmeshed in a network of associations provided, in large part, by our culture.

In other words, there are whole systems of thought that intersect with these basic terms. And when we start to think about the associations behind gender and racial terms, we can see how our “tree = danger” analogy concisely summarizes the way stereotypes work as internalized concepts. They drive our behavior on a subconscious level.

Our culture provides us with terms that may at first seem like empty boxes that we can use to organize the social world around us. We believe we can just look at people and fit them neatly into this objective boxes and in so doing attain a sense that our world is a tidy place.

What we don’t always notice is that the boxes are not empty. Our culture gives us the terms as empty boxes but then fills each box with a different color of glitter. Now everything we put into a box gets glitter on it. And you know how glitter works. Once it gets on something, you really can’t get it off.

Sure, if you try, you can see past the glitter. But it’s always there.

Cultural Products

To put it one way, the aim of cultural criticism is to explain how the glitter gets into each box.

Cultural criticism wants to unpack the content of the associations that stand behind our social terms. This approach to culture examines how terms come to carry their value-oriented meanings. In other words, cultural criticism attempts to examine how ideology is communicated and it does so by focusing on cultural products.

In this context, “cultural products” are any kind of text. Movies. Television shows. Advertisements. Magazines.

Cultural criticism might pose a question like, “What connotations are attached to the social concept of motherhood?” Then there is always the follow up question, “How did those connotations get there?”

This is like asking a question in our analogy of the tree and saying, “Trees are commonly associated with danger, but why? Where does that connection come from?”

For the cultural criticism scholar, the answer is found in discourse. Simply put, this means we are analyzing the stories and conversations that our culture generates regarding an issue or topic.

Discourse

One of the fundamental reasons that we might ask why trees are associated with danger is because we have a very strong sense that this association is inaccurate or just plain wrong. It’s a misguided and possibly destructive cultural belief.

If we know that, in fact, trees are safe, we might be especially interested in discovering how such a false and fictional idea became widespread in our culture.

To keep the analogy simple and jump to the end, let’s just say that our culture has a certain story that everyone knows. They used to teach it in school, but now it’s not told there. Still, echoes of the story seem to be everywhere…

In the movies, it’s common for trees to fall on people. And in popular music, the image of a dangerous tree is used remarkably often and even glorified. As many people know, this idea can be traced back to a famous tree that was chopped down in the 1600s by a small group of men. They didn’t secure the tree correctly with ropes or pulleys, so the tree came crashing down and killed them. It was their fault. The tree didn’t fall down on its own, but after a while the story wasn’t about the mistakes those men made in chopping down the tree. It was about how dangerous trees are.

Today, when we want to ask why people walk across the street to avoid trees, we will look at how the story continues to live in our cultural discourse and how the association that connects trees to danger is perpetuated in the modern world.

The scholar will ask, “When this movie sends its protagonist into the woods, is it reinforcing the cultural myth that trees are dangerous?”

Leaving our analogy and looking at a real world example, the scholar might ask, “When Beyoncé and Jay-Z featured themselves as a royal couple in their latest music video, were they challenging cultural presumptions about the place of Black Americans in the culture’s social hierarchy?” Or, “Is that video making a statement about resisting disenfranchisement and in that way striving to correct a historical view of Black Americans as second-class citizens without rights or power in America?”

What we are doing here is addressing the music video as an element of discourse. It is a text — an act of speech — that can be seen as contributing to the way we think about and talk about race in America. It also might contribute to the way we think and talk about marriage or celebrity.

We have a “discourse” around each of these concepts (and there is often quite a bit of overlap). When we analyze our discourse on race, say, we are looking at the various ways we talk about race as a culture and thus looking at the ways we think about race as a culture.

Cultural Work

When we apply the concepts of cultural criticism to a text, we are looking for ways that cultural products contribute to public discourse. We are assessing ways that a film, for instance, might influence and potentially change how we talk about race or gender. We are evaluating a text by investigating how it affects our culture’s understanding of identity categories.

This means that in applying cultural criticism, we are analyzing ways in which a text is doing “cultural work.”

Let’s go back to our analogy one last time here. After spending some time thinking about how the cultural myth about trees being dangerous is false and unfair, a hypothetical author decides to write a novel about trees. This novel depicts trees as very stable, safe and good. The novel becomes a big hit and high schools begin assigning it. Soon, there is a popular question being asked in our society about whether or not the negative connotations surrounding trees should be done away with.

The author and her novel, in this example, have done “cultural work,” shifting the meaning of the term “tree” in a positive direction and altering the way we think and talk about trees. Our discourse around trees has changed in ways that give trees a new status in the neighborhood.

Although this is an overly-simplified example, texts like this do exist. Some creators of books and movies and television shows do strive to create conversations that will shape public discourse and break down stereotypes.

But we have to recognize that most stories dealing with social concepts and identity categories don’t come right out and say that they’re trying to change the associations people carry around in their heads regarding race, gender, sexuality, etc. We have to ask the right questions of those texts to see how they are presenting messages that inform our sense of what it means to be Black or to be a woman.

Again, as individuals we tend to engage with social concepts on a subconscious level. We don’t actively question the categories and concepts in our brain. We just fit people into the categories and move on. (This is as true for the creators of cultural products as it is for the audience.) Most of the time, we don’t need to spend much time deciding what the best term is to apply to someone — or to ourselves. Our culture does that for us.

But let’s clarify here. The aim of cultural criticism is not exactly an effort to make the subconscious process of social thinking into a conscious one. Implicit and automatic associations are unavoidable. Those associations are not bad in-and-of themselves.

What cultural criticism is really doing is looking to track the active history of cultural associations and point out how and where those associations are communicated. The aim is (1) to discuss the impact of a culturally-shared set of perceptions, (2) and highlight the socially constructed nature of those perceptions.

Socially Constructed Knowledge

As a supplemental point, we can dig into the idea of socially constructed knowledge as a way to illustrate how our intellectual concepts are not drawn from an objective, value-free natural world but are instead best understood as artifacts of our culture, often bearing the full weight of ideology.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “thirty is the new twenty.” It’s an odd turn of phrase because it seems to be a clearly contradictory and illogical statement, yet it presents us with a very clear and real picture of how the concepts of “young” and “old” function in ways that are almost purely arbitrary.

The phrase, “thirty is the new twenty,” conveys at least two essential messages in its five words. First, there is the historical message that suggests at one point youth was closely associated with the age of twenty. Now the same association of youth has shifted and attached itself to the age of thirty. Second, age alone does not define or describe youth. It’s the culture that decides what is young and what is not. Age, it seems, has little to do with “young” or “old” — not if we can just snap our fingers and decide that now “thirty = young.”

Maybe this seems like a silly point, but there is something substantial lurking here. The terms “young” and “old” are meaningful terms. They mean something. They’re not nonsense words. Yet the meaning they contain is not attached to any physical reality. They are instead derived from a cultural reality, a way of looking at the world.

This is what it means for an idea to be “socially constructed.” We know what the words “young” and “old” mean. We understand these terms, not because we have come to a scientific understanding, but because we have accepted our culture’s arbitrary (and shifting) determination of them.

Although “young” and “old” are generally free from the kind of political freight that race and gender concepts tend to carry, these terms can help us to see how our more vital and politically-inflected identity categories are also socially constructed.

Like the idea of youth, masculinity and femininity are not necessarily derived from a physical reality. They don’t refer to chromosomes. They refer to behavior, attitude, and manners of speech. These terms are almost entirely social. “Masculinity” and “femininity” only have meaning insofar as we agree with one another as to what behaviors, attitudes and manners of speech they describe.

Similarly, race is widely recognized to be something that we made up. It’s a concept. We decide what it means.

A Cultural Lens

Seen in this light, cultural criticism becomes an important tool. It allows us to look at our cultural discourse and ask how our books and movies and magazines are shaping how these concepts work in our heads.

If we use these concepts to “read” the world around us in ways that are automatic and subconscious, it seems like a good idea to ask what those concepts are and where they come from.

One of the most popular ways to describe the essential ideas in cultural criticism is to say that a culture’s discourse provides an individual with a lens, like sunglasses.

As individuals, we each look through this lens. So, the way we see the world is “filtered.” We don’t see the world as it is. Instead we see a mediated version of the world. Our version is tinted by the lens see it through.

By looking at texts in cultural criticism, we are asking how exactly the lens is shaping our perceptions.

We are also recognizing that this cultural lens has a sort of crazy magic.

You might imagine a situation where someone is interviewing two people for a job. The hiring manager sees a man and a woman both applying for the same job. Their qualifications are almost identical. When the hiring manager is wearing these cultural lenses, the man may appear to be more capable somehow, more apt to succeed in the job. But it may be a trick of the glasses. (Side-note: If you imagined a man as the “hiring manager” just now, that is because of the cultural lens you are currently wearing.)

The problem is this — we can’t take the glasses off. Our only option is to try to make them better so that the world we see through them is one we can really believe in.

Eric Martin is a writer, teacher, and artist living in California’s Antelope Valley. His work has appeared at PopMatters, Steinbeck Now and elsewhere.