Introduction to Cultural Studies

WR3 | Workshops

Introduction to Cultural Studies

This class will frequently use a mode of analysis associated with cultural studies. This lecture provides a brief introduction to this form of inquiry. Listen to the lecture below and afterward examine the example analysis of The Dark Knight (2008).

Further reading and citations:

Example Reading

So, how might we actually do a cultural studies reading of a text? Let’s consider a specific film of interest—one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, The Dark Knight (2008). The film grossed more than $533 million dollars in the US alone and over a billion worldwide, making it one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It is therefore safe to say that the film had an enormous cultural influence and appeal. In short, this was popular culture.

Let’s consider that films function like the dreamwork of a culture (in the Freudian sense), where latent desires, fears, and anxieties are made manifest—but often in an encrypted form. Films are cultural artifacts that appear at distinct historical junctures; in them we see ideas, emotions, fears, warnings, and desires that have arisen in the cultural mind and given a particular form on the screen. While these imaginings are frequently constructed with a particular intent or purpose by their creators, these same creators are the also the products of a particular cultural formation and are subject to a variety of powerful, often unconscious, influences that shape their creations. Further complicating matters is that we, the audience, are left to interpret the meaning(s) that we see. These readings are themselves shaped by the historical, social, and ideological contexts of the viewer; thus, certain interpretations may be favored at certain times while others are constrained, forbidden, transgressive, or even impossible.

Let’s look at our example text at closer range. The Dark Knight emerged in the post-9/11 era as the US and its allies arrayed themselves against a perceived existential threat from a shadowy international terrorist organization. This period of history is often described as the War on Terror. The years immediately before the film’s release were some of the bloodiest in terms of casualties in the Iraq theater and there were explosive revelations about the Bush administration’s use of secret executive orders to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance of American citizens. We see evidence of this in the film as Bruce Wayne constructs a giant computer that essentially hacks every cellphone in Gotham to try and catch the Joker, a terrorist bent on destroying the city.

We can see that the film explores the temptation to throw out essential liberties or exceed legal limits in the face of a terrorist threat. Specifically, Dark Knight explores the ethics of nullifying a fundamental right to privacy in order to prevent future terrorist acts and loss of life—mirroring the actions of the Bush administration in secretly tasking various US security organizations with monitoring the communications of all Americans to root out terrorist plots. We might push this reading further by examining how the other aspects of the film wrestle with the ethics of torture and extraordinary rendition in the context of counterterrorism, also preoccupations of the Bush administration at the time.

While this is not yet a complete reading of the film, we have identified an aspect of this cultural artifact that relates to its historical context. From here we might ask whether the film works as an apologia for the Bush administration’s actions during this period or whether it mounts a critique or articulates a warning about such actions. We may have opposing views on the matter as readers due to a number of complex factors that help struture our views. In any case, I hope this gives you some sense of the thinking that leads to analysis and argument in a cultural studies project.