History and culture - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


6. History and culture


Tony Watkins


In order to do justice to the important concepts which are implied by the title, this chapter will review developments in thinking about History, Culture and Cultural Geography before considering the relevance of such developments to the study of children’s literature.

Until the late 1970s, there was (outside Marxist criticism) a generally accepted view of the nature of history and its place in literary studies. Perkins (1991) points out that, during most of the nineteenth century, literary history was popular and enjoyed prestige because it produced a more complete appreciation of the literary work than was otherwise possible. It functioned, too, as a form of historiography, revealing the ‘ “spirit”, mentality or Weltanschauung of a time and place with unrivaled precision and intimacy’ (Perkins 1991: 2). For much of the twentieth century, especially in Renaissance studies, history was seen as outside literature and as guaranteeing the truth of a literary interpretation: ‘History ... was the single, unified, unproblematic, extra-textual, extra-discursive real that guaranteed our readings of the texts which constituted its cultural expression’ (Belsey 1991: 26). In the traditional literary view of history and culture, there was no difficulty in relating text to context: history was singular and operated as a ‘background’ to the reading of a work of literature (‘the foreground’); and culture was something which the work reproduced or expressed, or could be set against. Literary history was ‘a hybrid but recognizable genre that co-ordinated literary criticism, biography, and intellectual/social background within a narrative of development’ (Buell 1993: 216). Until about twenty years ago, such notions also remained the dominant ones behind the histories of children’s literature.

In history studies itself, texts by Carr (What Is History?) and Elton (The Practice of History) would have represented the embodiment of thinking about the nature of history. But, as Keith Jenkins puts it,


over the last twenty to thirty years there has developed around and about this dominant academic discourse a range of theories (hermeneutics, phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, new historicism, feminism and post-feminism, post-Marxism, new pragmatism, postmodernism and so on) as articulated by a range of theorists (for example, Ricoueur, Foucault, Barthes, Althusser, Derrida, Greenblatt, Kristeva, Bennett, Laclau, Fish, Lyotard et al.) which have reached levels of reflexive sophistication and intellectual rigour with regard to the question of historical representation, which one could not even hazard a guess at from a reading of Carr and Elton’s vintage texts.

(Jenkins 1995: 3)


The contributors to David Cannadine’s collection, What Is History Now? (2002) explore, in more detail, the various ways in which the discourse of historiography developed during the 1980s and 1990s. One of the most important was the rise of women’s history and gender history:


for many people today, both within academe and outside, the most significant development during recent decades has been the rise of women’s history and gender history: the recovery of the lives and experiences of one half of the world’s population, based on the recognition that gender was not merely a useful, but arguably an essential of historical analysis and comprehension.

(Cannadine 2002: x)


(Gender is discussed more fully below, within the section on cultural studies.)

But perhaps equally important was the influence of postmodernism and what some historiographers call the ‘linguistic turn’ and ‘narrative turn’ to ‘textualism’, associated with the work of such cultural theorists as Hayden White and Tony Bennett. White, says Jenkins, views the historical work as a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented - or as much imagined - as found (Jenkins 1995: 19) To see the past in story form


is to give it an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherences it never had. To see the content of the past (i.e. what actually occurred) as if it were a series of stories (of great men, of wars and treaties, of the rise of labour, the emancipation of women, of ‘Our Island Story’, of the ultimate victory of the proletariat and so forth) is therefore a piece of ‘fiction’ caused by mistaking the narrative form in which historians construct and communicate their knowledge of the past as actually being the past’s own ... the only stories the past has are those conferred on it by historians’ interpretative emplotments.

(Jenkins 1995: 20)


Tony Bennett’s arguments might be summarised by saying: ‘the past as constituted by its existing traces’ is always apprehended and appropriated textually through the sedimented layers of previous interpretations and through the reading habits and categories developed by previous/current methodological practices (Jenkins 1995: 18).

What such ‘textualism’ does is ‘to draw attention to the “textual conditions” under which all historical work is done and all historical knowledge is produced’. None of the methodological approaches in history ‘can continue to think that they gain direct access to, or “ground” their textuality in a “reality” ’ (Jenkins 1995: 32). White and Bennett are now regarded as influential theorists whose work embodies characteristics of the contemporary postmodern approach to history:


History is arguably a verbal artifact, a narrative prose discourse of which ... the content is as much invented as found, and which is constructed by present-minded, ideologically positioned workers (historians and those acting as if they were historians) ... That past appropriated by historians, is never the past itself, but a past evidenced by its remaining and accessible traces and transformed into historiography through a series of theoretically and methodologically disparate procedures (ideological positionings, tropes, emplotments, argumentative modes) ... Understood in this way, as a rhetorical, metaphorical, textual practice governed by distinctive but never homogeneous procedures through which the maintenance/ transformation of the past is regulated ... by the public sphere, historical construction can be seen as taking place entirely in the present ... such that the cogency of historical work can be admitted without the past per se ever entering into it - except rhetorically. In this way histories are fabricated without ‘real’ foundations beyond the textual, and in this way one learns to always ask of such discursive and ideological regimes that hold in their orderings suasive intentions - cui bono - in whose interests?

(Jenkins 1995: 178)


The blurring of the distinction between history and fiction works the other way too: if history could be regarded as forms of ‘fiction’ about the past, historical fiction could be regarded as proposals for understanding the present. Evans argues that several works of historical fiction (by authors such as Sebastian Faulks, Michael Ondaatje, Matthew Kneale, Zadie Smith)


are not historical novels in the sense that their main purpose is to re-create a past world through the exercise of the fictional imagination; rather, they are novels which find it easiest to address present-day concerns by putting them in a past context.

(Cannadine 2002: 10)


A second development was a shift from sociology to anthropology as the most fruitful subject from which historians could borrow with consequent interest in the work of such anthropologists as Clifford Geertz and his method of ‘thick description’. There was also the concomitant interest in cultural history and cultural studies discussed below:


just as social history seemed poised to sweep all before it in the 1960s, now cultural history seems to be in the ascendant: partly because it has been the most receptive to the insights of anthropology; partly because it makes very large claims about the terrain of the past which it encompasses; and partly because it has benefited most from the shift in interest from explanation to understanding.

(Cannadine 2002: x)


Then there was the increasing ‘democratisation’ of history as a topic of study. Cannadine points to the revolution in information technology which transformed the popular study of history to focus on personal, cultural and national identity:


History as it is written and researched, and above all as it is presented to a popular audience, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is about identity, about who we are and where we came from. At a time when other sources of identity such as class and region have declined, history is stepping in to fill the gap ... Moreover, history is important once more in constructing national identity, and nowhere more so than in England, where the decline of the idea of British unity in the face of resurgent Welsh and Scottish nationalism on the one hand and growing integration into Europe on the other, have left the English wondering who on earth they are.

(Cannandine 2002: 12)


The exploration of national identity obviously ties in with another popular topic - heritage: ‘Alongside so-called “family history”, the sector known as “heritage” is now many people’s main point of contact with history,’ argues Fernandez-Arnesto (2002: 158). In turn, these aspects of history are taken up eagerly by media makers. All this is to be welcomed, argues David Cannadine:


The widespread pursuit of family history, the growing concern with defining and preserving the ‘national heritage’ and the unprecedented allure of history on television: all this betokens a burgeoning popular interest in the past as energetic and enthusiastic as that to be found within the walls of academe.

(Cannadine 2002: xi)


In literary studies, the reconceptualisation of history and its relationship to literature had its roots in the work of such theorists and critics as Michel Foucault, Raymond Williams, Edward Said and Frank Lentricchia. In the 1980s, new terms associated with literary history (including ‘the New History’, ‘cultural poetics’ and, especially, ‘the new historicism’) entered the critical vocabulary through the work of such critics as Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose and Jerome McGann. The ‘new historicism’ is distinguished from the old by a lack of faith in the objectivity of historical study and replaced by an emphasis on the way the past is constructed or invented in the present. Felperin quotes the opening paragraph of Catherine Belsey’s The Subject of Tragedy (1985):


History is always in practice a reading of the past. We make a narrative out of the available ‘documents’, the written texts (and maps and buildings and suits of armour) we interpret in order to produce a knowledge of a world which is no longer present. And yet it is always from the present that we produce this knowledge: from the present in the sense that it is only from what is still extant, still available that we make it; and from the present in the sense that we make it out of an understanding formed by the present. We bring what we know now to bear on what remains from the past to produce an intelligible history.


Felperin comments: ‘ “history” is freely acknowledged to be a kind of story-telling towards the present, that is, a textual construct at once itself an interpretation and itself open to interpretation’ (Felperin 1991: 89). The idea of a single ‘History’ is rejected in favour of the postmodern concept (Belsey 1991: 27) of‘histories’, ‘an ongoing series of human constructions, each representing the past at particular present moments for particular present purposes’ (Cox and Reynolds 1993: 4).

The growth of radical alternative histories, such as women’s history, oral history and postcolonial rewriting of Eurocentric and other imperialist viewpoints, together with the more general blurring of disciplinary boundaries between historiography, sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, have all cast doubt on the validity, relevance or accessibility of historical ‘facts’ (Barker et al. 1991: 4). Cultural history draws closer to the concerns of the humanities and anthropology: ‘The deciphering of meaning ... is taken to be the central task of cultural history, just as it was posed by Geertz to be the central task of cultural anthropology’ (Hunt 1989: 12). With the emergence of the postmodern concept of ‘histories’ several questions have been put on the agenda of theory: for example, what valid distinctions can be made between the ‘narrative’ of history and the ‘fiction’ of texts? (Montrose (1989: 20) called for the recognition of ‘the historicity of texts and the textuality of history’; see also White (1973).) What are the implications of our construction of the past from our present situation? What is the relationship between ‘histories’ and power?

The rise of newer forms of literary historicism is connected, in part, with social change and the effort to recover histories for blacks, women and minority groups within society. In turn, these social aims are linked with the recuperation of forgotten texts, including texts that have never been considered worthy of academic study. Such changes have, of course, benefited the academic study of children’s literature.

The major influence in all this is that of Michel Foucault. As David Perkins puts it,


[Foucault] encouraged his readers to reject the traditional Romantic model of literary change as continuous development, to resituate literary texts by relating them to discourses and representations that were not literary, and to explore the ideological aspects of texts in order to intervene in the social struggles of the present, and these remain characteristic practices of present-day historical contextualism - of New Historicism, feminist historiography, and cultural criticism.

(Perkins 1991: 4)


Not everyone, however, would agree with the implied radical political stance of the new historicist movements (see Veeser 1994). Felperin argues that there are two broad schools of new historicism, the American, sometimes called ‘cultural poetics’, and the British, often referred to as ‘cultural materialism’: ‘Whereas cultural poetics inhabits a discursive field in which Marxism has never really been present, its British counterpart inhabits one from which Marxism has never really been absent’ (Felperin 1991: 88).

The radical nature of cultural materialism is made clear in books such as Dollimore and Sinfield’s collection of essays, Political Shakespeare. In their foreword, the editors define cultural materialism as ‘a combination of historical context, theoretical method, political commitment and textual analysis’ (Dollimore and Sinfield 1985: vii). The historical context


undermines the transcendent significance traditionally accorded to the literary text and allows us to recover its histories; theoretical method detaches the text from immanent criticism which seeks only to reproduce it in its own terms; socialist and feminist commitment confronts the conservative categories in which most criticism has hitherto been conducted; textual analysis locates the critique of traditional approaches where it cannot be ignored. We call this ‘cultural materialism’.

(Dollimore and Sinfield 1985: vii)


Examples of how some of these new historicist ideas could be applied to children’s literature are provided by the work of Mitzi Myers (Myers 1988, 1989, 1992). In a statement which blends something of the American and the British brands, Myers argues that a new historicism of children’s literature would


integrate text and socio-historic context, demonstrating on the one hand how extraliterary cultural formations shape literary discourse and on the other how literary practices are actions that make things happen - by shaping the psychic and moral consciousness of young readers but also by performing many more diverse kinds of cultural work, from satisfying authorial fantasies to legitimating or subverting dominant class and gender ideologies ... It would want to know how and why a tale or poem came to say what it does, what the environing circumstances were (including the uses a particular sort of children’s literature served for its author, its child and adult readers, and its culture), and what kinds of cultural statements and questions the work was responding to. It would pay particular attention to the conceptual and symbolic fault lines denoting a text’s time-, place-, gender-, and class-specific ideological mechanisms ... It would examine ... a book’s material production, its publishing history, its audiences and their reading practices, its initial reception, and its critical history, including how it got inscribed in or deleted from the canon.

(Myers 1988: 42)


Myers has also argued that ‘Notions of the “child”, “childhood” and “children’s literature” are contingent, not essentialist; embodying the social construction of a particular historical context; they are useful fictions intended to redress reality as much as to reflect it’ (Myers 1989: 52), and that such notions today are bound up with the language and ideology of Romantic literature and criticism (Myers 1992; see also McGann 1983).

These ideas have been applied by Myers to eighteenth-century children’s authors such as Maria Edgeworth. The child constructed by Romantic ideology recurs as Wordsworth’s ‘child of nature’ in such figures as Kipling’s Mowgli and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Dickon in The Secret Garden (Knoepflmacher 1977; Richardson 1992) and, as one critic points out, ‘many children’s books that feature children obviously wiser than the adults they must deal with - like F. Anstey’s Vice Versa or E. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet - would have been unthinkable without the Romantic revaluation of childhood’ (Richardson 1992: 128).

Many of the changes outlined earlier on in this chapter in relation to historiography and history studies have appeared in literary studies of historical fiction for children. In 1992, as part of his discussion of the intellectual and ideological bases for the writing of historical fiction for children, John Stephens argued that the intellectual and ideological bases of the genre were no longer dominant within Western society because much of the historical fiction for children which had been published up to then had been shaped by humanistic ideas such as


[that] there is an essential human nature which underlies all changing surface appearances; important human qualities, such as Reason, Love, Honour, Loyalty, Courage etc., are transhistorical; human desires are reasonably constant, and what differs are the social mechanisms evolved to express or contain them; individual experiences thus reflect constant, unchanging truths; history imparts ‘lessons’ because events, in a substantial sense, are repeatable and repeated. These assumptions inform the work of most writers of historical fiction for children, and are overtly articulated in the writings of many, such as Lively and Rosemary Sutcliff.

(Stephens 1992: 203)


But, the postmodern ‘challenge to the humanist position comes from cultural relativism’, in which


the individual subject is constructed as a point at which cultural systems and structures intersect and so determine the mode of being of the subject; there is no common ground between peoples of different places and times; the cultural assumptions of one society cannot be applied to another; events are not repeatable, but apparent analogies between different events are constructed from the point of view of a particular social formation in time and space; there is no transcendent truth.

(Stephens 1992: 203)


Although Stephens does not pose the question, we might ask: how far do recent works of children’s historical fiction embody these new postmodern values? According to an essay by Danielle Thaler in a recent collection, nothing much has changed. Thaler examined a group of historical novels for young people by French authors published during the last thirty years. She concluded,


Historical fiction for young people therefore follows in the footsteps of the adult historical novel, the only difference being that it often chooses a hero of its readers’ age, who has a mentality and psychology close to those of our children and teenagers.

(Thaler 2003: 10)


However, Deborah Stevenson, discussing ‘shifting ideas of objective reality in history and fiction’, does point to changes in the treatment of ‘non-fiction history’ for children: ‘Non-fiction for children is beginning tentatively to examine the process of history-making itself, to examine historiographic questions of objectivity and subjectivity and to call into question the existence of a completely knowable history’ (Stevenson 2003: 23-4).

Referring to the argument of Hayden White that ‘histories gain part of their explanatory effect by their success in making stories out of mere chronicles’ (White 1978 quoted in Stevenson 2003: 25), Stevenson argues that newer histories for children ‘overtly place history into the category of narrative, emphasising the story in history.’


These histories are not considering all viewpoints as equal ... they are merely suggesting that none of them possesses complete objective truth ... they offer written history as a metaphor for the past, as a self-aware representation of a kind of understanding of another time.

(Stevenson 2003: 25)


But, complexly and paradoxically, in historical fiction for children,


The belief in historical fact qua fact is if anything stronger ... Historical fiction for children acts as history improved, a superior replacement for the real but flawed thing . The genres are starting to trade places. History is offering possibilities, while fiction offers certainty . history is undercutting the authority of narrative while historical fiction still clings to it, asserting itself as more real than fact because it is a better story ... The change in historical fiction has been the embrace of relativity, the idea that someone else is going to see a different part of the past, but history begins to suggest the possibility of complete subjectivity - that no one is seeing the past quite right and that the stories will not match up.

(Stevenson 2003: 27-8)


Out of the many studies of children’s historical fiction, two studies of post-war British novels may serve to illustrate the diversity of critical approaches now being employed and the way the new historiography feeds into studies of literary texts. Adrienne Gavin’s essay (Gavin 2003) examines novels by Lucy M. Boston, Philippa Pearce, Penelope Farmer and Penelope Lively in which ‘an ostensibly realist past is introduced into a realist present. Links to the past occur through quirks of fantasy or possible fantasy, by means of the supernatural, time-slips, dreams, or the power of the imagination’ (Gavin 2003: 159).

She shows that the past presented in these novels is far from being realistic; rather, it is a metaphor for the imagination and for the creative act: ‘The child protagonists, as “writers”, re-create through their imaginations a history they have never experienced while in turn their creators ... necessarily rely on textualized narrativizations of history in order to create their own imagined versions of the past’ (Gavin 2003: 161).

Valerie Krips’s book The Presence of the Past: Memory, Heritage and Childhood in Postwar Britain (2000) is an important study which cannot easily be summarised here. It is a book which is grounded in the study of children’s literature but moves well beyond the purely literary by the use of cultural theories by such figures as Pierre Nora. From an examination of post-war children’s fiction (by writers such as Philippa Pearce, Rosemary Sutcliff, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner), in which she notes that a recurrent plot revolves around ‘a child stumbling across an artefact from the past and over the course of the novel, trying to understand the relevance of the artefact to the present’, she notes that this motif ‘coincided with the appearance of the heritage movement in Britain’ (Wojcik- Andrews 2002: 123).


Krips argues that the distinction between history and heritage is not much more than the lost and found of memory realised through objects that surround us: what we see as individuals and as nations is how we imagine ourselves to be. Country houses, books, and/or famous child characters such as Alice who function as representatives of a golden age of childhood are plucked from the past and presented in the present as symbolic reminders of a land of Hope and Glory long gone: the National Trust does it with the conservation of stately homes, children’s writers do it with the construction of canonical fictions and ideal images of the child.

(Wojcik-Andrews 2002: 126)


The same crises in the humanities which resulted in radical questioning of the nature of history and the emergence of new historiographies of culture, including literary new historicism, also brought forth cultural studies. In Keywords, Raymond Williams describes culture as ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ (Williams 1976: 76). Culture is an ambiguous term: a problem shared, perhaps, by all concepts which are concerned with totality, including history, ideology, society and myth. Disciplines such as cultural geography tend towards a mainly anthropological understanding of culture. But, in a book published in 2000, Don Mitchell argues for a more political understanding of culture: ‘culture is politics by another name’. He selects six important ways of understanding the term ‘culture’:


First, culture is the opposite of nature. It is what makes humans human. Second, ‘culture’ is the actual, perhaps unexamined, patterns and differentiations of a people (as in ‘Aboriginal culture’ or ‘German culture’ - culture is a way of life). Third, it is the processes by which these patterns developed ... Fourth, the term indicates a set of markers that set one people off from another and which indicate to us our membership in a group ... Fifth, culture is the way that all these patterns, processes, and markers are represented (that is, cultural activity, whether high, low, pop, or folk, that produces meaning). Finally, the idea of culture often indicates a hierarchical ordering of all these processes, activities, ways of life, and cultural production (as when people compare cultures or cultural activities against each other.

(Mitchell 2000: 14)


‘Cultural studies’ is an equally ambiguous term, but most commentators would agree that cultural studies is ‘concerned with the generation and circulation of meanings in industrial societies’ (Fiske 1987: 254). It is difficult to define the field of cultural studies very precisely because, as Brantlinger argues, it has ‘emerged from the current crises and contradictions of the humanities and social science disciplines not as a tightly coherent, unified movement with a fixed agenda, but as a loosely coherent group of tendencies, issues and questions’ (1990: ix). An anthology published in 1992 suggests the following major categories of current work in the field:


the history of cultural studies, gender and sexuality, nationhood and national identity, colonialism and post-colonialism, race and ethnicity, popular culture and its audiences, science and ecology, identity politics, pedagogy, the politics of aesthetics, cultural institutions, the politics of disciplinarity, discourse and textuality, history, and global culture in a postmodern age.

(Grossberg et al. 1992: 1)


But the problem with trying to define cultural studies is that it is ‘magnetic’. As Toby Miller, editior of a collection of essays published in 2001 entitled A Companion to Cultural Studies explains:


It accretes various tendencies that are splintering the human sciences: Marxism, feminism, queer theory, and the postcolonial. The ‘cultural’ has become a ‘master-trope’ in the humanities, blending and blurring textual analysis of popular culture with social theory, and focusing on the margins of power rather than reproducing established lines of force and authority.

(Miller 2001: 1)


Unlike the traditional humanities, cultural studies focuses less on canonical works of art and more on popular media: ‘The humanities’ historic task of criticising entertainment is sidestepped and new commercial trends become part of cultural studies itself’ (Miller 2001: 1). In spite of its diverse agenda of interests and approaches, Miller argues that cultural studies does have shared concerns and commitments:


Cultural studies is animated by subjectivity and power - how human subjects are formed and how they experience cultural and social space. It takes its agenda and mode of analysis from economics, politics, media and communication studies, sociology, literature, education, the law, science and technology studies, anthropology, and history, with a particular focus on gender, race, class, and sexuality in everyday life, commingling textual and social theory under the sign of a commitment to progressive social change.

(2001: 1)


The political commitment of cultural studies has been debated throughout its history, especially since ‘the linguistic turn’ of postructuralism which has tended to place ‘textu- alism’, rather than politics at its heart: ‘Certain philosophical perspectives have gained a degree of currency in reading and interpreting cultural forms in a way that often obliterates the social context within which such practices are embedded’ (Carrington 2001: 286), and an important figure in American cultural studies, Lawrence Grossberg, ‘called on cultural studies to provide a dynamic way of “politicizing theory and theorizing politics” that combines abstraction and grounded analysis’ (Miller 2001: 3).

Grossberg et al. (1992) stress the shapeless nature of the field and the variety of methodologies in use: ‘[cultural studies] remains a diverse and often contentious enterprise, encompassing different positions and trajectories in specific contexts, addressing many questions, drawing nourishment from multiple roots, and shaping itself within different institutions and locations’ (1992: 2-3). There are, for example, distinctions to be made between the British and American traditions of cultural studies (just as there are between the two schools of ‘new historicism’ in literary studies - see above.) The British tradition, which may be traced back to the pioneering work of F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson in the 1930s (Leavis and Thompson 1933) but, more particularly, arises from the work of Raymond Williams (Williams 1958), believes that the study of culture involves both


symbolic and material domains ... not privileging one domain over the other but interrogating the relation between the two ... Continually engaging with the political, economic, erotic, social, and ideological, cultural studies entails the study of all the relations between all the elements in a whole way of life.

(Grossberg et al. 1992: 4, 14)


From the later work of Raymond Williams, from the work of Stuart Hall and others at the University of Birmingham’s (UK) Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and from major bodies of theory such as Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis and postructuralism, the British tradition derived the central theoretical concepts of articulation, conjuncture, hegemony, ideology, identity and representation. (See, for example, Williams 1975, 1976, 1977, 1989.) But even British cultural studies is not a coherent and homogeneous body of work: it is characterised by disagreements, ‘divergencies in direction and concern, by conflict among theoretical commitments and political agendas’ (Grossberg et al. 1992: 10) or, as Stuart Hall put it,


Cultural studies has multiple discourses; it has a number of different histories. It is a whole set of formations, it has its own different conjunctures and moments in the past. It included many different kinds of work ... It always was a set of unstable formations.

(Hall 1996: 26)


For example, Hall pointed to the revolutionary impact of feminism for the field of cultural studies: gender and sexuality had to be understood as central to the workings of power in society. In 1992, he wrote: ‘It has forced a rethink in every major substantive area of work (Hall 1992: 282 quoted in Mitchell 2000: 54). As Mitchell comments,


No longer was it possible to study the ... base - the workings of the economy - without also and at the same time studying what had been seen as epiphenomenal to that base (relations of family, ideologies of gender, social structures of sexuality, etc.).

(Mitchell 2000: 55)


Although accepting Stuart Hall’s words ‘about continuities and breaks’, Ben Carrington argues that it was ‘the huge social, cultural, and economic changes that occurred in Britain during and immediately after the 1939-45 war’ which provided the context within which cultural studies was to emerge around 1957:


It is important to restate the fact that the formation of cultural studies was, first and foremost, a political project aimed at popular education for working-class adults. There was always a tension then with the provision of such education becoming incorporated - both ideologically and institutionally - within ‘bourgeois’ university departments, which, for the most part, is what did happen.

(Carrington 2001: 277-8)


And he warns that ‘there is danger of narrativising cultural studies’ historical purpose ... into a depoliticised humanities discipline’ (Carrington 2001: 279). He is anxious to emphasise that cultural studies is as much concerned with ‘practice’ as with texts, and he criticises earlier histories of British cultural studies for tending to


highlight the publication of academic texts as ‘producing’ cultural studies as an academic discipline taught within universities, rather than seeing such texts themselves as being the outcome of a wider sociopolitical process of education from the 1930s and 1940s aimed at social transformation, situated within adult and workers’ education colleges.

(Carrington 2001: 277)


The radical aspect of British cultural studies has, unsurprisingly, drawn criticism from some quarters. Kenneth Minogue called cultural studies the ‘politico-intellectual junkyard of the Western world’ (Minogue 1994: 27 quoted in Miller 2001: 10); and Chris Patten, a former Conservative member of the UK Parliament, called it ‘Disneyland for the weaker minded’ (Minogue 2001: 10).

In the USA, a somewhat different inflection has been given to cultural studies by the ‘new ethnography’, rooted primarily in anthropological theory and practice (a ‘postdisciplinary anthropology’) which is, in turn, linked to work by feminists and black and postcolonial theorists concerned with identity, history and social relations (Grossberg et al. 1992: 14).

In the work of some cultural studies theorists, one can detect the following characteristics: first, a belief that reality can only be made sense of through language or other cultural systems which are embedded within history. Second, a focus upon power and struggle. In cultural terms, the struggle is for meaning: dominant groups attempt to render as ‘natural’ meanings which serve their interests, whereas subordinate groups resist this process in various ways, trying to make meanings that serve their interests (Fiske 1987: 255). An obvious example is the cultural struggle between patriarchy and feminism and the impact that feminism had on cultural studies in Britain in the 1980s (Hall 1992: 282); but, of course, divisions into groups in society can be along lines of race, class, age and so on, as well as gender. However, British cultural studies was criticised for some years because of its relative neglect of race and colonialism. For example, in 1987, Paul Gilroy argued that it was essential to understand that histories of colonialism and Empire are ‘central’ to ‘understanding how Britain’s economy’ has been constructed and ‘its class relations mediated, and subsequently how this affected the formation of its culture more generally, and its sense of national identity’ (Gilroy 1987: 12 quoted in Carrington 2001: 282). He deplored ‘the invisibility of “race” within the field’ of cultural studies in Britain and, most importantly, with the forms of nationalism endorsed by ‘a discipline which, in spite of itself, tends towards a morbid celebration of England and Englishness from which blacks are systematically excluded’ (Gilroy 1987: 12). Third, cultural studies has tried to theorise subjectivity as a socio-cultural construction. Some theorists, under the influence of poststructuralist psychoanalytical thinking and Althusserian notions of ideology, replace the idea of the individual by the concept of the ‘subject’. The ‘subject’ and his or her ‘subjectivity’ is a social construction: ‘Thus a biological female can have a masculine subjectivity (that is, she can make sense of the world and of her self and her place in that world through patriarchal ideology). Similarly, a black can have a white subjectivity’ (Fiske 1987: 258).

But because subjectivity is a social construction, it is always open to change. All cultural systems, including language, literature and the products of mass communication, play a part in the construction and reconstruction of the subject. It is in this way, according to the Althusserian wing of cultural studies, that ideology is constantly reproduced in people.

This notion can be seen perhaps more clearly in the fourth characteristic of cultural studies - the way it views acts of communication, including the ‘reading process’. As one theorist puts it, when talking about the ‘reading’ of a television programme as cultural text: ‘Reading becomes a negotiation between the social sense inscribed in the program and the meanings of social experience made by its wide variety of viewers: this negotiation is a discursive one’ (Fiske 1987: 268). The relevance of this notion to children’s literature is not difficult to perceive.

The fifth characteristic is that cultural studies is not exclusively concerned with popular culture to the exclusion of ‘high’ culture, or vice versa:


Cultural studies does not require us to repudiate elite cultural forms ... rather cultural studies requires us to identify the operation of specific practices, of how they continuously reinscribe the line between legitimate and popular culture, and of what they accomplish in specific contexts.

(Grossberg et al. 1992: 13)


As a result, cultural studies does interest itself in the formation, continuation and changes in literary canons, including those of children’s literature. For example, books originally denied inclusion in the canon of children’s literature, such as Baum’s Oz books, have later received recognition and have been included. Other books traditionally included in the canon of children’s literature, such as Lewis’s Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Kipling’s Jungle Book, have been criticised on the grounds that the values they contain are too exclusively male and white.

The sixth characteristic is the use of ideology as a central concept, either as a ‘critical’ concept or as a neutral concept. Materialist, political approaches deriving from Marxism and feminism obviously stress power as the major component of cultural text, power which is often hidden or rendered apparently ‘natural’ through the process of ideology. These approaches use what has been called the ‘critical’ concept of ideology which is ‘essentially linked to the process of sustaining asymmetrical relations of power - that is, to the process of maintaining domination’ (Thompson 1984: 4). If ideology is embodied in cultural text, the major task of the cultural critic is not only understanding the meaning of the text but also unmasking what appears as natural as a social construction which favours a particular class or group in society. This process of ‘ideology critique’ or ideological deconstruction is often carried out in literary studies using an approach, derived from Williams, involving a combination of textual analysis, theoretical method, study of historical context, and a political commitment to socialism and feminism.

However, ideology can also be used in a neutral sense (Ricoeur 1986) and this is reflected in the work of Fred Inglis, who has written at length on children’s literature (for example, Inglis 1975, 1981). Inglis favours not cultural materialism but cultural hermeneutics. In Cultural Studies (1993), he argues in favour of making cultural studies ‘synonymous with the study of values (and valuing)’ (Inglis 1993: 190). The book is dedicated to the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, with his influential view that ‘man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’ and that ‘those webs are what we call culture’. For Geertz, the analysis of culture, therefore, will be ‘an interpretive one in search of meaning’, and culture itself is defined as ‘an assemblage of texts’ and ‘a story they tell themselves about themselves’ (Geertz 1975: 5, 448). So the model of cultural analysis Inglis favours is the interpretative one which aims not to unmask texts, using such critical concepts as ideology or hegemony which deconstruct and demystify ideologies, but to understand intersubjective meanings (Inglis 1993: 148). He argues against the tendency within cultural studies to collapse ‘both aesthetics and morality into politics’ so that ‘the study of culture translates into politics without remainder’ (1993: 175, 181). He quotes Dollimore and Sinfield’s statement (see above) that cultural materialism ‘registers its commitment to the transformation of a social order which exploits people on grounds of race, gender and class’ (Dollimore and Sinfield 1985: viii) but asks, using the same phrase which formed the title of his book about children’s literature (Inglis 1981), ‘What about the promise of happiness held out by art? What about art itself?’ (Inglis 1993: 181).

Following Geertz’s concept, Inglis defines culture as ‘an ensemble of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’ (Inglis 1993: 206) and argues that our historically changing identity is formed from experience and the ‘narrative tradition’ of which we are part. It is from this identity that we interpret the world. In a passage strongly relevant to the study of children’s literature, (see, for example, Watkins 1994), he goes on to argue that


the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are not just a help to moral education; they comprise the only moral education which can gain purchase on the modern world. They are not aids to sensitivity nor adjuncts to the cultivated life. They are theories with which to think forwards ... and understand backwards.

(Inglis 1993: 214)


Although there are obviously major debates both within and outside cultural studies, nevertheless most scholars of children’s literature would agree with the following statement.


Cultural studies, at its best, has much of value to say about . how discourse and imagery are organized in complex and shifting patterns of meaning and how these meanings are reproduced, negotiated, and struggled over in the flow and flux of everyday life.

(Murdoch 1993: 214)


But, because of the variety within the cultural studies paradigm and the dynamic nature of the field, it is difficult to generalise about features which underlie such work in the study of children’s literature and media. However, important work is being developed by Karin Lesnik-Oberstein on the cultural meanings of the child and childhood in children’s literature and media (see Lesnik-Oberstein 1998). (For a collection of essays using different cultural studies approaches but focusing on important aspects of children’s literature and media, see A Necessary Fantasy? The Heroic Figure in Children’s Popular Culture (Jones and Watkins 2000): articles in the collection cover such topics as pony stories, Robin Hood films, comic-book heroes and superheroes, Action Man toys and Dr Who.)

Another area of investigation which could serve as a case study of work using a critical cultural studies perspective in the study of children’s literature and media is what could be called ‘childhood, media, the culture industries, and consumerism’, concentrating on the cultural impact of the Disney Corporation. What Walt Disney discovered in the 1930s was that children will come to perceive themselves as part of a community ‘based on their shared consumption of mass media and related merchandise’. Ellen Seiter, in her book Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture, points out that ‘Consumer culture provides children with a shared repository of images, characters, plots and themes: it provides the basis for small talk and play, and it does this on a national, even global scale’ (Seiter 1993: 7).

Similarly, Eric Smoodin, editor of Disney Discourse, a book critical of Disney’s role in American culture, argues that we need to


gain a new sense of Disney’s importance, because of the manner in which his work in film and television is connected to other projects in urban planning, ecological politics, product merchandising, United States domestic and global policy formation, technological innovation, and constructions of national character ... Disney constructs childhood so as to make it entirely compatible with consumerism.

(Smoodin 1994: 4-5, 18)


In the editorial to a special issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly on ‘Children’s Media of the Twentieth Century’, Anne Morey argues that, while social scientists have paid attention to the media for some years, scholars in children’s literature need to ‘bring their interest in textual meanings coupled with an increased sense of both historical context and the institutional matrices out of which children’s texts are produced’ (Morey 1997: 2). In the editorial to another special issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, this time on ‘Children and Money’, Judith Plotz refers to Stephen Kline’s argument that, to an extent unprecedented in history, American children are no longer children but what trade professionals call a ‘market’: consumers with money to spend and the will and authority to spend it. Kline’s argument is that in the age of marketing, toys ‘serve a new function: they are the templates through which children are being introduced into the attitudes and social relations of consumerism’ (Kline 1993: 349). Plotz adds that, according to a 1999 report, children now constitute the fastest growing consumer market in the USA and ‘influence half a trillion dollars in consumer spending a year’. Plotz continues:


With children manipulated as never before by a seductive commercial rhetoric of make-believe choice and empowerment, scholars of children’s culture are driven to examine both the systems of control and the possibilities of liberation in all the existing discourses of children’s culture.

(Plotz 1999: 111)


The problem of arguing for change in public policy towards television, for example, is, according to Kline, that


as long as no ‘harm’ to children is proven, public policy makers have acceded to the marketers’ view that television should now be governed by the principle of commercial speech ... Surely nobody can feign surprise anymore that commercial television fails to educate, inform or inspire our children ... Children are simply finding their place within consumer culture ... What the issue of proven harm obscures is the fact that we have granted to marketers enormous powers to meddle in the key realms of children’s culture - the peer group, fantasy, stories and play.

(Kline 1993: 349-50)


However, Ellen Seiter offers a less pessimistic view when she points out that children are not simply passive consumers of goods and media:


children are creative in their appropriation of consumer goods and media, and the meanings they make of these are not necessarily and completely in line with a materialist ethos ... children create their own meanings from the stories and symbols of consumer culture.

(Seiter 1993: 299)


On the other hand, Henry Giroux argues that it is very important for us to analyse critically the power of the Disney Corporation. He focuses on the Disney films and argues:


these films appear to inspire at least as much cultural authority and legitimacy for teaching specific roles, values, and ideals as do the more traditional sites of learning such as the public schools, religious institutions, and the family ... Unlike the often hard-nosed, joyless reality of schooling, children’s films provide a high-tech visual space where adventure and pleasure meet in a fantasy world of possibilities and a commercial sphere of consumption and commodification . Disney’s image as an icon of American culture is consistently reinforced through the penetration of the Disney empire into every aspect of social life. Children experience Disney’s cultural influence through a maze of representations and products found in home videos, shopping malls, classroom instructional films, box offices, popular television programs and family restaurants . Disney now produces prototypes for model schools, families, identities, communities, and the way the future is to be understood through a particular construction of the past ... But Disney does more than provide prototypes for upscale communities; it also makes a claim on the future through its nostalgic view of the past and its construction of public memory as a metonym for the magical kingdom.

(Giroux 1998: 53-5)


Nevertheless, Giroux thinks it is important not to be simplistic about Disney. He does not wish either to condemn


Disney as an ideological reactionary deceptively promoting a conservative worldview under the guise of entertainment or celebrate Disney as doing nothing more than providing sources of joy and happiness to children all over the world ... Critically analysing how Disney films work to construct meanings, induce pleasures, and reproduce ideologically loaded fantasies is not meant as an exercise in disparagement. On the contrary, as a $4.7 billion company, Disney’s corporate and cultural influence is so enormous and far-reaching that it should go neither unchecked nor unmediated.

(Giroux 1998: 56-7)


Giroux then proceeds to analyse the portrayal of girls and women in The Little Mermaid, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, and racial stereotyping in Aladdin and Pocahontas.

In the preface to his book Sticks and Stones (2001), Jack Zipes is provocatively critical of the way society regards and treats children:


Everything we do to, with, and for our children is influenced by capitalist market conditions and the hegemonic interests of ruling corporate elites. In simple terms, we calculate what is best for our children by regarding them as investments and turning them into commodities.

(Zipes 2001: xi)


In the past twenty years in America, argues Zipes, many diverse groups have been formed ‘to do battle with the culture industry and government on behalf of children, including teenagers’. The first group are activists such as


media watch groups, family associations, religious institutions, and feminist organisations [which] place pressure on the government and mass media to alter shows, images and literature that they feel are destroying the moral health of our children. In their view children are innocent and passive victims and are at the mercy of outside forces.

(Zipes 2001: xi-xii)


The second group is made up largely of theorists ‘who argue that children are much more creative and independent than we think’ (Zipes 2001: xii). Later in the book, he argues, as others have done, that


The family, schools, and religious organizations have been the nodal points of socialization and acculturation, but their authority ... has yielded and been undercut by the force of the mass-mediated market . Difference and otherness, rebellion and nonconformity have become commodities that children are encouraged to acquire because they can use them to defy parents and the community while furthering the same profit-oriented interests of corporate America.

(Zipes 2001: 12)


In recent years, there has been a growing interest in theme parks, in particular Disneyland, as examples of postmodern ‘texts’. Suzanne Rahn analyses the ‘narrative strategies’ of some of Disneyland’s rides. For example, she argues that Disneyland’s ‘dark rides’ are ‘conceived as narratives by the Imagineers’. Such rides resemble theatre:


In a traditional play, however, the audience sits motionless while the sequence of scenes is performed. In a theme park ride, the sequence of scenes is fixed in space - it is the audience that moves physically from scene to scene, literally drawn into the story.

(Rahn 2000: 19)


Other rides such as ‘The Haunted Mansion’ reflect the ‘increasing presence of the postmodern in American culture:


Postmodern literature abandons linear narrative for a randomly ordered sequence of events. It makes playful use of traditional elements removed from their original context and drained of meaning, as a way of escaping the burden of the past.

(Rahn 2000: 24)


Louis Marin uses Disneyland as an example of a ‘degenerate utopia’:


a supposedly happy, harmonious and non-conflictual space set aside from the ‘real’ world ‘outside’ in such a way as to soothe and mollify, to entertain, to invent history and to cultivate a nostalgia for some mythical past, to perpetuate the fetish of commodity culture rather than to critique it. Disneyland eliminates the troubles of actual travel by assembling the rest of the world, properly sanitized and mythologized, into one place of pure fantasy containing multiple spatial orders ... it offers no critique of the existing state of affairs on the outside. It merely perpetuates the fetish of commodity culture and technological wizardry in a pure, sanitized and a-historical form.

(Harvey 2000: 167)


Disney theme parks are also connected with successful retailing:


The shopping mall was conceived of as a fantasy world in which commodity reigned supreme ... the whole environment seemed designed to induce nirvana rather than critical awareness. And many other cultural institutions - museums and heritage centers, arenas for spectacle, exhibitions and festivals - seem to have as their aim the cultivation of nostalgia, the production of sanitized collective memories, the nurturing of uncritical aesthetic sensibilities, and the absorption of future possibilities into a non-conflictual arena that is eternally present.

(Harvey 2000: 168)


Although this chapter cannot adequately cover the work of Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (Lesnik-Oberstein 1994, 1998; and Bradbury 2002), it is an important example of the contemporary postmodern challenge to liberal humanist and essentialist assumptions underlying approaches to the child in children’s literature criticism. Referring to the work of Jacqueline Rose (1984), Lesnik-Oberstein explains that, in the constructivist approach,


Childhood, and children, are seen primarily as being constituted by, and constituting, sets of meanings in language ... Childhood is, as an identity, a mediator and repository of ideas in Western culture about consciousness and experience, morality and values, property and privacy, but perhaps most importantly, it has been assigned a crucial relationship to language itself.

(Lesnik-Oberstein 1998: 2, 6)


Cultural studies has affected many disciplines: for example, ‘the new cultural geography’ has grown considerably since its origins in the late 1980s. Peter Jackson (1989) was perhaps chief spokesperson for the early developments in recent cultural geography: Jackson and other cultural geographers built on British cultural studies but ‘sought also to explicitly “spatialise” these studies’, by showing how space and time are central to the ‘maps of meaning’ that constitute cultural experience (Mitchell 2000: 42). Jackson argued that culture ‘is the level at which social groups develop distinct patterns of life’ and hence ‘are maps of meaning through which the world is made intelligible’ (Jackson 1989: 2). The ‘new cultural geography’ is now associated with names such as David Harvey, who argues in his important book The Condition of Postmodernity that ‘There has been a sea-change in cultural as well as in political-economic practices since around 1972. This sea-change is bound up with the emergence of new dominant ways in which we experience space and time’ (Harvey 1989: vii).

There has been an amazing proliferation of work in cultural geography from the 1990s onwards, exploring ideas of landscape, spatiality, utopia, globalisation, heritage and national identity, and geographies of gender and of race, which could prove vital for the cultural study of children’s literature and media. The field is already too vast to summarise adequately here, but Mitchell explains that the area that gained ‘the earliest sustained criticism and reconstruction by new cultural geography’ was landscape research (Mitchell 2000: 61). The research developed on four fronts. Some cultural geographers


sought to connect the very idea of landscape to its historical development as part of the capitalist and Enlightenment transformation in the early modern period. That is to say, the goal of many studies has been to show how the land was made over in the image of ‘landscape’ - a particular and particularly ideological ‘way of seeing’ the land and people’s relationship to that land. [In particular, see Cosgrove 1984.]


Second, ‘other geographers reinvigorated the notion of “reading” the landscape ... to problematise the whole notion of exactly what constitutes the “text” to be read - and precisely how it is possible ... to read it.’ That is, work began to focus ‘on the interpretation of the symbolic aspects of landscapes’ (for example, Daniels and Cosgrove 1988; Duncan and Duncan 1988). Third, ‘where much traditional cultural geography had examined rural and past landscapes, some new work interested in landscape and culture focused on urban and contemporary scenes’, and fourth, ‘a sustained feminist critique of landscape studies - and of the very idea of landscape - has been launched’ (for example, Rose 1993). What was new in these emphases was that they were ‘infused with strong evaluations of the politics of class, gender, race, ethnicity ... and sexuality’ and consequently ‘the study of the spatiality of identity itself has become an issue of deep concern within cultural geography’. This, explains, in part, the explosion of research on ‘the cultural-geographic politics of sexuality, gender, race, and national identity’ (Mitchell 2000: 61-2).

For scholars of children’s literature and media, perhaps the most relevant research from cultural geography is that which involves ‘reading the landscape’. For, as Mitchell explains,


The degree to which landscapes are made (by hands and minds) and represented (by particular people and classes, and through the accretion of history and myth) indicates that landscapes are in some important senses ‘authored’. Hence landscape can be understood to be a kind of text.

(Mitchell 2000: 122)


But the reading of such texts is always a contested process and, moreover, the reading is linked to race and gender identities:


Meaning is naturalised in the landscape, and only through concerted contestation are those sedimented meanings prised open ... By examining the various metaphors that govern our understanding of landscape (such as seeing the landscape as a text or a stage) and linking them to important axes of cultural differentiation (such as gender), [we can explore] how landscape functions both as a source of meaning and as a form of social regulation ... The production of cultural spaces ... [including landscape] is always the production of what Doreen Massey has identified as power geometries: the shape and structure of the space in which our lives are given meaning.

(Mitchell 2000: xix-xxi)


Much of the landscape research, particularly on the representation of landscapes, is clearly of interest to children’s literature studies. (Examples are Hunt 1987; Stevenson 1996; Thum 1992; Watkins 1992, 1994; Zitterkopf 1984-5.) It is possible to see such works as Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and Baum’s The Wizard of Oz as not only operating as versions of the English and American national myth, with their landscapes representing the ‘real’ England and the ‘real’ America, but becoming sites for ideological struggle and appropriation by, for example, the ‘culture industries’ (Watkins 1992). Another important aspect of landscape is its connection with national identity and the power of some landscapes to be read as a national geography. But


while landscape representation is an important aspect of nationalism, it is not so hegemonic as to preclude alternative readings or other forms of resistance. Instead, landscape representations are sites of contestation, just as are the landscapes they are meant to depict.

(Mitchell 2000: 119)


National identity is obviously another very important topic which is being increasingly explored by scholars of children’s literature (see, for example, Meek 2001).

This chapter has ranged very widely over developments in thinking about history, about the place of history in literary studies, about the complex developments in cultural studies and the way in which ‘culture’ has become ‘a master trope’ in the analysis of many kinds of text, including children’s literature and media. It is appropriate to end by being reminded of the complexity of what is involved in thinking about history, culture and children’s literature:


Culture is a way people make sense of the world (the stories they tell themselves about themselves, in Clifford Geertz’s formulation) but it is also a system of power and domination. Culture is a means of differentiating the world, but is also global and hegemonic. Culture is open and fluid, a ‘text’ ... always open to multiple readings and interpretations, but it is something with causative power . Culture is clearly language - or ‘text’ or ‘discourse’ - but it is also the social, material construction of such things as ‘race’ or ‘gender’. Culture is a point of political contact, it is politics; but it is also both ordinary and the best that has been thought and known.

(Mitchell 2000: 64)



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Zitterkopf, D. (1984-5) ‘Prairies and Privations: The Impact of Place in Great Plains Homestead Fiction for Children’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 9, 4: 171-3.


Further reading

Canary, R. H. and Kozicki, H. (eds) (1978) The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding, Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Jenkins, H. (ed.) (1998) The Children’s Culture Reader. New York: New York University Press. Kinder, M. (1991) Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

- (ed.) (1999) Kids’ Media Culture, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

Pace, P. (1993) ‘Subject to Power: The Postmodern Child Spectator’, The Lion and the Unicorn 17: 226-9.

Warner, M. (1994) From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, London: Chatto and Windus.

Watkins, T. (1995) ‘Reconstructing the Homeland: Loss and Hope in the English Landscape’, in Nikolajeva, M. (ed.) Aspects and Issues in the History of Children’s Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.