Cultural criticism is a phrase that is hard to pin down an exact meaning to. There are different psychological, sociological, and literary definitions of the term, as well as the academic definition those two words might garner even without association to another field.
Perhaps this is part of what makes the phrase “cultural criticism” hard to precisely nail down in literary studies, nonetheless it is a method and a direction that should be fully explored and brought into full potential like Marxist and feminist critical theories before it, the two fields that could most easily be seen as the precursors to cultural criticism, a technique that is not so much something new, as it is the further evolution and melding of several of the particular fields that have come before it.
Although the issue of what exactly cultural criticism is, and what all it entails, for the purposes of clarity in order to allow a clear discussion, the definition of cultural criticism in this paper will refer to a field of literary theory in which the strongest meaning from a text results in when the reader of a text shares a cultural familiarity and experience with the author that allows that reader to view the work through eyes similar to those of the author’s, resulting in a stronger reader-work connection.
This allows for the broadest definition of cultural criticism, which is necessary for a working definition. Cultural criticism is a study technique that demands an almost interdisciplinary approach. One critic discussed cultural criticism’s most significant challenge to other fields of literary theory as its call for radical contextualization. The call of cultural criticism is even more fully affirmed in this article, with the statement that: “Cultural studies voices the call to historicize and contextualize, invoking a still wider field of influences.” In cultural criticism the reaction of the reader, or the reader’s subconscious, to the text is just as important as the author’s influences, intentions, and motives. This is a place where the psychoanalytical and historic approaches can meet.
Cultural criticism sees neither one as overshadowing other styles or claiming a higher importance; the information that both of those fields seek is seen as important in cultural criticism, but each as a piece of a larger puzzle, neither as the whole puzzle itself. While some theorists bristle at the potential relativism that can very possibly result from this technique, for others this has already happened and is simply a continued trend. Tony Jackson is one those critics, who discusses cultural criticism as a continuation of earlier fields, and that the relativism actually brings forth more meaning:
“With the rise of deconstruction, Lacanian interpretation, French feminisms, New Historicism, much of postcolonial studies, and the like, the previously established specialness of literature seemed to disappear, or at any rate to be submerged (some would say drowned). And yet literature and the literary have remained in some ways more special than ever. Relativism pumps up the significance of rhetoric to the point that the literary becomes the type of all texts, and so of all knowledge.”
If there is a specific “home” for cultural criticism within the academic world, or a particular discipline where this field of thought has its origins, then it is probably with cultural studies, though most specifically with the rise of African-American studies and African-American literature. The rise and prominence of these two fields, and the natural questions that will result on culture, society, politics, and race, paved the way for a literary theory that would tackle questions on why “black literature” is “black literature.” The interaction of many of these questions started in social sciences, but since these questions were a side-result of the study of literature, it was only natural to assume that literary study and theory would have to follow. What might be considered a more interesting question is: why has it taken so long for cultural criticism to catch on, and why does it still struggle for its time on the literary stage?
The concept of a shared cultural background is nothing new for psychological or sociological studies. There are many written academic reports on community based on a shared cultural experience (even if that experience took place before anyone in that group was even alive) or a shared environment resulting in similar thinking patterns. Studying by literary theorists have even shown similar results. For example, Bizzell states about her study:
“One never simply learns how to write. Rather one learns to write in certain social circumstances, for certain purposes, for certain readers, and the ability to do this is directly tied to the knowledge one possesses and shares with others in the writing situation.”
The evidence suggests that the author and work can not be independent of the environment and background from which they come. This also suggests that those people familiar with the same environment and culture as the author will understand that work better and feel a stronger inherent connection. This would explain why Baldwin and Wright would be seen as icons for “black literature,” but take much longer to work into the mainstream, and still not have the same effect for those readers who have absolutely no experience with the culture and environment these works were borne from.
This offers one explanation of why cultural criticism has not been able to establish itself as one of the foremost fields of literary theory. The works that spawn these questions and these studies are those that have taken much longer to make it into the general academic canon: and many of which still, in actuality, have not, outside of an African-American Studies. This is not the only possibility, however. Another potential answer emerges from Robert Darwidoff’s article: “Criticism and American Cultural Repair.” In this article Darwidoff states:
“The American cultural critic was born a prophet and still aspires to the prophet’s schematic life: apart from the crowd, moved by an inner voice, more often vindicated than appreciated, a paradigm of the demanding, opinionated, hyperattentive seer, surest when alone, truest when unheeded.”
If we are to accept Darwidoff’s assessment of the cultural critic, then he would say that the cultural critic does not want to be at the forefront of theory, but actually desires to be apart from the main stream of literary theory with a romantic notion of that lone voice in the desert calling truth to an audience who is deaf to them. This is an intriguing paradox because conversely, if cultural criticism did see an increased success and acceptance in the world of literary theory, then the larger inclusiveness that allows for cultural criticism to differ from feminist or Marxist theory would result in the loner attitude of cultural critics to certainly seem contradictory, if not hypocritical.
A third theory could be made that cultural criticism hasn’t caught on because it is a field that spawns from the sociological aspect of academe and since the main body of literature dealing with racial and cultural issues is “minority literature,”  it only makes sense that this field would tend to start with its base outside of conventional literary departments and theory and move, over time, into the English field in a more mainstream way. One of the best examples of how a shared cultural experience makes a difference in interpretation is with one of Richard Wright’s most famous novels: Native Son. Cultural criticism appears strongly affirmed by the strong divide between literary critics on this novel, particularly Max’s famous speech to the judge in which he attempts to plead for Bigger’s life.
James Miller tackles this in his close reading of Native Son. He cites Max’s speech as the section of Native Son that hits many critics as a jarring ideological diatribe that broke the flow of the story and simply does not belong in the book. Miller then proceeds to list an impressive group of respected critics who take this stance. Admitedly, this is the same stance I took on the issue after my initial reading. Miller then proceeds to argue, with a growing number of critics in support, that Max is used as a tool, as the white man who thinks he understands and has delusions of grandeur, feeling the need to step in for an individual who does, (as portrayed by the final chapters of the novel, which without question belong to Bigger Thomas himself) in fact, have the ability to think and speak for himself but is not allowed to, even by the one white individual in the book who wants to help, but simply is unable to truly understand the full situation. This argument can be extended to show why there is such a divide on this issue. Those with a shared cultural background that includes Richard Wright lay claim to an understanding of that section that those without that shared background can not have, and therefore the meaning of that passage is radically altered dependant on the experience of the reader. It is the cultural critical reading that allows for this strange split to be not only explained, but also accepted.
The cultural critical approach to literature is one that allows the student of literature to open the book up beyond the boundaries of the pages and grasp a fuller and richer understanding of the text and of all the influences that not only go into the work, but result from it, as well. In doing so, the reader also gains the ability to learn how he or she stands in contrast to the culture that is expressed from that work, and to gain insight on his or her own insight of not only that book, but the author, the culture, and the shared experience of those who interact most strongly with that author’s work. Cultural criticism also allows for a reader to find the authors who have shared their cultural experience, and to more fully appreciate the works put out, and the effect those works have. The extra knowledge gained can only be beneficial in fulfilling the potential and the understanding of every work that is produced. It is an experience that transcends mere words, which it should, since truly great literature is not just a collection of words, but of emotions, of experiences, of the ability to make a connection past the initial skin-deep layer. Cultural criticism allows us an opportunity to more fully push for the meaning and experience of life itself that literature gives us a window to. As Patricia Bizzell said:
“To practice cultural criticism, then, is to study discourse: To study that part of human life which is constructed through shared language use, the life-in-language that connects us to various pasts, puts us in concert or conflict with contemporaries, and provides us with visions of collective futures.”
Cultural criticism is the door that can take us there.
Bizzell, Patricia “Cultural Criticism: A Social Approach to Studying Writing.” Rhetoric Review, Vol. 7, No.2 spring 1989, pp 224-230.
Dawidoff, Robert. “Criticism and American Cultural Repair.” American Literary History, Vol. 1, No. 3. (Autumn, 1989), pp. 665-674.
Jackson, Tony E. “Questioning Interdisciplinarity: Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Psychology, and Literary Criticism.” Poetics Today, Vol. 21, No.2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 319-347.
Miller, James A. “Bigger Thomas’s Quest for Voice and Audience in Richard Wright’s Native Son.” Callaloo No. 28, Richard Wright: A Special Issue. (Summer, 1986), pp. 501-506.
Cary Nelson; Rachel Bowlby; Vilashini Cooppan; Marcia Ian; Anna Klobucka; David Lloyd; Purnima Bose; Astradur Eysteinsson; David Wayne Thomas; David Glover; Andrew Ross. “Interconnections.” PMLA, Vol. 112, No. 2. (Mar., 1997), pp. 275-286.
 Carey, Interconnections, p.275
 Carey, Interconnections, p.227, emphasis added
 Jackson, Poetics Today, p. 328
 Bizzell, Rhetoric Review. Patricia Bizzzell’s article focuses strongly on the study of how students learn to write, and on the observations that have shown that asocial antecedents and shared culture consistently seem to affect how students learn to write, and what they then produce.
 Bizzell, Rhetoric Review, emphasis added.
 Dawidoff, American Literary History, p.667
 As always, there are exceptions, such as Huckleberry Finn which served as a discourse on the racial discussion and is generally included in the canon of great American fiction.
 Miller, Callaloo. P. 501
 Miller, Callaloo. P. 504