Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 14, June 2003



Daniel Keyes


The Context for Reproducing Knowledge:

MacCabe's _The Eloquence of the Vulgar_



Colin MacCabe

_The Eloquence of the Vulgar: Language, Cinema and the Politics of Culture_

London: British Film Institute, 1999

ISBN 0-85170-677-0

184 pp.


Colin MacCabe's _The Eloquence of the Vulgar_ consists of 13 essays that situate the ascendancy of cultural studies [1] as an institutional force in western academia. To approach this text from the perspective of a critique in terms of film studies or philosophy would necessarily miss the ethos of a book that delights in crossing disciplinary and institutional boundaries with the aim of reaching a broader public. Nevertheless, the subtitle 'Language, Cinema and the Politics of Culture', indicates that the subjects of cinema and linguistics are woven into the project of analyzing culture's politics. MacCabe's aim and modus operandi throughout is to historicize and thus politicise the aesthetic experience.


The title, _The Eloquence of the Vulgar_, reflects an unfinished discourse in Latin by Dante who, as part of an emergent merchant class in 14th century Italy, championed the vulgate Italian over Latin as a way of using his art to challenge the authority of church and state (147-149). MacCabe invokes Dante to assert that art is essentially about life or at least embedded in life, and that the study of art must necessarily account for its institutional production. This move of invoking highbrow literary history to explore popular cultural is indicative of a book that analyses the impact of media like film and television by invoking the weight of historic materialism and comparative historical analysis. For example, the parallel with Dante is strategic since MacCabe senses that in the 20th century, with the emergence of television and film as dominant forms of knowing, we are on the cusp of a parallel social revolution like the Renaissance (149).


MacCabe's varied institutional initiatives at the British Film Institute and the Universities of Cambridge, Strathcylde, Exeter, and Pittsburgh attempt to insure this revolution does not result in a backlash that restores Thatcherite Victorian models of morality and individualist hegemony, but instead advance postcolonial difference. The value of this book is located in how MacCabe resolutely negotiates institutional practices to advance this agenda. From the cries of literary scholars seeking to insure the canon of great art is not marred by television, to the need to cut costs and limit access to low income students, MacCabe traces how cultural studies grew out of English literature studies (166). This collection is an important account of the evolution of cultural studies in America and England, and certainly points away from more formalist approaches to cultural studies popular in America.


The book's far ranging essays make it difficult to critique or regard as a unified work on one topic. Nevertheless, what emerges in all these essays is a pattern of political engagement with the world of art and culture that appears to witness the demise of monolithic master narratives, and the creation of a series of localized and subaltern narratives.


Apropos of this approach, the book offers two organizational strategies: thematic (v) and chronological (viii). I suspect the chronological order of publication is offered as another way of tracing the evolution of the essays. The thematic table of contents offers four parts. Part One deals with theories and practices of authors, writing, Standard English, and popular culture. Part Two explores 'Cultural Forms and Social Change' (79) by offering three very distinctive essays: the first studies puritan accounts of the Shakespearean stage; the second explores how 1960s English television deconstructed the nation into identity politics; and the third offers a post-national exploration of Derek Jarman's _The Tempest_ and _Edward II_. Part Three of the book, 'Intellectuals in Transit', praises and explicates the *difficult* writings of poststructuralist Marxist Frederick Jameson, African American scholar James Snead, and feminist and postcolonialist theorist Gayatri Spivak. The choice of these three theorists indicates trajectories for the institutional evolution of cultural studies. Part Four: 'Institutional Initiative' sums up the trajectory of the first three parts of the book by focusing on the growth of institutions under MacCabe's tenure: The MA program with the British Film Institute, the postgraduate Cultural Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, and the doctoral program at the London Consortium which draws on resources from the Architectural Association, Birkbeck College, the British Film Institute, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the Tate Gallery. All three of these initiatives call for a blending of theory and practice by honing students' political savvy and technocratic skills.


One recurrent conundrum that appears in these essays is the struggle between the potential for ahistoricism in poststructuralism, and the need to provide a form of analysis that goes beyond the 'Traditional Left positions, whether couched in the pessimistic tones of the Frankfurt school or the more nuanced accents of Gramsci' (78). For example in his chapter 'The Revenge of the Author', he attacks Barthes's 'Death of the Author' for offering 'some atemporal and idealist account of significations' (39), instead of one 'rooted in a historical and materialism account of meaning' (39). MacCabe does not desire to return to an overarching singular master view of history championed by writers like Theodor Adorno, but instead champions Walter Benjamin's _Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism_, where history is read through a necessarily selective and fragmented account of the past that is consciously a product of its own epoch and audience (38-40). [2] Thus the act of writing is always a social act that anticipates the utterances of the reader. Both reader and author are the products and producers of Epochs. MacCabe recovers poststructuralism within a dialectical historical project that does not strive to offer a defining master narrative but instead offers glimpses of possible critical narratives. Thus the wide-ranging essays in this volume can be said to exist within this aesthetic and politics.


Some of these essays have their genesis as public lectures and thus address a wider audience than the average academic essay. This ethos concurs with MacCabe's institutional efforts to combine cultural studies and production in his work with the British Film Institute as a head of production in the mid-1980s, and later with the London Consortium (12-29). Thus readers unfamiliar with the evolution of English studies, poststructural theories of the author, the politics of teaching Standard English, the history of the Shakespearian stage as it relates to early Hollywood, or the work of Jameson, Snead, and Spivak, will find these topics offered in an engaging manner that may provoke further exploration. These essays may seem a jumble of divergent topics, but what ties them together is the notion of how theory and practice combine in institutional practice. In the Introduction, and prefaces to each essay, MacCabe grounds the production of the texts in detailed histories that account for his growth, the evolution of English studies into cultural studies, and the evolution of film studies from psychoanalytical theories towards meaningful engagement with the practical side of filmmaking. He attempts to wed close textual analysis with consideration for production and reception in whatever text he studies.


MacCabe's gift is to focus on the importance of institutional practices in generating knowledge. For readers unversed in the politics of English departments at British universities in the 1980s and 1990s, portions of this book may seem a hard slog; however, these details make the argument for creating an institutional space where criticism does not languish in the academy but has a place in shaping the production and popular reception of texts.


I can provide one example of the impact of his writing on the institutional practice of English literature from my own experience as a doctoral candidate in the early 1990s with York University's English Department in Toronto, Canada. MacCabe's timely 'Cultural Studies and English' (published in 1992 in _Critical Quarterly_) forcefully asserts that a textual scholar could and should study popular ephemeral electronic texts, an article that helped me convince reluctant members of the English department that a dissertation on daytime talk shows was indeed viable.


The account of his time at British Film Institute in production and then setting up a graduate program is fascinating from the North American and Canadian perspective because such a union of government sponsored institution and commerce is unlikely: increasingly corporate sponsorship at Canadian universities drives research and teaching. Canada's National Film Board produces films but not degrees; and in America state sponsorship of the arts is limited in comparison to other industrialized nations. The creation of the British Film Institute postgraduate program and the London Consortium suggests critical and productive forms of art can be married and lead to democratizing institutional knowledge (20). The cost of these innovative schools and their financial welfare remains problematic. The last essay inaugurating the Consortium notes the state will not sponsor them, and that it must 'be a nil-cost activity' (178) where the entire cost is borne by the students. This financing seems to undercut MacCabe's efforts to make cultural studies more inclusive when tuition is set at 11,250 UK pounds (18,891.91 US dollars) for overseas students, and 2,976 UK pounds (4,997.97 US dollars) for domestic students. [3]


However, in the current academic climate, where corporate interests drive much research and tuition is spiraling upward with declining funding from the state, there seems to be no other alternative than to offer these programs to whoever can afford them. MacCabe's materialist critique that undergirds so much of the book seems to be swept away in the final paragraph of the final essay by the optimism that the Consortium's project is an enlightened one that will result in more democratic initiatives with graduates who support not just teaching and research but public outreach.


In sum, this book provides a cogent and compelling road map for the institutional development of the study of film within cultural studies democratizing project where the vulgar is made eloquent.


Okanagan University College

Penticton, British Columbia, Canada





1. MacCabe tends to define cultural studies as film and television; I sense MacCabe would readily agree that the objects of study in cultural studies are far wider than these media.


2. MacCabe's theory is reminiscent of M. M. Bakhtin's theory articulated in his 'The Problem of Speech Genres' regarding the notion of the inner sociality of all communication. See M. M. Bakhtin, 'The Problem of Speech Genres', in Bakhtin, _Speech Genres & Other Late Essays_, trans. Vern W. McGee, Caryl Emerson, and Michael Holquist, eds, (Austin: University of Texas P, 1986). 62-102.


3. For the academic year of 2003-4; see the London Consortium website <>; accessed 16 June 2004.



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Daniel Keyes, 'The Context for Reproducing Knowledge: MacCabe's _The Eloquence of the Vulgar_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 14, June 2003 <>.


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