Social Critique Through the Prism of Art and Culture
Deconstruction, globalization, post-modernism and post-truth: these are just a few of the new words coined to capture the zeitgeist of the contemporary world. To tease out the currents of thoughts affecting us, students and researchers in cultural studies would have to draw on different disciplines to come up with critical analyses of culture, politics, society and economy, as well as other social institutions. That may sound daunting, but it is precisely the intellectual challenges posed by cultural studies that appeal to our inquisitive young minds.
Prof. Tam Wai-lun, Chairperson of the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, thinks that cultural studies can help students understand the political dimensions of culture and examine the ways in which culture becomes a contested site for conveying different ideologies.
‘Our programme is one of the well-developed cultural studies programmes in Asia that provides education and research on art and culture in Hong Kong, China, and Asia.’
Richard Ng, a final year student majoring in cultural studies, is most appreciative of the programme’s ‘down-to-earth’ approach, and its ability to encourage students ‘to reexamine their everyday life experience’.
Through the lenses of cultural studies scholars and students, texts and materials such as films, comic strips, novels, social media, visual arts, and performances do shed light on forces shaping us without our knowing, be it gender and sexuality, race, religion, etc.
The programme’s focus on local contexts was a surprise to Richard, who thought that cultural studies was all about critical theories. While Richard is an avid reader of Marxist and French structuralist theories, he later realized that local materials in fact allow us to read theories in a different light.
‘I found out that by paying attentionto our culture, we can carve out a niche for dialogues between theories and the various cultural contexts, and it is this process that gives value to our studies,’ Richard said.
Students are expected to maintain an open mind and be prepared to take on intellectual challenges. According to Professor Tam, prospective cultural studies students should also possess inter-cultural sensitivity, respect for human connectedness, and an awareness of gender, race, class and ethnic identity.
‘The curricular design is intended to train students to think critically and analyze a diverse range of issues and topics related to travel, body, politics, modernity, the city, gender, technoscience, consumer culture, visual culture, youth culture, globalization and cultural policy,’ Professor Tam said.
The programme’s emphasis on independent and critical thinking means that diversity is respected within the close-knit circle of students and staff. Richard noted that his fellow classmates have divergent outlooks on life and their interests and vocational aspirations also differ widely. Nonetheless, differences do not stop them from building a close relationship and trust for one another.
‘My fellow classmates care a lot about social issues and I thoroughly enjoy talking to them,’ said Richard.
Their talk on social issues is translated into action. Students are placed in a wide variety of art, cultural, social-activist, and independent media groups during their second summer break, and such placement opportunities are vital to their future personal and professional development. Academic exchanges with reputable universities around the world, as well as the opportunity to study in the graduate programme of cultural studies at National Chiao Tung University, have proved invaluable to CUHK’s young thinkers.
Many of the programme’s graduates are now active members of the cultural circle, working in film, media, and the performing art industries. Some work for NGOs while others pursue further studies in Hong Kong or abroad.
To ponder on the intricacies of life, culture, and power is never an easy task, not to mention the requirement to read extensively and express oneself clearly. But to Richard and his classmates who believe that their thoughts and deeds can bring about a better tomorrow, all their toiling is worth the while.
‘Cultural studies is difficult because there are no textbooks for you to memorize and foolproof way to get good grades. You are driven to think critically and come up with possible solutions for a better society. You can expect some frustration as there are no easy solutions to humanity’s problems. But if you major in cultural studies, there is one thing you can be sure of: you will certainly be an independent and critical thinker.’
Published: Summer 2017
Last Updated: Summer 2018