MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Practice Test 8

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A college class on the American novel is reading Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982). A student raises her hand and recalls that the Steven Spielberg film version (1985) drew angry responses from many African American viewers. The discussion takes off: Did Alice Walker "betray" African Americans with her harsh depiction of black men? Did Spielberg enhance this feature of the book or play it down? Another hand goes up: "But she was promoting lesbianism." "Spielberg really played that down!" the professor replies. A contentious voice in the back of the room: "Well I just want to know what a serious film was doing with Oprah Winfrey in it." This is answered by another student, "Dude, she does have a book club on her show!" Class members respond to these points, examining interrelationships among race, gender, popular culture, the media, and literature. This class is practicing cultural studies.

Cultural studies approaches generally share four goals. First, cultural studies transcends the confines of a particular discipline such as literary criticism or history. Cultural studies involves scrutinizing the cultural phenomenon of a text-for example, Italian opera, a Latino telenovela, the architectural styles of prisons, body piercing-and drawing conclusions about the changes in textual phenomena over time. Cultural studies is not necessarily about literature in the traditional sense or even about art. Henry Giroux and others write in their Dalhousie Review manifesto that cultural studies practitioners are "resisting intellectuals" who see what they do as "an emancipatory project" because it erodes the traditional disciplinary divisions in most institutions of higher education. For students, this sometimes means that a professor might make his or her own political views part of the instruction, which, of course, can lead to problems. But this kind of criticism, like feminism, is an engaged rather than a detached activity.

Second, cultural studies is politically engaged. Cultural critics see themselves as "oppositional," not only within their own disciplines but to many of the power structures of society at large. They question inequalities within power structures and seek to discover models for restructuring relationships among dominant and "minority" or "subaltern" discourses. Because meaning and individual subjectivity are culturally constructed they can thus be reconstructed. Such a notion, taken to a philosophical extreme, denies the autonomy of the individual, whether an actual person or a character in literature, a rebuttal of the traditional humanistic "Great Man" or "Great Book" theory, and a relocation of aesthetics and culture from the ideal realms of taste and sensibility, into the arena of a whole society's everyday life as it is constructed.

Third, cultural studies denies the separation of "high" and "low" or elite and popular culture. You might hear someone remark at the symphony or at an art museum: "I came here to get a little culture." Being a "cultured" person used to mean being acquainted with "highbrow" art and intellectual pursuits. But isn't culture also to be found with a pair of tickets to a rock concert? Cultural critics today work to transfer the term culture to include mass culture, whether popular, folk, or urban. Transgressing of boundaries among disciplines high and low can make cultural studies just plain fun. Think, for example, of a possible cultural studies research paper with the following title: "The Birth of Captain Jack Sparrow: An Analysis." For sources of Johnny Depp's funky performance in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you could research cultural topics ranging from the trade economies of the sea two hundred years ago, to real pirates of the Caribbean such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan, then on to memorable screen pirates, John Cleese's rendition of Long John Silver on Monty Python's Flying Circus, and, of course, Keith Richards's eye makeup.

Finally, cultural studies analyzes not only the cultural work, but the means of production. Marxist critics have long recognized the importance of such paraliterary questions as, Who supports a given artist? Who publishes his or her books, and how are these books distributed? Who buys books? For that matter, who is literate and who is not? These studies help us recognize that literature does not occur in a space separate from other concerns of our lives. Cultural studies thus joins subjectivity-that is, culture in relation to individual lives-with engagement, a direct approach to attacking social ills. Though cultural studies practitioners deny "humanism" of "the humanities" as universal categories, they strive for what they might call "social reason," which often (closely) resembles the goals and values of humanistic and democratic ideals.

Material used in this particular passage has been adapted from the following source:

W. Guerin et al, A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. © 2005 by Oxford University Press.

1. Which of the following would be LEAST consistent with the author's description of cultural studies?

  • A. An analysis of Missourian Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court that examined questions regarding the oppressive inequality embodied in monarchical social etiquette and regional class structures.
  • B. A discussion of female image and intelligence as presented by reality TV dating shows such as VH1's Rock of Love with rock star Bret Michaels.
  • C. An exploration of whether Steven Spielberg's absent father characters in E.T., Catch Me If You Can, and the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are a response to his own father being absent in his childhood.
  • D. An examination of the influence of gospel hymns on the speechwriting of civil rights leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.

2. If a hard-line cultural studies practitioner were to conclude, after researching the text, that white supremacist Asa Earl Carter's novel The Education of Little Tree about the traditional upbringing of a Native American boy was written free of his opinions about non-Caucasian peoples, it would most undermine the author's assertion that:

  • A. cultural studies is not exclusively about literature or even art.
  • B. the oppositional nature of cultural studies, carried to an extreme, denies the sovereignty of individual will.
  • C. analyzing the means of production is one of the important goals of cultural studies.
  • D. cultural studies is politically engaged.

3. When the author quotes Henry Giroux's description of cultural studies practitioners as "resisting intellectuals" (paragraph 2), he most nearly means that:

  • A. professors approaching literature this way reject an overly academic approach.
  • B. the cultural studies movement began as an underground movement.
  • C. professors reveal their own opinions in class in order to provoke disagreement and discussion from students.
  • D. such academics take a multifarious approach to analyzing phenomena in a text.

4. The author's reference to a rock concert serves to indicate that:

  • A. rock music combines both highbrow and lowbrow culture.
  • B. music can serve political purposes.
  • C. culture includes musical expression.
  • D. popular artistic forms have not always been considered to be highly sophisticated.

5. Elsewhere the author writes, "Images of India circulated during the colonial rule of the British raj by writers like Rudyard Kipling seem innocent, but reveal an entrenched argument for white superiority and worldwide domination of other races." This, if taken as an example of cultural studies, illustrates the author's belief that such studies:

  • A. deny the separation between lowbrow culture like Kipling's innocent stories and highbrow culture like discussions of political power.
  • B. examine questions of power and influence, such as the structure of colonial society in India, and raise questions about who was circulating Kipling's writing.
  • C. include mass culture such as Kipling's stories The Jungle Book and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
  • D. transcend historical analysis.

6. In the context of the passage as a whole, "emancipatory" (paragraph 2) most nearly means:

  • A. excusing from an obligation.
  • B. freeing from service.
  • C. endorsing a wider perspective.
  • D. promoting equality

7. Suppose a critic were to propose a comparative analysis between Shakespeare's 16th-century play Romeo and Juliet and Tennessee Williams's 20th-century play A Streetcar Named Desire, focusing entirely on how the number of acts in each play affects the development of the main female character. Which of the following statements best represents how the author of the passage would most likely view this study and/or its author?

  • A. This critic is not a cultural studies practitioner because she limits her investigations to questions internal to the plays.
  • B. The critic is resisting historical disciplines by cutting across several centuries in her analysis.
  • C. The critic should include an analysis of Shakespeare's and Williams's lives and the impact of personal events on their writing.
  • D. Questions of who supported Shakespeare and Williams financially are irrelevant.