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Popular culture studies

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Popular culture studies is the academic discipline studying popular culture from a critical theory perspective. It is generally considered as a combination of communication studies and cultural studies.

Following the work of the Frankfurt School, popular culture has come to be taken more seriously as a terrain of academic inquiry and has also helped to change the outlooks of more established disciplines. Conceptual barriers between so-called high and low culture have broken down, accompanying an explosion in scholarly interest in popular culture, which encompasses such diverse media as comic books, television, and the Internet. Reevaluation of mass culture in the 1970s and 1980s has revealed significant problems with the traditional view of mass culture as degraded and elite culture as uplifting. Divisions between high and low culture have been increasingly seen as political distinctions rather than defensible aesthetic or intellectual ones.

Traditional theories of popular culture

The theory of mass society

Mass society formed during the 19th-century industrialization process through the division of labor, the large-scale industrial organization, the concentration of urban populations, the growing centralization of decision making, the development of a complex and international communication system and the growth of mass political movements. The term "mass society", therefore, was introduced by anticapitalist, aristocratic ideologists and used against the values and practices of industrialized society.

As Alan Swingewood points out in The Myth of Mass Culture, the aristocratic theory of mass society is to be linked to the moral crisis caused by the weakening of traditional centers of authority such as family and religion. The society predicted by José Ortega y Gasset, T. S. Eliot and others would be dominated by philistine masses, without centers or hierarchies of moral or cultural authority. In such a society, art can only survive by cutting its links with the masses, by withdrawing as an asylum for threatened values. Throughout the 20th century, this type of theory has modulated on the opposition between disinterested, pure autonomous art and commercialized mass culture.

The theory of culture industry

Diametrically opposed to the aristocratic view would be the theory of culture industry developed by Frankfurt School critical theorists such as Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. In their view, the masses are precisely dominated by an all-encompassing culture industry obeying only to the logic of consumer capitalism. Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony (see: cultural hegemony), that is, the domination of society by a specific group which stays in power by partially taking care of and partially repressing the claims of other groups, does not work here anymore. The principle of hegemony as a goal to achieve for an oppressed social class loses its meaning. The system has taken over; only the state apparatus dominates.

The theory of progressive evolution

A third view on popular culture, which fits in the liberal-pluralist ideology and is often called "progressive evolutionism", is overtly optimistic. It sees capitalist economy as creating opportunities for every individual to participate in a culture which is fully democratized through mass education, expansion of leisure time and cheap records and paperbacks. As Swingewood points out in The Myth of Mass Culture, there is no question of domination here anymore. In this view, popular culture does not threaten high culture, but is an authentic expression of the needs of the people.

Contemporary popular culture studies

Aside from precursors such as Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes, popular culture studies as we know them today were developed in the late seventies and the eighties. The first influential works were generally politically left-wing and rejected the "aristocratic" view. However, they also criticized the pessimism of the Frankfurt School: contemporary studies on mass culture accept that, apparently, popular culture forms do respond to widespread needs of the public. They also emphasized the capacity of the consumers to resist indoctrination and passive reception. Finally, they avoided any monolithic concept of mass culture. Instead they tried to describe culture as a whole as a complex formation of discourses which correspond to particular interests, and which can be dominated by specific groups, but which also always are dialectically related to their producers and consumers.

An example of this tendency is Andrew Ross's No Respect. Intellectuals and Popular Culture (1989). His chapter on the history of jazz, blues and rock does not present a linear narrative opposing the authentic popular music to the commercial record industry, but shows how popular music in the U.S., from the twenties until today, evolved out of complex interactions between popular, avant-garde and commercial circuits, between lower- and middle-class youth, between blacks and whites.

Traces of the theory of culture industry

Still the traditional views have a long life. The theory which has been abandoned most massively is the monolithic, pessimistic view on the culture industry of the Frankfurt School. However, it is still hotly debated. The criticism raised can be summarized in three main arguments. First of all, the culture industry theory has completely abandoned the Marxist dialectic conception of society. Every impulse, according to this view, comes from above. Resistance and contradiction are impossible, and the audience is manipulated into passivity. Alan Swingewood and others emphasize that the Frankfurt theory has to be seen in the light of left-wing frustrations about the failure of proletarian revolutions early this century, and the easy submission of the European nations to fascism.

A second reproach is that this view may be as elitist as its aristocratic counterpart. Both establish the lonely, autonomous, avant-garde intellectual as the only light in a zombie society. Thus the former Marxists arrive at an uncritical praise of the elitist and antirevolutionary upper-class culture. This brings us to a third argument, already made in the sixties by Umberto Eco. In a state-dominated mass society, the lonely, lucid, intellectual Übermensch can only retreat in his ivory tower. The historicity of the contemporary situation is not taken into account, so its internal contradictions are ignored, and thus revolution can only be seen as purely utopian. The culture industry theory, therefore, would lead to passivity and thereby becomes an objective ally of the system it pretends to criticize.

It is of course mainly the influence exercised by the Frankfurt School which matters here: not all of their texts present the same rigid view. In Das Schema der Massenkultur, for instance, Adorno discusses a "nucleus of individuality" that the culture industry cannot manipulate, and which forces her to continuously repeat her manipulation.

However questioned this view on popular culture may be, it still leaves some traces, for instance, in theories depicting narrative as necessarily ideologically conservative, like Charles Grivel's Production de l'intérêt romanesque. Such theories see dominant ideology as purely a matter of messages, propagated in this case through the forms of narrative fiction. Thus they easily arrive at an exaltation of experimental literature as necessarily revolutionary. However, they may neglect the fact that the ideology is never simply in the message, but in the position of the message in the general social discourse, and in the position of its producers in the social formation.

Other theories easily yielding to monolithic thought stem from the emancipation movements of oppressed groups. Early feminist theory, for instance, often described society as universally and transhistorically dominated by patriarchy in every aspect of life, thereby presenting a pejorative view of the women they claim to defend. As Andrew Ross argues, the same remark goes for the widely accepted account of rock history as a continuous appropriation of black music by a white music industry. Only studies analyzing the cultural oppression of homosexuality seem to take a less deterministic position.

Contemporary liberal pluralism

In liberal-pluralist accounts of popular culture, the theorizing on its supposedly liberating, democratizing function is nowadays most often pushed to the background. This type of criticism, often produced by people who are also active in popular literary writing themselves, often amounts to paraphrase and suffers from an uncritical identification with the study object. One of the main aims of this type of criticism is the establishment of ahistorical canons of and within popular genres in the image of legitimized culture. This approach, however, has been accused of elitism as well.

To put it simply: the intellectual, in this view, can fully enjoy junk culture because of his or her high culture background, but the average reader can never raise to the learned intellectual discourse of which he or she is the object. An example of this form of appropriation is Thomas Roberts's An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction (1990). Though Roberts claims to take a distance from studies of canonical fiction, he justifies his (implicit) decision to impose canonical models on popular fiction as follows: "If people who read Goethe and Alessandro Manzoni and Pushkin with pleasure are also reading detective fiction with pleasure, there is more in the detective story than its critics have recognized, perhaps more than even its writers and readers have recognized", This illustrates a frequent strategy: the legitimation of popular fiction on the basis of its use of canonized literary fiction, and of the legitimized public's response to it.

Contemporary apocalyptic thought

Equally alive is the aristocratic apocalyptic view on mass culture as the destruction of genuine art. As Andrew Ross writes, a history of popular culture is also a history of intellectuals, of cultural experts whose self-assigned task it is to define the borders between the popular and the legitimate. But in contemporary society the dispersed authority is ever more exercised by "technical" intellectuals working for specific purposes and not for mankind. And in the academic world, growing attention for popular and marginal cultures threatens the absolute values on which intellectuals have built their autonomy.

In the sixties, Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with his statement that the traditional, book-oriented intellectuals had become irrelevant for the formulation of cultural rules in the electronic age. This is not to say that they lost any real political power, which humanist intellectuals as such hardly ever had. It does mean, however, that they are losing control of their own field, the field of art, of restricted symbolical production ( Pierre Bourdieu). While in the 19th century, intellectuals managed to construct art as a proper, closed domain in which only the in-crowd was allowed to judge, they have seen this autonomy become ever more threatened by 20th-century mass society. The main factor here was not the quantitative expansion of consumption culture, nor the intrusion of commerce into the field of art through the appearance of paperbacks and book clubs. After all, protecting art from simplicity and commerce was precisely the task intellectuals set for themselves.

More important is the disappearance of what has been called the "grand narratives" during this century, the questioning of all-encompassing world views offering coherent interpretations of the world and unequivocal guides for action. As Jim Collins argues in Uncommon Cultures, there is no master's voice anymore, but only a decentralized assemblage of conflicting voices and institutions. The growing awareness of the historical and cultural variability of moral categories had to be a problem for an intellectual class which had based its position on the defense of secular but transhistorical values.

This brings us to a second problem humanist intellectuals face, that is, the fragmentation of the public. 19th-century intellectuals could still tell themselves that they were either writing for their colleagues, or teaching the undifferentiated masses. 20th-century intellectuals face a heterogeneous whole of groups and media producing their own discourses according to their own logic and interests. Thus they cannot control the reception of their own messages anymore, and thereby see their influence on the structuring of culture threatened. Many neo-apocalyptic intellectuals, such as Alain Finkielkraut and George Steiner, emphasize their concern about the growing "illiteracy" of the masses. In practice they seem to be mainly concerned with high culture illiteracy, the inability to appreciate difficult art and literary classics.

The neo-aristocratic defense of so-called transhistorical and universal human values may also often be linked to a conservative political project. A return to universal values implies the delegitimation of any group which does not conform to those values. It is no coincidence, therefore, that attempts in the United States to define a common "American cultural legacy" tend to neglect the cultures of ethnic minority groups. Or that the fight against franglais (French "contaminated" by American English) in France was mainly fought by intellectuals seeing their traditional position in French society threatened by the import of American cultural products, as Clem Robyns describes.

Recurring issues in popular culture studies

The interactions between popular and legitimized culture

The blurring of the boundaries between high and low culture is one of the main complaints made by traditional intellectuals about contemporary mass society. There are a number of sociological studies on literary institutions which are held responsible for this mix. Among the first were commercial book clubs, such as the Book-of-the-Month-Club, appearing from the twenties on. The aggressive reactions they provoked are described by Janice Radway in "The Scandal of the Middlebrow". According to Radway, the book clubs were perceived as scandalous because they blurred some basic distinctions of cultural discourse. In a society haunted by the spectre of cultural standardization and leveling towards below, they dared to put "serious" fiction on the same level as detective stories, adventure stories, biographies and popular nonfiction. Book clubs were scandalous because they created a space where high and low could meet.

Soon, the term " middlebrow" was introduced to qualify this phenomenon and to dismiss it as a threat to the authenticity of both high and popular culture. After the book clubs came the mass-production of the paperback format, and its influence was even more wide-ranging. More about this can be found in Thomas Bonn's book. It shows through what elaborate strategies the respectable hardcover editors had to go in order to hide the fact that, from the sixties on, paperback publishers had taken over the control on the production of serious literature.

The possibility of a "subversive" popular culture

The question whether popular culture or mass culture is inherently conservative, or whether it can be used in a subversive strategy as well, is equally hotly debated. It seems widely accepted that popular culture forms can function at any moment as anti-cultures. "Bad taste" products such as pornography and horror fiction, says for instance Andrew Ross, draw their popular appeal precisely from their expressions of disrespect for the imposed lessons of educated taste. They are expressions of social resentment on the part of groups which have been subordinated and excluded by today's "civilized society".

The question whether popular culture can actually resist dominant ideology, or even contribute to social change, is much more difficult to answer. Many critics easily read popular fiction and film as "attacks against the system", neglecting both the exact ways in which the so-called revolutionary message is enacted, and the capacities of dominant doctrines to recuperate critical messages. Tania Modleski in "The Terror of Pleasure", for instance, presents exploitation horror films as attacks on the basic aspects of bourgeois culture. Thus a loving father cannibalizes his child, and priests turn into servants of the devil. Other scholars claim that, by presenting their perversion as supernatural, or at least pathological, horror films precisely contribute to perpetuating those institutions.

Similarly, many critics exalt stories which feature a lone hero fighting for his ideals against an inert and amoral system. Thus Jim Collins in Uncommon Cultures sees crime fiction opposing a smart private detective and an inefficient police force as a critique of state justice. On the other hand, Thomas Roberts demonstrates in An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, a study of the historical background of the private detective model, how the detective story came into existence in the middle of the 19th century, at the time the institution of state police was developed. This force consisted mainly of lower-class people, but nevertheless disposed of a certain authority over the upper class. The fears among the upper classes for this uncontrolled force were eased by domesticating the police in stories explicitly devoted to them. Their inability to pass on correct judgment was amply demonstrated, and forced them to bow for the individual intellect of the detective, who always belonged to the threatened upper class.

Finally, Umberto Eco's studies on Superman and James Bond as myths of a static good-and-evil world view should be mentioned as very early and lucid examples of a combination of semiotic and political analysis.

Still, there may be ways to wage revolt in an age of mass media. One way could be to introduce small gradual changes in products otherwise conforming to the requirements of a dominant ideology. The problem here, of course, is that isolated messages get drowned in the discourse as a whole, and that they can be used to avoid real changes. Some scholars, however, describe how opposition forces use the logic of the media to subvert them. In No Respect, Andrew Ross mentions the late sixties Yippie movement. Yippies would stage media events, such as the public burning of dollar bills in Wall Street, thereby drawing heavy media coverage. This politics of the spectacle brought the counterculture right into the conservative media and filled their forms with subversive content.

Whether this strategy is effective or not, it points to an important fact: the mass media are not above, but dependent on the public. As Alan Swingewood states in The Myth of Mass Culture, the ideological messages the mass media receive are already mediated by a complex network of institutions and discourses. The media, themselves divided over innumerable specific discourses, transform them again. And finally the public meaningfully relates those messages to individual existences through the mediation of social groups, family networks, etc., which they belong to.


A new area in research into popular culture is neuroimaging which identifies the brain areas whereby social information about popularity of an idea or consumer product affects people's decisions. This identifies the anterior insula and anterior cingulate as key areas in whether people change in regard to something due to its being popular with their peer group.

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