#12 Deconstructing the Popular

This week has us traveling a little back in time and east to west in space, as we pitch away from mass culture in the supposedly classless socialist bloc to popular culture and hierarchies of class and consumption in the US and UK at midcentury. We’ll be focusing on deconstructions of the popular by members of the Birmingham School, Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige, while also sampling from Theodor Adorno’s (somewhat surprisingly) conservative stance on jazz. (If you haven’t read it in its entirety, this is the text to skim.)

Tuesday’s texts are intended to set us up for the rest of the semester, especially Thursday’s theme of Pop Art (which we should read in conjunction with Sots Art, as well), and ensuing sections of the syllabus that couple the question of culture with the symbolic and political economies of race, and other expressions of alterity, especially ones based on sex and gender.

Abby will be helping us get a foothold in the delightfully murky morass that is pop, starting with her post below!

Per this week’s readings, culture can be popular without being populist. After World War II, innovative manufacturing technologies contributed to the development of a booming consumer culture, bolstered by social welfare programs that increased the number of consumers. Much to the chagrin of Evelyn Waugh and other delightfully snobby members of the aesthetic “old guard,” social mobility was more possible than ever before (particularly in the U.K.) and imposters funded by new money allowed cultural tastes to be shaken. Popular culture is at odds with “official” culture, being both more accessible and of lower caliber.

Although the new culture may be more widely accessible than chamber music and fine art housed in private collections, it is certainly not democratic in nature. Stuart Hall points out the ways in which popular culture is imposed on lower and working classes, a “re-education.” He says, “…some cultural forms and practices are driven out of the centre of popular life, actively marginalized” (443). Therefore, the development of popular culture is not only a history of creation, but also one of selective destruction. If people are objects of cultural reform as Hall argues, then they are not participants in (and certainly not agents of) cultural change.

Consumption is key in understanding popular culture. So often, the “reformers” in question are corporate and “streamlined.” The cultural forms that can be easily made and sold are the ones that are made popular. This is true across a variety of media, from jazz music, to “streamlined” curvilinear cars and refrigerators, to Technicolor Hollywood movies. Popular culture is wedded to the advertising industry, the engine of consumerism that is responsible for the sale of the shiny and the purchasable. Popular culture does not belong to the people. No, it is bestowed upon them by industry and business. Is this not especially ironic in an era when the West positions itself as a society that is able to give the people what they want in opposition with the failed tyrannical socialist experiment? In other words, is popular culture so different from mass culture after all?

For tomorrow, let’s consider popular culture against the backdrop of other accessible aesthetics that we have talked about in class. What might democratic culture look like, if it is not to be found within the realm of popular culture? What value might there be to popular culture, or is there any value at all?

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4 thoughts on “#12 Deconstructing the Popular

  1. Abby, I think you raise a really interesting question about what democratic culture might look like. Based on our readings, popular culture surely is not democratic — in this way it reminds me of kitsch, as it is dictated by production and reproduction, as well as capital consumerism. Even if kitsch and popular culture are democratic in that they are widely accessible, is this undermined by the fact that they are mediated by “essential relations of cultural power — of domination and subordination” (Hall, pg. 447)?

  2. This post makes me thinking about the roles of gender/sex and capitalism in cultural formation. I think the idea of re-education plays into the reinforcement of gender roles, especially post-war which can upset gender roles. Even contemporary pop culture reinforces gender roles through the use of capitalism by selling us products to legitimize gender presentation.

  3. As Abby brings up in her post, the differences between mass culture and popular culture are not as extreme as we might think (especially coming from a Western background). Both popular and mass culture seem to be imposed on societies from places other than just the opinions of the common person. This makes me think about the type of psychological effects that pop culture has. We have discussed the ways in which mass culture is propaganda and is a little bit brain-washy and we all know that pop culture in western societies is used the same way, just in a slightly less glaringly obvious way. It seems like the difference between mass culture and popular culture is just how overt the brainwashing is.

    Sorry this is kind of rambly

  4. I am going to try an answer Abby’s question of what a democratic culture may appear. First off, I think its important to note the distinctions between popular and mass culture. To me, popular culture is culture dictated by corporate interests, weaved into a network of TV shows, advertisements, magazines, and the like, that subsist in the same paradigm supporting consumption and capitalism. Mass culture overarches popular culture, encompassing popular, sub-, alternative, and populist cultures. One could observe a mass culture adapting, commenting, and investing in smart phones. Popular culture discusses the supposed necessity of certain apps, interrogates the social implications of the selfie, and satisfying ease of finding bubble tea with two clicks, just as examples. Populist culture, as stated in class, is overtly politicized, politicizing the needs of “the people” compared to those not considered part of that social category. So, populist culture overtly politicizes, and popular culture overtly promotes consumption in one form or another.

    Though I do think “the people” possess agency in mitigating and navigating the popular cultural terrain, popular culture heavily influences the views, desires, and logics of them. Populist culture, though distinct in interest, is interwoven with popular culture (ex: Pabst Blue Ribbon, or better yet, Schlitz beers coded as working-class). For those with knowledge of popular culture’s sign’s signifiers, one can ironically render and subvert them for cultural critique (ex: culture jamming). Populist culture’s intentional distinction from pop culture has led to spaces of discuss and create cooperatively and freely (contingent). With the rise of open source forums, one who has access to the internet and has knowledge to properly engage it, can freely alter code with it being cataloged by Kernels (computer programs managing input and output requests). Anyone can alter the code, but all code alterations are saved so anyone can alter any code at anytime. It is within the rise of open source culture/digital commons that I see (the possibility) for democratic culture with captialist societies. I believe democratic culture can occur and takes different forms based on distinct political economies.

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