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?