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The search for a definition of popular culture

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The search for a definition of popular culture problems and solutions
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Partridge, Patrick Gregory
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Popular culture ( lcsh )
Popular culture -- Philosophy ( lcsh )
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Popular culture -- Philosophy ( fast )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
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Includes bibliographical references (leaves 193-201).
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Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
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by Patrick Gregory Partridge, Jr.

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Full Text
THE SEARCH FOR A DEFINITION OF POPULAR CULTURE:
PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
by
Patrick Gregory Partridge Jr.
B.A., Metropolitan State College of Denver, 1997
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Social Science
2002


This thesis for the Master of Social Science
degree by
Patrick Gregory Partridge Jr.
has been approved
by
h-n-qa
Date
Pamela Laird


Partridge, Patrick Gregory Jr. (M.S.S.)
The Search for a Definition of Popular Culture: Problems and Solutions
Thesis directed by Professor Myra O. Bookman
ABSTRACT
Over the course of Western history, popular culture has been a highly contested
issue. Even as the term itself emerged from a complicated past, its meaning has
been subjected to the whims of intellectual prejudice and ideology. As a result,
the actual meaning of popular culture, its very definition, has often been called
into contention. With the emergence of popular culture studies as a discipline of
study in the late twentieth century, this confusing lack of a definition has been
highlighted as the field struggles for its own identity. This paper attempts to
explore the complex arrangements that have led to the multiple perspectives on
popular culture and attempts to isolate its own distinct and operational definition
of popular culture. The foundation is laid with a brief overview of the history of
popular culture in Western thought and in the cultural studies tradition. Then the
semantics of the term are explored, revealing the further complications offered
up by the very language in use. The common practice of dividing culture into
specific categories is also examined, and taken to task for its inherent ambiguity
and subjectivity. Instead, a more radical approach is taken that attempts to
explain popular culture in terms of its social function. This functionalism argues
for popular culture as a force of societal communication, focusing on its use in
the creation and maintenance of meaning, identity and myth. Finally, an
integrated model of popular culture is presented which illustrates popular
culture's central communicative role within a given population. The result of this
analysis is a definition of popular culture that seeks to address popular culture's
primary characteristics as well as aid in the practical application of popular
culture studies.
IV


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my wife, Jessica, for putting up with long hours at the library
and in front of the computer, listening to nonsensical rants, acting as a sounding
board, and supporting my efforts nonetheless.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
Many thanks to my committee members, Dr. Myra Bookman, Dr. Candan Duran-
Aydintug, and Dr. Pamela Laird, for their encouragement, criticism, and support.
I also wish to thank Faith Garrison, for her honest and critical help in the reading and
copy-editing process.
A special thanks goes out to all of those who listened to my concerns and frustrations
and continued to support and encourage me in this endeavor.


CONTENTS
Figures...........................................................x
Tables...........................................................xi
Introduction: A Confusing Situation.............................xii
CHAPTER
1. A BRIEF HISTORY OF POULAR CULTURE AND
CULTURAL STUDIES.....:........................................1
A Brief History of Popular Culture.... ................. 4
- Popular Culture from Ancient Greece to the
New World.............................................4
The Birth of Modem Popular Culture:
Industrialism to the 1920s.....:...................11
The "Massification" of the 1930s and the
Frankfurt School...................................19
Culturalism and the Center for Contemporary
Cultural Studies............................... 27
Interpretive Theory and the Popular Culture
Association........................................35
Postmodernism and Popular Culture..................42
Popular Culture StudiesThe Contemporary Situation........49
2. THE SEMANTICS OF POPULAR CULTURE AND
DEFINING POPULAR CULTURE BY EXCLUSION........................54
vii


The Semantics of Popular Culture...........................58
"Culture"............................................59
"Popular"............................................67
"Popular Culture"....................................69
Searching for the "Other" of Popular Culture...............75
High Culture vs. Popular Culture.....................75
Mass Culture vs. Popular Culture.....................93
Folk/Common Culture and the Everyday
vs. Popular Culture............................ 106
The Failure of the "Other" and Semantic Aphasia...........122
3. PLACING POPULAR CULTURE IN ITS CONTEXT
AND EXPLORING ITS ROLE........................................127
The Context of Popular Culture............................129
Popular Culture and Media (Culture).................130
Popular Culture and/as Communication................142
The Spatial-Temporal Dynamics of
Popular Culture..........;..........................146
The Role of Popular Culture...:. .......................150
Popular Culture and Meaning....................... 150
Popular Culture and Identity........................155
Popular Culture and Myth............................162
The Shape of Popular Culture............................ 167


A Culture of Subcultures.....................168
An Intergrative Model of Popular Culture.....174
4. CONCLUSION: OUT OF THE FRYING PAN AND
INTO THE FIRE.........................................181
Some Caveats...................................... 181
Synthesis..........................................184
REFERENCES ....................................................193
IX


FIGURES
Figure
3.1 The Subcultural Overlap Model of Popular Culture,
175


TABLES
Table
2.1 Comparison of Multiple Meanings of "Popular" and "Culture"......70
iii-i
XI


INTRODUCTION
A CONFUSING SITUATION
One of the first questions that people ask me when I explain that Im a
student of popular culture studies is, So, what is popular culture? At the outset
of my studies I had a difficult time giving an answer to this honest and to-be-
expected question, and I usually fumbled through some definition by example.
My hope was that as I continued to learn more about popular culture and the
academic environment surrounding its study, I would also be able to answer that
seemingly innocuous question.
However, the more I have studied and learned, the more apparent it has
become that this is a question which has continually plagued the group of
academics who have studied popular culture. In spite of the growth of the field,
and its shaky establishment as a discipline in its own right, popular culture has
eluded a tried and fast definition. This being the case, attempts to define popular
culture have often been pushed to the forefront of any discussion of the topic, but
to little concrete result. There are a variety of reasons for this. First and
foremost is the fact that various forms of popular culture have been disregarded
as inherently worthless for centuries within Western intellectual traditions. In the
xu


face of a general elitism within the humanities and social sciences that has
narrowly defined "serious" culture and rejected out of hand anything considered
to be "light" culture, a lack of academic rigor in defining popular culture is
unsurprising. In addition, differing perspectives on culture have worked their
way into academic debates among competing paradigms, to the point that there is
little agreement about the role and status of the cultural whole, much less popular
culture. And, of course, there is popular culture itself, which even a vague
impression of reveals to be enormous, complex, and constantly in flux.
However, there is little doubt in my mind that working towards a
definition is still a worthy, indeed necessary, goaf for popular culture studies.
Without such a definition, the field itself suffers a perpetual identity crisis. And,
of equal importance, without some definition laypersons in the general public
will have an incomplete understanding of popular culture as well. This problem
is of equal importance for the simple fact that these very same laypersons are
consistently engaged with popular culture as producers and consumers. Yet, ask
a random sampling of passerby on the street what popular culture is, and you're
bound to get a variety of answers. It would be unsurprising to receive answers
that mention movies, books, magazines, television shows and the like. You may
even receive a few more involved answers that try and explain popular culture in
terms of those cultural products that have the largest readerships, highest ratings,
and earn the most amount of money. Common sense and common language use
Xlll


tell us that these things make up popular culture, but these aspects are, in truth,
little more than the component pieces that form the idea. A general
understanding of the entity that we call popular culture, its nature, its boundaries,
and its purpose, is much harder to come by. We seem to lack a real
understanding of what popular culture is.
Without some central focus to link its theories and interpretations to the
public, popular culture studies fail themselves. For popular culture studies,
perhaps more than any other field or discipline, have (or should have) an
intimate, nearly symbiotic relationship with the public. But without some
common ground for understanding there can be no true dialectical relationship
between the public and those whove championed importance of studying this
very public domain. Without such a relationship, the study of popular culture
may truly deserve the dismissive charges leveled against it as an idle and fruitless
pursuit of navel gazing.
Obviously I wouldnt have involved myself in popular culture studies if I
didnt think that understanding popular culture is a worthwhile pursuit. This
immediately places me within a certain camp of academics and puts me in
opposition to others. However, the distinction between the two sides has blurred
somewhat over the last fifty years, and with that blurring has come some
fragmentation. It is my contention, and the focus of this papers analysis, that
one of the major hurdles yet to be overcome in defining popular culture is
xiv


ideological bias on the part of individual researchers and theorists. Because I
hold this true, I feel it is important to be upfront and explicit about my own
biases before making any attempt at a definition.
I am an unabashed consumer of popular culture, harboring no guilt about
my participation in popular cultures capitalist scheme. I am also a discerning
consumer, and value certain forms of popular culture more than others, and
certain content over other content within those forms. I believe popular culture
has an inherent value in helping map out the ways in which contemporary society
structures it meanings and our lives. I am neither a dismissive cultural snob nor a
popular culture apologist. My personal paradigm leans more heavily towards the
hermeneutical side of analysis than more politically active social scientists, but I
also recognize that the political realm is inextricable from any social function or
relationship.
Having said all of that, it is my belief that only by being as
comprehensive as possible can any formal definition of popular culture ever be
achieved. As Ive already mentioned, dedication to individual and oppositional
ideologies and paradigms has prevented much potential consensus on the nature
of popular culture. Popular culture is vague and amorphous, and this is probably
one of its intrinsic characteristics, but as such it is also dynamic. An operational
definition of popular culture that recognizes this dynamism cannot afford to be
dogmatic in its faith to particular methodological or disciplinary positions.
xv


Rather, it must seek to be informed by each position, find the common ground of
popular culture conceptions between various academic camps, but also remain
aware of and incorporate aspects of popular culture that one position may
highlight but others ignore.
This paper is an attempt to begin this task. Although it is certain to be _
more of a suggested course of action rather than a completed argument, this is
perhaps inevitable. As this paper will show, various readings of popular
culture have developed over the course of the twentieth century and on into the
twenty-first, and will probably continue to do so. Academic paradigms have
changed, shifted, evolved and disappeared as well, and as this continues to
happen the dialogue over popular culture will have to change and evolve .as well.
Any comprehensive definition will have to remain an open argument, receptive
to new developments in academia as well as popular culture itself. There is an
unavoidable contextuality to popular culture, its definition, and its use within
academic studies, and within the context of this thesis a simple call to arms is
probably the most that can be expected.
At the outset of this project, I sifted through 3,800 entries of books alone
that took popular culture as a subject. Many of these were specific to certain
fields and many are briefly noted in Chapter 1. The interdisciplinary influence of
popular culture means that certain disciplines and specializations will focus on
one aspect of popular culture to the exclusion of others. Although these are
xvi


notable for their specificity and would be important to study in a larger, more
comprehensive context, there was simply no way to fit everything on the idea of
popular culture into this paper. This does, however, suggest further avenues for
research, and, as this papers conclusions direct, this will probably have to be
undertaken for an even more inclusive definition of popular culture to be
achieved. .
Although I cannot claim that this is a comprehensive analysis of every
possible approach to, perspective on, or definition of popular culture, I do feel
that the most influential and useful choices have been made. However, issues of
culture and conceptions of popular culture and its study have had a broad impact
within academia over the last hundred years.. As such, certain authors and texts
have been favored over others. In that process, certain individuals and works
were definitely deft out that will be critical to a continuation of this project. In
spite of that, I stand by what has been included here as the most integral to
building the basic infrastructure of the definition of popular culture presented
here.
In order to argue the case for a delimited view of popular culture and
establish the infrastructure of a comprehensive definition, I have chosen to break
up the analysis into three sections. The first chapter will be a necessarily
abbreviated history of popular culture studies. Although it has taken whole
books to cover this subject, and even then without offering a total picture of this
xvn


history, some basic background on the major developments in popular culture
studies will be essential to exposing the biases of certain conceptions of popular
culture as well as the contextual nature of popular culture itself. Despite being
muddled by elitism and conflict, past understandings of popular culture have
exposed certain features of the subject that are integral to defining it. The second
chapter will delve into two of the primary ways in which popular culture has
previously been defined: semantically and through categorical exclusion. This
chapter will lay the foundation for an operational definition by exploring the
semantics of the term "popular culture" and how popular culture has been
categorically defined against other forms of culture, as well as why such methods
lead to insubstantial and incomplete definitions. The final chapter will seek to
place popular culture in a more refined context by identifying its functional
mechanisms. These include its means of distribution, its spatial and temporal
dynamics, and its relationship to the social sphere. While remaining somewhat
abstract at this level, the attempt is made to amass the primary ideas behind each
concept and incorporate these concepts into an overall picture of popular culture.
Although, as the saying goes, the map is not the territory, and certain subtleties
will.be lost in the abstraction, the concepts in this chapter will be synthesized into
a generalized idea of popular cultures various aspects and thus into a broad,
interdisciplinary definition.
xvm


CHAPTER 1
A BRIEF HISTORY OF POPULAR CULTURE
AND CULTURAL STUDIES
As popular culture becomes increasingly recognized as central to
- the concerns of many scholarly disciplines, the issue today is not,
as it was in the 1960s or even the 1980s, whether or not popular
culture is worthy of study.... The issue now is in what contexts this
examination will occur and whether... the concept of popular
culture as an analytic construct proves viable in the study of
culture and society as we move into the 21st century.
- Marilyn F. Motz
1992, p.18
Over the course of popular culture studies' recent history as an academic
discipline, the perceived meaning of the discipline's central focus, popular culture
itself, has long been the thorn in its side. After centuries of elitist and
academically accepted thought that regarded popular culture as base and
worthless, the establishment of a serious discipline to study such an area has been
a battle. Many of those who pioneered popular culture studies as a legitimate
academic pursuit saw it as their task to reshape the academy's preconceived
notions of the value of popular culture. However, even those who championed
popular culture have been unable to settle on their own definition of this concept.
More than thirty years after the establishment of the Popular Culture
Association in 1969, this definition is still in contention. In Eye on the Future, a
1


1992 book commemorating the work of Ray B. Browne as a pundit for popular
culture studies, Marilyn Motz argues, "Probably the most basic issue facing the
scholar of popular culture today is the question of exactly what constitutes
popular culture" (p. 6). She echoes Browne's (1992) own words from "Popular
Culture: Notes on a Definition," originally published in 1972 and reprinted again
in Eye on the Future, in which he states, "Despite the obvious difficulty of
arriving at a hard and fast definition of popular culture, it will probably be to our
advantage and a comfort to many who need one to arrive at some viable
though tentative understanding of how popular culture can be defined" (p. 245).
It is somewhat telling that Browne's essay on defining popular culture has been
reprinted time and again in books published by the PCA sect of popular culture
studies, but his call for such a "tentative understanding" has yet to be fulfilled.
Indeed, 1995's Preview 2001+: Popular Culture Studies in the Future finds
Browne once more asserting the need for a definition, saying, "We need to settle
among ourselves a working definition, or definitions. Perhaps we don't want or
can't find a definition suitable to all; that may be a strength. But it is time we
quit nit-picking and examining our navel while everyone else is playing around
with the rest of our body" (p. 27).
In spite of the fact that a definition of popular culture is still in contention,
popular culture studies have established a foothold within larger academic
circles. Much like some of the subjects that the discipline explores, popular
2


culture studies have become institutionalized. There are ten regional groups
within the Popular Culture Association, with annual conferences, journals, and
courses within different schools around the Unites States. In Europe, culture
studies have become as respected and accepted as any of the other social sciences
in higher education. Rather than the oppositional "other" to traditional
scholarship, popular culture studies have slowly been incorporated into the
greater academic canon. They have, with some irony, become part of the
academy's popular culture.
Yet, for all the advances made in legitimizing popular culture studies, the
problem of defining popular culture remains a sore spot. This is especially the
case for those who work within the discipline, as it makes their already tenuous
position even more uncertain. What must be kept in mind, however, is that
popular culture studies in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century
are working against age old traditions of mistrust, fear, and scorn for popular
culture itself. The current position of popular culture studies and their struggles
to define their primary subject are deeply embroiled in fluctuations of paradigms,
dogmas, and ideologies, some of which can be traced back to the foundations of
Western civilization. To even begin to unravel the complex issues involved in
defining popular culture,, it is necessary to first examine the historical role that
the notion of popular culture has played in academia. Often tied up in greater
ideologies, warped and shaped by political climates, and subjected to the
3


intellectual paradigms and fads of a dynamic academy, popular culture's
conceptual history is crucial to developing a general, operational definition.
A Brief History of Popular Culture
Popular Culture from Ancient Greece to the New World
Although various fields have received the praise for the rise, and possible
ascendancy, of popular culture studies, it is history that has perhaps made the
most important impact. While literary studies and anthropology have contributed
a great deal of ideological and theoretical material to the popular culture debate,
it is history's contribution to the understanding of popular culture that has
allowed the discipline to flourish. In Browne's (1995) words, "History especially
is turning to the study [of popular culture] both directly and as an enrichment of
other major topics" (p. 19).
Cultural studies have influenced the discipline of history from the outside
at the same time that a theoretical broadening of the scope of the discipline was
being carried out from within. Over the course of the twentieth century, an
increasing interest in the cultural aspects of everyday life in the past has fueled
explorations into the realm of popular culture. It became evident that the history
of the Sears Roebuck catalogue and its interaction with general populations is
4


just as important as the lives of past heads of state to understanding history in a
broader context. Such an expansion in scope has led to a reconstruction of the
past with popular culture as a major social component, as can be seen in the
subject matter of some recent works such as Aron Gurevich's (1988) Medieval
Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception, Steven L. Kaplan's (1984)
Understanding Popular Culture: Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth
Century, Leonard R.N. Ashley's (1988) Elizabethan Popular Culture, John
Mullan and Christopher Reid's (2000) Eighteenth-Century Popular Culture: a
Selection, and Patricia Anderson's (1991) The Printed Image and the
Transformation of Popular Culture, 1790-1860,, As the titles indicate, these
works benefit from a more current understanding of popular culture as an
important factor in history.
Thanks to contributions such as these, where historians have applied a
current appreciation for popular culture to a revised vision of the past, we realize
today that popular culture has existed for as long as human society. It has always
been with us in some form or another, whether as secular culture, folk culture, or
even simply as the non-elite uses that various developments in communication
have been put to. Historians such as Harold Innis (1950; 1951) have shown that
with changes in communication technologies come changes in the social and
cultural lives of all populations, not just the elite, groups who control them. Innis
saw changes in communications technologies, ranging from the shift from orality
5


to writing to. the advent of radio, as being the true catalysts for epochal change.
Although Innis is open to charges of technological determinism, something that
he seems to embrace rather than shy away from, in terms of popular culture
studies, such concerns over "chicken and the egg" arguments are minimal. The
important point.here is that historians like Innis and his most famous follower,
Marshall McLuhan (1964), point to changes in communications as having
extremely crucial impacts on society and culture. In connection with these
communications, popular culture has existed and changed as well.
.. .Indeed traces of what we would now call popular culture can be shown in
some of the oldest works of Western antiquity. For instance, the beginnings of
the cultural elitism thathas for centuries relegated popular culture to the realm of
the banal can be found at least as far back as Plato. Plato, as well as providing
some of the mosffundamental philosophical tenets for aesthetics and society in
the Western tradition, was arguably also the supreme elitist. His belief in the
propriety of the elite to rule over the "dangerous" masses carried over explicitly
into his opinion of the cultural forms that appealed to the general public. He
named sculpture and theater as "proper" arts, while everything else (meaning the
entertainments of the public) he considered valueless, with Plato generally
disregarding the general public's ability to perceive and appreciate "true"
aesthetics (White,'.1970).
6


In contrast, Plato's pupil, Aristotle, was of the opinion that popular culture
had at least some minimal value. Aristotle reasoned: "Better that they should
enjoy art of some kind than be cast off altogether from aesthetic pleasure" (as
cited in White, 1970, p. 19). Although we see in Aristotle at least a softening of
Plato's hard-line stance on popular culture, it does little to argue against the
premise that only "high" art held true value, while those cultural artifacts and
practices that would be considered popular culture are, by definition,
impoverished. Thus the idea of a high/low split in culture has been handed down
from classical Greek philosophy.
While compacting centuries' worth of development in thought, society
and culture into a few paragraphs is obviously a truncated version of history, it
would not be until the.age of the Renaissance that the issues of Platonic judgment
of cultural forms would completely reemerge. Western history was dominated
by a long rule of the sacred over the secular, and this effectively minimized
concerns over the status of popular culture as all culture was subservient to
religion. However, as Patrick Bratlinger (1983) shows in Bread and Circuses:
Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay, an elitist concern over the presumed
dangers of popular culture never completely died out.
Bratlinger traces the origins of the Greco-Roman view of popular culture
as an indicator of social decay from Socrates through the rise of the Christian era
on up through the philosophers of the Enlightenment and on into the modem era.
7


Although positions shifted over the various epochs, Bratlinger states that a
democratic version of culture has always been viewed with a sense of what he
terms a "negative classicism" that sees the rise of mass culture (a term which
Bratlinger somewhat distinguishes from popular culture, an issue I will return to
in the next chapter) as contributing to the decline of the Roman empire.
Bratlinger calls this "negative classicism" a "mythology" because of its dogged
pervasiveness though public consciousness, including the scholarly and
intellectual (1983, p. 1.8-19). This mythological belief in the inherent
destructiveness of mass culture is, in Bratlinger's history, one of the most
pervasive ideas of Western civilization.
Yet it was the rise of a new secular order in the Renaissance that also
demands attention, for with it came a new sense of culture and the arts. This
period saw a renewed interest in the Greco-Roman culture of the past and a
resurgence of Platonic idealism followed. The Renaissance marked the
beginnings of what Marshall Fishwick (1982) refers to as "the New Learning."
This New Learning was posited against "the Great Tradition" the arts, laws,
and philosophies of the Roman legacy which, "For centuries, this all-
encompassing monomyth held Western man together, a sort of celestial glue"
(Fishwick, 1982, p. 22). In Fishwick's conception, the new secularism, the New
Learning, was organized around a scientism that simultaneously swallowed up
the classical Great Tradition and incorporated it into the Renaissance, Scientific
8


Revolution, and Enlightenment. This New Learning also became the exclusive
realm of the educated minority. Separated by class and education from the Great
Tradition by this new elitism, the common people, the masses, were left with a
culture limited to "folklore, devotional images, mystery places, farces, festivals
and broadsides" (Fishwick, 1982, p. 35).
Fishwick traces this history into the late eighteenth century to a period in
which, throughout the Western world, "The wealthy and well-educated... had
begun to develop a distinct and separate 'way of life' with different
presuppositions and styles" (1982, p. 37). If there is something missing from this
view of history, it is that the different classes, whether under Greco-Roman
democracy, feudalism, or the advanced nation-states of the Enlightenment, have
always maintained separate "presuppositions and styles" as dictated by economic
conditions. But Fishwick's most important point is that the late eighteenth and
early nineteenth centuries marked a qualitative change, one that was. predicated
on a new emphasis for the learned and intellectual. As he notes:
The extra-ordinary success of the New Learning and New Science
created a new elite. They (not the common people) became the
- bearers of the Great Tradition. Those who did not understand or
endorse it were split off, left behind. Theirs was the traditional, the
Little when compared to the Great. Common culture was split, and
class struggle was inevitable. From the viewpoint of popular
culture, this was the Great Schism. (Fishwick, 1982, p. 40)
Beyond Fishwick's somewhat florid language is the essential notion that this
period marked a shift into something new, yet something which was based on
9


centuries-old traditions. As both Bratlinger and Fishwick illustrate, rather than
dying out, the idea of the high/low split was only reinforced and made stronger
by this new social division. Fishwick's "New Learning" and Bratlinger's
"negative classicism" were given fresh life in the body of a new intellectual elite
who carried both ideas as the highest valuations of thought and aesthetics.
Not coincidentally, this period also marked the beginnings of the notions
that would develop into the conceptual construct "popular culture." For although
popular culture as we understand it today did exist in the past, and indeed seems
to be ubiquitous with human society, and although its existence was of concern
to cultural elitists over the ages, the actual term "popular culture", did not emerge
until much later. However, all of the history of philosophy and intellectual
development up to that point formed the foundations of the concept, and the term
"popular culture" should be understood as the modifier "popular" being added to
the existing notion of "culture." The necessity of the notion of popular culture
implies a categorical distinction from general culture. It also implies a culture of
a certain group, the populace, as the excluded other from culture's elite. And, as
many social and cultural historians have noted, it is no accident that the period
Fishwick (1982) identifies as his "Great Schism" marks the birth of popular
culture: the Industrial Revolution.
10


The Birth of Modem Popular Culture: Industrialism
to the 1920s
Although the social forces that coalesced into philosophical modernism
have their roots in elements of Western thought stretching back as far as
Descartes, it was industrialism that saw these early seeds coming to fruition.
Various factors contributed to the emergence of industrialism, and with it
modernism, in the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, including the
advent of the machine age in production, a continual migration to urban centers,
the rise of the bourgeoisie, and a general triumph of science in the intellectual
community^ Despite some of the advantages that industrialism brought in terms
of technology and quality of life, the new modem era was also treated to the
same "negative classicism" that Bratlinger identifies. Modernism was viewed as
, both scientific progress and as a dehumanizing barbarism that threatened all the
values of the Great Tradition.
Most importantly for popular culture studies, the industrial era presented
a new problem for the majority populace, who made up the lower classes.
Centralized in cities, isolated from traditional rural activities, the question of how
leisure time was to be spent became a real issue. While the economic conditions
of the working lower classes were in many instances worse in the cities than they
had been in rural communities, lower class denizens of the cities turned to
11


entertainments and diversions to occupy their leisure time. As industrialism
began to reshape the economic sphere of nations in general, so too did industries
spring up to provide leisure activities to the lower classes.
As Richard Butsch (1990) has noted, one of the most significant
developments of the nineteenth century's changes in leisure and entertainment
practices was an increasing division between the activities of the working class
and those of the middle and upper classes. As the upper classes continued to
distinguish themselves in style and way of life from the lower classes, the venues
for recreation became increasingly polarized between those that catered to the
general populace and those that served the elite classes.: At. the. same time, the
potential for capitalist gains through providing leisure to; the lower, classes was
realized in the form of new economic ventures. Industries, prompted by support
of the federal government (at least in the U.S.), began to commercialize and
standardize leisure activities for the working class and, in the spirit of the
industrial era, mass-produce forms of entertainment. These provided distraction
and pleasant use of leisure time for the lower classes, but also managed to put
even more dollars into the pockets of businesses and corporations.
While great volumes of artistic and intellectual work were applied to the
issue of modernism, industrialization, and the situation of the working class, in
Matthew Arnold and Karl Marx the nineteenth century provided two figures of
incredibly far-reaching influence to the historical development of the concept of
12


popular culture. Roughly contemporary, both European, and both from middle-
to-upper class backgrounds, these two figures would approach the idea of culture
from totally opposite directions and be interested in the masses and popular
culture for completely different reasons. However, together they shared a
mistrust, indeed a downright antagonism, toward popular culture that would
negatively impact its perception for decades to come.
At the height of the mid-nineteenth century's Industrial progress, Matthew
Arnold became one of the most influential figures in the theorizing of culture in
both Europe and the Unites States. The British critic's Culture and Anarchy
(18(39/1994) was primarily concerned with public education as a means of
indoctrinating the masses with official high culture as a means of preventing a
general "anarchy" of the lower classes. His position was based-on the primacy of,
high, culture and his conception of culture was highly influential in the West.
While Arnold "had very little to say directly about popular culture," he
"inaugurates a tradition, a particular way of seeing popular culture, a particular
way of placing popular culture within the general field of culture" (Storey, 1998,
p. 22), This tradition was so successful in intellectual circles that it dominated ,
"official" views on popular culture well into the 20th century.
Arnold's view of culture can best be summed up as a combination of
Bratlinger's "negative classicism" with its opposite, "positive classicism." .
Arnold's famous "sweetness and light," "the best that has been thought and said
13


in the world," reflects the latter position. Here culture is seen as the collection of
all the greatest intellectual and aesthetic achievements of mankind, what
Fishwick (1982) called the Great Tradition. Arnold gives this view of culture a
decided political weight by naming it as the moral compass to which society
should apply itself. As Paul Buhle (1987) says, "Arnold has a mission: to make
self-conscious the cultural developments already taking place and to make
possible a worldview no less suited to the emerging environment than Homer's
was to the ancient Greeks or Dante's to his contemporaries" (p. xii).
Yet Arnold also warns against a disruptive form of culture that equates
popular culture with anarchy. Storey (1998) places Arnold's perspective within
its historical context. .He shows that Arnold's view is actually in reaction to
political unrest among the urban lower classes, using culture and its
indoctrination as a way of re-asserting the authority of the ruling classes. Storey
also ties Arnold's critique into the Romantic critique of industrialism, which saw
the cultivation of the Great Tradition amongst an elite minority as the only way
to guide society out of decline. For Arnold, "Working class culture is significant
to the extent that it signals evidence of social and cultural disorder and decline
a breakdown in social and cultural authority" (Storey, 1998, p. 26). Hence
Arnold is basically reifying a long tradition of "negative classicism."
Bratlinger concurs, showing that not only are Arnold's views founded on
the general critique of industrialism, but also to the received "negative
14


classicism" of some of the most influential philosophical figures in Western
history. (1983, pp. 63, 128) The most important point to realize here is that one
of the first modem commentators on popular culture was, in line with his
predecessors, reinforcing the idea of a natural, and necessary, high/low split in
culture. Although primarily concerned with the British situation, Arnold's ideas
were highly regarded across the Atlantic in America as well. As Lawrence
Levine (1988) notes:
...Arnold was perhaps the single most significant disseminator of
such attitudes and had an enormous influence in the United States.
The Arnold important in America was not Arnold the critic,
Arnold the poet, Arnold the religious thinker, but Arnold the
Apostle of Culture... 'Why does nobody anymore mention Arnold's
name?' Ludwig Lewisohn asked in 1927 and replied that it was
because Arnold's views had become completely absorbed in the
mainstream of American thought, (p. 223-224)
He goes on to show that the efficacy of Arnold's views can be found in the very
language applied to the subjects. Levine points out that in the early nineteenth
century, "culture" was defined in American dictionaries primarily as an
agricultural term, whereas by the late nineteenth century "culture" was defined as
a state of refinement. (1988, p. 224) Thus Arnold's contribution can be best
stated as bringing "culture" to the forefront of intellectual concerns, and with it
the notion of a natural high/low split in which low culture, popular culture, was
seen as eminent danger.
15


The advent of the industrial era and the birth of leisure economies also
brought to light many of the broad social concerns that are at the heart of social
sciences today. Of central concern to intellectuals of the period was the
destructive potential of machine production. As Bratlinger writes, "The idea that
machinery is destructive of art and culture arose with the factory system" (1983,
p. 126). He goes on to explain that, "The equation of machinery with
degeneration rather than with progress, paradoxically central to many versions of
literary and artistic modernism, was in part a defensive reaction to the
displacement of traditional arts and crafts by methods of mechanical
reproduction" (Bratlinger, 1983, p. 127). From those fears, a distrust of the
modem era and its machinery permeated nineteenth century intellectual thought,
both within philosophy and the arts, and contributed to the most influential
paradigm to emerge from that century: Marxism.
Much of Marx's work is concerned with a re-framing of history as epochs
based on the dominant modes of production. The agrarian age was coming to an
end as Marx was writing, and the Industrial age was quickly dominating
production throughout the Western world. For Marx, the domination of
production by industry meant that capital was correspondingly the dominant
ideology of the new epoch and the motivating force behind social control. This
had profound impacts on culture. From this materialist perspective, culture was
placed in a position of not merely representing the body of "high" art, as in
16


Bratlinger's (1983) "positive classicism," but also as a means of controlling the
masses by legitimating authority. As Storey says of the implications in Marxism,
"...the dominant class, on the basis of its ownership of and control over the means
of material production, is virtually guaranteed to have control over the means of
intellectual production" (1998, p. 120). Thus the power of the bourgeois over the
proletariat, to use Marx's terms, included using culture as a form of social
control.
One of the great impacts of Marxism on social sciences was not simply
the body of work that he left behind after his death, but the impact that his radical
and revolutionary perspective had on so many of the intellects that came after
him. Of those who picked up on Marx's materialist position and sought to
expand its insights and develop them further, one of the most influential was
Georg Lukacs. His contributions centered on the psychological aspects of
political domination, and he was concerned with trying to understand the class-
consciousness of the proletariat iii order to determine what awareness would have
to be achieved for the proletariat to undertake a Marxist revolution. He was also,
because of his interest in mass psychology, deeply interested in culture. Lukacs,
working from within the Marxist framework, contributed the notion of culture as
a structure of a society's total way of life (Feenberg, 1981, p. 71). As Andrew
Feenberg (1981) describes the process of culture in Lukacs, "Through [the]
cultural generalization of its categorical structure, the economy contributes to the
17


process of its own social reproduction" (p. 156). In other words, economic
determinsim in Marxism views culture as the reifying force which stabilizes the
economic conditions of society by indoctrinating the economic way of life as
natural. Although few current students of popular culture turn to Lukacs directly,
the influence of Lukacs on the Frankfurt School, which we will explore in the
next section, was critical to the development of contemporary popular culture
studies.
While little of Marx's specific views on culture are in evidence today, as
both the innovations have been expanded and the limitations exposed, the
centrality of modes of production as the most important area of analysis is still
with us. Storey (1998) explains that the materialist conception of history
resituates popular culture analysis in the following way:
First of all, to understand and explain a text or practice, it must
first be situated in its historical moment of production; analyzed in
terms of the historical conditions which produced it. There are
dangers here: historical conditions can quickly collapse into
economic analysis (the cultural becomes a passive reflection of the
economic). It is crucial, as Engels and Marx warn... to keep in
play a subtle dialectic between agency and structure, (p. 104)
The "subtle dialectic" that Storey highlights is often lost in many neo-Marxist
perspectives on popular culture, but Marx's emphasis on production has
contributed a great deal to the current climate of popular culture studies.
Because of Marx, and those who followed him, the political conditions in the
18


creation of popular culture remain an important area of popular culture studies
today, as well they should.
One interesting thing about the politicization of culture in both Arnold
and Marx is that they both come to essentially the same conclusion. Culture for
both is a means of social control. The only real difference is that for Arnold
there is a moral and ethical value to high culture, something that Marx would
probably question just as much as the value of popular culture. Marx saw culture
as an economic system's method of controlling the lives of the populace. Arnold,
although not too clear on the economics, whole-heartedly agrees and cheerfully
calls for more of the same.1 This nebulous agreement mixed with dissent, divided
along lines of political intent; does not end with Arnold and Marx,
} >f; : ;. : i* 11 * n ? ! '
The "Massification" of the 1930s and the Frankfurt School
While the industrialization of the Western social world and the
politicization of culture were shaping the new twentieth century, a new concept
was taking over the social sciences. A sudden shift towards lumping the
variations among classes and genders into the concept of "the masses" had come
into full bloom, and with it came the idea of "mass culture." If Oretga y Gasset's
wildly adhered to definition of "mass man" was, "Mass is any man who does not
value himself, who feels instead that he is like everybody, who has no anxiety,
19


and who feels satisfied in being identical to others" (as cited in Giner, 1976, p.
77), then mass culture was meant to be the culture of those masses. However,
the impact of the industrial era gave it a secondary meaning. While the cultural
conservatives upheld high art as the cream of civilization's crop and the cultural
liberals viewed culture in general as a tool of oppression, both saw "mass
culture" as synonymous with "mass-produced culture." Therefore not only did
"mass culture" mean a culture of or for the masses, but a mass-produced one as
well, and this term inseparably tied the two together. No longer could the
masses' own culture be deemed autonomous, no matter how impoverished,
because it was tied into industrial commerce. Similarly, because of the perceived
banality of the cultural products of mass production, the masses were politically
condemned as banal themselves. Both the populations described in the term and
their cultural products and practices suffered together under this wholly negative
verdict.
"Mass culture" is not a term that can trace its origins back beyond a point
much earlier than the 1920s, and thus reveals its specificity to the historical
context of its birth. According to Giner (1976), this is primarily due to the fact
that a culture of mass-production conveyed through mass-communication was
only possible after the technological advances of the early twentieth century (pp.
166-177). In addition, the historical and political climate of the age greatly
affected the rise of "mass" thinking in terms of populations and culture. The
20


Bolsheviks had successfully overthrown the monarchical state and established a
socialist state, only to have it fall into the grip of Stalinism. Europe was
witnessing the rise of totalitarianism, and the United States was under a wave of
economic depression and liberal domination of thought and policy. In the minds
of some analysts, the forces of history seemed to be conspiring to make the
notion of the masses more and more an accurate expression of social reality.
In Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth Century America
(1996), Paul R. Gorman explores the emergence of the critique of mass culture
over the first half of that century in the U.S.. Drawing from a wide selection of
writings by some of the twentieth century's most vociferous critics of mass
culture, Gorman traces the development of a serious academic and intellectual
critique against the perceived threats of mass culture. Although he acknowledges
that a past history exists for popular culture and its dissent, he contends that mass
culture in the twentieth century is a unique entity due to the era's explosion in
communications technologies. This same theme is taken up by Lawrence Levine
(1988) in Highbrow/Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America.
For Levine, this creation of hierarchy goes further than just an boundary created
by intellectual elitists. Levine shows that although the intellectual elite was
happy to establish such a boundary, they were aided by circumstances of
economy, politics, race and ethnic origin, gender, and a whole host of social
determinations in the creation of such a cultural hierarchy.
21


Gorman and Levine both show that there is a synchronous historical
trajectory, however wavy a line, between the rise of the American intellectual
elite and the modem critique of popular culture. In the late nineteenth and early
twentieth century, these intellectuals were busy setting themselves up as a
separate class from the common man, and with this move establishing a canon of
"acceptable" values, arts, and texts. Much of the basis for this emerging
American intellectual class found its model in similar European upper classes,
where a pervasive Amoldism had established a similar hierarchy. During these
formative years, further reinforcement of the division between high and low
culture became doctrine. Not only were popular culture forms seen as banal,
they were viewed with as much suspicion of danger as ever before, and
Bratlinger's "negative classicism" continued to prevail.
In the United States, the late 1920s and 1930s were an era of growing
progressive movements. Much influenced by the socialism of Marx and a
newfound emphasis on humanitarianism, many intellectuals saw it as their duty
to aid and assist the lower classes lest they, and their culture, continue to fall into
decay. Therefore, as Gorman (1996) states, "Intellectuals created the general
critique out of a genuine humanitarian concern for the effects of America's new
culture of mass entertainments" (p. 10). However, because of the subjective
perspective of their separatist motives, Gorman argues that intellectuals of the
period had an over-generalized and simplistic view of the mass audience. A
22


snobbery based on education and the culture they upheld had informed the
notions of even the most progressive intellectuals, and, as Levine shows, resulted
in a reification of Arnold's basic principles on the valor of high culture and the
decrepit state of mass culture.
This curious mixture of liberation ideology and revolutionary fervor
inherited from Marx combined with the hierarchical view of culture received
from Arnold created an intellectual environment ripe with pessimism towards
both mass culture and the masses themselves. Such pessimism was, as
previously noted, exacerbated by the uncertainty of the political environment at
that moment in history. While the 1930s were a politically uncertain time for
Americans, it was more or less chaotic for Europeans. Therefore, as American
intellectuals worried over how to balance political emancipation with their own
precious cultural hierarchy, it would be the Europeans who would incorporate
not only politics and aesthetic hierarchy, but also philosophy and all the
disciplines of culture into one coalesced notion of society, history, and culture.
The group that had the greatest impact on the theorizing of popular culture would
come to be known as the Frankfurt School.
In 1923, the Institute for Social Research was established at Frankfurt
University and a new force in cultural criticism was bom. Intellectuals and
researchers gathered at what was the first affiliated program of social study with
a Marxist foundation. While Marxism supplied the impetus and the heart of the
23


Institute for Social Research, the ideas generated at this school were also greatly
influenced by those who had expanded on Marxism, especially Korsch and
Lukacs. As previously noted, Lukacs's influence was of specific relevance to the
history of cultural studies. The group of writers most intimately associated with
the Institute included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adomo, Walter Benjamin, and
Erich Fromm, who collectively came to be known as the Frankfurt School.
Through their research and their writings, especially under the influence of
Horkheimer, a new paradigm based on Marxism was developed that Horkheimer
labeled "Critical Theory" in 1937.
Critical Theory is vast and complex and it is difficult to pin down even
outside the confines of a simple paper. As Douglas Kellner (1989) states,
Critical Theory's program was explicitly a challenge to the division of
disciplines. In its place, "Horkheimer called for a new sort of synthesis between
philosophy and the specialized sciences" (Kellner, 1989, p. 17). Although
Critical Theory's scope was intentionally broad, considered to be a critique of the
whole of society and history, for our purposes here it is most important to note
that Critical Theory had much to say about culture, specifically mass culture.
According to Kellner, culture was a source of great concern for the Frankfurt
School:
Culture, once a refuge of beauty and truth, was falling prey, they
believed, to tendencies towards rationalization, standardization and
conformity, which they saw as a consequence of the triumph of
24


instrumental rationality that was coming to pervade and structure
ever more aspects of life. Thus, while culture once cultivated
individuality, it was now promoting conformity and was a crucial
part of 'the totally administered society' that was producing 'the end
of the individual.' (1989, p. 121)
This vision is tied intimately to Marx's economic determinism and the mode of
production is seen as the key factor in analyzing cultural objects, texts, and
practices. Yet, thanks to Lukacs, culture is viewed as eminently more political in
Critical Theory than in Marx.
Culture's contribution to the dominance of capitalist powers was viewed
as a distinguishing characteristic of the modem age. Mass culture in particular
was especially damning since it was seen as destroying the autonomy of the
individual-as well as limiting the political ability of the masses to rise up against
their oppression: Bratlinger notes that Critical Theory is, in its pessimism,
basically a more complex and refined version of "negative classicism" (1983, p.
237). Its view of culture in decline is pervasive and ultimately determines the
views of Critical Theory's proponents towards popular culture. There is,
however, a good deal of disagreement between individual members of the
Frankfurt School as to specific cultural value of certain practices. One of the
most famous arguments between critical theorists occurred between Adomo and
Benjamin. I will address the distinctions each made for the potential of mass
culture in the next chapter, but for the sake of this brief history it is the idea of
"culture industry" that concerns us for the moment.
25


The notion of the culture industry, first posited by Max Horkheimer and
Theodor Adorno (1972) in Dialectic of Enlightenment, is that of a coalition of all
the productive elements of mass culture to form "a system which is uniform as a
whole and in every part" (p. 120). Originally published in 1944, the essay on the
culture industry came to define the view of popular culture for most Critical
Theorists. Although the most contentious aspect of the argument, Horkheimer
and Adorno directly state that the culture industry is indeed one monopolistic
entity in modem life: "In addition there is agreementor at least the
determinationof all executive authorities not to produce or sanction anything
that differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all
themselves" (1972, p. 122). The result of this culture industry is a mass culture
that "robs the individual of his function" in that mass culture "leaves no room for
imagination or reflection on the part of the audience" (Horkheimer & Adomo,
1972, p. 124,126). Adomo (2001) extends the effect this has on the masses,
stating, "Thus, although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the
conscious and unconscious state of the millions toward which it is directed, the
masses are not primary, but secondary; they are an object of calculation; an
appendage of the machinery (p. 99).
It is interesting to note that, rather than leading to the social collapse of
Bratlinger's "negative classicism," the culture industry critique sees mass culture
as integrating society. However, it is an integration of force, leading to a
26


totalitarian domination wherein choice and freedom for the individual have been
eliminated. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it, "Anyone who resists can only
survive by fitting in" (1972, p. 132). Instead of leading to social decay, the
Frankfurt School and subsequent Critical Theorists see mass culture as eroding
the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, as championed by Marx. No less
pessimistic and no less terrifying than another "fall of Rome," the culture
industry critique promotes a vision of popular culturehere subsumed by mass
cultureas leading to the end of autonomy, replaced by total state control.
Culturalism and the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies
While the influences of Marxism and the Frankfurt School were long
lasting in Europe, shaping the course of continental philosophy for the decades
that followed, a competing movement began in British culturalism. Building
from the key works of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson,
Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, the British culturalism movement is noted for its
focus on the culture of non-elites, maintaining the importance of popular culture
while emphatically denying the perceived reductionism of Marxism and the
Critical Theorists.
In 1964, the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was
founded at the University of Birmingham under the direction of Richard Hoggart.
Previously, Hoggart was primarily noted for his book, The Uses of Literacy,
27


originally published in 1957. Hoggart's perspective on popular culture made his
a radical break from the institutions of Amoldism. He saw a great deal of
solidarity in working class life and the culture that sustained it, praising it for
having a sense of tradition that allowed for a shared notion of community and
social cohesion. On the other hand, The Uses of Literacy was also an indictment
of the mass culture of the 1950s, which Hoggart saw as contributing to a moral
decline in the working class. In that respect, Hoggart's work seems to echo
Arnold's ideals, if giving more credit to the working class in the process.
However, as John Storey, himself a member of the British culturalism
movement, points out, "What he [Hoggart] attacks is not a real 'moral' decline in
the working dlass as such, but what he perceives as a decline in 'moral
seriousness' of the culture provided for the working class" (1998, p. 47). In fact,
Hoggart had a strong sense of conviction that the working class was not as easily
manipulated by culture industries as many intellectual elitists believed. In
Hoggart's words (1957), "This is not simply a power of passive resistance, but
something which, though not articulate, is positive. The working classes have a
strong natural ability to survive change by adapting or assimilating what they
want in the new and ignoring the rest" (p. 32). While Hoggart is concerned about
a decline in cultural morality, and worried about the impact of mass culture on
the working class, this perception of the non-elite classes as discriminating was a
drastic revision of the accepted view of the working class as passive receivers of
28


mass culture. Although, as Storey notes, a full development of the notion of
audience appropriation never occurs in The Uses of Literacy (1998, p. 49), the
foundation of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies was based on this
appreciation of the working class and its culture, as well as a definite belief in the
value of studying such popular culture.
A contemporary of Hoggart, Raymond Williams, may have actually
provided even more to the culturalism tradition, regardless of CCCS
directorships. Williams's work helped give the movement a center and an
understanding of its basic tasks. Of central importance to culturalism (and the
aim of this paper) were Williams' attempts to locate and define culture. In two
seminal works, Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961),
Williams outlines a basic definition of culture and explores how culture itself is
ultimately elusive to cultural studies. I will return to Williams in the next chapter
and discuss his definitions and views on cultural studies in greater detail, but for
the time being a brief explanation is required to explain the impetus of the
culturalism movement. Williams set about first defining what exactly constitutes
culture. Williams offered a tripartite definition, stating that culture could be: 1)
the "ideal" in that it represented timeless and universal humanity, 2) a society or
humanity's body of intellectual and imaginative work, and 3) a description of a
particular way of life. The key to Williams's definition is that culture in its
totality is all three possibilities, but that a text or practice merely had to satisfy
29


one condition to qualify as culture. While the first two definitions would be
perfectly acceptable to the Amoldian perspective, it is the third definition that
radicalizes culture for culturalism. Williams' third definition of culture is entirely
democratic and opens the door for culturalism's serious and justified exploration
of popular culture.
Yet Williams also problematized culture for cultural analysis. Williams
(1958) highlighted the fact that the true nature of a culture in any period can only
be understood by those living within that period. Because of the automatically
reductive perspective of looking back on the past through historical artifacts, the
true lived experience of a culture will be basically impossible to capture in
cultural analysis. Williams refers to this monocular perspective as the "selective
tradition." As Storey (1998) notes:
This has quite profound ramifications for the student of popular
culture. Given that selection is invariably made on the basis of
contemporary interests, and given the incidence of many reversals
and rediscoveries, it follows that the relevance of past work, in any
future situation, is unforeseeable. If this is the case, it also follows
that absolute judgment about what is good and what is bad, about
what is high and what is popular, in contemporary culture, should
be made with a great deal less certainty; open as they are to
historical realignment in a whirlpool of historical contingency.
(p. 58)
Moreover, for Williams, this process of selection, which creates a seemingly
artificial high/low split in culture, is also generally governed by the dominant
social group. In this simple but insightful move, Williams is able to open up the
30


realm of popular culture to serious consideration and yet maintain the importance
in recognizing the political power of culture in social hierarchies. In doing so,
Williams helped create a whole new perspective on cultural analysis, and
influenced the direction of the CCCS.
... Thompson's contribution to cultural studies came in the form of The
Making of the English Working Class (1963). A historical account of the
processes by which the working class came to perceive itself as such in its own
cultural forms, the book is primarily an account of culture, society, and human
relationships gathered together from the voices of "ordinary" men and women.
The importance of Thompson to cultural studies is not simply in providing a
historical record, but in the conclusions he makes about class and culture from
that record. Thompson fundamentally challenges the orthodox Marxist view of
class as a phenomenon of social structures and modes of production. Instead,
Thompson shows how class is generated from within, through cultural forms as
well as through simple human interaction. In placing so much emphasis on
human agency, Thompson offers a compelling refutation of the Marxist version
of history and helps separate the culturalism movement from competing forms of
cultural analysis based primarily on Marxist principles.
It is, however, Stuart Hall who might be credited the most for aiding in
the development of the British culturalism tradition. Stuart Hall and Paddy
Whannel's The Popular Arts (1964) stands out as one of the early classics of
31


popular culture studies. The thrust of The Popular Arts is to free certain
categories and texts within popular culture from a false dichotomy of popular and
high where all popular is bad and all high is good. To achieve this, Hall and
Whannel argue that much of popular culture is not comparable to high culture,
but intentionally so. Rather than being a weaker attempt to reach the same goals
as high culture, popular culture aims for completely different purposes, typically
entertainment as opposed to education. To situate one against the other is to miss
the point. However, their argument goes, it is proper to establish a
discriminating taste to determine what is more valuable and more artistic in
certain popular texts than in others. In the process, Hall and Whannel arrive at a
certain category within popular culture they term "popular art." Popular art is
distinguishable from other forms of popular culture because, although it exists in
a commercial spectrum, it is produced through individual artistic achievement.
Hall and Whannel do not give up the accepted premise that popular art is still of
less value than high art, but they work around it by claiming that the aims of each
are different and therefore not justifiably open to comparison.
While The Popular Arts is not a radical break from the high/low split by
any means, it does argue that individual artistic expression is to be found within
popular culture, thus negating the simplicity of the culture industry critique. But
Hall's work with the CCCS is his more lasting monument. In 1969, Hall took
over the directorship of the CCCS from Hoggart and, as David Harris (1992)
32


states, this is when "...CCCS took off in cultural studies terms..." (p. xi). Hall
continued to work on issues of popular culture and is still publishing in the field,
and his perspective has changed somewhat over the years. But as the director of
the CCCS, he was involved in introducing the major development to give shape
to the British culturalism movement as a whole: Gramscianism.
Due to complex political and academic circumstances, the work of
Antonio Gramsci came to have a large impact on British culturalism. At the
center of this influence was Gramsci's hegemony theory. Gramsci, as a Marxist,
was primarily concerned with understanding the forces that allowed dominant
regimes to maintain power over the subordinated classes and even maintain a
sense of collusion and social stability. Simplified, hegemony theory claims that a
state of consensus is reached between dominant and subordinate groups through
means of interaction and compromise. In these negotiations the dominant class
must give in to allowing the subordinate classes some position in the power
structure, while the subordinate classes must concede to certain social and
cultural conditions that will maintain the dominant class's control.
Gramsci's hegemony theory is certainly more complex than this brief
description, but its appropriation by British culturalism transformed hegemony
into a theory of culture that was in many ways different than what Gramsci
himself proposed. Gramscianism and the history of British cultural studies has
an incredibly complex history, as David Harris illustrates in detail in From Class
33


Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure (1992), but its essential influences are easy
enough to see. Hegemony theory allowed culturalists to incorporate Williams's
reconceived idea of culture, Thompson's notions of human agency in the
production of culture, and Hall's analysis of culture as a spectrum of taste
evaluations into one overarching systemic theory of culture. Culture became, for
the culturalists influenced by Gramscianism, a dynamic process of hegemony,
where the dominant forces of culture industries produced products for
consumption and capital gain yet were forced to submit to consumer tastes in
order to sell their products. Consumers were able to selectively choose which
aspects of the proffered products to incorporate into their own lives and self-
produced culture. In turn, that which is produced by individuals working within
popular culture can be appropriated by the dominant group for use in creating
profits that further reinforce the power structure.
I will return to the issues raised by cultural hegemony theory and the
British culturalism perspective on cultural dynamics in the next chapter. At
present, it is merely important to note that the development of hegemony in
relation to popular culture was a critical step in developing popular culture
studies as a whole. This Gramscian (or as many British culturalists prefer, neo-
Gramscian) perspective raised the stakes of popular culture from derision to site
of critically important analysis. Popular culture had a new value as an integral
34


piece to the political machine, and the agency of the "ordinary" people was
suddenly just as important as that of the elite groups in power.
Interpretive Theory and the Popular Culture Association
In the United States, roughly concurrent to the culturalism movement in
Britain, a new academic interest in popular culture was also taking shape.
Individual academics such as Russel Nye, Marshall Fishwick, and, most
especially, Ray Browne, were coming together to discuss the perceived need to
open up popular culture to academic discourse. With a small contingent of like-
minded professors and administrators behind them, this group began making
inquiries into the university system for support of popular culture studies. It was
Browne, however, who really broke things open. In settling on a new position at
Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Browne made one condition for his
acceptance of the job: a small stipend with which to fund the establishment of the
Journal of Popular Culture. In 1967, the journal released its first issue and has
been published quarterly to this day.
Having a small but established vehicle for the promotion of popular
culture studies helped but was not enough. At the 1969 annual conference for the
American Studies Association, Browne and others announced their intention to
form a Popular Culture Association (PCA) that would be an organization of
35


educators and students dedicated to exploring and analyzing popular culture in all
of its forms. In 1971, the first meeting of the PCA was held at Bowling Green,
with Nye as the group's first President. With a journal and an organization to
turn to, the third step in Browne's attempt to legitimize popular culture studies
was to establish a curriculum for students interested in the field. Browne was
originally a member of the English department at Bowling Green, but after his
continued efforts to pursue popular culture studies, various members of the
school faculty tried to have him kicked out of the department. Instead of being
ousted from the school, the administration granted Browne the chance to develop
a Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green, the first (and still only) of its
kind in the world. In 1973 they established a graduate degree program and by
1974 had developed an undergraduate degree program as well. To the surprise of
many, the program was an unparalleled success. As Browne notes, "At one time
with a faculty of seven we were teaching one-half of the BGSU student body of
15,000 over a four year period" (1995, p. 18).
The activities of the Popular Culture Association, the Journal of Popular
Culture, and the establishment of an American popular culture studies program
have not been wholly contained to Bowling Green, however. Speaking of the
success of popular culture studies as an accepted discipline, Browne says, "We
estimate that at least a million students in the Unites States take a course in
popular culture under one name or another every year" (1995, p. 18). In addition,
36


there are currently ten regional chapters of the Popular Culture Association, four
of which publish their own journals. Y et the work at Bowling Green and
Browne's influence has remained key in the American version of popular culture
studies. Under Browne's direction, the Popular Press was established, catering
specifically to academic books and journals that concern themselves with popular
culture analysis, as well as the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the
Popular Culture Library. A more complete account of the history of this
movement can be found in Browne's (1989) Against Academia, but hopefully I
have been able to illustrate the scope and scale of the movement's success in the
short time span of some thirty odd years.
Yet, unlike the work of the Critical Theorists and those associated with
the Birmingham school in Britain, the American popular culture movement has
suffered from its own ambiguity. Chief in that ambiguity has been the lack of a
definition of popular culture, as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. As a
result of the various applications to which popular culture has been put and the
ways it has been conceived, there has also been a lack of established
methodology as to how popular culture should be studied. While the visions of
popular culture in the PCA's European counterparts have been concerned
primarily with the political implications of popular culture, the American version
of popular culture studies has primarily concerned itself with interpretive
37


analyses of texts, content analysis, and popular culture texts' relationship to their
audiences.
As Douglas Kellner (1995) has said of the efforts of the Popular Culture
Association, their work "...often engages in uncritical affirmation of all that is
'popular"' (p. 34). He also notes that the work of PCA analysts tends to reflect a
situation of "...individuals and groups that often eschew critical, theoretically
informed, and political approaches to culture..." (p. 34). However, there are
some benefits and some disadvantages to this approach. First and foremost, the
historical notions of classicism that Bratlinger has shown to cross the span of
thinking about popular culture for the course of Western history has been
completely tossed aside as meaningless. In the PCA version of popular culture,
there is neither a "positive classicism" that sees in culture the maintenance of all
that was high and good in Greco-Roman antiquity, nor a "negative classicism"
that sees popular culture as eroding the culture of the past and paving the way for
civilization's decline. There is, on the other hand, a sense of the celebratory that
validates popular culture simply by virtue of its popularity, or closeness to the
people. In throwing off the oppressive yokes of elitism that have marked notions
of popular culture for centimes, the work of the Popular Culture Association may
have erred in swinging too much the other direction by upholding popular culture
at any cost.
38


Yet there is the possibility of some theoretical grounding of popular
culture, no matter how buried it is within the PCA's work. Although generally at
odds with Critical Theory and other political approaches, the establishment of
interpretive theory and hermeneutics has much to offer to the PCA's position on
popular culture. In speaking of hermeneutics, it should be first distinguished as
the methodological perspective of Gadamer, and not the strictly theological
meaning that is the origin of the term. In speaking of aesthetic classicism,
Gadamer (1996) writes, "There are no purely formal criteria that can claim to
judge and sanction the formative level simply on the basis of its artistic
virtuosity. Rather, our sensitive-spiritual existence is an aesthetic resonance
chamber that resonates with the voices that are constantly reaching us, preceding
all explicit aesthetic judgment" (p. 114-115). Gadamer arrives at this conclusion
based on the principles of hermeneutics. As Gary B. Madison (1988) explains:
Hermeneutical truth is inseparable from the interpretive process,
and meaning, as hermeneutics understands it, is nothing other than
what results from such a process, namely, the existential-practical
transformation [sic] that occurs in the interpreting subject (in his or
- : her world orientation) as a result of his or her active encounter with
texts, other people, or "the world." (p. 13)
Madison continues, "'Knowledge,' for hermeneutics, is nothing other than the
shared understanding that a community of inquirers comes to as a result of a free
exchange of opinions" (1988, p. 13). Such philosophy of epistemology may
seem far removed from the more concrete realm of cultural studies, but the
39


essential aspects of hermeneutical methodology help provide a theoretical
foundation for the type of interpretive analysis that the PCA generally engages
in.
The interpretive approach "...is concerned with how ordinary people
manage their practical affairs in everyday life, or how they get things done"
(Neuman, 1991, p. 50). This sociologically motivated definition of interpretive
analysis implies how PCA research can be seen as useful. By granting popular
culture the respect of study and interpretive analysis, PCA-styled research can
access the "affairs in everyday life" by refusing to reduce popular culture to the
over-generalized threat to civilization that Amoldism perceives it as, and endow
popular culture with a purpose beyond that of the simplified commodity in the
relationship of production and consumers. Adding the perspective of the
receiving audience and how those audiences interpret culture opens up a whole
new level of depth within the texts and practices of culture. In its efforts to
explore and explain the meanings held within the texts themselves, coupled with
attempts to understand how texts are received and made meaningful by their
audiences, the interpretive work of the PCA and its ilk restores the importance of
audiences and "ordinary people" in a manner similar to that of Hoggart and
Williams. An excellent example of how interpretive analysis with a more
explicitly hermeneutical approach can be used is found in Tony Wilson's
Watching Television: Hermeneutics, Reception and Popular Culture (1993).
40


Still, the lack of a political perspective, Marxism or not, in much of the
PCA's main body of work is problematic, and is not completely consistent with
hermeneutics. As Madison (1988) maintains, "The function of hermeneutical
criticism is to expose and denounce forms of socio-political organization that
oppress and stifle the communicative process fostering thereby the
development of dialogical communities" (p. 13). While Browne's work and that
of the PCA might be framed in the political light of challenging academic
prejudice that stifles communication about the function of popular culture, it does
little to question the costs and benefits of popular culture to the social whole.
However, if the work of the PCA is wholly unacceptable to Marxists and Critical
Theorists, that does not mean that there is not a remaining political slant to the
work. For Richard Gid Powers (1995):
1 Popular studies hold that a hierarchical notion of culture is sterile,
constraining, and lifeless; that high culture produces, for the most
: : part, works of the secondary imagination: the combination and
recombination of past works as described in postmodernist
explications of literary texts. Popular culture studies are moved by
an excitement over the unrealized and inexhaustible potential of
! r the human race released for the first time in history by the
immanent universal participation of all peoples in the human
enterprise, (p. 31)
Powers's hyperbole is obviously rather utopian, especially in the assertion of a
"universal participation of all peoples," and belies some of the facts of capitalism
dredged up by Marxists, critical theorists, and Foucauldians, but it is nonetheless
political. Browne himself is slightly more realistic. He states "In human society
41


the name of the game is power [sic], and forcing its release through access to
knowledge and understanding is ultimately the goal of Popular Culture Studies.
But that goal can hardly be achieved as long as intellectuals have their feet
caught in the underwater netting of doctrinaire ideologies" (Browne, "Coping
with Success," 1995, p. 35-36). In that brief statement, Browne lays out a much
more hermeneutical goal for his vision of American popular culture studies than
he has previously ever done. However, if the work of the PCA is meant to
proceed apace in order to accomplish the "dialogical communities" of
hermeneutics, perhaps an increased focus on the political dimensions of popular
culture is in order.
Postmodernism and Popular Culture
Towards the end of the twentieth century, one final paradigm emerged
that would significantly impact the development of popular culture studies:
postmodernism. Perhaps more than the complexity of critical theory and
culturalism or the ambiguity of PCA-influenced popular culture studies,
postmodernism presents the biggest challenge to this simplified history. This is
due to postmodernism's extreme contentiousness. Its very existence is still the
topic of debate by detractors nearly thirty years after its basic foundations were
laid down in post-structuralism. Advocates of the paradigm have presented an
array of indicators and explanations of postmodernism, many of which conflict
42


with one another. For the purposes of this paper, I will concentrate on some of
the basic assertions of postmodernism as they specifically relate to popular
culture.
Three names are most important for the overall development of a theory
of postmodernism: Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Frederic
Jameson. As three of postmodernism's foremost analysts, their arguments
combine to offer a picture of how culture, and specifically popular culture, has
been granted a central position at the heart of the paradigm. Indeed, cultural
reflections of postmodernism are among the first traces of its history. The
development of postmodernism is traditionally traced back to the social and
cultural upheavals of the 1960s and the "new sensibility" that Susan Sontag was
among the first to highlight (and who, it should be noted, influenced the
development of Browne's PC A and is used to legitimate popular culture studies
in one of Browne's early publications, Popular Culture and the Expanding
Consciousness [1973]). Sontag states, "One important consequence of the new
sensibility (with its abandonment of the Matthew Arnold idea of culture) has
already been alluded tonamely, that the distinction between "high" and "low"
culture seems less and less meaningful" (1973, p. 34). However, as Jameson
(1984) points out (and Sontag acknowledges), forerunners of postmodernism can
be found in modernism's own avant garde. Yet it is the groundbreaking work of
Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Jameson that has most formally solidified the
43


postmodern argument, building on the "new sensibility" of the late twentieth
century and exploring its perspectives.
For Lyotard, postmodernism is most significant as an epistemological
break with modernism and the Great Tradition. Postmodernism entails, says
Lyotard, "an incredulity towards metanarratives" (1984, p. 27). Metanarratives
are the notions which are the foundations for what people believe to be universal
truths. In fact, truth itself is considered to be a philosophical metanarrative. Of
importance to popular culture studies is the fact that aesthetic value is seen as one
of these traditional metanarratives. Lyotard argues that the increasing
"incredulity" of metanarratives has led to a condition in which universal
ideologies are being abandoned as prejudicial and subjective. For aesthetics, this
means that traditional distinctions of high and low art are becoming blurred,
following Sontag, and are increasingly indistinguishable. One example of this
can be found in the style of Pop Art, where commercial forms of popular culture
are turned into serious art and serious art is turned into commercial culture.
Popular culture, in the postmodern perspective, is accorded the serious aesthetic
consideration traditionally reserved for high culture, while high culture is
increasingly popularized at a loss of social status.
Baudrillard's work is primarily concerned with economics and semiology
and the relationships of signs to social life. However, his concept of hyperreality
has a direct connection to popular culture. Baurdillard (2000) sees in the
44


increasing move towards a society based on the production (or reproduction) of
information a tendency toward simulation. Simulation is based on the production
of simulacra, copies of copies that have no original. Mass produced cultural
products, what could rightly be called the majority of popular culture, especially
are simulacra. A film or a book doesn't have an original in a traditional artistic
sense. The distribution of these is based on copies of copies. In semiotic terms,
these are signs which have no referent other than signs themselves. Simulacra
lead to a social world of hyperreality where the simulacra present an objectified
existence that has no direct connection to real existence. As Baurdillard writes:
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the
mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a
referential being, or a substance; It is the generation by models of
a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer
preceeds the map, nor does it survive it. (2000, p. 1)
From the postmodern perspective of Baudrillard, popular culture is generally the
realm of the hyperreal, an illusory fantasy world that has become
indistinguishable from the real world. Baudrillard states, "It is no longer a
question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact
that the real is no longer real, and thus saving the reality principle" (2000, p. 13).
For Jameson (1984), postmodernism is a historically specific moment that
is "the cultural logic of late capitalism," as his collection of essays on
postmodernism is subtitled. The distinguishing feature of postmodernism for
Jameson is that the cultural developments of modernism have become
45


incorporated into the accepted canon of elite culture, robbing them of their once
oppositional and challenging intent. As Jameson sees it, popular culture has
become the realm of interest in postmodernism. He writes:
The postmodemisms [sic] have, in fact, been fascinated precisely
with this whole "degraded" landscape of shlock and kitsch, of TV
series and Reader's Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of
the late show and the B-grade Hollywood film, of so-called
paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic
and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and
the science fiction or fantasy novel: materials they no longer
simply "quote," as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done, but
incorporate into their very substance. (1984, p. 2-3)
Here Jameson is updating Sontag's early postmodern indicators by stating that
not only has the division between high and low culture been blurred, but that the
postmodern perspective has abandoned high culture for popular culture as its
realm of identity. The most important stylistic development of postmodernism
for Jameson is the idea of pastiche. Pastiche is a form of blending of the past
which, in terms of culture, means the appropriation of styles and forms from
cultural history without the satirical intent of parody. One feature of this method
of pastiche is the inability to create anything new or original. As Jameson (1984)
says, "The producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the
imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the
imaginary museum of a now global culture" (p. 17-18). Hence the concept that
postmodern culture is the end of the line culturally speaking; all ideas have been
realized, and we are doomed to simply recombine and refer to past culture that
46


has already existed. Because cultural products and forms, or texts, are stuck in
this mode of pastiche, a new social order of intertextuality emerges where
popular culture texts wind up referring to other popular culture texts, and that the
only discourse left for popular culture to engage in is with itself. In Baudrillard's
terms, this is a situation of signs whose only referent is to other signs, which
Jameson acknowledges by referring to pastiche as a form of simulacrum, and we
are left with one continuum of interrelated hyperreality.
It should be clear right away that although postmodernism is fixated on
popular culture as much as the PCA movement, the theorists here see
postmodernism as a point of decline. For Lyotard, the loss of metanarratives
results in a pure relativism where nothing can be known and all meaning is lost.
Baudrillard is equally concerned with how hyperreality causes us to lose touch
with the real world, leaving us with what he terms "the desert of the real" (2000,
p. 1). As a disillusioned Marxist, Baudrillard is also concerned about the
economic and political aspects of our relationship to signs and how the situation
of hyperreality obliterates any chance, even any concept, of liberation. Jameson,
too, is a Marxist and his perspective on postmodernism is colored deeply by its
ties to capitalism. And as Storey (1998) points out, although Jameson speaks of
a certain openness towards popular culture in postmodernism, Jameson himself
"drifts inexorably to the standard Frankfurt School critique of popular culture" (p.
188). Storey notes that Jameson sees the collapse of the distinction between high
47


and popular culture coming only at the price of a "critical space" that marks our
individual separation from culture itself (1998, p. 188). Thus, in the key works
of postmodern theory, there is an explicit return to Bratlinger's "negative
classicism." Postmodernism in culture, especially popular culture, is seen as one
more step (and possibly the last step) towards the collapse of civilization.
Not all postmodernists, however, are entrenched in this pessimism. Some
feel that the emergence of intertextuality in postmodern cultural products signals
not a cannibalization of the past but an affirmation of the role of popular culture
in history. Rather than being empty of meaning, pastiche is a challenge to our
individual cultural capital, using irony and a self-referential popular culture to
acknowledge popular culture's role in social identity. For example, in Jason
Rutter's (1998) exploration of the postmodernist inclinations of the film Wayne's
World, he finds that intertextuality "...aims towards audience plurality and
misreading, reasserting the importance of the audience. It places the individual
as an active force in the authoring of the comedy text and it destroys the
modernist idea of the audience as passive receiver of the performer's message"
(p. 123). Others see the disintegration of traditional metanarratives as freeing
individuals from social constraints that operated to maintain power structures and
granting those individuals a greater degree of choice. Furthermore,
postmodernism's emphasis on plurality has greatly aided those who push for an
increasing multiculturalism as a means of political and social representation.
48


Whether the conclusions drawn from postmodernism are positive or
negative, there is a strong connection between postmodernism and popular
culture. One could reasonably argue that the beginnings of the postmodern turn
are also the beginnings of the popular culture turn. As the emergence of the
"new sensibility" occurred, eradicating the boundaries that separated high and
popular culture, a new interest in popular culture studies was finding a foothold.
At the same time, some of the basic precepts of postmodernism were being laid
down. Whether one developed from the other or if they simply concurrently
emerged together is impossible to say. However, the impact of the notions of
hyperreality and pastiche on popular culture studies has led to many
postmodernist readings of popular culture and an expansion of the scope of
popular culture studies;
. . Popular Culture Studies The Contemporary Situation
By presenting this abbreviated history of popular culture studies and the
Western tradition's relationship to popular culture over time, I hope to have
demonstrated some of the complex historical, ideological, and paradigmatic
problems involved with developing a definition of popular culture that could ever
be seen as inclusive enough, much less universal. Popular culture has moved in
and out of periods of both praise and disrepute. As popular culture developed as
49


a concept, it was linked intimately with political and intellectual tides of change.
In this sense, the confusion over popular culture is readily understandable.
The aim of writing this history and attempting to glean an insight into the
various ways in which popular culture has entered into broader paradigmatic
conflicts is not to say that one paradigm or another is "right" and the others are
"wrong." Such an approach would ultimately be a fruitless endeavor, as it would
lead to the same situation that has prevented the settlement on a concrete notion
of popular culture. This is the heart of the "problem" of popular culture. Instead,
we need to be aware of the positions and points of view that are the ideologies of
the major paradigms in popular culture study so that we may see how the
position and function of popular culture is dependent on the context in which it is
perceived.
In the contemporary academic scene, popular culture studies remain a
highly diverse area. The ideologies of the past century remain strong and
influential today, becoming entrenched as dogma, even as new conceptions and
theories and pedagogies are introduced. The four major paradigms of popular
culture study mentioned in this chapter are still being developed and remain the
dominant forces within the field. Of course there are many individuals working
outside of established paradigms, such as Lawrence Grossberg (1997),
developing their own unique and selective theories, but even these individuals
can be loosely grouped with one of the four camps in most cases. Popular
50


culture studies today remain locked in an ongoing debate between Critical
Theorists, British culturalists, the American popular culture studies of the PCA,
and postmodernism. There is often quite a lot of overlap between one or more of
these groups, and a proliferation of theories that attempt to merge two or more
perspectives have come to the fore, as in the critical media pedagogy of Douglas
Kellner (1995). The connections between critical theory and postmodernism are
one of shared philosophical and. sociological tradition, with Gramscianism
connecting to Marxism and audience-centered interpretive theory as well, so such
co-mingling is unsurprising.
At the center of this contemporary scene of popular culture studies, there
remains an issue over whether or not the long-sought-after definition of popular
culture is even necessary. Having gone for so long without one has certainly not
prevented the field from expanding. Perhaps it is the very uncertainty of the
term, its ambiguity aiding its flexibility, that has allowed popular culture to
flourish in its interdisciplinary fashion. Returning to the quote from Motz
(1992), the dedicated member of the PCA group whose words open this chapter,
we see that she wonders whether or not the idea of popular culture as one thing, a
singular entity, will remain tenable and useful in the popular culture studies of
the future. < Do we really need to worry about defining it?
I am convinced that the answer remains, "Yes." A quick sampling of
academic analyses shows that popular culture has been used as a springboard for
51


various issues within the humanities and social sciences. But of what use is such
a reference to an undefined idea such as popular culture? From a purely
pragmatic point of view, is an assumption of a common sense understanding
capable of leading to effective research and analysis in any discipline? Category
specific analysis, such as representation of the family in television shows (Heller,
1995), might offer a glimpse of an important sociological aspect of
representation in one context, but what sense does it make to inflate that context
into popular culture as a whole? The viability of macrophenomena are
constantly in question. A postmodernist argument against popular culture might
suggest that popular culture itself is a metanarrative which is senselessly
objectified and needs deconstructing. But while case specific, specialized
analyses may be the most readily accessible approach to understanding the pieces
of popular culture, without a sense of the larger context such microanalyses lose
their ability to qualify and quantify their significance. Understanding yellow
only offers a fraction of insight into the full spectrum of color.
The reduction of traditional "negative classicism" cannot be overcome by
focusing on narrow aspects of popular culture as exceptions. Nor can uncritical
celebration of popular culture explain the diverse, frequently contradictory and
sometimes negative manner in which popular culture plays a role in society.
While Critical Theorists, culturalists, interpretivists, and postmodernists all have
distinct views to offer, none can be said to have the total picture. Rather, it is
52


only in the incorporation of these perspectives that a more complete picture of
popular culture may be gained. To this end it is still necessary to attempt to
define popular culture. In the process of such a project, which may be more than
simply offering up semantic definitions for a dictionary of social science and
which may be a continual, ongoing process, a method of drawing all the pieces
into a completed puzzle might hope to regain a macroscopic view of one of the
most influential, yet highly contested, aspects of the social whole.
However, there still remains a task to be performed. This paper alone
cannot hope to surmount centuries of history and successfully argue a library of
differing thought. But the claims made by Marilyn Motz and Ray Browne at the
beginning of this chapter about the need for a working definition are all too
relevant today. Popular culture studies may have risen up as an emerging field
that continues to grow and attract more and more attention, but it is far from
standardized. As long as popular culture remains undefined, it is susceptible to
the misapplication of the term by whatever paradigm or individual makes use of
it, being shaped by distinct political agendas. While this paper may not offer the
magical solution to the puzzle-solving method mentioned above, hopefully in the
following chapters it will suggest some beginnings for the search for this
incorporating process.
53


CHAPTER 2
THE SEMANTICS OF POPULAR CULTURE AND
DEFINING POPULAR CULTURE BY EXCLUSION
As Chapter 1 illustrates, defining popular culture in the academy has been
complicated by its political position in various competing paradigms. But these
academic disputes are only one aspect of the difficulty posed by attempting such
a definition. In fact, one of the greatest barriers to a workable definition is
popular culture itself. More specifically, the vast multitudes of texts, practices
and artifacts that get lumped under the umbrella of popular culture make finding
universal commonalities a truly daunting task. Without such shared
characteristics, determining the nature of popular culture seems virtually
impossible.
If the use of a lengthy quote may be excused, this situation can be made
obvious. In The Popular Culture Explosion, PCA writer David Madden (1972)
makes the following observation:
Popular Culture is a garish galaxy of bubble gum, rock music
festivals, hoola-hoops, trading stamps, bingo, superman heroes,
marathon dances, drive-in movies and restaurants, saloons, success
worship, miracle cure medicines (Hadacol), warlore, baby-lore,
skateboards, flag-pole sitters, crooners, coupons, gangster heroes
(Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde), baseball, the romance of old
trains and streetcars, TV dinners, easy-lessons (piano, guitar, paint-
by-numbers), motorcycles, football, diet plans, golf, fishing, toys,
cross-word puzzles, tourist traps, civil war mementoes
54


(Confederate flag), beauty salons, birth control pills, astrology,
etiquette, contests, wild dances (jitterbug and the ffug), bridge,
religious revivals (Billy Sunday, Billy Graham), get-rich-quick
plans, superstitions, hot rods, poker, hobbies, U-drive-its,
communes, education mores, how-to-do-it books, dating patterns,
movie star worship, physical culturists, panty raids, cliches,
newspapers, fashions, slang, do-it-yourself kits, campus riots, sub-
cultures, utopias, slums, suburban supermarkets, slogans ("Give
me liberty or give me death" and "I'd walk a mile for a Camel"): it
is a world of strange but mysteriously meaningful juxtapositions,
(p. 5-6)
These "strange but mysteriously meaningful juxtapositions" overlap in the often-
convoluted interplay of popular culture. Madden's list was published in 1972. It
is not hard to imagine that it would be quite a bit longer today. But the quote is
also a significant example of a certain way of viewing popular culture. The
approach taken in The Popular Culture Explosion, co-edited by Madden and Ray
Browne, is an excellent illustration of the approach taken by the PCA faction of
popular culture studies. Madden claims rightly that the majority of these studies
"suffer by a certain remoteness" due to their claims of objectivity and the cross-
referencing of secondary texts "about [sic] popular culture" (6). In its place, The
Popular Culture Explosion collects a broad range of primary texts, including
newspaper and magazine articles, ads, poems and songs. The idea is that only in
dealing with primary texts in a hands-on manner can a real understanding of the
popular culture spectrum be gained.
I am inclined to agree. At its most relevant and useful, popular culture
studies deal directly with primary texts in an attempt at both explanation and
55


explication. However, this unwillingness to abstract from the jumbled world of
primary texts a singular concept of popular culture itself, objectified and
removed as it may be, is the root of the PCA approach's failure to gain the
definition it claims to be vital. Many of the academic texts that attempt to give
exposure to popular culture, such as Ian Chambers's Popular Culture: The
Metropolitan Experience (1986), wind up amounting to little more than a
collection of essays and analyses of individual texts, such as a certain book or
television show. While these examples are offered as indicators of the way
society creates and interacts with popular culture, the notion of popular culture
itself is given a brief treatment in a cursory introduction or conclusion. All that
remains is the idea that popular culture is the sum of its diverse, and sometimes
elusive, parts. Such reduction robs popular culture of it own identity. We
certainly cannot speak for all books with the example of one book, or all
television shows with the example of one show, but we attempt to explain
popular culture through a brief peek into its components.
What we need is a definition of popular culture that is simultaneously
aware of the incredible diversity of ideas, texts and practices that makes up the
whole, and that also understands popular culture as a singular abstraction that has
its own nature. We need to recognize that there is still more left to deal with
after its parts have been added together. In its abstract form, popular culture may
prove to serve a distinct social function, of which its component pieces are
56


merely ends to that goal. Placing the historical background of the major cultural
studies paradigms at the beginning of this paper served another function.
Because these paradigms are ideational and broad, they can offer a fair amount of
insight into this abstract realm. Therefore as we search for this ideal definition of
popular culture, one that is semantic and operational, the perspectives of Critical
Theory, culturalism, intepretivism, and postmodernism will be important guides
towards positioning popular culture as an integral part of the social whole with its
own characteristics.
There are essentially two ways to explain initially the characteristics of
popular culture. The first is to place popular culture in a dialectical position to
other concepts of culture. Doing so, this paper will explore the differences
between popular culture and high culture, popular culture and mass culture, and
popular culture and common culture. The second method is to assert popular
culture positively as an aspect of various social formations. Utilizing this notion,
I will also approach popular culture in or as media, communications, and as a
conceptual social space. From this basis, I will develop a theory about how
popular culture is formed in society and explore possibilities for its social
function. As we move from the concrete to the abstract, the relationship of
popular culture to abstract time, space and meaning will also arise. However,
before any of these analyses can begin, we must first look into the process of
57


definition in its most (seemingly) basic forman analysis of the semantics of
popular culture.
The Semantics of Popular Culture
While dictionary definitions are simply convenient tools to generalize an
understanding of language, identifying the characteristics and mechanisms of
concepts must begin with such an explanation of the words used to frame these
concepts. A large part of the problem with popular culture studies is the
assumption of a common sense understanding of popular culture as it might
appear in a dictionary. The leap to primary text-specific analysis is made without
a greater explication of the nature of the term. Yet it is the simple semantics of
the term "popular culture" that suggest that more in-depth analysis is required.
"Popular culture" is obviously a language construct that results from the
combination of two separate and distinct words, "popular" and "culture."
However, less obvious is the complexity and confusion that the variety of
meanings of each of the two words forces on the construct. The adjective
"popular" modifies the noun "culture." This has distinct implications for the
meaning of "popular culture." Foremost, there is an implied "otherness" to
popular culture in that the term isolates an assumed category of the broader idea
of culture. As the first chapter indicates, the notion of culture has a complex
history of its own. In contemporary social sciences, it is still an area that draws
58


contentious argument. Yet the word "popular" is also a loaded term with a
combination of meanings that have their own specific valences. Therefore in
order to understand the semantics of "popular culture" as a language construct, it
is first necessary to identify the various meanings of both "popular" and "culture"
individually.
"Culture"
Defining "culture" alone is an enormous task and has been one of the
primary concerns of social science in the twentieth century. There are, however,
certain generalizations about culture that are useful for this analysis. In terms of
defining popular culture it is most relevant to approach these generalizations
through the perspectives of those who are concerned with popular culture
directly. -It is also crucial to remain aware of the fact that notions of culture have
different implications in the four major paradigms discussed in chapter one.
However, in terms of simple semantics it is pertinent to be aware of how
culture is defined at is most general. This requires no more than picking up a
standard dictionary. Webster's New World Dictionary (1984) provides the
following entry for "culture":
Culture (kul'cher) n. [[ME < L cultura < colere\ see CULT]] 1)
cultivation of the soil 2) production, development, or improvement
of a particular plant* animal, commodity, etc. 3a) the growth of
bacteria, microorganisms, or other plant and animal cells in a
specifically prepared nourishing fluid or solid b) a colony of
59


microorganisms or cells thus grown 4a) development,
improvement, or refinement of the intellect, emotions, interests,
manners, and taste b) the result of this; refined ways of thinking,
talking, and acting 5) development or improvement of physical
qualities by special training or care (body culture, voice culture)
6a) the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a people or group, that
are transferred, communicated, or passed along, as in or to
succeeding generations b) such ideas, customs, etc. of a particular
people or group in a particular period; civilization c) the particular
people or group having such ideas, customs, etc. (p. 337)
For the purposes of this paper it would seem prudent to disregard the definitions
given in 1, 2, 3, and 5. However, the etymology of "culture" would not be
complete without them. It is important to keep in mind that "culture'"s usage is
derived from its Latin roots to be synonymous with "cultivate." From its origins,
"culture" is something that requires development and maintenance. This is one
of the first indicators that culture is, by definition, not a static entity, but a
dynamic entity of process and change. This has contributed both to culture's
diversity and the confusion in social science as to how to best conceptualize and
utilize the term.
Although "culture" has been used in its original agricultural sense for
centuries, it is generally E.B. Tylor who is credited with giving the word its
sociological valence in 1865. Raymond Williams (1985) gives a more detailed
account of the etymological history of the word, but E.B. Tylor is generally
acknowledged as the person most responsible for introducing the modem use of
the word into the social sciences (although Matthew Arnold's use actually
60


predates Tylor). In 1871, Tylor published Primitive Culture: Researches in the
Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, and gave the
first concrete social definition of "culture." He wrote, "Culture... taken in its
wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge,
belief, art, morals, laws, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired
by man as a member of society" (as cited in Gould & Kolb, 1964, p. 166). This
use of "culture" would inform the multiple uses of the word in later social
science.
Indeed, there is a wide array of manners in which "culture" has been
adopted as a descriptive noun in the social sciences. Turning from a general
reference dictionary to more specialized dictionaries gives a sense of this variety.
A Dictionary of the Social Sciences lists the following meanings for "culture":
Culture 1. The totality of learned behavior transmitted from one
generation to the next. 2. Behaviors having the highest probability
of occurrence in a society. (Wallace). 3. Type of tradition in which
symbols are transmitted from one generation to the next by social
learning. (Lorenz, K.). 4. All that is socially transmitted in a
society. (Lewis, J.). 5. A way of life. (Harris, M.). 6. The non-
cumulative part of culture. See also civilization. 7. The non-
utilitarian part of culture. See also civilization. 8. An assemblage
which recurs repeatedly, (archaeol.). see also industry. (Reading,
1977, p. 55)
It is interesting to note that in definitions 6 and 7 above, culture seems to
defining itself, a situation resulting from the acceptance of the broader definition
with a more specific definition added as a modification. These meanings are
61


certainly broad, even in those two exceptions, but the differences between them,
the small subtleties and nuances of inflection, reveal that "culture" can be
liberally applied to describe a range of different social phenomena. In Gould &
Kolb's (1964) dictionary of the same name, this spectrum of specialized uses is
explored even further. At its most general, the dictionary offers the synthetic
definition found in Kroeber and Kluckhon's Culture: A Critical Review of
Concepts and Definitions (1963):
Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for
behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the
distinctive achievements of human groups, including their
embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of
traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and
especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one
hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand as
conditioning elements of further action, (p. 165)
However, the dictionary goes on to discuss varying definitions as presented by
members of different disciplines within the social sciences. It states that, if
organized into categories, these uses "fall into six major groups which [are]
labeled as follows: (1) enumeratively descriptive, (2) historical, (3) normative,
(4) psychological, (5) structural, (6) genetic" (Kroeber and Kluckhon, 1963, p.
166).
What determines the category that any given use or definition of the word
"culture" falls into is the emphasis that is given to certain aspects of culture.
Unfortunately, these groups tend to view their definitions of "culture" as correct
62


to the exclusion of the others. Even though feasible arguments can be made for
each, culture is more likely all of these categories combined. To make matters
worse, the dictionary points out that, "There are no generally consistent
tendencies characteristic of the various academic disciplines.... Indeed, leaving
occasional eccentric definitions aside, it may be said that all social scientists
using the term culture [sic] in its anthropological sense differ only in what points
they choose to emphasize and how much they feel it necessary to make explicit"
(Kroeber and Kluckhon, 1963, p. 167).
Among the various readings of how "culture" should be understood is the
distinction made-in the classical German usage of the word, where "culture" is
viewed as the ideas (religion, art, customs) of a given society, while the
technological achievements and modes of communication are separately labeled
under "civilization." Such distinctions are an underlying reason for the different
roles that culture plays in the paradigms discussed in the first chapter,
particularly in Marxism and its progeny, Critical Theory. Yet in the majority of
uses that appear in cultural studies, these two aspects are generally rolled
together into one concept of culture. As The Social Sciences Encyclopedia
(1996) states, "Learned activities are only one part of the society's culture. Also
included in the social heritage are artefacts [sic] (tools, shelters, utensils,
weapons, etc.), plus an ideational complex of constructs and propositions
63


expressed in systems of symbols, of which language is the most important"
(D'Andrade, p. 161).
As previously stated, for the purposes of defining popular culture, it is
most useful to understand how "culture" is used by those directly concerned with
popular culture itself. Unfortunately, many analysts of popular culture are mired
in the dissension between basic understandings of culture and often leave it as
unexplained. However, in the work of Raymond Williams we find one attempt at
defining terms that maintains a sense of culture's broad implications and yet also
maintains a sense of specificity. Of all the major authors in the cultural studies
canon, Williams is perhaps the most interested in establishing concrete
definitions for terms like "culture" and "popular culture," and the most aware of
the central importance of such activity.
In his own dictionary, Keywords (1976), Williams goes to considerable
lengths to trace the history of the word "culture," noting how both from within
English and from the influence of other languages the word developed in
complexity. However, Williams manages to distill three essential variations on
the sociological use of "culture": (1) "the independent and abstract norm which
describes a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development,"
(2) "the independent noun, whether used generally or specifically, which
indicates a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group," and
(3) "the independent and abstract norm which describes the works and practices
64


of intellectual and especially artistic activity" (p. 80). These are the same
meanings that Williams specifies in his earlier book, The Long Revolution
(1961).
The first meaning can be readily seen as the use of "culture" that informs
the work of Matthew Arnold and his tradition. The second is associated with the
broad, macroscopic theories of Marxism, functionalism, and the specific uses of
"culture" germane to anthropology. The third meaning is the most commonly
accepted variation in contemporary usage. However, it is with some sense of
overlap that most of the works of cultural studies approach the concept of
"culture," especially a combination of meanings (2) and (3). Williams highlights
the importance of recognizing this overlap. He writes, "The complex of senses
[of the term] indicates a complex argument about the relations between general
human development and a particular way of life, and between both and the works
and practices of art and intelligence" (Williams, 1976, p. 80-81).
For example, in the culture industry model of popular culture posited by
Horkheimer and Adomo, the commodified forms of the third meaning of culture
inform the second meaning of culture, and inhibit the first meaning. More
specifically, mass produced cultural works and practices determine the way of
life of the masses, and because these works and practices are forms of ideological
domination through consumerism, they prevent the masses from achieving the
"higher" forms of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development that are the
65


only worthy goals of humanity. This equation also explains the difficult concept
of "authentic culture" that Critical Theory posits as mass culture's other. Such
"higher" development is the "true" culture to which humanity should aspire, and
only a way of life and cultural works and practices that aid in the development of
these ideals is seen as genuine and worthwhile culture.
Williams states, in The Long Revolution'.
There is a significant reference in each of the three main kinds of
definition, and, if this is so, it is the relations between them that
should claim oiir attention. It seems to me that any adequate
theory of culture must include the three areas of fact to which the
definitions point, and conversely, that any particular definition,
within any of the categories, which would exclude reference to the
others, is inadequate. (1961, p. 43)
This has obvious ramifications for a definition of popular culture. Any such
definition is now required to at least address all three of these areas since we are
speaking of culture in some form. The fact that we specify one area of culture by
amending it with the adjective "popular" does not mean that we can (or.should)
ignore this requirement. As Williams continues, "However difficult it may be in
practice, we have to try to see the process as a whole, and to relate our particular,
studies, if not explicitly at least by ultimate reference, to the actual and complex
organization" (1961, p. 44). Any attempt to define popular culture must then.be
able to relate to the cultural whole and describe its position relative to the three
meanings of the term "culture." This also points us in the direction of the next .
necessary step: understanding the semantics of "popular."
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"Popular"
The notion of "popular" may not share "culture'"s sociological
complexity, nor its history of contradictory definition and use within the social
sciences, but it is a problematic word in its own right. Although "popular" is
wielded to describe a specific area of culture quite frequently, the term contains
its own semantic variations which lend specific political and dogmatic valences
to any use of the adjective. Therefore, it is necessary to examine "popular" as an
isolated word before we can move on to its combination with "culture."
Again, we can first turn to a standard reference dictionary for an
indication of the variable meanings of "popular." Using Webster's New World
Dictionary (1984) once more, we find "popular" defined as:
Popular (pap'yoo ler, -ye-) adj. [[Lpopularis < populus,
PEOPLE]] 1) of or carried on by the common people or all of the
people [popular government] 2) appealing to or intended for the
general public [popular music] 3) within the means of the
ordinary person [popular prices] 4) accepted among people in
general; common; prevalent [a popular notion] 5) liked by very
many or most people [a popular actor] 6) very well liked by one's
friends and acquaintances, (p. 1051)
As with "culture," in these six definitions we can see that "popular" is a complex
bundle of meanings with their own inflections. However, unlike the word
"culture," each of these definitions can reasonably be seen as important to the
culture studies notion of popular culture.
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Interestingly, the dictionaries of the social sciences surveyed for
definitions of "culture" have nothing to say about the word "popular," nor
anything to say about "popular culture" either. Apparently the standard
definition suffices, yet this may also be interpreted as further evidence of a pre-
existing stigma attached to popular culture and popular culture Studies. What
maybe a simple belief that there is no need for social sciences to elaborate
further on the meaning of the word might also be seen as a recourse to the old
"negative classicism" that sees the popular as unworthy, base, and dangerous-
contemptible to the point of being beneath notice.
Among individuals who use "popular" in the context of popular culture,
there seems to be a consensus that most of these definitions can be neatly rolled
into one, with Websters definitions 1,2, 4, and 5 being more or less viewed as
equal notions. However, Raymond Williams (1976) once again provides us with
a more concrete view of "popular"'s multiplicity of meaning in Keywords.
Williams traces the English evolution of the word, first from its original use as a
legal-political term, then to a synonym for "low" or "base," and finally to a sense
of "widely favoured" and "well-liked" (1976, p. 198-199). In keeping with the
relatively new use of the phrase "popular culture," Williams notes that the
meaning of "popular" as "well-liked" and "widely favoured" evolved in the late-
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (1976, p. 199). Most importantly, Williams
notes that at this time a major political shift in the implication of the word arose
68


in the nineteenth century. He writes, "Popular was being seen from the point of
view of the people rather than from those seeking power from them" (1976, p.
199).
In an updated edition of Keywords (1985), Williams does for "popular"
what he did for "culture"he identifies four major and distinct meanings as
critical to understanding the use of the word., The four contemporary meanings
that Williams suggests are: (1) "well-liked by many people," (2) "inferior kinds
of work," (3) "work deliberately setting out to win favour with the people," and
(4) "culture actually made by the people themselves" (1985, p. 237). An
important aspect of this group is that, while the primary meaning of "popular"
might be "well-liked," following the political shift of the term's inflection in the
nineteenth century, the older notion of "popular" as "inferior kinds of work" has
not died out. Instead, a competing political stance emerged, one which melded
the older meaning of "base, low" with the more modem meaning of "from the
people," so that the position of the people was conflated as vulgar, a neat
reinforcement for the .stratification of class that held sway over the dominant
ideology of legitimate culture.
"Popular Culture"
As John Storey (1998) states, "Clearly, then, any definition of popular
culture will bring into play a complex combination of the different meanings of
69


the term culture with the different meanings of the term popular" (p. 7). This is
an important step towards understanding how the two terms relate at the most
basic semantic levels. If we use Williams's definitions of the two terms to form a
table, it would look like the following:
Popular
Well-liked by many people
Inferior kinds of work
Work deliberately setting out to win
favor with the people
Culture actually made by the people for
themselves
Culture
A general process of intellectual,
spiritual and aesthetic development
A way of life of a people, period, or
group
The works and practices of
intellectual and artistic activity
Table 2.1: Comparison of Multiple Meanings of "Popular" and "Culture"
If we were to draw lines connecting each meaning of "popular" with each
meaning of "culture," we begin to appreciate the inherent semantic complexity of
the term "popular culture." Moreover, the differing intellectual and political
valences of each meaning becomes equally clear.
Storey (1998) notes that "Few people think about Williams's first
definition [of culture] when thinking about popular culture" (p. 2), but I think this
is a mistake for social sciences. If we use the first definition of culture as an
example of how these diverse meanings can be tied together, we will gain a
better picture of how popular culture can be viewed in the primarily abstract and
70


ideological senses. Tying the "process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic
development" to "well-liked by many people" gives us a definition where only
that which has the acceptance of the general public can be considered popular
culture, to the exclusion of more refined forms of knowledge isolated from the
general public. Linking this notion of culture to "inferior kinds of work" means
that the popular forms of this development are necessarily lacking sophistication,
thus legitimating the claims of authority made by specialized and highly educated
individuals. Said development linked to that which "deliberately sets out to win
favor with the people" equates popular culture with ideological domination by
those in power, where such development is limited to that which conforms to
hegemonic persuasion and compromise. Conversely, linking this development to
"culture actually made by the people for themselves" places the agency of
generating intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic ideas back within the people, the
foundation on which the interpretivists rely heavily for their democratic views of
popular culture.
The same can be done for the second and third definitions of "culture." If
we tie each definition of "popular" to the second definition of "culture," the
results are: a way of life well-liked by many people, an inferior way of life, a
way of life designed to win the favor of the populace, and a way of life created
by the people for themselves. Doing this with the third definition of "culture"
produces: works and practices well-liked by many people, works and practices of
71


an inferior quality, works and practices created by dominant elites to win the
favor of the populace, and works and practices created by the people for
themselves.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that each of these twelve
definitions of "popular culture" can potentially be related to one another,
sometimes in collusion and sometimes in opposition. The semantic map thus
created is a confusing morass of overlapping links that serve to obscure any
ready semantic definition of popular culture. However, this same semantic
confusion is the very reason that popular culture is dynamic and complex.
Williams's commentary on the necessity of relating each definition of "culture" to
one another to gain a picture of the whole remains true for "popular culture" as
well. Isolating one meaning of popular culture and focusing on that to the
exclusion of the others distorts the full nature of popular culture. What must be
maintained for an adequate theory of popular culture is a sense that popular
culture contains a quantitative element, a qualitative element, as well as different
positions of agency. ..
It quickly becomes clear that focusing on only one of these definitional
senses to explain popular culture is inadequate. If we seek a purely quantitative
answer, what arbitrary numerical figure should we set to claim that we have
reached enough of an audience to claim to be popular? If we seek a purely
qualitative answer, whose values do we legitimately use to determine quality?
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Similarly, if we seek to claim that popular culture is that which is produced by
the industrial elite for mass consumption by the populace, how do we explain
those forms of popular culture that arise from within the populace itself, and vice
versa?
For John Fiske (1989), popular culture is always political for this very
reason. Fiske believes that popular culture "is always on the side of the
subordinate" (a position which has often come under fire and which I deny), but
the essence of Fiske's argument is that popular culture cannot be determined
merely through interpretive readings or analyzing how readers (the audience)
create meaning from the text {Understanding, 1989, p. 45). While these are
important elements to understanding how popular culture is received, its actual
nature remains bound to the political exchange of texts and practices that is
implicit in the multiplicity of meanings identified by Williams (1976/1985). i:-
If these meanings are interconnected and inseparable from one another in
any true theory of popular culture, then a part of the task of defining popular
culture becomes isolating what is popular culture from the cultural whole. In this
respect, it becomes necessary to examine the implied "otherness" mentioned
previously in this chapter. As Storey (1998) notes, "It is never enough to speak
of popular culture, we have always to acknowledge that with which it is being1
contrasted" (p. 18). This is the direction that Ray B. Browne's "Popular Culture:
Notes Towards a Definition" (1992) points us.
73


Browne recognizes that the most common method of demarcating culture
is to divide it into four categories of High, Popular, Mass and Folk, where "none
is a discrete unity standing apart an unaffected by the others" (1992, p. 239). In
distinguishing the characteristics of these four categories, Browne notes that
many definitions rely on levels of dissemination. Elite and Folk cultures are
intended for a limited audience and are distributed accordingly, while Popular
culture reaches a'much wider audience, and Mass culture the most of all. Yet
Browne also emphasizes that the motivations and aesthetic aspirations of each
are specialized. Using these distinctions, Browne claims that we can recognize a
spectrum of types of culture. He states:
i- >! iPerhaps fhe best metaphorical figure for all is that of a flattened
ellipsis, or a lens. In the center, largest in bulk and easiest seen
through is Popular Culture, which includes Mass Culture.
On either end of the lens are High and Folk Cultures, both looking
fundamentally alike in many respects and both having a great deal
in common, for both have keen direct vision and extensive
peripheral insight and acumen. All four derive in many ways and
to many degrees from one another, and the lines of demarcation
between any two are indistinct and mobile. (1992, p. 245).
Yes Browne's ultimate conclusion is that "Popular Culture is all those elements
of life which are not narrowly intellectual or creatively elitist and which are
generally though not necessarily disseminated through the mass media" (245).
Browne admits that this definition suffers from a generality that perhaps
includes too much. But it also suffers from many of the assumptions that he
74


actively works to refute. Although the spectrum, or lens, of categorical
distinctions of culture is an acceptable model, there is little to account for any
overlap that specific texts may carry into combinations of those categories.
Instead of being satisfied with this lack of clarity, it is to our benefit to study the
supposed oppositions of these distinctions. The very term "popular culture" itself
seems to lead us toward a dialectical approach to reconciling popular culture
against that which is not popular culture. In order to isolate the inherent
"otherness" of popular culture, we need to look closely at how popular culture
differs from high culture, mass culture, and common culture.
Searching for the "Other" of Popular Culture
High Culture vs. Popular Culture
For a full understanding of, let us say, the genius of Charles
Dickens it is important to recognize that he was a widely popular
novelist, read by everyone from her ladyship to the cousin of her
ladyship's cook. However, Dickens was either a great novelist or
he was not. And in the final analysis, the standards by which that
question is raised and responded to do not stand or fall on the
nature of his audience. Shakespeare, we should understand,
appealed to everyone from the notorious "groundlings" at the
Globe Theater, through ambitious young gallants, to members of
the royal court or at least their siblings. But Shakespeare is either
the greatest dramatist in the language or he is not. Verdi and
Puccini wrote memorable operas or they did not. And Fred Astaire
was either a great and boldly original dancer or he was not.
- Martin Williams
1992, p. 6
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In this quote from Martin Williams, the basic outline of the problem faced
by a critical assessment of popular culture is laid out in simple but concrete
terms. What Williams alludes to is the categorical distinction between high art
and popular art, or high culture and popular culture, and how they've been placed
in binary oppositions. Williams is also concretely describing why making a
distinction between which category a given text falls into is not as simple as it
may first appear. While the works that have been handed down as high art
through a cultural canon that falls into Matthew Arnold's notion of "the best that
has been thought and said" may be appropriately labeled as such, their origins are
often from within the cultural milieu of what would otherwise be considered
popular culture.
Although the terms "high culture" and "popular culture" may be relatively
recent in the scope of human history, critical distinctions between those cultural
texts and practices that are considered worthwhile and those that are considered
vulgar can be traced at least as far back as Plato, as the brief history drawn in
Chapter. 1 shows. The supposedly inherent conflict between high culture and
popular culture is the source of Patrick Bratlinger's "negative classicism." When
Juvenal derides the public for its simplistic interest in nothing more than "bread
and circuses," he denounces the cultural tastes of the public, and from the Greeks
and Romans up to the modem era, this is a judgment that has been handed down
on popular culture over the course of Western society. Such pronouncements are
76


inherently political, based as they are around the cultural discrimination of elite
classes and the stratification produced by varying degrees of education. The
question of high culture gets wrapped up in ambiguous philosophical arguments
such as authenticity, as in Adorno and the Critical Theory school, or else it is
used to reinforce socioeconomic boundaries. It is no accident that high culture
has become synonymous with the common use of the term "cultured," implying
that high culture is the only "true" culture.
Perhaps most simply, and most insidiously, high culture has been used
over the centuries to define popular culture. In these terms, popular culture is
that which does not measure up to the standard of high culture, reinforcing the
notion that popular culture is inherently worthless, or at least that a paucity of
value is endemic to popular culture and that popular culture should be judged
accordingly. If we turn back to our chart of possible meanings of the term
"popular culture," we see that this notion explains the definitions associated with
"popular" as descriptive of "inferior kinds of work." The greatest triumph of the
high culture distinction is that this hierarchical judgment has been handed down
to those same audiences that it derides, so that even those audiences that might
only ever interact with what is labeled popular culture are aware that their culture
is considered inferior and that a higher culture exists that will remain out of reach
without greater cultural conditioning.
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In the last fifty years, however, the distinctions between high culture and
popular culture have been called into question by those who were traditionally
the greatest advocates of high culture: the critics and academics. As the Martin
Williams (1992) quote indicates, this is due in part to a better appreciation for the
historical origins of those "classics" that make up the high culture canon. Among
the most often cited example is the place of William Shakespeare at the center of
that canon. Within English literature, Shakespeare holds the highest and most
revered seat, considered the pinnacle of dramatic achievement as both a poet and
playwright. Yet, in his day, Shakespeare's plays were performed to audiences of
all classes and educational backgrounds, and his writing often included nods to
both the elite and the poor. As a forum for entertainment, theater itself was
considered vulgar, Shakespeare's plays competed for audiences with bear-baiting
and circus acts, and attending the theater was considered a common practice.
Aristocrats attending the local theater were more or less participating in early
forms of "slumming." Today, however, theater has gained a place in the high
culture canon as an art form, and Shakespeare is considered the best that the art
form has produced in the English language.
Focus on historical lineages, such as the contextual placement of
Shakespeare, has led to a direct questioning of whether or not distinguishing
between high culture and popular culture to the exclusion and rejection of
popular culture is in fact an artificial creation, as in the work of Lawrence Levine
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(1988). The standard sociological analysis of class, gender and ethnicity has
revealed that variations among these characteristics have followed an elite, white,
patriarchal course in defining what cultural texts have come to be valued as part
of high culture and what should be excluded. However, many other factors have
played into the destabilization of the cultural hierarchy. Within the last fifty
years this hierarchy has been undermined by radical challenges within the
academy, new theoretical and paradigmatic positions, and from within the world
of high culture itself. The emergence of Pop Art in the works of Richard Harris,
Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol appropriated the forms and content of
popular culture into the realm of high culture in a manner that challenged the
accepted notions of art1. Developments in the theories of postmodernism
challenged modernism's assigned role of the artist and surmised that boundaries
between popular culture and high culture were dissolving into a new aesthetic.
And the rise of popular culture studies itself challenged the foundation of
academic study based on the traditional canon of high culture.
For the most part, with the exception of changes in subject of historical
analysis, these challenges have taken two primary forms, a sociological analysis
of taste and a philosophical analysis of aesthetics. In this realm of reevaluating
the role of popular culture, the projects of the social sciences and the humanities
have begun to overlap. For the purposes of defining popular culture, it is
important that both the sociology of taste and the question of aesthetics be
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examined. Together, they work to explain those forms of culture that are "well
liked by many people," "deliberately set out to win favor with the people," and
"are made by the people themselves."
In the sociological analysis of taste, two names come to the forefront of
most discussions: Pierre Bourdieu and Herbert Gans. Bourdieu's (1984) analysis
of taste in relation to the manner in which it informs a system of cultural capital
has opened up a great deal of inquiry into the social structure of the cultural
hierarchy indicated by the division between high and low, or high culture and
popular culture. Although many find tendencies towards postmodernism in
Bourdieu's work, he is most accurately placed in conjunction with the
structuralist tradition of sociology. Bourdieu takes the notion of "cultural
capital" initially put forth in symbolic interaction theory, which stated that all of
the knowledge and memories accumulated in an individual.gave that person the
ability to react to specific social situations, and modifies it to an extent to show
how it might actually reinforce the social system. Somewhat analogous to
Thorstein Veblen's idea of "conspicuous consumption," for Bourdieu cultural
capital is expressed through consumption and is partly a product of, and partly
responsible for, social differentiation! In other words, class differences are
reflected in our choice of cultural texts and practices. Taste is the term given to a
preference for certain types of cultural choices. Our taste choices can also work
as status indicators, either displayed outwardly to evidence one's membership in
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a particular class, or used as means of aspiring to class mobility. Hence further
education and refinement of one's cultural capital can be used to maintain or gain
status, and such distinctions in status are the foundation for notions of
"legitimate" culture (high culture) and popular culture.
While Bourdieu's explanation goes a long way to explaining the existence
of cultural differentiation, it should be noted that his view works to reinforce the
traditional cultural hierarchy. It is no accident that he uses the term "legitimate"
in place of high culture. Thus, contrary to some of those who see his interest in
popular culture's social role as evidence of a strain of postmodernism, Bourdieu's
development of a sociology of taste should not be misread as an indication of the
artificiality of a high/low distinction in culture, but quite the opposite. The
implication exists that the texts and practices of high culture aren't inherently
more valuable, that they are in fact only distinguished because of the class status
of their consumers, but Bourdieu himself steers away from this reading. More
sympathetic to the nature of popular culture and those who embrace it is the work
of Herbert Gans in Popular Culture & High Culture: an Analysis and Evaluation
of Taste (1974/1999).
Gans is also interested in the sociology of taste, but it is significant that
his initial work on.the subject was highly influenced by his appreciation of the
work of the Popular Culture Association. The result is that his analysis tends
towards a defense of those who engage in popular culture, as opposed to
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Bourdieu's reinforcement of "legitimate" culture. There are distinct parallels
between Bourdieu and Gans, however. Gans also accepts that popular culture is
distinguished from high culture and that it tends to run along class lines. In his
analysis, Gans develops the ideas of "taste cultures" and "taste publics." Taste
cultures are differentiated groups of cultural practices that contain, and maintain,
distinct aesthetic preferences. Gans identifies five distinct categories: high
culture, upper-middle culture, lower-middle culture, low culture, and quasi-folk
low culture. Taste publics are aggregates of individuals who subscribe to one of
the five types of taste culture. Gans also creates specialized categories of taste
cultures in youth culture and ethnic culture which are determined more by their
taste public and can draw from various aspects of the five main categories of
taste culture.
What is significant about Gans's analysis is that he maintains that each of
these taste cultures are qualitatively relative. He writes, "A comparative analysis
of high and popular culture must begin not with personal judgments about their
quality but with a perspective that sees each of them as existing because they
satisfy the needs and wishes of some people, even if they dissatisfy those of other
people" (1999, p. 91). It is also important to note that his use of the term popular
culture is broader in scope than in most hierarchical analyses. Taking the literal
sense of "well-liked by many people" from "popular," Gans states that all five
taste cultures are popular cultures in their own right, even the category of high
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culture. Among the most critical elements of his analysis is Gans's reevaluation
of the taste hierarchy, which he argues is just as existent as a class hierarchy, but
which is of much less concern to the majority of taste publics. He states of
changes in class mobility, "...when people obtain more income and status, they
often remain in their original taste public. They may buy the housing,
appliances, boats, and vacations, but not the art and music that go with higher
income" (1999, p. 142). Unlike Bourdieu, he emphatically denies that
preferences of taste have a direct and reciprocal correlation to class status.
Finally, Gans's analysis moves us into the realm of aesthetic evaluation of
high culture versus popular culture. In his analysis of the taste hierarchy, Gans
notes that high culture criticism retains, for various status and socioeconomic
reasons as well as the make-up of the various taste publics, a strong public hold
on in evaluating what1 is good and what is bad. The aesthetic standards of high
culture are institutionalized and are generally more visible than criticism from
within other taste cultures. What Gans adds to the equation is that members of
all taste publics have the ability to qualitatively judge cultural content and do so
constantly. The invisibility of their aesthetic judgments in a public forum, due to
the prevalence of high and upper-middle criticism, does not preclude other taste
publics from making such judgments. For Gans, this results in the two following
value assessments about taste cultures and taste publics:
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