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How do we study popular culture?  How do we balance the need for analyzing social impact (via ideology studies for instance) with a recognition of the productive power of consumers to make meanings and values differently from academics?  Where do you fall in the spectrum being debated in our final readings concerning populism vs. pessimism?

8 Responses to “Discussion questions for 5/7”

  1. James Schonzeit says:

    I’ll post back on this thread later but i though this spot for Hulu, an internet television provider, which I saw last night (it was also run during the superbowl so a number of you may have seen it already) might be of interest to the class.



  2. Andrey Tolstoy says:

    I think Simon Frith really captures the gist of cultural studies when he writes, “I’m sure in my own cultural practice that Jane Eyre is a better romance than a Mills and Boon or Harlequin title, just as I know that the Pet Shop Boys are a better group than U2 and that Aerosmith has no value at all. The problem is how best to argue this.”

    The last sentence harks back to the definition of ideology Althusser uses to describe the way people explain the world to themselves. Cultural studies is unique in that its practitioners perform this function from a position of assumed authority over others. The goal is to either persuade people that one way of looking at the world is more correct than others; or to point out ways of looking at popular culture that are allegedly underappreciated or overlooked.

    There are basic characteristics people share that make them inclined to liking similar things. After that, everything is determined by social/biographical context. The problem with supplying a methodology for cultural studies is that this context varies among individuals and geographically disparate groups.

    A post-structuralist would argue that the difficulty in providing cultural studies with a methodology is that the scope of the discipline’s research is arbitrary. One would observe a general human tendency to discriminate and prioritize, but not necessarily draw conclusions about it. Instead, practical conclusions would be drawn from the study of cultural studies. In other words, what has cultural studies been interested in over the last X number of years? What has been considered “popular”? What has been considered “high”/”low.”

    If the above sounds like rambling, let me summarize it more concisely. No science can be objective, because its prejudices are embedded in the very fact that it distinguishes itself from other disciplines. However, we need to do something with our brains, and science is good material to occupy them. We just need to be a little less arrogant about how much we may presume to understand.


  3. Noah Feder says:

    The Lester Bangs character in Almost Famous captures to pessimism of cultural studies well. All real culture died years ago, and ‘good’ popular culture is on the way out as well; the new populism is nothing more than a shadow of its former self and has nothing to offer. Taste is the largest issue of this class for me, and I think we did a good job on Tuesday of being able to differentiate between our critical viewpoints and our “active dupe” viewpoints. Thanks to this class, I can be a more active dupe but also move beyond simple value-based criticism to theoretical criticism.


  4. Will Van Heuvelen says:

    I think that in order to strike an appropriate balance between the consumer-as-dupe and the consumer-as-negotiator paradigms that we’ve spent a significant portion of the semester developing, we need to regard these theories as tools – and nothing more. When we extrapolate their explanatory power to the realm of “truth,” we obscure legitimate interpretations and perceptions of the world and culture(s) in which we live and participate. Thus, applying either ideology or hegemony theory to a certain text or context may lead to different conclusions; but we must keep in mind that either conclusion is legitimate, and that the insights they reveal about the processes of consumption and reproduction are valuable for their discrepancies.


  5. James Schonzeit says:

    Simon Frith brings up the point that “aesthetic arguments and distinctions are possible only because they take place within a shared musical and critical discourse, because they rest on an assumption that we know what the music we like and dislike means.” Ultimately, studying popular culture is driven by trying to explain the arguably unanswerable question of ‘how do we know what we know?’ If what we know is to be true, or to be the ‘best and brightest’ that has ever been thought, only then is there a basis to make judgement and therefore develop overarching theories. As such questions can be argued endlessly, social context and the productive power of consumers have taken on a more significant role in cultural analysis.

    Just as Sight & Sound changed the way that I viewed films as I understood the process behind their making, reading cultural theory has broadened my understanding of popular culture. Regardless of my deepened knowledge, my (somewhat ‘bad’) tastes have only changed slightly. As such I would consider myself further on the populist end of the spectrum as I still find pleasure and meaning in things I know may be considered ‘bad’ or ‘low’, but agree with Frith when he says “what needs challenging is not the notion of the superior, but the claim that it is the exclusive property of the ‘high’.”


  6. Ralph Acevedo says:

    I like Grossberg’s point that fans are not only fans nor are intellectuals only intellectuals. I also like that he suggests that the task of cultural studies should not be to define “proper” cultural tastes but to analyze political possibilities. I like this open-endedness. Andrey points out that “Cultural studies is unique in that its practitioners perform this function from a position of assumed authority over others. The goal is to either persuade people that one way of looking at the world is more correct than others”. But I believe that there is no true, objective, or correct way of looking at the world.

    In my opinion, the study of popular culture and its social impact is important. There isn’t necessarily a contradiction between this and the difference in meanings interpreted by academics and laypeople. Both are consumers who interpret products of (popular) culture; also, people can be both fans and intellectuals. There is the dilemma of reconciling the pleasures people get from consuming popular culture and the role popular culture plays in a socio-political context. I feel that the problem is that many of the academics we have read frame popular culture within a political discourse, to the point that it’s almost as if they reduce the human condition to politics and power relations. Deriving pleasure from film, television, music, literature, and other media are tied with other aspects of human life besides politics, like aesthetics.

    I do agree that there are power structures in place in the world that perpetuate inequality and injustice. This can definitely be manifested in entertainment and popular culture as we have seen in history with examples like blackface and the largely dehumanizing images of women in much of current mainstream pornography. But there are examples of pop culture that are not so simple to decipher or interpret, like Barbie. I think ethnography, reception studies, and contextual examinations of texts, together, taking into account all of these factors and variables and “political possibilities”, is a good and way to study popular culture. The more holistic, the better. It is important to be vigilant and question the potential messages and meanings that are conveyed through various forms of communication.

    I reject the notion of being a “cultural dupe”. I think this is vocabulary straight out of the ideology of mass culture, which perpetuates the distinction between high and low or popular culture. On the one hand, it may be good for a consumer to be aware of the capitalist motivation that drives the creation of, for example, professional wrestling shows, as well as the images of gender roles and relations that they present. But on the other hand, to label such a consumer a dupe for deriving pleasure from such a show is to reduce the consumer to a political object and to deny other possible discourses for the text or the consumer.

    Meanings are attributed to texts by people; they are not inherent in the texts themselves or determined by their mode of production. I like Bourdieu’s idea that that which you like is determined by your context. I would interpret context to take into account not just one’s position on the map of society but also one’s individual psychology as well as individual history and biography. For example, one’s taste in food and drink may be influenced not just by his or her class position but also physiologically by the sensitivity of their taste receptors. A fan of Edward Scissorhands may identify with the title character of the film because of his or her psychologically introverted tendency. I think the essay “Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan is a great example of how a venerated and canonized text (in this case, Hamlet) could be perceived in a vastly divergent way by people from a different perspective (Tiv people of West Africa). I can’t help but identify with the populist way of looking at culture. Who’s to say that the texts of Homer or Tolstoy are “better” or “higher” than the texts of, say, Stan Lee?

    I think Bourdieu’s idea that there are macro forces at work on a universal level that get played out and applied differently in different societies and cultures and even with different people throughout history. There may be underlying universal reasons why we as human beings like making and listening to music, or why we tell each other stories or tell jokes or play games of make-believe. But these forces manifest themselves according to context.


  7. Neil Baron says:

    I completely agree with Will’s claim that these theories we’ve learned are nothing more than tools we use to extract different, but still equally legitimate conclusions. As for the balance between ideology studies and hegemony theory, for instance, both approaches are valid and useful.

    As far as pessimism vs. populism, I came to the conclusion that I am indeed a pessimist. At first, I, like James, associated myself as a populist because I can enjoy works that I know are considered bad or low. But my populist appreciation of popular works is, as Frith says, ultimately patronizing and condescending. The enjoyment I get out of popular culture is often either limited by the work’s quality, where I enjoy specific aspects of the work (for example, I enjoy the action sequences in Die Hard) or it arises from how bad the work is (for example, most of the rest of Die Hard). In both cases, my enjoyment of popular culture is based on the underlying assumption that it is bad, which makes me not a populist.


  8. Emre Sahin says:

    Throughout our class, I became convinced that popular culture analysis is multi-faceted and there is no one-best understanding cultural phenomena. There were times that, after reading someone’s essay, I felt like I had the key to a broad understanding of cultural studies. But after reflecting upon such readings, I noticed that I was making more and more reservations for their theories. This did not necessarily mean that these author’s theories were wrong, it meant that cultural studies are less successful/concerned about making broad claims that standardize the reception of cultural works by audiences.
    With this awareness, once can try to balance ‘ideology’ with ‘hegamony.’ The key idea is that nearly “every street is two-way” and one has to always bear this in mind during cultural analysis.
    In the spectrum of ‘populism vs. pessimism,’ I think I stand more on the populist side. This is because I’d like to think that I treat popular cultural elements like all other cultural phenomena. Then again, my saying that “I’d like to think so” hints at my pessimism and suggest that, even if I am on the ‘populist half’ of the aforementioned spectrum, I still am close to its centre.


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