Friday, March 29, 2013

Popular Culture

What is Culture?

Raymond Williams, a pioneer of cultural studies, defined it as:

  • "One of the two or three most complicated words in the English language".
  • A general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development of a particular society at a particular time
  • A particular way of life
  • Works of intellectual and especially artistic significance


Revolutionary socialist Karl Marx developed a particular philosophical perception of the world calledthe dialectical materialist method. It is defined as: the Marxist theory (adopted as the official philosophy of the Soviet communists) that political and historical events result from the conflict of social forces and are interpretable as a series of contradictions and their solutions. The conflict is seen as caused by material needs.

Marxist theory defines society as consisting of two parts, base and superstructure.

The Base includes forces of production: materials, tools, workers, skills, etc. and relations of production: employer/employee, class, master/slave, etc. It is the material, gritty economic reality of the society at the time.

The Superstructure includes social institutions: legal, political and cultural, and also ideologies and forms of consciousness such as law and politics.

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the class struggles" - Marx, Communist Manifesto

Base determines the content and form of the superstructure. Superstructure reflects the form of and legitimises the base.



The state is "but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" - Marx and Engels - Communist Manifesto.

We live in a capitalist society. All forms of culture, consciousness etc. are a direct reflex of this, therefore it could be said that our culture is a direct reflex of capitalism. However this could be considered a determinist and crude analysis.

The second and third tiers of the pyramid are religion and military respectively; instruments of the state and of ideological and physical coercion. Fourth is the bourgeoisie, then the proletariat.

Capitalism's ideology is as a system of ideas of beliefs (e.g. beliefs of a political party) as a means of masking, distortion or selection of ideas, to reinforce power relations through creation of 'false consciousness'.

"[ The ruling class has ] to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, ... to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones." Karl Marx, (1846) The German Ideology.

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Raymond Williams wrote four definitions of 'popular', generally these are:

  • To be well liked by many people
  • To be inferior
  • Work deliberately setting out to win favour with the people
  • Culture actually made by the people themselves

People make value judgements of popular culture. It is generally considered inferior to 'real' culture. Populism is designed to be commercial and popular; it is made by the masses for the masses. In this way it is essentially the opposite of traditional culture.

Comparisons can be drawn between 'high' culture and inferior or residual culture, for example between popular press and quality press, popular cinema and art cinema, popular entertainment and art culture.

Below is Caspar Friedrich's Monk by the Sea (1809) and the sort of painting that is associated with popular, low-art. Although both depict the sea and sky, it's quite clear which one would be considered 'superior' in terms of cultural value.










The divide between culture can be traced back to a moment in evolution of the base; the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century. This period saw the growth of heavy industry, the process of urbanisation, the growth of the city and as a result the development of industrial capitalism. This led to mass factory work and resultant clear class divides between the workers and the bosses, the rich and the poor, and the slums and the affluent, bourgeois areas.

There was a shared common culture for all the country, that was made by and only really for  the rich as they didn't have to work and therefore had time to enjoy it.

And so there was a moment of separation and the rise of autonomous working class cultures, such as new forms of music. People began to make a living from it, and it was frowned upon by the upper class. There was a tendency to talk about working class life in literature. There was also the Chartism movement between 1838 and 1848 which sought to make the political system more democratic.


Matthew Arnold wrote in Culture & Anarchy (1867) that culture is "the best that has been thought and said in the world" . It is a study of perfection, attained through disinterested reading, writing and thinking; it is the pursuit of culture that seeks "to minister the diseased spirit of our time".

His view is that culture is disinterested; politics or anything with an agenda isn't culture. It is a beautiful thing; if everyone liked art and dancing, the world would be a better place!

He also describes anarchy. Whereas culture polices "the raw and uncultivated masses", "The working class… raw and half developed… long lain half hidden amidst it’s poverty and squalor… now issuing from it’s hiding place to assert an Englishmans heaven born privelige to do as he likes, and beginning to perplex us by marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, breaking what it likes" (1960, p.105)

Anarchy is defined as the rebellious upstarts of the lower class trying to make their own culture, rather than trying to maintain the status quo.

Leavisism - F.R. Leavis and Q.D. Leavis

The work of Leavis described how the growth of the industry around popular culture meant that gradually the world has been on the slow decline to the gutter. There was beautiful art and intellectual fabric, but as culture is more mass produced, culture is more stupid and standardised. Society needs to return to a point when people who know about culture set standards.

This form of compensation… is the very reverse of recreation, in that it tends, not to strengthen and refresh and the addict for living, but to increase his unfitness by habituating him to weak evasions, to the refusal to face reality and all’ F.R.Leavis & Denys Thompson, (1977) Culture And Environment


We still form a kind of repressed, common sense attitude to popular culture in this country. For Leavis the 20th century sees a cultural decline; there has been a mass standardisation and 'levelling down'. Culture has always been in minority keeping; the minority, who has hitherto set the standard of taste without any serious challenge have experienced a collapse of authority.

Pop culture is the opposite of productive life. There are critiques on the emergence of mass democracy from a position of anxiety, longing for days of authority and privileged elite.

The collapse of traditional authority came at the same time as mass democracy (anarchy). Nostalgia for an era when the masses exhibited an unquestioning deference to cultural authority. Popular culture offers addictive forms of distraction and compensation. "This form of compensation... is the very reverse of  recreation, in that it tends, not to strengthen and refresh the addict for living, but to increase his unfitness by habituating him to weak evasions, to the refusal to face reality at all" (Leavis & Thompson, 1977)

Key concepts of popular culture include cheap emotional appeals, weak imitations of actual life, sentiment which causes maladjustment in actual life; Hollywood films are 'largely masturbatory'..

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The Frankfurt School reinterpreted Marx for the 20th century, the era of 'late capitalism'. They defined 'The Culture Industry' as consisting of two main products: homogeneity and predictability. "All mass culture is identical"..."As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded, punished or forgotten".

"Movies and radio need no longer to pretend to be art. The truth, that they are just business, is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. ... The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. ... The culture industry can pride itself on having energetically executed the previously clumsy transposition of art into the sphere of consumption, on making this a principle. ... film, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part ... all mass culture is identical."
-Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944

Herbert Marcuse was a philosopher, sociologist and political theorist. He believed this produces an affirmative culture that indoctrinates society, and gives false consciousness and an incorrect view of the world; it is pacifying, and one-dimensional as opposed to multi-dimensional.

"The irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers and, through the latter, to the whole. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood. ... it becomes a way of life. It is a good way of life - much better than before - and as a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of one dimensional thought and behaviour in which ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe." Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, 1968.

"(of affirmative culture): a realm of apparent unity and apparent freedom was constructed within culture in which the antagonistic relations of existence were supposed to be stabilized and pacified. Culture affirms and conceals the new conditions of social life." Herbert Marcuse, Negations, 1968

Culture hides new conditions of social life - it makes everything seem okay when it's not. It depoliticises the working class and stops them revolting. 

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Authentic culture vs. mass culture

Qualities of authentic culture:

  • Real
  • European
  • Multi-dimensional
  • Active consumption
  • Individual creation
  • Imagination
  • Negation
  • Autonomous
Products of the contemporary culture industry are ubiquitous. Here are a few examples:


Hollyoaks is a series about students. Here, female students, instead of being presented as equals, are just shown as objects for male audiences to make money.



The X Factor produces affirmative culture. It is completely fake; it disguises the reality of what it is. It is self-perpetuating. It exploits thousands of people who may or may not be seeking relief through money and judgement, whilst the producer earns millions. They are often presented with 'sob stories' but they aren't learning any real way to solve their problems; once they stop making money for the producer, they are abandoned.



Che Guevera was a genuine revolutionary, but has been reduced to be the sign of a 'cool guy'. It's most likely that whoever would buy a t-shirt like this would know nothing about his politics, just his image. Radical ideas about changes to the world are reduced to nothing; people are pacified.

Theodor Adorno wrote on these topics in his text On Popular Music (1941). He, essentially, hates all music, especially jazz. He sees it as standardised and preprogrammed; when stuff is easy to produce and to make, it is also easy to consume. Thus, we consume in a mindless way. It is a sort of social cement, gluing the system together and perpetuating it's form of obedience and passivity. It reflects the docility of the world.

People who like dance music are particularly 'mindless', as the vast majority follow the same 4/4 rhythm and song structure.

Something I have noticed, and that has been written about and parodied, is how many contemporary pop songs follow the same four chord progression. The comedy group Axis of Awesome wrote a song that compiles many of these songs, showing how they are all purposefully written this way to appeal to the masses and instantly be a hit, and therefore make money.


As Adorno wrote, it is standardisation, and produces passivity through 'rhythmic' and emotional 'adjustment'. Instead of changing the world around you, you wallow in self-pity and remain passive. Everything mass produced can only be mindless, and to engage in it is to be mindless - this causes society to be mindless. 

But surely it doesn't automatically produce ideologies?

Walter Benjamin wrote in The Work of Art in the Mechanical Reproduction (1936) of how art becomes loses its authenticity as it is continuously reproduced and mass consumed, although we have the opportunity to recreate meaning at the point of reception and consumption.

‘One might generalise by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own situation, it reactivates the objects produced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition… Their most powerful agent is film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage’

It is therefore possible to watch products of mass media like The X Factor and 'actively'engage, and create your own meanings.

When you have technologies with the possibility of recreating and mass producing, it changes and democratises high art. The Mona Lisa is a masterpiece because we have been told it is; we adapt to others' behaviour. We are able to engage in art outside of rarefied galleries through the internet, where we are also free to experiment, change and 'play' with high art as we desire; we have the ability to reshape the world as we pick our own way through it.

This introduces many possibilities.

'Mechanical Reproduction changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into a progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterised by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert’ Benjamin, The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936


Compare the difference of a reaction towards art to a film. For example, Nosferatu (1922) and Max Ernst's Wavering Woman. (1923) People of art have 'elite tastemakers'; commonplace people would not understand or appreciate this painting. Film and pop culture, however, is shaped, judged and defined by its elite masses. Ernst's painting would produce a reactionary attitude, whereas Nosferatu would be a progressive reaction.


People are not just victims of a mainstream and capitalised culture - they can create their own.

This is the basis for reactionary movements like the punk subculture. 

‘Youth cultural styles begin by issuing symbolic challenges, but they must end by establishing new conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries, or rejuvenating old ones’ Hebdige, D (1979) ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’

People created the punk ethos - of revolution and 'smashing the system'. Popular culture ideologies always start by being a challenge to the system.

What inevitably happens is that these culture forms start off as revolutionary, but become commercial. Rebellion, individuality and self-expression become fancy dress, cariacatures and jokes.


It is important to decide where and how you take a political stance.

In conclusion:
  • The culture and civilization tradition emerges from, and represents, anxieties about social and cultural extension. 
  • They attack mass culture because it threatens cultural standards and social authority. 
  • The Frankfurt School emerges from a Marxist tradition.
  • They attack mass culture because it threatens cultural standards and depoliticises the working class, thus maintaining social authority. 
  • Pronouncements on popular culture usually rely on normative or elitist value judgements.
  • Ideology masks cultural or class differences and naturalises the interests of the few as the interests of all.
  • Popular culture has the potential to create ideologies.
  • The analysis of popular culture and popular media is deeply political, and deeply contested, and all those who practice or engage with it need to be aware of this.

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