Monday, 15 November 2010

Critical Positions On The Media and Popular Culture

What is Culture?

It is quite complicated and complex word.
It is the general process of iltellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development of a particular society, at a particular time.
It is a particular way of life.

Marx's concept of Base/ Superstructure 
Forces of production  -  materials, tools, workers, skills, etc.
Relations of production  -  employer/ employee, class, master, slave, etc.
Social institutions  -  legal, political, cultural.
Forms of consciousness  -  ideology

‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ (Marx, Communist Manifesto)

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

Marx says it is easy to determine a shift in base and less easy to determine a shift in superstructure.


1. System of ideas or beliefs.
2. Masking, dsitortion 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.

Althusser, (1970) 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses'

Ideology is a practice through which men and women ‘live’ their relations to real conditions of existence.
 Ideology offers false, but seemingly true resolutions to social imbalance
 Social authority maintained by:
 R.S.A- repressive state apparatus
I.S.A- Ideological State apparatus

Raymond Williams (1983) "Keywords"
Four definitions of 'popular'
- Well liked by many people.
- Inferior kinds of work.
- Work deliberately setting out to win favour with the people.
- Culture actually made by the people themselves.

Inferior or Residual Culture
 - Popular Press vs Quality Press.
- Popular Cinema vs Art Cinema.
- Popular Entertainment vs Art Culture.

E.P. Thompson (1963) ‘The Making of The English Working Class’

Matthew Arnold (1867) 'Culture and Anarchy'
Culture is:
- 'The best that has been thought and said in the world'.
- Study of perfection.
- Attained through disinterested reading, writing and thinking.
- The pursuit of culture
- Seeks 'to minister the diseased spirit of our time'.

p.105 - ‘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 Englishman's heaven born privilege to do as he likes, and beginning to perplex us by marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, breaking what it likes'

F.r Leavis and Q.D Leavis - 
‘Culture has always been in minority keeping’
‘The minority, who had hitherto set the standard of taste without any serious challenge have experienced a‘collapse of 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 habitutaing him to weak evasions, to the refusal to face reality at all’ (Leavis & Thompson, 1977:100)

Frankfurt School - Critical Theory

Frankfurt School : Theodore Adorno and Max Horkeimer
Reinterpreted Marx, for the 20th century – era of “late capitalism”

Defined “The Culture Industry” :

2 main products – homogeneity & 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

Frankfurt School : Herbert Marcuse

Popular Culture v Affirmative Culture

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

- Cultural Commodities
- Negation = Depriving culture of “its great refusal” = Cultural Appropriation


Authentic Culture vs Mass Culture'
Qualities of authentic culture - 
1. Real
2. European
3. Multi-dimensional
4. Active consumption
5. Individual creation
6. Imagination
7. Negation
8. Autonomous.

Products of the contemporary 'culture industry'
  • Big Brother
  • X Factor
  • Celebrity Calendars.
In our society, where the real distinctions between people are created by their role in the process of production, as workers, it is the products of their own work that are used, in the false categories invoked by advertising, to obscure the real structure of society by replacing class with the distinctions made by the consumption of goods. Thus, instead of being identified by what they produce, people are made to identify themselves by what they consume. From this arises the false assumption that workers ‘with two cars and a colour TV’ are not part of the working class. We are made to feel that we can rise or fall in society through what we are able to buy, and this obscures the actual class basis which still underlies social position. The fundamental differences in our society are class differences, but the use of manufactured goods as means of creating classes or groups forms an overlay on them.
Williamson (1978) 'Decoding Advertisements'

By attaching human needs/ desires to commodities Capitalism keeps us spending.

Walter Benjamin 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction' 1936

‘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 leaqd 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’
'Mechanical Reproduction changes the reaction of art towards 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) The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was a research centre at the University of Birmingham. It was founded in 1963 by Richard Hoggart, its first director. Its object of study was the then new field of cultural studies.

‘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’

Newspapers have a massive impact on society and are notorious for not speaking the whole truth, yet we will choose to believe and incorporate their words into our lives. For example, all the foods that have been found to 'cause cancer' if you are not supposed to eat these foods, what do we eat?!

In Conclusion

1. The culture & civilization tradition emerges from, and represents, anxieties about social and cultural extension. They attack mass culture because it threatens cultural standards and social authority.

2. 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.

3. Pronouncements on popular culture usually rely on normative or elitist value judgements

4. Ideology masks cultural or class differences and naturalises the interests of the few as the interests of all.

5. Popular culture as ideology

6. 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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