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Lecture 6: Critical Positions on Popular Culture

•Critically define ‘popular culture’
•Contrast ideas of ‘culture’ with ‘popular culture’ and ‘mass culture’
•Introduce Cultural Studies & Critical Theory
•Discuss culture as ideology
•Interrogate the social function of popular culture

What is the difference between high culture and mass 'popular' culture.

Who decides what is important or not within culture and to what extent?

Particulalry looking at how it effects us and how we think.

What is Culture?

•‘One of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’
•general process of intellectual, spiritual & aesthetic development of a particular society, at a particular time
•a particular way of life
•works of intellectual and especially artistic significance’ 

A way of thinking about the world by Karl Marx.

Marx's Concept of Base / Superstructure


- forces of production - materials, tools, workers, skills, etc.
- relations of production - employer/employee, class, master/slave, etc 

What is the mataerial concrete reality of a society?

Marx argues that everything else emerges as a direct result of these forces of production. 

- social institutions - legal, political, cultural
- forms of consciousness - ideology - the way we think about the world and each other.

To put it another way, we live in a capalist society with capalist labour relations. This method would argue that all forms of culture, consciousness, art and design are a direct reflex of that material reality. 

Our culture can be seen as a direct response to our society. 

Capitalism produces a Capitalist Culture. 

It argue that not only does culture reflect the base economic reality of the world but it can also strengthen, support and maintain the system that produces it. 

‘In the social production of their life men enter into definite, necessary relations, that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social being that determines their consciousness. 

At a certain stage in their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production ...

…From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

Marx, (1857) ‘Contribution to the critique of Political Economy’


For example, here we have a base of the pyramid, holding it up is the workers who hold up the society and then industrial capitalists which are the base. 

On top of that forms the rest of the system. The Army, Religion, The States and Politics. 

1.  system of ideas or beliefs (eg beliefs of a political party)

2. 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,

4 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

We could think of popular culture as culture that is liked by a lot of people but this is a strange way of looking at it, because we can look at someone like Pavarotti who is popular with people but isn't 'popular culture'. 

Another idea of it is that popular culture is inferrer to real culture. It is a base culture. Populism - deliberately trying to be commercial which is somehow worse that real culture which aims to be elitist.

You can also think of it as culture made by the masses, for the masses. 

Inferior or Residual Culture

•Popular Press vs Quality Press
•Popular Cinema vs Art Cinema
•Popular Entertainment vs Art Culture

This is Trash Culture. 

This is High culture. 

Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane - Folk Archive 

An installation in the tate of all sort  of creative practice that wouldn't normally be shown in art galleries. Such as eggs with faces one. Why are these classes as 'throwaway' culture. 

Working Class

We can trace this to the mid 19th century. This book analysis the working class in Manchester in the 1980s. 

Heavy industrilisation. Heavy industry. A process of urbanisation. A growth of the city. 

There were very clear class divides that started to occur. There was the workers and the bosses. It was clear who was rich and who was poor. This was notable in Manchester where there was working class areas and High class areas. 

A culture of the working class started to appear for the first time. Prior to this moment there was an idea of a shared culture for all the country. But in reality, the only people who produced this culture was the rich and the elite, because they didn't have to work all day every  day, they could swan about writing poetry. 

But at this moment, it was clear that this was not the case. What happened because of this was a culture made by the workers for the workers. A lot of this was made for profit. Entrepreneurs going around selling magazines, new forms of music and independent living which was snobbishly frowned up on by the higher classes. 

This was not just entertainment but a tendency that emerged about working class life. Political literature. This directly led to the birth of Chartism. The movement to get working class people to vote. 

On the flip side when we take popular culture such as this banksy piece and somebody has stolen it and turned into high culture in galleries. 


There was a backlash against this. He wrote a book called Culture and Anarchy which was his attempt to see what was great about culture.

He said culture was about the ultimate achievements of mankind. It doesn't have politics of the reality of the world because its much more important than that. 

The rarified thing of Opera and Ballet serves to minister the diseased spirit of our times. 

What he is really saying is that culture is beautiful and if everyone went back to this then the world wouldn't be a horrible place. The new popular culture of the masses is a disease. 

To put it another way - High culture and Low culture. 

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)

His attempt was to keep the status quo. 

Laverism - F. R. Levis

Still forms a kind of repressed, common sense attitude to popular culture in this country. 
For Leavis- C20th sees a cultural decline

Standardisation & levelling down

‘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’ 

Levis effectivly in the 1930's. In the growth of industrial capatilism such as hollywood and popular music. He sees this gradually as a deceline for the world. We had a beatiful moment when we had a great shared culture of beautiful art and music and slowly this has sunk down. 

Culture has become more and more standardised and stupid. We need to urgently return to a situaton where people who know about culture hae the right to set

•Collapse of traditional authority comes 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 ditraction 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) 

There is sympathy for this because of the experience of someone staring at a TV all day doing nothing is a really unproductive life. 

A working class that can vote and set its own rules makes him panic with anxiety about this shift. 

Popular culture represents a threat to social authority.

Frankfurt School 

These where equally critical on popular culture. They was a bunch of philosophers who worked in Frankfurt to study popular culture. 

When they moved to New York, they say effectively the high point of popular culture. Hollywood and Tinseltown. Popular Magazines and new forms emerging. 

They argued that popular culture maintained social order. It do sent present a challenge or threat to social class but maintains and strengthens the capitalist system that we live in. 

To explain how it does that...

Culture is produced in the same way as everything else under capatalism. The movie industry churns out one film after another and so does a car company. Its all the same. It's quite clear who will win, who will lose. The first hot blonde to have sex is the first to get a knife in the back. A moral lesson?

Its making profits for big businesses where they are kidding themselves that one thing is better and newer that the next but it's all uniform and identical. 

‘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

Adorno 'On Popular Music'

His take on music is amusing. He says that all pop culture is rubbish and makes us into mindless zombies. He particularly hates jazz. 

All popular music is pre-programmed -  standardised . 4x4 beat with a different vocal harmony is the same but then forced on the mass media, churned out and bought over and over again. 

We know that its all the same but we still like it. You can consume it in a mindless way with no active engagement of the mind. I like the Libertines so I also like The Stokes automatically because NME links them together. 

In reality we are being fed things that people are deciding that we like. It reflects the docility of the world that we live in. 

Dance music loves in particularly are mindless. Dancing to the repeated rhythm of their own mindless.

Joy Division is an example of rather than trying to change the world you just give up and kill yourself in your working class environment. 

The Contemporary Culture Industry

Che Guvara T-Shirt a genuine revolutionary to overthrow capitalism. 

He's now just a cool guy with a beard and a beret and nobody knows what he actually did . 

The X Factor series starts. Lets say Joe is here, his wife has died an d he's been left to bring up his girls on his own and he has no money and has to work three jobs. He's struggling to survive and comes on The X Factor. He does a cover of 'My Way' by Frank Sinatra and gets popular and everybody loves him. He wins and gets  poxy figure and a record contract.

All the time this makes money for the owner of the show and the next year, Joe is cast back to the gutter. It creates money for people at the top and exploits people at the bottom. 

It's not teaching us that the way to solve this is to get into politics or campaign for better jobs. Its teaching us that there is an illusionary route 

Hollyoaks started a show about students at university and the female students are, despite being at university, reduced to the sexual objects for the consumption of men.

Bandamin argues that there is a possibility that you can create meaning at the point of consumption. We can actively pick our way through culture. 

For example if I watch the X Factor then buy the record because I'm taking the piss out of it. Actively engaging with mass culture and engaging with it mindlessly.

Collectables. Mona Lesa being a bullet proof pane of glass. It's a masterpiece because we are being told that it is. We can re-define works, manipulate them, add and collage them. The world of popular culture is a way of benefit where you can challenge the set rules with revolutionary possibilities. 

Everybody would feel comfortable judging whether or not the new Tom Hanks film is good or not but everyone would feel uncomfortable about discussing the newest piece of turner art. 

In film people decide the funny bits by laughing together. 

The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies- CCCA (1963 - 2002)

Books appearing about sub culture and popular culture that gives people a direction. 

Angela Mcrobbie rights about the negative effects about subcultures effects on girls. 

Subculture the meaning of style - Modrockers, Punks, Etc. 

From this book... People who bought punk rock ep's wernt being brainwashed into buying this. If anything, punk was about smashing the revolution and giving people a chance to save the world. 

The sad thing is, is that what always seems to happen is that the popular culture start off as symbolic challenges but end up as being modified and common. 

The punk life soon changes into the best of punk rock, vol 3. 


•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.
•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 as ideology
•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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