Popular Culture

There has been continuous debate about the nature and effects of "popular culture" since World War II. During the period of buoyancy and expansion following WWII, American intellectuals became increasingly anxious about the negative effects of a pervasive popular culture which they saw as posing a significant challenge to their vision of a pluralist, egalitarian, and liberal America (this was before Civil Rights, women's liberation and gay rights movements which demonstrated that whatever the aspirations, the reality lagged sadly behind for many of America's people).

In a period of booming media expansion it seemed clear that, left to their own devices, the majority of the population preferred inferior cultural products—the movies, TV, radio, junk fiction, comic papers—and so on. Some intellectuals thought this was harmless, mere escapism which left the minds and morals of its consumers no worse than before, and possibly even benign (in that it sometimes encouraged people to read, at least, and perhaps even think, after a fashion).

The intellectuals who grabbed the headlines, however, were those who regarded popular culture as an ultimately sinister means of social control. These were broadly left-leaning individuals who viewed the mass media in political terms as a kind of capitalist plot, cheap entertainment cynically provided by leadership elites to keep the people quiet and deflect attention from the extreme inequalities of the current social and political system.

This was going on, of course, at the height of the Cold War, and anything that could be presented as resembling the Soviet way of doing (such as top-down social and political control, uniformity of thought and expression, restrictions to intellectual and artistic freedom and so on) tended to be automatically labeled a Bad Thing.

In Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White's influential study, Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, published in 1975, Rosenberg argued that the well-being of American society was being undermined by the dehumanizing effects of mass culture. He claimed that mass culture was inherently un-American and that its parent was not capitalism as such, but a communications technology grown sinister and spinning out of control. His colleague David White took a more optimistic view, seeing the two aspects of culture in a mutually promoting role, arguing that at the time of greatest gloom and doom about the insidious effects of popular culture, "high culture flourished in America."

Another leading American intellectual, Dwight Macdonald (1906–1982) was the key figure in this debate, and in his essay "Theory of Mass Culture" he argued that "mass culture undermines the vitality of high culture." Macdonald saw this problem as exaggerated in America by the absence of "a clearly defined cultural elite." If one existed, the masses could have mass culture and the elite could have high culture. However, without a cultural elite, America, he claimed, was under threat from a Gresham's Law of culture: the bad would drive out the good; the result would be not just a homogeneous culture but a "homogenized culture…that threatens to engulf everything in its spreading ooze" turning the American people into infantile masses. Dwight Macdonald's view was wholly pessimistic, and the Macarthy-ite tendencies of his thinking are obvious: what he really feared was a kind of Sovietisation of American culture. The essay is worth a read if you have time to dig it out. If you do, have a look at his method of argument. Does he produce evidence for any of his major assertions? A study of his assumptions would also be revealing.

Some more recent thinkers have suggested that the producers of mass culture have not to aim low so much as they have to aim at "average" taste; so that everybody is going to respond a bit, but nobody can really respond fully. Some have suggested that it's all a question of patronage: i.e. whoever is footing the bill. With enlightened patrons you get Dante; with unenlightened patrons such as the Hollywood studios you get kitsch.

Cultural impoverishment remains the seemingly unavoidable bottom line for such theorists; Mass culture is not only is bad in itself, but it constitutes a mortal danger [quite how is usually not specified] to folk culture and to high art. [So there's a strand of argument here in which we see "genuine" popular culture and false and insidious mass culture opposed.] Mass culture isn't "real" culture; it's substitute culture and as such intrinsically enervating and inferior.

There is nowadays a wide range of views on the subject. The commentator Ernest van den Haag sees the phenomenon as ultimately repressive: "The result is a nightmare in which the cultural "masturbator" or the "addict" of mass culture is trapped in a cycle of non-fulfillment, moving aimlessly between boredom and distraction."

The sociologist and historian of science, Edward Shils, takes a historical view, saying, in so many words "if you think what the common people consume today is bad, oh boy you should see what they used to consume in the past." He sees it as less degrading, less brutalising than formerly. So, I suppose we could call this the relativist argument. Shils continues that culture is not divided simply into high and low; but high, middle and low, and that it's the middle bit that's alarming.

Leslie Fiedler countered Macdonald's un-American activities argument saying "popular culture un-American? Hell, we invented it", or words to that effect, and if it is brutal and mindless that is because so is contemporary life for the majority of our fellow citizens, so there's a sense in which it is in an odd way, truthful. Anyway it's an inevitable outcome of industrialisation, mass education and democracy. If you're against mass culture, you must logically be against the things that inevitably produce it. And Fiedler thinks few of the opposing critics would go that far. He says "the fear of the vulgar is the obverse of the fear of excellence, and both are aspects of the fear of difference".

This reflects what might be called the patriotic argument which says, roughly "well OK, we have popular culture, but it's American popular culture, and if we do it right, we can make it the best popular culture the world has ever seen."

So we see then that "popular culture" can mean three different subtly inflected things:

  1. the "folk" culture of the common people: generated by themselves outside the control of their masters and, hence, intrinsically pure, innocent, and benign
  2. "popular culture" used in a merely descriptive way to identify the broad common strands of interest and enjoyment, knowledge and activity that run through every level of society at any given time
  3. "mass culture", a kind of mindless and debasing pap imposed by the boss class which is not only intrinsically bad and worthless, but also culturally invasive, tending not only to propagate itself virulently but also to attack and destroy high culture in any society.

John Storey's Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (2000) is a useful guide if you are interested further.