Popular Culture
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Popular Culture

A User's Guide

Imre Szeman, Susie O'Brien

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eBook - ePub

Popular Culture

A User's Guide

Imre Szeman, Susie O'Brien

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Über dieses Buch

Popular Culture: A User's Guide, International Edition ventures beyond the history of pop culture to give readers the vocabulary and tools to address and analyze the contemporary cultural landscape that surrounds them.

  • Moves beyond the history of pop culture to give students the vocabulary and tools to analyze popular culture
  • suitable for the study of popular culture across a range of disciplines, from literary theory and cultural studies to philosophy and sociology
  • Covers a broad range of important topics including the underlying socioeconomic structures that affect media, the politics of pop culture, the role of consumers, subcultures and countercultures, and the construction of social reality
  • Examines the ways in which individuals and societies act as consumers and agents of popular culture

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Information

Jahr
2017
ISBN
9781119140375

1
Introducing Popular Culture

Approaching Popular Culture

“Let’s go get a coffee.”
Every day, throughout much of the world, this phrase is uttered thousands of times, by different people—students, teachers, construction workers, lawyers, mothers, retail clerks, unemployed people, old people, young people—and in different social contexts, such as work, breaks from work, dating, interviews, therapy sessions, or hanging out. Going for a coffee is a major part of popular culture, not only in the sense that it is such a common practice, but also in that it means so much more than the literal act of tossing back a hot caffeinated beverage: in fact, “going for coffee” need not involve drinking coffee at all. So what does it mean? And what is it about coffee drinking that makes it part of popular culture while other equally common practices—like, say, yawning or mowing the lawn—are not? Or are they part of popular culture, too?
These are the kinds of questions this book sets out to answer—not by offering a comprehensive account of what fits in the category of popular culture and what does not, but by helping us to think about the question of why popular culture is such a critical part of contemporary life. For this reason, it might be misleading to call this book a “user’s guide” to popular culture. A standard user’s guide to, say, the smartphone that you may have just received for Christmas (which happens all the time in television commercials, less often in real life) tells you everything there is to know about the specific object that you have in your hands, what its functions are, and what it can and cannot do. Popular culture is not like that. For one thing, popular culture is a far more difficult “thing” to pin down than a smartphone or an IKEA desk; it is constantly changing shape, shifting locations, assuming new identities and new tasks and functions. The goal of a user’s guide to popular culture is to provide culture’s users—that is, all of us—with a way to think about popular culture that is flexible and supple enough to allow us also to think about its changes and redefinitions, and to figure out what is at stake in the definition of popular culture. How can we learn to read and participate in—to use—what is popular in a way that strengthens our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in? This book approaches these questions through the analysis of texts (objects that we can interpret, just like a book) and practices (things that we do): seeing movies, listening to songs, watching television shows, playing sports, going shopping—and drinking coffee.
The purpose of this introduction is to lay out a working definition of popular culture, to outline a few key concepts that will reappear in later discussion, and to give you a diagram of the way this book is put together—a “guide to the guide”—that should help make the task of piecing the bits of popular culture together a productive one. We also offer a rough guide to the field of cultural studies (see Close‐Up 1.2) for readers who want to delve further into the question of how popular culture has come to be seen as something significant and tricky enough to require a user’s guide. Just be forewarned: by the end of the book, you will still be left with extra parts and you will likely end up with a concept of popular culture that looks different from that of your neighbors. But trust us: this is a good thing


Defining Popular Culture

Like most things that form a big part of our daily lives, popular culture is familiar and obvious at first glance, but very complicated as soon as you start to think about it in any detail. Before we outline the concept of popular culture that informs this book, we suggest you take a couple of minutes to try to come up with your own working definition. When we’ve conducted this exercise in introductory university classes, a typical range of ideas tend to come up: popular culture consists of those things—products, texts, practices, and so on—that are enjoyed by lots and lots of people; popular culture is commercial culture (as opposed to, say, “high” culture, which people today still tend to associate with the things they imagine that rich people who own yachts like to do, like listen to opera or go to the symphony); popular culture consists of the traditional practices and beliefs or way of life of a specific group; and, finally, the most wide‐ranging definition of all, popular culture is simply the practices of everyday life.
What is interesting about these definitions is not just their range but their differences—differences that are shaped to a large degree by the way we understand the terms “popular” and “culture.” It is worth taking the time to think about these different ideas, but not so we can dismiss some of them to identify a correct definition. Like most other important social concepts—concepts such as democracy, progress, justice, civilization, and so on that produce the shape of the societies we live in—it does not really make sense to hope for a correct definition that would likely solve the puzzle of all of these different meanings by establishing the essential one supposedly lurking in their midst. Rather, we want to suggest that popular culture is informed by all of these perspectives, not just in the sense that each is partially true, but also in the sense that the tension between them is fundamental to understanding the meaning of popular culture today. So before we erect a definition of popular culture that we can all feel comfortable inhabiting, we need to think about this tension. This may initially seem to be a frustratingly circuitous and unhelpful route to finding out the “facts.” However, such meanderings are a critical part of the study of culture, in which the question of meaning is never evident but always up for negotiation and disagreement.

What Is Culture?

When we ask our students to track the word “culture” as it is used in the media and other sources, two things tend to emerge: (i) culture (along with variations such as multiculturalism) gets mentioned a lot, implying that it is a significant concept in our society, and one that we likely can’t do without; and (ii) it appears in many different, often contradictory, contexts, suggesting that exactly how it signifies is hard to pin down. When we talk about culture in the sense of building opera houses, the word obviously means something different than when we talk about Western culture or youth culture, national culture or business culture. Culture in the first sense—the one that fits with opera houses, ballet, and Shakespeare, which for convenience we’ll call capital‐C Culture—focuses on what we usually think of as high‐end creative production: artistic pursuits that are enjoyed by an elite minority as opposed to more accessible leisure activities, such as sports. These kinds of cultural productions are those that have over time (they are often associated with the past) assumed an especially privileged place in the collection of ideas and artifacts that comprise a cultural tradition.
A second definition encompasses a much broader understanding of culture as a whole way of life of a society or a distinct subsection of society: along with art, it encompasses everyday rituals such as meals, work, religious observances, sports, sex, family, and friendship. Implicitly opposed to “nature,” which we associate with biology (the things we share with the living nonhuman world), “culture” in this context refers to the practices that define us, collectively and in distinct groups, as human. This definition of culture, or something close to it, informs the disciplines of the social sciences—particularly anthropology, which until recently tended to focus on the cultures of preindustrial societies. When we go on vacation to experience other cultures, it is this sense of culture that we are making reference to: a glimpse into a different way of life organized according to its own principles and around its own unique practices.

The Mass Media

Interestingly, neither the familiar humanities definition of culture nor the one employed by traditional anthropologists adequately encompasses the experience of living in a postmodern capitalist society—the experience of most of us who teach and study those subjects—which is a way of life increasingly dominated by the mass media. Not only do the mass media tend to fall outside the definitions of culture centered around elite artistic production or the practices of ordinary everyday life; they also are frequently cited as the thing that threatens to destroy culture in both these senses: while one set of critics laments the dumbing‐down of Shakespeare to satisfy the tastes of a mass audience in Hollywood productions such as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, O (based on Othello), or 10 Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew), another warns of the corruption of “authentic” grassroots cultures by the global entertainment industry, which has made it more difficult to find cultures that are all that different from our own in our travels. While they come from different places, what these criticisms have in common is an element of nostalgia, a feeling that something has been lost, that a once pure realm of culture has become contaminated by commerce. It is the desire to understand this world‐contaminated‐by‐commerce that motivates the relatively new discipline of cultural studies, into which this book fits (and whose development as an academic field is discussed in more detail later in this chapter).

Objects of Study

To avoid the limitations of earlier definitions of culture, cultural studies defines its object of study in very broad terms. One definition, offered in Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies, describes culture as “the social production and reproduction of sense, meaning and consciousness. The sphere of meaning, which unifies the spheres of production (economics) and social relations (politics)” (O’Sullivan et al. 68). This is a useful definition insofar as it manages to encompass a wide variety of “meaning‐producing” practices and technologies, including both traditional definitions of culture—fine art and everyday practices—and mass media. Of course, while the incorporation of these diverse meanings into one functional frame might give us a quick snapshot of what it is that cultural studies actually studies—the kinds of things that it looks at and why it is that it looks at them—it is difficult to ignore that the different conceptions of culture that are named in this definition are historically not only different but also contradictory.
Rather than seeking to smooth over these contradictions, cultural studies is interested in actively teasing them out and laying them bare. It is committed to an understanding of culture that does not just expand on earlier definitions to include practices, objects, and people that tended, for different reasons, to get left out (such as television game shows, science fiction novels, or skateboarding), but also thinks about why and how such inclusions and exclusions occur in the first place. This means that cultural studies thinks deeply about the connections betw...

Inhaltsverzeichnis