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Essay

1451 words - 6 pages

Pop Culture: an essay
First, a definition. You will notice that the phrase is made from separable units: popular, and culture. Popular, I think, expresses the essential character of a high-tech, media-dominated age. Hence, by popular culture, I do not mean a culture everyone “likes” — as common usage would have it (“she’s the most popular gal in grade nine!”). If the media are correct, this is emphatically not the character of popular culture. No: pop culture is a “popular” one because it addresses itself to and thereby captivates the attention of The People. Every day each person is addressed by cultural institutions — television for instance — which assume as their audience nothing short ...view middle of the document...

And let us not forget perversions and heresies as well; for a culture, if it is to be vibrant, must somehow appropriate to itself that which issues a threatening challenge or a deplored variation. The language in which we express “that which is held in high esteem” will be necessarily variegated; not the Queen’s English certainly, but a jostling Creole, what Mikhail Bakhtin called “heteroglossia,” or “differing tongues.” Culture is a grab-bag of contending but mostly peacefully coexisting perceptions and representations of the world and of our place within it. The strength of a culture is therefore to be judged by the ability (or relative inability) of its institutions to respect diversity while representing to its constituents a public: that is, a collective self-image, construed more-or-less as a people. Aristocracies accomplish this by appealing to the metaphor of the body politic, of which the King serves as head, and we ordinary folk presumably as toes, elbows, and the like. Our tastes however, inclining as they do toward democratic models, are supposedly gratified not by distinctions, but by uniformity. Hence, pop institutions labour toward the illusion that, whatever our superficial peculiarities, we are all of us of a mass, sharing certain fundamental values.
There is one further point I wish to advance before I move on. In an industrialised capitalist nation, the expression of that “which is held in high esteem,” the present definition of culture, is inextricable from the logic and ends of capitalism. That is why capitalist differ from non-capitalist societies, tribal or socialist for examples, which nonetheless also conceive of themselves as a “people.” Capitalist societies express values with dollars and cents. And I know it might sound extreme, but I suggest that everything about persons subject to capitalist social organization, including (as I’ve earlier suggested) their sex lives, is in some manner related to capitalism. (If you doubt this, call me on the 14TH of February). Popular culture is mass-produced by corporations for profit: monetary profit of course, but political and personal profit as well. And most of the time, most people are quite comfortable with this. The relations of culture, values and capitalism — and ultimately one’s personal pathway through them —  are ongoing negotiations between the agenda of the individual and the agenda of her culture’s institutions.
Last year’s attack on Time Warner, issued by American Senate leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, was an ostensible defence of the values of the people against those of popular culture. Given my argument thus far, this would appear absurd. How does one defend the values of the people against the culture of the people? Dole’s manoeuvre is a familiar one: he accused Time Warner of representing, not the people, but the “elitist” interests of capital. Whether Dole was right to accuse Time Warner of disregarding the values of the people in...

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