A Glossary of Cultural Theory


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Rather than seeking answers that will hold for all time, cultural studies develops flexible tools that adapt to this rapidly changing world. Cultural life is not only concerned with symbolic communication, it is also the domain in which we set collective tasks for ourselves and begin to grapple with them as changing communities.

Cultural studies is devoted to understanding the processes through which societies and the diverse groups within them come to terms with history, community life, and the challenges of the future. What is Cultural Studies? Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. Grossberg, Lawrence. Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. Cultural Studies. This has entailed the adoption of a particular approach. I have not tried to write a history of the encounter between cultural theory and popular culture.

Instead, I have chosen to focus on the theoretical and methodological impli- cations and ramifications of specific moments in the history of the study of popular culture. To avoid misunderstanding and misrepresentation, I have allowed critics and theorists, when and where appropriate, to speak in their own words. In doing this, I am in agreement with the view expressed by the American liter- ary historian Walter E. Try to define them and you lose their essence, their special colour and tone. They have to be apprehended in their concrete and living formulation.

However, this book is not intended as a substitute for reading first-hand the theorists and critics discussed here. And, although each chapter ends with suggestions for further reading, these are intended to supplement the reading of the primary texts discussed in the individual chapters details of which are located in the Notes at the end of the book. Above all, the intention of this book is to provide an introduction to the academic study of popular culture.

As I have already indicated, I am under no illusion that this is a fully adequate account, or the only possible way to map the conceptual landscape that is the subject of this study. My hope is that this version of the relationship between popular culture and cultural theory will encourage other students of popular culture to begin their own mapping of the field. Finally, I hope I have written a book that can offer something to both those familiar with the subject and those to whom — as an academic subject at least — it is all very new.

I would also like to thank colleagues in the University of Sunderland Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, and friends at other institutions, for ideas and encouragement. I would also like to thank Natalie Foster of Routledge for giving me the opportunity to write a seventh edition. Photo 4. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives. Photo 5. Photo 6. Courtesy of Department of Education.

Photo 7. Photo 9. Photo Courtesy of Arts Library Manchester.

Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders and we apologize in advance for any unintentional omissions. We would be pleased to insert the appropriate acknowledgement in any subsequent edition of this publication. Before we consider in detail the different ways in which popular culture has been defined and analysed, I want to outline some of the general features of the debate that the study of popular culture has generated. It is not my intention to pre-empt the specific findings and arguments that will be presented in the following chapters.

Here I simply wish to map out the general conceptual landscape of popular culture. This is, in many ways, a daunting task. As we shall see in the chapters that follow, popular culture is always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories: folk culture, mass culture, high culture, dominant culture, working-class culture. A full definition must always take this into account. Therefore, to study popular culture we must first confront the difficulty posed by the term itself. For it will almost certainly be the case that the kind of analysis we do and the theoretical frame we employ to do this analysis will be largely shaped by the definition of popular culture we use.

The main argument that I suspect readers will take from this book is that popular culture is in effect an empty conceptual category, one that can be filled in a wide variety of often conflicting ways, depending on the context of use. Williams suggests three broad definitions. We could, for example, speak about the cultural development of Western Europe and be referring only to intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic factors — great philosophers, great artists and great poets. This would be a perfectly understandable formulation. Using this definition, if we speak of the cultural development of Western Europe, we would have in mind not just intellectual and aesthetic factors, but the development of, for example, literacy, holidays, sport, religious festivals.

In other words, culture here means the texts and practices whose principal function is to signify, to produce or to be the occasion for the production of meaning. Using this definition, we would probably think of examples such as poetry, the novel, ballet, opera and fine art. The second meaning — culture as a particular way of life — would allow us to speak of such practices as the seaside holiday, the celebration of Christmas, and youth subcultures, as examples of culture.

These are usually referred to as lived cultures or practices. The third meaning — culture as signifying practices — would allow us to speak of soap opera, pop music, and comics as examples of culture. These are usually referred to as texts. Ideology Before we turn to the different definitions of popular culture, there is another term we have to think about: ideology. Ideology is a crucial concept in the study of popular culture. Like culture, ideology has many competing meanings. An understanding of this concept is often complicated by the fact that in much cultural analysis the concept is used interchangeably with culture itself, and especially popular culture.

The fact that ideology has been used to refer to the same conceptual terrain as culture and popular culture makes it an important term in any understanding of the nature of popular culture. What follows is a brief discussion of just five of the many ways of understanding ideology. We will consider only those meanings that have a bearing on the study of popular culture. First, ideology can refer to a systematic body of ideas articulated by a particular group of people.

Here we would be referring to the collection of political, economic and social ideas that inform the aspirations and activities of the party. A second definition suggests a certain masking, distortion or concealment. Ideology is used here to indicate how some texts and practices present distorted images of reality. Such distortions, it is argued, work in the interests of the powerful against the interests of the powerless.

Using this definition, we might speak of capitalist ideology. What would be intimated by this usage would be the way in which ideology conceals the reality of domination from those in power: the dominant class do not see themselves as exploiters or oppres- sors. And, perhaps more importantly, the way in which ideology conceals the reality of subordination from those who are powerless: the subordinate classes do not see themselves as oppressed or exploited.

This definition derives from certain assumptions about the circumstances of the production of texts and practices. This is one of the fundamental assumptions of classical Marxism. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which there arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social conscious- ness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general 3. What Marx is suggesting is that the way a society organizes the means of its material production will have a determining effect on the type of culture that society produces or makes possible.

In Chapter 4, we shall consider this formulation in more detail.

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We can also use ideology in this general sense to refer to power relations outside those of class. For instance, feminists speak of the power of patriarchal ideology, and how it operates to conceal, mask and distort gender relations in our society see Chapter 7. In Chapter 8 we shall examine the ideology of racism. This usage is intended to draw attention to the way in which texts television fiction, pop songs, novels, feature films, etc.

This definition depends on a notion of society as conflictual rather than consensual, structured around inequality, exploitation and oppression. Texts are said to take sides, consciously or unconsciously, in this conflict. There is no play and no theatrical performance which does not in some way affect the dispositions and conceptions of the audience. That is, they offer competing ideological significations of the way the world is or should be.

A fourth definition of ideology is one associated with the early work of the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes discussed in more detail in Chapter 6. What was being suggested is that the socialism of the Labour Party is synonymous with social, economic and political imprisonment. Moreover, it hoped to locate socialism in a binary relationship in which it connoted unfreedom, whilst conservatism connoted freedom. For Barthes, this would be a classic example of the operations of ideology, the attempt to make universal and legitimate what is in fact partial and particular; an attempt to pass off that which is cultural i.

This is made clear in such formulations as a female pop singer, a black journalist, a working-class writer, a gay comedian. A fifth definition is one that was very influential in the s and early s. It is the definition of ideology developed by the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. We shall discuss Althusser in more detail in Chapter 4. Here I will simply outline some key points about one of his definitions of ideology. What he means by this is that ideology is encountered in the practices of everyday life and not simply in certain ideas about everyday life.

Principally, what Althusser has in mind is the way in which certain rituals and customs have the effect of binding us to the social order: a social order that is marked by enormous inequalities of wealth, status and power. Using this definition, we could describe the seaside holiday or the celebration of Christmas as examples of ideological practices.

This would point to the way in which they offer pleasure and release from the usual demands of the social order, but, ultimately, return us to our places in the social order, refreshed and ready to tolerate our exploitation and oppression until the next official break comes along. In this sense, ideology works to reproduce the social conditions and social relations necessary for the economic conditions and economic relations of capitalism to continue.

So far we have briefly examined different ways of defining culture and ideology. What should be clear by now is that culture and ideology do cover much the same conceptual landscape. Popular culture There are various ways to define popular culture. This book is of course in part about that very process, about the different ways in which various critical approaches have attempted to fix the meaning of popular culture. Therefore, all I intend to do for the remainder of this chapter is to sketch out six definitions of popular culture that, in their different, general ways, inform the study of popular culture.

An obvious starting point in any attempt to define popular culture is to say that popular culture is simply culture that is widely favoured or well liked by many people. And, undoubtedly, such a quantitative index would meet the approval of many people. We could also examine attendance records at concerts, sporting events and festivals. We could also scrutinize market research figures on audience preferences for different television programmes.

Such counting would undoubtedly tell us a great deal. The difficulty might prove to be that, paradoxically, it tells us too much. Unless we can agree on a figure over which something becomes popular culture, and below which it is just culture, we might find that widely favoured or well liked by many people included so much as to be virtually useless as a conceptual definition of popular culture. Despite this problem, what is clear is that any definition of popular culture must include a quantitative dimension. The popular of popular culture would seem to demand it.

What is also clear, however, is that on its own, a quantitative index is not enough to provide an adequate definition of popular culture.

A glossary of cultural theory /Peter Brooker. – National Library

A second way of defining popular culture is to suggest that it is the culture that is left over after we have decided what is high culture. In other words, it is a definition of popular culture as inferior culture. For example, we might want to insist on formal complexity. In other words, to be real culture, it has to be difficult.

Being difficult thus ensures its exclusive status as high culture. Its very difficulty literally excludes, an exclusion that guarantees the exclusivity of its audience. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that cultural distinctions of this kind are often used to support class distinctions. This will be discussed in more detail in Chapters 9 and This definition of popular culture is often supported by claims that popular culture is mass-produced commercial culture, whereas high culture is the result of an individual act of creation.

The latter, therefore, deserves a moral and aesthetic response; the former requires only a fleeting sociological inspection to unlock what little it has to offer. Whatever the method deployed, those who wish to make the case for the division between high and popular culture generally insist that the division between the two is absolutely clear. Moreover, not only is this division clear, it is trans-historical — fixed for all time. This latter point is usually insisted on, especially if the division is dependent on supposed essential textual qualities.

There are many problems with this certainty. For example, William Shakespeare is now seen as the epitome of high culture, yet as late as the nineteenth century his work was very much a part of popular theatre. Similarly, film noir can be seen to have crossed the border supposedly separating popular and high culture: in other words, what started as popular cinema is now the preserve of academics and film clubs.

Even the most rigorous defenders of high culture would not want to exclude Pavarotti or Puccini from its select enclave. Such commercial success on any quantitative analysis would make the composer, the performer and the aria popular culture. Other students laughed and mocked. About , people were expected, but because of heavy rain, the number of those who actually attended was around , Two things about the event are of interest to a student of popular culture.

The first is the enormous popularity of the event. His obvious popularity would appear to call into question any clear division between high and popular culture. It is therefore interesting to note the way in which the event was reported in the media. All the British tabloids carried news of the event on their front pages. The Daily Mirror, for instance, had five pages devoted to the concert. What the tabloid coverage reveals is a clear attempt to define the event for popular culture. When the event was reported on television news programmes the following lunchtime, the tabloid coverage was included as part of the general meaning of the event.

The old certainties of the cultural landscape suddenly seemed in doubt. Although such comments invoked the spectre of high-culture exclusivity, they seemed strangely at a loss to offer any purchase on the event. The apparently obvious cultural division between high and popular culture no longer seemed so obvious. An example of this usage would be: it was a popular performance. Yet, on the other hand, something is said to be bad for the very same reason.

Consider the binary oppositions in Table 1. This is principally the work of the education system and its promotion of a selective tradition see Chapter 3. This draws heavily on the previous definition. The mass culture perspective will be discussed in some detail in Chapter 2; therefore all I want to do here is to suggest the basic terms of this definition.

The first point that those who refer to popular culture as mass culture want to establish is that popular culture is a hopelessly commercial culture. It is mass-produced for mass consumption. Its audience is a mass of non-discriminating consumers. The culture itself is formulaic, manipulative to the political right or left, depending on who is doing the analysis.

It is a culture that is consumed with brain-numbed and brain- numbing passivity. Simon Frith also points out that about 80 per cent of singles and albums lose money. Such statistics should clearly call into question the notion of consumption as an automatic and passive activity see Chapters 7 and This usually takes one of two forms: a lost organic community or a lost folk culture. The Frankfurt School, as we shall see in Chapter 4, locate the lost golden age not in the past, but in the future. The claim that popular culture is American culture has a long history within the theoretical mapping of popular culture.

Its central theme is that British culture has declined under the homogenizing influence of American culture.

There are two things we can say with some confidence about the United States and popular culture. Second, although the availability of American culture worldwide is undoubted, how what is available is consumed is at the very least contradictory see Chapter 9. What is true is that in the s one of the key periods of Americanization , for many young people in Britain, American culture represented a force of liberation against the grey certainties of British everyday life.

What is also clear is that the fear of Americanization is closely related to a distrust regardless of national origin of emerging forms of popular culture. As with the mass culture perspective generally, there are political left and political right versions of the argument. Popular culture 9 There is what we might call a benign version of the mass culture perspective. The texts and practices of popular culture are seen as forms of public fantasy. Popular culture is understood as a collective dream world.

In this sense, cultural practices such as Christmas and the seaside holiday, it could be argued, function in much the same way as dreams: they articulate, in a disguised form, collective but repressed wishes and desires. Structuralism, although not usually placed within the mass culture perspective, and certainly not sharing its moralistic approach, nevertheless sees popular culture as a sort of ideological machine that more or less effortlessly reproduces the prevailing structures of power.

There is little space for reader activity or textual contradiction. Chapter 6 will consider these issues in some detail. This is popular culture as folk culture: a culture of the people for the people. No matter how much we might insist on this definition, the fact remains that people do not spontaneously produce culture from raw materials of their own making.

Whatever popular culture is, what is certain is that its raw materials are those that are commercially provided. This approach tends to avoid the full implications of this fact. Critical analysis of pop and rock music is particularly replete with this kind of analysis of popular culture. The fact that they had already used a song by the Clash would not shake this conviction.

But this had already happened to the Clash, a band with equally sound political credentials. This circular exchange came to a stop. The cultural studies use of the concept of hegemony would, at the very least, have fuelled further discussion see Chapter 4. A fifth definition of popular culture, then, is one that draws on the political analysis of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, particularly on his development of the concept of hegemony.

This will be discussed in some detail in Chapter 4. The process is historical labelled popular culture one moment, and another kind of culture the next , but it is also synchronic moving between resistance and incorporation at any given historical moment. For instance, the seaside holiday began as an aristocratic event and within a hundred years it had become an example of popular culture. Film noir started as despised popular cinema and within thirty years had become art cinema. In general terms, those looking at popular culture from the perspective of hegemony theory tend to see it as a terrain of ideological struggle between dominant and subordinate classes, dominant and sub- ordinate cultures.

As Bennett explains, The field of popular culture is structured by the attempt of the ruling class to win hegemony and by forms of opposition to this endeavour. The compromise equilibrium of hegemony can also be employed to analyse different types of conflict within and across popular culture. The Conservative Party political broadcast, discussed earlier, reveals this process in action. Also, as we shall see in Chapter 7, feminism has always recognized the importance of cultural struggle within the con- tested landscape of popular culture.

Feminist presses have published science fiction, detective fiction and romance fiction. Such cultural interventions represent an attempt to articulate popular genres for feminist politics. It is also possible, using hegemony theory, to locate the struggle between resistance and incorporation as taking place within and across individual popular texts and practices. Thus a text is made up of a contradictory mix of different cultural forces.

How these elements are articulated will depend in part on the social circumstances and historical conditions of production and consumption. David Morley has modified the model to take into account discourse and subjectivity: seeing reading as always an interaction between the discourses of the text and the discourses of the reader see Storey, a. There is another aspect of popular culture that is suggested by hegemony theory. This is of course to make popular culture a profoundly political concept.

Popular culture is a site where the construction of everyday life may be examined. The point of doing this is not only academic — that is, as an attempt to understand a process or practice — it is also political, to examine the power relations that constitute this form of everyday life and thus reveal the configurations of interests its construction serves Turner, 6. A sixth definition of popular culture is one informed by recent thinking around the debate on postmodernism.

This will be the subject of Chapter 9. All I want to do now is to draw attention to some of the basic points in the debate about the relationship between postmodernism and popular culture. The main point to insist on here is the claim that postmodern culture is a culture that no longer recognizes the distinction between high and popular culture. As we shall see, for some this is a reason to celebrate an end to an elitism constructed on arbitrary distinctions of culture; for others it is a reason to despair at the final victory of commerce over culture.

For example, there is a growing list of artists who have had hit records as a result of their songs appearing in television commercials. Moreover, it is now possible to buy CDs that consist of the songs that have become successful, or have become successful again, as a result of being used in advertisements. There is a wonderful circularity to this: songs are used to sell products and the fact that they do this successfully is then used to sell the songs.

Those on the political right might worry about what it is doing to the status of real culture. This has resulted in a sustained debate in cultural studies.

What is Cultural Studies?

The significance of popular culture is central to this debate. This, and other questions, will be explored in Chapter 9. It is a definition of culture and popular culture that depends on there being in place a capitalist market economy. This of course makes Britain the first country to produce popular culture defined in this historically restricted way. There are other ways to define popular culture, which do not depend on this particular history or these particular circumstances, but they are definitions that fall outside the range of the cultural theorists and the cultural theory discussed in this book.

The argument, which underpins this particular periodiza- tion of popular culture, is that the experience of industrialization and urbanization changed fundamentally the cultural relations within the landscape of popular culture. As a result of industrialization and urbanization, three things happened, which together had the effect of redrawing the cultural map. First of all, industrialization changed the relations between employees and employers.

Second, urbaniza- tion produced a residential separation of classes. For the first time in British history there were whole sections of towns and cities inhabited only by working men and women. Third, the panic engendered by the French Revolution — the fear that it might be imported into Britain — encouraged successive governments to enact a variety of repressive measures aimed at defeating radicalism. Political radicalism and trade unionism were not destroyed, but driven underground to organize beyond the influence of middle-class interference and control.

These three factors combined to produce a cultural space outside of the paternalist considerations of the earlier common culture. The result was the production of a cultural space for the generation of a popular culture more or less outside the controlling influence of the dominant classes. How this space was filled was a subject of some controversy for the founding fathers of culturalism see Chapter 3.

A great deal of the difficulty arises from the absent other which always haunts any definition we might use. It is never enough to speak of popular culture; we have always to acknowledge that with which it is being contrasted. Most of the time and for most people it simply is culture. This of course makes an understanding of the range of ways of theorizing popular culture all the more important.

This book, then, is about the theorizing that has brought us to our present state of thinking on popular culture. It is about how the changing terrain of popular culture has been explored and mapped by different cultural theorists and different theoretical approaches.

Other Titles by Peter Brooker

It is upon their shoulders that we stand when we think critically about popular culture. The aim of this book is to introduce readers to the different ways in which popular culture has been analysed and the different popular cultures that have been articulated as a result of the process of analysis. For it must be remembered that popular culture is not a historically fixed set of popular texts and practices, nor is it a historically fixed conceptual category. The object under theoretical scrutiny is both historically variable, and always in part constructed by the very act of theoretical engagement.

This is further complicated by the fact that different theoretical perspectives have tended to focus on particular areas of the popular cultural landscape.


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The most common division is between the study of texts popular fiction, television, pop music, etc. The aim of this book, therefore, is to provide readers with a map of the terrain to enable them to begin their own explorations, to begin their own mapping of the main theoretical and political debates that have characterized the study of popular culture. As the claim suggests, context is always crucial to an understanding of what some- thing means.

But what is a context?

Cultural Theory: An Anthology

The word context comes into English in the late fifteenth century. It derives from the Latin words contextus, meaning to join together, and contexere, meaning to weave together. Knowing its origins helps us to understand its current use. First, contexts are the other texts that make a particular text fully meaningful. These other texts join together with the text in question to produce meaning. However, we should not think of contexts as only texts being joined with other texts.

When we try to make sense of a text we always bring to it a set of presuppositions, which provide a framework for our analysis. These assumptions help construct a specific context for our understanding of the text — these are woven together around the text to be analysed. The contextuality of meaning 15 Establishing this context allows us to read the novel in a very particular way.

However, if we use psychoanalysis or feminism to interpret the novel, it is this mode of analysis that produces the context for our understanding of the novel. In these examples Dracula is articulated i. In these ways, then, contexts are both the co-texts of a text the texts we join to a particular text and the inter-texts brought to the text by a reader the texts we weave around a particular text in order to fully understand it.

The first is an extension of the text in question and the second is something that helps to construct a new understanding of the text. Another way of saying everything I have said about texts and contexts is simply to say texts do not have intrinsic meanings; meaning is something that a text acquires in a particular context. But a context is only ever a temporary fixing of meaning, as contexts change meaning changes.

Take, for example, the Union Jack, the national flag of the UK. It can signify different things in a variety of contexts. The meaning of the flag is always con- textual — its meaning changes as it is situated in different contexts.

New Historicism & Cultural Studies (RSA)

The texts that establish contexts can be anything that enables and constrains mean- ing. For example, watching television is rarely like reading a book. Whereas we tend to read in silence as we concentrate on the words on the page, eating, drinking, chatting, playing with children, tidying up, and a whole range of other activities, often accom- pany watching television. We should not of course think of a context as something stable and fixed, waiting passively for the inclusion of a particular text.

Just as a context enables and constrains the meaning of a text, a text constrains and enables the meaning of a context — it is an active and inter- active relationship. Similarly, situating Dracula in its original historical moment of emergence changes how we see this particular historical period. And watching television changes how we eat, drink, chat, play with children or tidy up.

To conclude this brief discussion of contextuality, we understand things in contexts; we also create contexts by our modes of understanding, and contexts change as a con- sequence of our inclusion of a particular text. Possible contexts for a text are almost endless. The chapters that follow will offer many examples of contextual analysis.

Notes 1. For an excellent discussion of Shakespeare as popular culture in nineteenth-century America, see Lawrence Levine What was, in America itself, a series of low-budget B-productions of little critical prestige, was miraculously transformed, through the intervention of the French gaze, into a sublime object of art, a kind of film pendant to philosophical existen- tialism.

For a discussion of opera in popular culture, see Storey, a, , and a. See Storey, and Further reading Storey, John ed. This is the companion volume to this book. It contains examples of most of the work discussed here. The books share an interactive website www. The website has links to other useful sites and electronic resources. As the title implies, this is a book about cultural studies written from a perspective sympathetic to the Frankfurt School. Allen, Robert C.

Although this collection is specifically focused on television, it contains some excellent essays of general interest to the student of popular culture. An interesting collection of essays, covering both theory and analysis.

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