We should begin the course by defining the terms in its title, Popular and Culture. Raymond Williams’s excellent book Keywords gives the etymology and development of these concepts, available on-line here. Your assignment for Thursday is to print out and read these two short articles AND search for an alternate definition of Culture. To make the latter part of the assignment more interesting, you may not use a standard dictionary or wikipedia.
For now, we might adopt a functionalist perspective on popular culture and think about what role it fulfills in society. We can think of pop as a means of escape, as dope, as a space for working out social contradictions such as class conflict, as a kind of dreaming, as pleasure, as a platform for the enunciation of ideas. We should think about what we do when we consume popular culture and how those activities relate to the concepts of leisure and free time. Is pop an autonomous space, an experience which gives us a sense of freedom or of equality (with other consumers of pop)? Or is pop a kind of cul-de-sac, a range of products and practices which effectively contain deeper desires for liberation from the routines of everyday life? These sorts of questions will lead us inevitably to another key concept for the study of popular culture, ideology.
There are at least 5 ways that ideology has been defined in order to aid in the analysis of culture. In its most basic sense, ideology is a system of ideas– for example a political party’s ideology. Yet on another level ideology indicates that which is hidden , concealed, deformed or distorted– i.e. “false consciousness,” for instance as values or ideas that conceal a true social reality. In this view of contemporary society a dominant social power maintains its control via a misleading set of messages and suppositions. This perspective often relies on the notion that hard socio-economic facts (“the base”) produce ideo-cultural effects (“the superstructure”). A third definition locates ideology not at the level of content but of form. Even ostensibly “neutral” cultural artifacts or genres– those with no explicit political valence– contain an ideological charge. As Stuart Hall once wrote, pop is both a moment when and a place where “collective social understandings are created.” Roland Barthes, a French philosopher, held that ideology is present primarily at the level of connotation, a realm of meaning, social in origin, which exceeds the merely literal. He described ideology as “the attempt to make universal and legitimate what is in fact partial and particular.” Finally, we might consider ideology not simply as insubstantial ideas but as “material practices”– that is, ideas which are of necessity embodied, practiced, and present in our ordinary lives. If ideology is lived daily, it assumes an almost reflexive character. According to this understanding the function of ideology is to reproduce existing social relations. Common to all of these conceptions of ideology, it should be said, is the notion of power.