Culture Notes (AMS179)

Popular Culture

pop is usually defined in opposition to some other sort of culture (ex. “high” culture)

related to this opposition is a view of pop as a symptom of decline; as the culture of those without culture. an ersatz culture. there are left- and right-wing variants of this argument: on the left, pop as a kind of mass culture used to keep people opiated. on the right, pop undermines tradition.

Raymond Williams. defines culture in several ways:

“a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development”– i.e. as training for the individual but also on a larger scale, ex. the cultural development of Europe, Africa, the American South, etc.

“a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, or a group”– a broader, more anthropological definition which would extend beyond a canon of great works. In this usage, all groups have their own culture. taken to an extreme we can think of not only the culture of a particular religious or ethnic group but the culture of computer programmers, the culture of cookie jar collectors, etc.

“works and practices of intellectual and esp. artistic activity”– a focus on products (texts) and practices (“signifying/material practices”)

culture, then, for our purposes, has to do with text, practice, value, experience (and of necessity subjectivity and identity)


well-liked by many


directed at gaining acceptance from many people

culture made by the people

the popular is not simply a function of numbers– how many units sold

according to a theory of mass culture, pop is that which is uncritically absorbed by the masses who become receptacles for transmitted ideology

pop-as-resistance: mass culture may be debased but it provides the materials & opportunities for oppositional consumption practices (assertion of alternate values/identities, “media-fucking”)

pop as an arena for the antagonism of conflicting political views– corporate media dreck vs. “organic, roots-up cultural production”

identification (identity practices): from a fairly uncomplicated identification with the content presented (the trim-torsoed hero, the value of sacrifice in the face of an under-handed enemy, etc.) to a rejection of that content (or its detournement, or its negotiation).

Additional and general remarks on Culture:

we tend to use culture in the anthropological sense to mean practices and values, a departure from late 19th C & early 20th C definitions which focused on “high” culture

“culture begins at the point at which humans surpass whatever is simply given in their natural inheritance” (Edgar and Sedgewick 102).

the city as a crucial space for the transaction and production of culture. the rise of the city and cosmopolitanism.

culture as activity, as the point of contact between thought and matter.

culture as an abstraction, as a category that immediately invokes that which lies beyond it. to speak of culture is to tacitly invoke that which it is not– i.e., “non-culture” or Nature.

culture as a site of socialization, as a space where the contradictions & disturbances of civil society might be resolved. “a sort of premature utopia abolishing struggle at an imaginary level” in order to “not resolve it at a political one” (Eagleton 7).

as a site of self-realization or identification

as “the arts”

“civilization” vs. “kultur” (culture): civ. glosses national differences whereas culture highlights them.

culture performs descriptive, evaluative and normative functions

cultural relativism, the pluralization of culture

culture is no longer simply positive: racist culture, misogynist culture, etc.

culture as a critique of the insufficiency of the way things are.

canonicity: in the face of a civilization which seems crude, unreflective and predatory we construct a realm of aesthetic experience into which we may escape.

culture as a space in which we may compare present realities with future potentialities.

Thus, “culture can unite fact and value, as both an account of the actual and a foretaste of the desirable.”

Below: “detournement” from Ken Knabb’s Bureau of Pubic Secrets