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Politics and Popular Culture

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One of the most common objections from students whose instructors use popular culture as a basis for teaching writing and critical thinking skills in their classes is that it (pop culture) "is only entertainment," and that any attempt to think critically about it is "reading something into it" that isn't there.   Well, I think that the results of the latest round of Emmy Awards should finally put an end to any such complaints, because the sweeping triumphs of The Handmaid's Tale and Saturday Night Live have made it quite clear that the entertainment industry is now a direct participant in American politics.

 

This is a point that has been stated explicitly in every edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. (including, of course, the 9th edition, due out in a couple of weeks), in which students are taught that the traditional line between entertainment and everyday life has been so diminished that it could be said that we live in an "entertainment culture," in which all of our activities, including the political process, are required to be entertaining as well.  The blurring of this line does not simply refer to entertainers who have become successful politicians (like Ronald Reagan, Al Franken, and, um, Donald Trump), but to the way that television shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have become major players in American electoral politics.

 

Lest the recent results at the Emmy's give the idea that the politicization of entertainment is a one-way street, navigated solely by entertainments and entertainers on the left, the same thing is going on on the right as well, and this is something that cultural analysts often miss, pretty simply because those entertainers do not tend to be part of the taste culture of cultural analysts.  Of course, it isn't only cultural analysts who have neglected the place of what I'll call the "ent-right" in American politics: by relying virtually exclusively on the support of entertainers like Beyonce´ and Lena Dunham—not to mention the crew at SNL and Jon Stewart—Hillary Clinton completely miscalculated the power of those entertainers who appeal to the voters who voted for Donald Trump.  The results of this miscalculation are hardly insignificant.

 

To give you a better idea of just how American entertainment is now parsing on political grounds, I'll provide a link to a New York Times feature article that includes fifty maps of the United States geographically showing which television programs are viewed in which regions of the country.  Referred to as a "cultural divide" in the article, what is revealed is equally a political divide.  So striking are the differences in television viewership that it would behoove future presidential election pollsters to ask people not who they are going to vote for (a question that the 2016 election appears to demonstrate is one that people do not always answer honestly) but which television programs they watch (or what kind of music they listen to, etc.. Who knows what the outcome of the 2016 election would have been if Hillary Clinton had a prominent country music icon on her side).

 

In short, popular cultural semiotics isn't merely something for the classroom (though it can begin there); it is essential to an understanding of what is happening in this country and of what is likely to happen.  And one has to look at everything, not only one's own favorite performers.  Because the purpose of analyzing entertainment is not to be entertained: it is to grasp the power of entertainment.

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Well first, congrats on the 9th edition, Jack! Looking forward to a copy.

I have to point out a sad, yet ironic post script to your blog: This disgusting affair with Harvey Weinstein. While I can go on about men in power positions, it's interesting to see the responses on the left and the right. Everyone from actors, Fox News, Hillary Clinton, to Harvey Weinstein himself is putting a political spin about "liberal, Hollywood hypocrisy," reinforcing your argument about this marriage between popular culture and real-world politics. 

Too bad Weinstein, like his portfolio of films, was simply fantastical myth-making.

Curious about your thoughts. 

Eric

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Hi Eric,

If I have learned anything from my daily surveys of such online academic news sources as Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is that saying just about anything on the web that could be taken to have a politically partisan spin is fraught with danger for an academic.  But the interesting thing about cultural semiotic analysis is that it is essentially non-partisan; for while the conclusions that can be drawn from it may be used to support one position or another, the critical thinking it enables is ecumenical.  So to apply the semiotic view to the current topic, I would first point to the chapter on what I call the "American Paradox" that, in one way or another, has been a crucial part of five editions of Signs of Life, and which has been revised in the new edition to explicitly address the current situation in America, including the 2016 presidential election.  The paradox, in brief, is that American culture, from its founding in the early 17th century, has been divided against itself, simultaneously embracing contradictory cultural mythologies that, while often getting tangled up in amazingly complicated ways, underlie our deepest conflicts.  What we see now is, in effect, a high stakes contest for the soul of America that is based in these contradictions, and which is taking place, largely but not exclusively, in the public sphere via popular media.  In the midst of this conflict, the committing of unforced errors (to borrow a term from competitive sports) is an especially damaging setback.  One might say, then, that the fall from grace—in this particular way—of a high profile supporter of one side of the contest is an unforced error.  Similar errors have been revealed recently on the part of high profile icons of the other side of the contest, but for reasons that it would be too complicated to go into in this comment, they do not have the same impact.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics. At present he is Director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review, a task to which he frequently applies the critical thinking insights that cultural semiotics can reveal. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.