Populists vs. Pessimists

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One of the major, though seldom discussed, elements of using popular culture in the classroom concerns our (that is, instructors’) attitude toward it. For many years, that attitude tended to be negative, whether one approached popular culture from the conservative side (as did F.R. and Q.D. Leavis in the 1930s) or from the socialist side (as did Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in the 1940s). For each faction popular culture, which they called “mass culture,” was something bad—either a democratic challenge to the cultural hegemony of the ruling classes (as the Leavises believed) or a means by which capitalism maintains itself through the agency of what Horkheimer and Adorno called the “culture industry.” With the founding of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1960s, this attitude began to shift toward an increasing valorization of popular culture as a site for the expression of cultural subversion. For such popular cultural “populists,” the consumers of popular culture do not passively consume the products of the culture industry but instead actively put them to their own uses. Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), a study of the British Punk movement, is a particularly well- known example of the populist perspective. But even Hebdige came to observe that he had underestimated the power of consumer culture to co-opt even such a raucous movement as the Punks. And as I look around at American popular culture today, I have to confess that I find myself more with the pessimists than the populists. The question is why, and how can I justify that position? It isn’t that I agree with Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument that popular culture is a kind of capitalist conspiracy to reproduce capitalism endlessly. I simply don’t think that anyone in the culture industry thinks that far ahead or that deeply. The goal in the entertainment business is solely to make as much money as possible, and I really don’t think that it goes any further than this. So what's the problem? Why the pessimism? Here is where popular culture semiotics—the situating of a topic in the broadest possible cultural context—can provide a perspective. To begin with, in the last half century popular culture has assumed such a commanding role within our society that we have become what I call an “entertainment culture.” One would think that if popular culture had a socially progressive affect we would be seeing it. But what I am seeing is a puzzling (actually dismaying) increase in economic inequality, along with full-scale assaults on both the working and the middle class, in our society (take, for example, the triumph of the anti-union movement in state after state, including such traditional bastions of populist empowerment as Wisconsin). Given that, technically, the working and middle classes constitute the overwhelming plurality of voters in this country, we have to ask why they are not only putting up with all this but are often voting for it? I believe that the explanation for this paradox is the most important social question of our time, and of course any explanation would have to be vastly overdetermined. Certainly popular culture alone cannot be held responsible. But I believe it plays a significant role. From the atomizing effects of consumerism, to the obsessive celebration of wealth and power that we find in the rituals of celebrity worship (do we really need all these entertainment industry awards ceremonies?), to the generalized pop cultural suggestion that personal pleasure is all that really matters in life (can you spell Charlie Sheen?), our entertainment culture helps sow the seeds whose crop is contemporary American society. That is why I regard the study of popular culture as a profoundly serious matter. To subject it to semiotic analysis is to seek an understanding of where we are going and where we have been. And you can’t change direction if you don’t know what road you’re on.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late 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.