BCULT 500: Culture

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"Culture" Archive

Oxford English Dictionary Entry on "Culture"

Welcome to the "culture" archive for our collaboratory. In this particular collaboratory, we will be using this first page under the "article" tab for culture as an archive rather than the site for polishing essays. As the quarter progresses, you can create separate pages in the wiki to work collaboratively or individually on such essays. This could, for example, look something like Bruce & Ron's midterm keyword project.

This first culture page, then, can serve as both a collection point and a distribution point for building our archive on the use of these keywords and related themes as they emerge in course (or non-course) readings (articles, books, websites, newspapers, etc.); public lectures or presentations (class discussions, talks, political debates, etc.); everyday life (comments overheard on the bus or at a bar, dinner table conversations, etc.); and any other sources you discover. These categories are only one way that we might organize our archives; we encourage you to experiment with different ways of organizing these archives through the wiki, which allows for multiple taxonomies to exist without precluding each other.

We will use the “article” page to organize and archive these references, while the “discussion” or “talk” wikis (in the tabs above) will allow you to comment on individual references or connections among them. The goal is to create a rich archive of materials that will serve as the basis of the keywords projects that will be due at the midpoint and end of the quarter, which will also be linked here.

  1. What are the critical genealogies of the term "culture" and how do they affect its use today?
  2. Are there ways of thinking that are occluded and obstructed by the use of the term?
  3. What keywords constellate around it? Keywords
  4. What kinds of critical projects does your keyword enable? Project Ideas


Early Culture


Types of Culture

Another type of culture for consideration has more to do with experimentation: "I get my cultures through mail order." - personal conversation with a scientist who works at Amgen, September 2008. -nikki

Mahatma Gandhi: No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.

State and Official Culture Robin D.G. Kelley writes in Freedom Dreams, "The work of these movements taken as a whole integrates what is 'normal'; shows us how the state and official culture polices our behavior with regard to sexuality, gender roles, and social relationships; and encourages us to construct a politics rooted in desire" (5 - 6). See also Marcuse quote posted by Myrella, below. - nikki

The U.S. Constitution gives freedom of speech top priority, and many have translated this to mean freedom of speech through artistic expression: Free Speech and the Arts --Amacklin 16:08, 2 November 2008 (EST)

Culture Within a Culture

A quote to ponder from the Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar's book,Playing with Fire, "those whose feet don't get cracks in them, Can barely feel another's pain. But even when they crack do they all crack in the same way?" (27).

This is an article that I came across by accident about a group of Americans that moved outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1875 [1]. --Faith 14:45, 31 October 2008 (EDT)

Wilson perceives social structure and culture as key causes of poverty http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2008/10.09/11-wilson.html

Henry Yu writes the following in his essay, "Ethnicity," in Keywords for American Cultural Studies. "As a matter of consciousness, the racial culture of 'Negro Americans' was no different in kind than the ethnic culture of 'Polish Americans,' and purely cultural processes of assimilation could eliminate all differences between them" (104). - nikki

In the past many thought class did not exist in America, the idea is referred to as "American Exceptionalism"

[Tammy's Story] --Tattoo Mama 22:56, 20 October 2008 (EDT)

Class Action Takes Action Against Classism

After reading Richa Nagar's book, "Playing With Fire", the issue of classism and casteism invaded my mind. I found a site dedicated to not only disempowering classism through thought provoking discussions, but also basic educational material for the public viewers. [class action] Questions to think about for me pertained to the role that we play in our own communities, schools, family, neighborhoods, and work environments regarding segregation due to the power structures inherently placed within our culture. Also, during a time of economic crisis, is it possible that these dynamics will shift in a positive or negative way? Will this current state of our society further dichotomize, and polarize, the classes at both ends of the spectrum, rich and poor?--Tattoo Mama 18:33, 13 October 2008 (EDT)

Culture Fetishism For a moment, I wasn't sure I would be able to keep a straight face. I was chatting with a young woman I had recently hired to do data entry. She asked me how my classes were going, then asked what degree I was working on. When I told her it was a Masters in Cultural Studies, she responded in delight, "Oh, I love cultures! Which one is your favorite?" --Npneuen 23:05, 5 October 2008 (EDT)

References in Reading

In Marcuse's essay The Affirmative Character of Culture he argues that the meaning of culture has been thwarted to suit the needs of the ruling elite. This, he claims, is achieved through many conventional practices that polarize common social life and cultural ideals. Ideals that hold the essence of human happiness and progress. Marcuse argues that Civilization ought to be "animated and inspired by 'culture'" in a way that forms a "historically distinguishable and comprehensible unity". The perpetuation of a state of affairs which denies this true purpose of culture is what Marcuse calls Affirmative Culture.--Myrella 22:00, 6 October 2008 (EDT)

In Kelley's Freedom Dreams he speaks a great deal about cultural revolution. On page 126 he says, "proponents of a new state or repatriation to another place are really just looking for a new beginning, a place where they can be free and develop their own culture without interference." Such a place of "no interference" is imaginable, but is it possible? Don't coexisting cultures constantly interfere with one another? How could we be free to create our own personal cultures while still not restricting the rights of others to do so? --Myrella 19:41, 28 October 2008 (EDT)

From Miller and Yudice's Cultural Policy: "Indeed the very connection between world economic and political leadership, on the one hand, and cultural leadership, on the other, is built into Public Law 89-209, which brought the NEA into being: 'The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon the worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation's high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit'." (45) --Myrella 00:24, 12 November 2008 (EST)

Popular Culture

In 1986, the band They Might Be Giants wrote and recorded a song called "Youth Culture Killed My Dog":

Youth Culture killed my dog, and I don't think it's fair ...
Bacharach and David used to write his favorite songs.
Never would he worry, he'd just run and fetch the ball.
But the hip-hop and the white funk just blew away my puppy's mind.
I don't understand what you did to my dog ...

--Jeremyrh 01:26, 7 October 2008 (EDT)

On the gameshow "Who's smarter than a 5th grader?", there was a question in "4th Grade Cultural Studies." The question was: "In what country is the Taj Mahal located?" In other words, "Social Studies" is American and "Cultural Studies" is not American. Seems like a dangerous definition to me. Is this really how the two are differentiated in elementary schools? --Alanw84 20:42, 12 October 2008 (EDT)

- The film, "Smart People," (2008) gives us a recent (albeit uncomlipicated) glimpse at the rapidly institutionalizing status of cultural studies within U.S. academic institutions, and contemporary consciousness more broadly. The film centers on an arrogant, miserable Carnegie Mellon English professor who is struggling to find a publisher for his work and the motivation to remain engaged within the world. From the beginning, he is painted as a scholar who is contemptuous of his department's trends toward poststructuralist thought, innovative pedagogy, and deparmental service work. After he is "revitalized" by falling in love and becoming an expectant father we are left on the inevitable "happy" note. In this scene, Prof. Wetherhold is lecturing his class and somewhat unsurprisingly- cites Matthew Arnold (the 19th century poet and literary critic who is often heralded as a "founder" of cultural studies). He quotes Arnold's definition of culture as "culture is the pursuit of our total perfection, the best of which has been thought and said in the world." == The use of Matthew Arnold (as a figure often used to conjure and defend a retrograde purview of culture studies) and this particular definition of culture is clearly a loaded one.This portrait hints at the ways in which popular culture may hold many opportunities for which to examine and read the construction of cultural studies as a field. Furthermore, it asks us to attend to these representations as intrinsically political in nature, and always subject to intervention and renegotiation. (Jayne) == The hit AMC television show, "Mad Men," was an almost overnight smash success and won numerous Emmy's at this year's award ceremony. Yet, it's consistent viewer average remains small for cable television. This poses some really interesting questions in thinking about who defines what is a cultural "hit." At the same time, it has been influential in circulating its way through many other pop culture pockets (and allows for critical though about intertextuality). Which begs the question of how a television program has social import outside of its popularity among the public. Article that brings these questions up:

[2] Jayne

Media Culture

"We are, as Ellen Schneider of Active Voice points out, no longer independent mediamakers, but interdependent ones. That is, we are now free (no "need" for expensive tools, distributors, broadcasters, etc., to release the work to audiences) to exchange and share ideas with our "users" and thus open up a myriad of ways to approach, use, and even change the media piece and redefine its place in our communal cultural habitat. 'The work we create as individuals, or in clusters, will simply become part of the larger flow of cultural images, ideas, and evolving patterns of dialogue. In this, emerging era of open-source media, with its constant surge of new tools and delivery mechanisms, the biggest task facing us is how to understand our individual contributions and redefine their deep human value not only as entertainment or advocacy, but as a way to stimulate dialogue with oneself, the community, and throughout the global media space none of us can escape" (Michiel, Helen De. from "A mosaic of practices: public media and participatory culture").

Culture and Humor

In a recent digital short on Saturday Night Live, Andy Samberg presented "Ras Trent," a satirical characterization of a young white man who co-opts Rastafarian culture.[3] [4] --Jeremyrh 18:45, 29 October 2008 (EDT

An article in the travel section of the Seattle Times tells readers of the wonders of Buenos Aires. It states that most cultural activities are free due to government subsidies and a political push to uphold the country's reputation as one of Latin America's cultural reference points. These cultural activities are of course within the frame of art as culture, (a common popular perception of culture). Yet couldn't this type of provision of "free culture" be a step toward civic engagement? It's unfortunate that our own government has not made possible a cultural program of this sort. What might we be capable of producing within an available arena of cultural freedom? Or would certain regulations keep freedom in check? I'm curious to know what affect this program has had on society in Buenos Aires.--Myrella 21:00, 20 October 2008 (EDT)

Competing "Cultures

In an article in the Seattle Times titled "Palin attacks Obama on abortion", Palin is quoted saying that she and McCain would be "defenders of the culture of life". Then in the last televised presidential debate when asked to adress the topic of Abortion McCain began by saying "we need to change this culture".--Myrella 20:37, 20 October 2008 (EDT)

Feminist Futures

"what is less often recognized...is that women's contributions and a regard for culture are key elements in a meaningful development that aims to improve living conditions of all poor people in the south" (2). Intro to anthology, Feminist Futures

The Guerrilla Girls at the Feminist Future Symposium, MoMA.


Co opting Other Culture

White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men Part 1

White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men Part 2 --Amacklin 23:12, 2 November 2008 (EST)

Fast Food Culture


headline stating "Australians not happy with U.S. fast food, language


Define Culture

[[Media:http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/images/hands%2520globe.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/cross-cultural/intercultural-communication-translation-news/category/what-is-culture/&h=400&w=328&sz=20&hl=en&start=2&um=1&usg=__QVJl0Ex2A6kUSDUFqCtvrzt3dho=&tbnid=GZNJTFMdh9mFGM:&tbnh=124&tbnw=102&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dculture%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26rls%3Dcom.microsoft:*:IE-Address]] Interesting link with people's definition for culture from multiple geographies.

Culture Shock/Culture Crossing

I'm just curious How do we make sense of subcultures, counter-cultures and anti-cultures?

On Culture Shock

Written by Dr. Carmen Guanipa, March 17, 1998. Dept. of Counseling and School Psychology, San Diego State University. Culture Shock

Past and Present Counter-Cultural, Subcultural, Anti-Cultural Movements

Third Cultures

Essays on Science and Society: [5]



Read this article in The Stranger about a book by Bill Ivey, former chairman of the NEA, entitled Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.

The book Free Culture: How big Media uses Technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity, by Lawrence Lessig is available for free on the internet (under free content): http://www.free-culture.cc/[6] --Myrella 00:20, 12 November 2008 (EST)

Culture and Morality

In their book, Economic Gangsters [7], Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel investigate a "culture of corruption" in both the U.S. and abroad. --Jeremyrh 18:56, 24 October 2008 (EDT)

Consumer Culture and Civic Participation


Consumer culture turns into murals of trash

Laura Thomas, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The enormity of trash produced by the American consumer culture is so hard to comprehend that we fail to both react emotionally and contemplate what to do about it, Seattle photographer Chris Jordan told a receptive crowd of Bay Area designers this week.

"We are suffering because we have created this culture, this tidal wave of information that pours over us each day," he said. "And there is nowhere you can go and see it or feel it."Read more...--Amacklin 20:53, 6 December 2008 (EST)

Talk about Culture

This is a snippet of interview with James Howard Kunstler on Gentrification and can be heard or read in full context at [9]

Interview I found this to be somewhat amazing in reference to what was discussed on the TV show 'The View.' It seems race culturally speeking is a fine line of wanting to discuss this issue within a culture yet not knowing if we should. I think this is evident in the above piece because the talk show host acknowledges that it as a important issue yet also notes they will be put down for having it.--Faith 11:04, 29 October 2008 (EDT)

Hip Hop Culture

Fairness4HipHop Blog

The Culture of War

Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, talks about how the "culture of war" has changed from World War II to the Iraq War. Particularly, he highlights the contrast between compulsory service with the draft and today's "warrior class" of voluntary service.[10]--Jeremyrh 18:05, 10 November 2008 (EST)

Culture as a keyword opens doors to the human mind through which we may imagine how people make sense of the world. There is no right way or wrong way to look at culture. The best that we can do is to try to theorize about the inner workings of the human mind by looking at the outcome. In analyzing the different areas of culture we find that there are three ways to look at culture: Firstly, as a way to use culture; secondly, as a way to participate in culture; and thirdly, as a student of culture. To approach culture as a learner and not as a giver or a taker is the key to understanding it.

In analyzing culture from the perspective of a learner you will find two very distinct areas in which culture operates. The first is anthropological where humans worry about such things as preventing harm to a person, or oneself; reciprocity and fairness; loyalty to one's group; respect for authority and hierarchy; and a sense of purity or sanctity. The second is aesthetic where culture becomes symbols of status, ideology, and power.

Primum non nocere

The anthropological nature of culture is intertwined with the notions of care, fairness, loyalty, respect, and sanctity. Without an analysis of how people make choices between these different concerns we cannot come to an understanding of human behavior. The choices that are made are what we term “morality.” In mapping culture the understanding of morally acceptable behavior doesn't make it into cultural paradigms and questions shaped around social inequalities are either presumed or subsumed in the verbiage. Class, race, gender inequalities and labor-related prejudices are now increasingly embedded in the global cultural framework as well as in the policies that make up the framework. Moral behavior matters mostly because people use morality to guide them through their daily lives.

Most of us possess an intuitive and vivid sense of “world views” — the basic values that underlie people’s everyday activities. Morality exerts it's organizing force not just on the vast majority of largely tolerant, non-ideological, and under-informed middle-of-the-road people it also exerts its force on a small number of people who want the end of the status quo. Moral affiliation proves a powerful guide. It is important to look at the philosophical issues more closely because the proposed unification of all customs, religions, etc under one word, "morality," is philosophical in nature. When going through many of the readings on culture there is a fixed understanding that morality represents power and ideology, therefore, a theoretical structuring of the current order of things is a necessary starting point for any project that analysis culture.

Beyond 'Popular' and 'Elite' Culture

The Aesthetic formations of culture have been viewed so far only as either elite or popular, but, this distinction was shown to be inappropriate. "Tim Harris's study of seventeenth-century London suggests that such a 'two-tiered' model does not match the reality of a multi-tiered social hierarchy, with substantial numbers of households in the 'middling' levels; Harris suggests that the divisions caused by [morality] were as important as 'class' divisions (Harris 1989: 43–58)."

"Martin Ingram has taken a different approach, showing that there was a 'cultural consensus' uniting all social levels (Ingram 1984: 113; 1987: 167). Roger Chartier goes even deeper and asks if it is possible to establish exclusive relationships between specific cultural forms and particular social groups. He suggests that historians have a predilection to create cultural distinctions, and then set about describing them (Chartier 1987: 3; 1988: 30)."

Edward Thompson's book Custom and Culture (1993) looks broadly at 'popular custom' in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He too is well aware that the '... term "culture", with its cosy invocation of concensus, may serve to distract attention from social and cultural contradictions, from the fractures and oppositions of the whole.' (1993: 6) Thompson also notes that 'In earlier centuries the term "custom" was used to carry much of what is now carried by the word "culture".' (1993: 2)

All this leads Tessa Watt to ask 'Should we completely abandon the concept of 'popular culture', or can we find a more constructive way of using it?' (Watt 1991: 2) She answers her question by drawing upon the work of Peter Burke and Bob Scribner. Burke compares the 'great' tradition – the closed culture of educated élites - with the 'little' (or popular) tradition – open to everyone, including the élites (Burke 1978: 28). Scribner points out that this has a tendency to reduce the 'little' tradition to a residual or marginalized category. He suggests that popular culture is a unified system of shared attitudes and values. The existence of social stratification and subcultural identities cannot be ignored, but these overlapping segments are aspects of a functional whole (Scribner 1989: 181–4). Such an approach has become implicit to many recent British folklore studies, although there has been little or no debate about such key issues in, say, Folklore." Based on a section in Explore Folklore -- Bob Trubshaw

Three kinds of culture

So, we move from knowing Aesthetics is more than just elite culture or popular culture and build on the notion that culture nowadays is a product and byproduct of mass culture. "Author and cultural activist Susan Crean has strong words about how culture is organized. In this audio clip she describes some ideas she developed while working on a book called Two Nations with French-Canadian critic Marcel Rioux. What is most important here is that Crean and Rioux eschew the assumed polarity of high culture vs. popular culture and instead talk about mass culture, elite culture and vernacular culture as points on a shifting and porous continuum. At the centre of their analysis is the relationship between the artist and the audience. It seems to me that this map is far more useful for understanding how culture actually works." --from the editor (Three Kinds of Culture, 3:16 min [11] Susan Crean)

"No matter where you go in the world, you can’t escape from it - that is, of course the mixture of cultural elements being fused together to create this amazing concept of cultural fusion. Think about it for a minute, all around you is a vast collection of various cultural elements. Humanity has progressed from a time when each culture was different, unique and confined to space, to a time when you can now see evidence of many similarities between cultures anywhere and everywhere you look.

This is not a new concept, however. It has been around for many, many years and was identified after the development of multicultural communities. The catalyst, was this notion of a global community. Where once borders were barriers, these barriers have since been demolished, as all cultural ideologies travel as they please to all corners of the earth.

It was only a matter of time before the fusing of cultures became the fascination of millions worldwide. The media spent lots of air time discussing cultural fusion in 2002 and 2003, but since it seems that it’s been 'played out,' if you will - maybe people just aren’t interested anymore. Regardless, this concept evolves everyday, everywhere, and deserves some focus. What I find really interesting is that we now live in a society where cultures that were once, not so long ago, considered by-products of other cultures, are now creating a fusion of their own and more and more cultures are starting to emerge.

So now cultural fusion doesn’t just involve the cultures that our ancestors have brought with them from back home, rather it includes all cultures, everywhere. Anything from traditional geographic based culture, high culture, and popular culture, to the culture of music, school, work, drugs, sex, entertainment, if you can name it, I’m sure it’s got a culture out there. Nowadays you can divide culture into three different categories, mass culture, elite culture and vernacular culture.

What does it all mean? Mass culture is adopted by a majority of people, such as hip hop or rock music. Elite culture is adopted by those who enjoy a superior intellectual, social, or economic status, such as fame and the Hollywood way of life. Lastly, vernacular culture is that which is native to a particular country or region, such as traditional Indian culture. Regardless, we can find evidence of fusion between even these three categories of culture." - Sameer DattuFusion Magazine, Editor-in-Chief [12] [13]

"By vernacular creativity I mean a wide range of everyday creative practices (from scrapbooking to family photography to the storytelling that forms part of casual chat). The term ‘vernacular’ - as with language, where it means colloquial - signifies the ways in which everyday creativity is practiced outside the cultural value systems of either high culture (art) or commercial creative practice (television, say). Further, and again as with language, ‘vernacular’ signifies the local specificity of such creative practices, and the need to pay attention to the material, cultural, and geographic contexts in which they occur. Finally, I emphasise the need to remember that vernacular creativity predates any particular innovation in technologies by centuries, and that at the same time its forms and social functions are transformed by cultural and technological shifts.

The various ‘others’ of ‘ordinary’ vernacular creativity discussed above - punk-influenced DIY culture, creative activism, fandom, and game cultures - are in different ways very attractive to cultural studies (either for their spectacularly creative uses of mass popular culture, or for their apparent demonstration of an evidential base for spectacular ‘resistance’). This dissertation certainly keeps those fields of vernacular creativity in the frame, recognising the ways in which they are positioned as the seductive leading edge of a potential paradigm shift in the media ecology. However, because it aims to understand whether new media allows the populace ‘at large’ to participate more meaningfully in public culture through vernacular creativity, the study deals most centrally with the most apparently accessible, mainstream and ordinary forms, practices and technologies of ‘consumer-created’ new media."[14]

Street Dance

Street dance, also called vernacular dance[1] is an umbrella term, used to describe dance styles that evolved outside of dance studios in everyday spaces such as streets, school yards and nightclubs. They are often improvisational and social in nature, encouraging interaction and contact with the spectators and the other dancers.Vernacular literature is literature written in the vernacular - the speech of the "common people".Vernacular architecture is a term used to categorize methods of construction which use locally available resources to address local needs. Vernacular architecture tends to evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural and historical context in which it exists. It has often been dismissed as crude and unrefined, but also has proponents who highlight its importance in current design. [15] [16]

Spirit of Place

Spirit of place refers to the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place; often those celebrated by artists and writers, but also those cherished in folk tales, festivals and celebrations. It is thus as much in the invisible weave of culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs, histories, etc) as it is the tangible physical aspects of a place (monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, architectural style, rural crafts styles, pathways, views, and so on) or its interpersonal aspects (the presence of relatives, friends and kindred spirits, and the like).A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one driven by the constituents of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it is natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures. Often, grassroots movements are at the local level, as many volunteers in the community give their time to support the local party, which can lead to helping the national party. For instance, a grassroots movement can lead to significant voter registration for a political party, which in turn helps the state and national parties. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernacular_culture

Elite Culture

[17] High culture is a term, now used in a number of different ways in academic discourse, whose most common meaning is the set of cultural products, mainly in the arts, held in the highest esteem by a culture, or denoting the culture of ruling social groups. [18] Culturally elites defined by: - Literacy - the acceptance of counter reformation religious practices - going to secondary school - attendance at university - access to the classical texts and the humanities - the possession of a library - the frequenting of specialist groups - An essential element is the humanist culture from the renaissance, with its revival of the classics, popularisation of them, and their wide dissemination by the printing press

Other aspects of elite culture… - the rise of judicial society - the civilising process promoted by courtly culture - change in linguistic culture - a great cultural fear of the poor

"Our work has shown that it's education and social status, not social class that predict cultural consumption in the UK, and broadly comparable results were obtained from other countries in our project too."

Using terms more familiar to those studying the animal kingdom and, in particular, the eating habits of animals, the researchers identified several different types of groups in society that 'consume' culture.

These included:

   * Univores - people who have an interest in popular culture only
   * Ominvores - people who consume the full variety of different types of culture
   * Paucivores - people who consume a limited range of cultural activities
   * Inactives - people who access nothing at all. 

In the UK, it turned out that the consumption of culture is very clearly patterned:

   * For theatre, dance and cinema, two types of consumer were identified - univores (62.5% of the sample) and omnivores (37.5%).
   * For music, three types were identified - univores (65.7% of the sample), omnivore listeners only (24%) and omnivores (10.3%).
   * For the visual arts for example, art galleries, festivals, video art presentations, again three types were identified - inactives (58.6% of the sample), paucivores (34.4%) and omnivores (7%). 

"There's little evidence for the existence of a cultural elite who would consume 'high' culture while shunning more 'popular' cultural forms," said Doctor Tak Wing Chan, "Furthermore, at least a substantial minority of members of the most advantaged social groups are univores or inactives."

Mass Culture

“The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition... always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.” - Roland Barthes quotes (French Critic, 1915-1980)

Mass Culture or Popular Culture

Revisiting this notebook after many years, I find myself uncomfortable with this category, which I basically got from reading a lot of mid-20th century cultural criticism (McCarthy and Macdonald, especially). The idea, so far as I can reconstruct it, is that there is (or was) a separate sphere of "mass culture" or "popular culture", sharply distinguished in form, genesis or content from other spheres of culture. I suppose what I had in mind, roughly, is commercially-produced culture, most of whose consumers are not, themselves, also producers of the same kind of culture --- as, for instance, most people who listen to commercial recordings aren't also musicians, and music-making is a business. But calling this "mass culture" seems to have a very unfortunate connotation, which I don't (any longer) accept, that most people are passive consumers of the degraded products of the manipulative Culture Trust, accepting whatever they're given without thought. There is a Culture Trust, and of course those who run it would have easier jobs if that were how things worked, but it seems to me to be false to the realities of how culture is produced, received and reworked, and how cultural trends and styles emerge and are used by the various people involved. "Mass culture" also seems to carry a connotation that once upon a time we lived in a non-alienated condition, where there wasn't the same distinction between producers and consumers, which seems again to be false.

  • "In general they are intoxicated by the fame of mass culture, a fame which the latter knows how to manipulate; they could just as well get together in clubs for worshipping film stars or for collecting autographs. What is important to them is the sense of belonging as such, identification, without paying particular attention to its content. As girls, they have trained themselves to faint upon hearing the voice of a 'crooner'. Their applause, cued in by a light-signal, is transmitted directly on the popular radio programmes they are permitted to attend. They call themselves 'jitter-bugs', bugs which carry out reflex movements, performers of their own ecstasy. Merely to be carried away by anything at all, to have something of their own, compensates for their impoverished and barren existence. The gesture of adolescence, which raves for this or that on one day with the ever-present possibility of damning it as idiocy on the next, is now socialized." Theodor Adorno, quoted in The Sociology of Rock by Simon Frith, 1978, ISBN 0094602204
    • "In a public, as we may understand the term, (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them, (2) Public communications are so organised that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.-In a mass, (1) far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. (2) The communications that prevail are so organised that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. (3) The realisation of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organise and control the channels of such action. (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorised institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion". C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite (1956)


Stallabrass argues that culture's status as a commodity is the most important thing about it, affecting its form, its relation to the viewer and its ideology. The great diversity of choice masks the extent to which this choice is managed by an ever-shrinking number of powerful owners. Stallabrass shows how the consistent and unifying capitalist ideology of mass culture leads to an increasingly homogeneous identity among its consumers. Even in marginal and radical cultural activities, like graffiti writing, can be found the tyranny of the brand name and the reduction of the individual to a cipher.

From the basic premiss that people are defined more by how they live (including what they consume) than who they are (in terms of race, gender or the other accepted categories of identity politics), Stallabrass begins with an analysis of subjects which affect specific interest groups? -- amateur photography, computer games, cyberspace and multimedia. He then works out to wider aspects of the culture which affect everyone, including shopping, cars, street furniture and television.

Gargantua raises profound questions about the nature and direction of mass culture. It also raises a challenge to the postmodern theorists' adherence to subjectivity, indeterminacy and political indifference. If manufactured subjectivities are always shot through with the objective, then their plurality may not be merely a colourful but meaningless postmodern smorgasbord, but rather the accurate reflection of our current cultural situation, and a map showing paths beyond it. [19]

Cranky with the Culture

August 7, 2008 • 303 Comments

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so cranky about contemporary pop culture, lately. Obviously my posts on music and film, have elicited a good deal of helpful feedback. But I don’t think it’s just an “in my day” rant. What our culture is giving us now is fast food when in the 60’s and 70’s, it was a meal. The action movies and the video games and the hip hop records may provide us a jolt of energy–Cultural Red Bull–but there is neither brain nor body sustenance in much of the music and film. Erich Fromm, in The Sane Society wrote something about this that I think was quite profound. The quote is long, but stick with it until the end. Then you will get a glimpse of what’s bugging me.

It is characteristic of all culture that it builds a man made, artificial world, superimposed on the natural world in which man lives. But man can fulfill himself only if he remains in touch with the fundamental facts of his existence, if he can experience the exaltation of love and solidarity, as well as the tragic fact of his aloneness and the fragmentary character of his existence. If he is completely enmeshed in the routine and in the artifacts of life, if he can’t see anything but the man-made, common-sense appearance of the world, he loses his touch with and the grasp of himself and the world. We find in every culture the conflict between routine and the attempt to get back to the fundamental realities of existence. To help in this attempt has been one of the functions of art and of religion.

Ever since I started posting The Cost of Empire, I have been wrestling with the thought that perhaps the grand transformation I am hoping for is as much cultural as it is political. The thrill of being in this blog community is that I think a lot of you share that feeling–and that the cultural sometimes proceeds the political. The Beat Poets were happening in 1958 and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd was published in early 1961, just as the folk music protest scene was starting. It wasn’t until 1966 that the full power of political change started to effect the country as a whole, and in that same year Bob Dylan put out Blonde on Blonde and completely moved in a different artistic direction. After ranting about bad movies and sold out musicians I tried to wrestle with the meaning of the death of Solzhenitsyn. But here too, I was looking in the wrong direction, the political and not the cultural/spiritual. It took Hugo, our correspondent from Georgia to straighten me out about the Russian.

In gulag he was able to concentrate on (through writing and study) and participate in (through clandestine prayer and worship and witness) what became a bona fide underground reclamation from the Soviets of Russian Orthodoxy.He perservered; he overcame; he transcended. What came of it was art, and his freedom, and an intimidating rejection of the Nietzschean, the totalitarian, claim that the individual human spirit can be extinguished.

So I’m not saying we don’t have to deal with politics, but I am saying that the artist has a role in society that goes beyond just entertaining us. Part of the role of the artist in the 60’s and 70’s was to hold a mirror up to low road commercial culture, not be part of it. Marcuse said it well.

“In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by society, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of the artist.” [20]

Culture Is Like an Iceberg How much of an iceberg is above the water? How much is underwater? Only about one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above the water. The rest is below. Culture is very similar to an iceberg. It has some aspects that are visible and many others that can only be suspected, guessed, or learned as understanding of the culture grows. Like an iceberg, the visible part of culture is only a small part of a much larger whole.[21]

Culture is like air We breathe it, take it into ourselves, and whether we want to or not, we make it a part of our existence and experience. What is considered "normal" in the broader culture gets reflected as "normal" to us.

Then the investigation into the world of culture has to be theoretical, philosophical, and action-driven. Theory and philosophy alone rarely inspire people to act. We need something to fight for as well as against. We need to seriously engage methods to create an environment amenable to resistance and struggle for change, founded on a belief that a better world is possible. The centrality of hope as a necessary complement to critique helps us move beyond consciousness raising and identity formation alone to foster the belief that change is possible because culture programs us into believing the unbelievable it "creates an illusion and acts as a drug." If Marx said religion is the opium of the masses than culture would be the pipe with which we smoke religion.

"How, then, do [we] figure out what positions to take on fiercely contested issues such as as global warming, free trade, and war? Our answer is culture." Culture is how we view the world, but, culture is also how we make decisions. "Culture is "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another and ... includes systems of values; and values are among the building blocks of culture" ('Hofstede 1986'). When building the human framework around us we rely on culture to tell us the truth, but, “The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocent ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed.” - Susan Sontag quotes (American Writer, Activist and Critic, 1933-2004). Truths, then, become the context in which they are built.

mapping culture Ann's and Francesca's Midterm

rana mid-term wiki page

Culture and Satire: Taking Offense - by Jeremy Richards

Ann's Final Keyword Wiki: "Undressing Culture"]]

"You can't really purge yourself of things that would bother you if you could spy on them and you are in some sense a prisoner of your culture in a way that makes you in some way ungovernable. You can't quite get on top of yourself" Robert Krulwich talking to Malcolm Gladwell on WNYC's Radio Lab[22]--Jlockett 01:32, 20 November 2008 (EST)