Mass Culture

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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. [1] [2] [3]

  • "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. [4]

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.” [5]

Mass Culture Theory


The Death of Mass Culture

[7] [8]

The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

[9] [10]

Eco's Prophetic Vision of Mass Culture


Stereoptypes of Native Americans: Modern Mass Culture


Community becomes Mass Culture




Mickey Mouse Monopoly


Experience is the New Reality


“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)

“As both capitalist and communist states -- not to mention the technological world --have evolved under the illusion that men purposefully built them, ideological optimism seeps into every niche of our lives. It is made worse by mass culture which feeds our” - Stephen Vizinczey quotes

“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)