Coming to Terms with Defining Terms
A decade ago, when I began to teach courses on the evolution of taste levels and cultural stratification in the United States--courses concerned with culture in a democratic society, the commodification of culture, the changing nature and uses of leisure, culture and national identity, those kinds of issues--a troublesome lack of definitional clarity and precision in the pertinent literature quickly became apparent. Since then this disarray has become a genuine challenge, not just to me personally, I believe, but to anyone seriously interested in understanding popular culture. Adding to my perplexity, this lack of clarity even appeared evident among the best and brightest--sociologists, historians, literary scholars, art historians, those working in cultural studies, American Studies, and journalism; the problem looked to be ubiquitous.
The most obvious puzzles, in my view, arose from the habit of using the phrases "popular culture" and "mass culture" interchangeably, as though there were and are no discernible differences. I shall offer only a few representative examples on the grounds that giving excessive evidence of bad habits may only encourage them. (A batting coach shows players what to do rather than what not to do.) In 1984, for instance, an innovative cultural historian wrote the following in an otherwise brilliant essay titled "Books and Culture": "The 1930s joined the European voice to the American perception in a situation where the fear and distaste of modern mass or popular culture seemed justified by the twin totalitarian viciousness of fascism and communism." We even have serious writers who casually refer to "mass popular culture"; and National Public Radio now has a Popular Culture commentator who mostly seems to report on mass culture phenomena, such as film.
It must be acknowledged that sometimes the conflation of mass and popular culture occurs in the context of (or with reference to) the Great Debate over the evils of mass culture that occurred primarily during the mid- and later 1950s. In these instances, it is frequently unclear whether the author is directly at fault or simply repeating the muddled usage of predecessors. Either way, however, the reader who needs definitional clarity gets fuzziness instead.
Yet another cause for confusion occurs when a writer chooses to discuss popular culture within the framework of something casually labeled "mass society" in which "mass communication" has begun to occur. Mass society is a demographic phenomenon (dramatic population growth) once commonly associated with vulnerability to charismatic demagogues capable of swaying the masses toward either socialism or fascism, particularly during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Mass communication involves a technological transformation once identified with universal access to newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, but now more frequently identified with satellites, computers, and the Internet. Mass society may very well serve as a host or context for mass culture; but historically the former antedated the latter in ordinary usage, whereas the latter seems to have outlived the former in common parlance. Mass communication
certainly facilitates the dissemination of mass culture; and both are undeniably dependent upon the venturesomeness of innovative entrepreneurs. Yet to intermingle the two only confuses the vehicle with the voluminous load it is supposed to distribute. The one has wheels, wires, and wavelengths. The other has comic books, cartoons, sitcoms, and videocassettes.
A few writers have bothered to differentiate thoughtfully, but they have not done so systematically or in depth. Almost four decades ago Oscar Handlin remarked that mass culture--by which he meant culture disseminated through the mass media--had a "disturbing" effect upon both popular and refined cultures, each of which predates mass culture. He wisely noted a common misconception that the mass culture of 1960 was merely an extension of popular cultures of the past.
Richard Slotkin, whose discipline is American Studies and whose specialty has long been the role of dominant myths in the United States, acknowledges the need for discrimination. "The productions of the cultural industries are indeed varied and ubiquitous," he writes,
from the newspapers and mass entertainment to the textbooks that teach our children the authorized versions of American history and literature--but the authority of these "mass culture" productions has been and is offset by the influence of other forms of culture and expression that are genuinely "popular": produced by and for specific cultural communities like the ethnic group, the family-clan, a town, neighborhood, or region, the workplace, or the street corner. Although few of these subcultural entities are now isolated from the influence of mass media, they are still capable of generating their own myths and their own unique ways of interpreting the productions of the media.
Historian Jackson Lears adamantly refuses to mix the two, and does so for a reason sensibly separate from Slotkin's yet altogether congruent with it: "one cannot after all maintain a coherent or sophisticated notion of class and still equate mass culture with 'popular culture.' "
The disposition to confuse or conflate the two phenomena is due, at least in part, to disciplinary allegiances and ideological commitments. Because, for example, the phrase "mass culture" is commonly perceived as carrying pejorative connotations, many of those who really enjoy it and write positively about it prefer to use the term "popular culture," almost as a synonym, when they actually do mean mass culture: record-breaking attendance for films and television shows, compact discs that sell in the millions, apparel like jeans and sneakers, fast-food chains, standardized products sold at Wal-Mart and Kmart, and so forth. The use of euphemism in this context has increased in recent years, but it certainly is not new. More than a generation ago an astute young cultural critic, Robert Warshow, casually used "popular" and "mass" interchangeably, but also referred with almost clinical care to a transformation given explicit recognition following World War II. "The mass culture of the educated classes," he observed, "the culture of the 'middle-brow,' as it has sometimes been called--had come into existence."
A British cultural critic has called attention to a similar paradox in the realm of film reviews. It is not unusual for writers to praise intellectually unpretentious popular movies for reasons that are not merely unrelated to their apparent appeal but even seem inimical to it. According to C. W. E. Bigsby, "Popular culture, then, can apparently be transformed into 'high' art by a simple critical act of appropriation. Indeed so insecure are these categories that the popular culture of one generation can become the high culture of the next and vice versa--a fact which applies not only to individual artists but to genres (theatre, novel, film), subgenres (farce, science fiction, detective fiction) and styles (romanticism, realism)."
Needless to say, popular culture not only existed but thrived for centuries prior to the period from 1885 to 1935 that I shall highlight. I draw a marked distinction between what British scholars refer to as "traditional" popular culture (flourishing in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries) and the considerably more commercialized and technologically transformed popular culture that emerged at the close of the nineteenth century and then blossomed exuberantly early in the twentieth. Traditional popular culture has also been called pretechnological and preindustrial. A fine example from the United States is the dime museum, which flourished during the nineteenth century but disappeared after 1900 because of the emergence of nickelodeons, film, and mechanized amusement parks.
When we turn to folk culture and contemplate its advocates over a historical span of, say, seventy years, notable changes and even more diversity become apparent. Back in the 1930s Constance Rourke made an ardent yet isolated case for folk culture as the very essence, not merely of popular culture, but of national identity in the United States. Despite the plaudits her work received, her particular emphasis did not gain many adherents for more than a generation. In recent years we have professional students of folk culture deeply concerned to maintain a clear distance between handwrought folk traditions that they cherish and a mass consumer culture that they dislike. And we have historians of popular culture who perceive its roots deeply embedded in folk culture, who find agency rather than victimization in popular culture because they do not believe that consumers are helpless in the hands of producers and entrepreneurs.
Excerpted from American Culture, American Tastes by Michael Kammen. Copyright © 1999 by Michael Kammen. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.