I'm posting the notes I've made on our Media Studies reading for a couple of reasons. Firstly so the tutors can see what how I did this and hopefully offer advice on improving my technique. Secondly for other students to look at as an example of how to, or how not to, depending on tutor comments, do this kind of thing. Thirdly, as a sort of practise at critical analysis. We do have a heavily weighted analysis to do this semester, after all. Again, I'd appreciate any comments and advice with regards to that. I also apologise for not proof reading this, but I am running short of time and so corrections will have to be made later.

This is going to make for a pretty big post, so I'm probably going set up a new blog containing just my notes and essays, then linking through to it from this one to keep things tidy. But for now, here we go:

Notes on Strinati – Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture

The reading opens with a presentation and explanation of the Mass Culture Debate and Mass Culture Theory. It gives the impression that ‘mass culture’ became a popular term as the industrial revolution took hold. This makes sense, as this was when mass production and modern marketing methods were developed.

The theory certainly seems to suggest that mass culture is a negative thing. It compares folk culture with mass culture by observing that folk culture is a product (in an artistic sense) of the people, whereas mass culture is a product (in the industrial sense) aimed at the people in order to make a profit. It clearly asserts that mass culture is not art, stating: “Art… its complexity, its experiments, its individual challenges, cannot be realised by the technique which produces mass culture.’

The theory makes it clear that mass culture depends upon and encourages the absence of thought, This works well for industry, as the masses can then be easily guided into continued consumption, producing sustained profit. It even goes as far as to suggest that other cultures are being eroded “by the spread of mass culture and the general trivialisation of all culture it has entailed.”

It then goes on to critique the theory from a number of angles. It begins with a quote from F. R. Leavis: “the word ‘elitism’ is a product of ignorance, prejudice and unintelligence… there must always be elites, and, moblizing[sic] and directing the ignorance, prejudice and unintelligence, it aims at destroying the only adequate control for ‘elites’ there could be.”

Following this quote, Strinati, intending to base the bulk of his critique on attacking the idea of elitism, first needs to assert its existence by saying: “However, it can be argued that the term elitism is highly relevant to any critical assessment of mass culture theory.” This suggests to me that the author believes mass culture theory to be a product of the elite. Page 39 is entirely dedicated to attacking elitists, suggesting that:
-Elitism refers to unexamined values
-Elitism assumes that the masses can only be examined an understood from a ‘higher’ position.
-Elite values and tastes are considered (by elitists) to be more valid and authoratitive
-Elitism “fails to regognise that mass culture can be understood, appreciated and interpreted by other groups.’

I note here that I was slightly disappointed that an eloquent, if perhaps pompous, eight line quote explaining why elitism doesn’t exist is rebutted by a two line (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘Yes it does, because I need it for my book.’ I would like to have seen a stronger rebuttal for something which otherwise does much to nullify a twelve page critique, though ultimately I do agree with the author.

It also points out that “working class evaluations of mass culture have, at different times, differed markedly from those held by mass culture critics” Some examples of this would have been useful, but I found it interesting that it seems to insinuate that mass culture is the preserve of the working-class.

The author aims to debunk Mass Media Theory’s indication that mass media brings about a lack of diversity by citing, among genres, rap and jazz as proof that diversity exists with the mass media. I agree fully that diversity is there, but I don’t think these are the best examples given that rap can be traced back centuries to the griots of West Africa, but even without going back so far it is clear that rap began as folk music as defined by the text. This excellent short essay explains the folk origins of jazz,

As I said, I agree with the argument, but not with the examples. The fact that many musical genres can be traced back to folk roots could really be used as an argument for, not against, mass media theory, in that it could be said to demonstrate the mass media’s hijacking of these genres in order to make massive profits.

So, the mechanic of this critique works by first arguing that Mass Culture Theory is elitist, and then attacking elitism, thus debunking the theory. I do have a couple of issues with this, aside from those I already stated. The first is in the failure to address a defining characteristic of mass media, that it is generated from the sake of profit. The sustained attack on elitism means that this point seems to be not only missed, but is actually reinforced on page 49. The following quote is an effort to prove diversity and thus disprove the idea of mass culture:

“First, is there any such thing as a mass audience anyway?... From the point of view of the producers of popular culture, there may not be a mass audience but rather segments of a market differentiated and stratified in terms of tastes, values and preferences as well as money and power. If particular producers need to maximise their audience then this has to be analysed as a specific instance of cultural production and consumption,”

While this quote is designed to argue against the idea of an audience which is “passive, supine, undemanding, vulnerable, manipulable, exploitable… resistant to intellectual change and stimulation, easy prey to consumerism and advertising… robotic in its devotion to repetitive formulas of mass culture”, in stating that markets are acknowledged and analysed in order to maximise audience it is actually arguing for much of the above description. Above all, it asserts that mass media exists for profit.

In addition, page 45 seems to heavily criticise ’the elites’ for failing to clearly define mass culture. Perhaps ironically, I was unable to find that which I would consider to be a clear description of ‘the elites’.

Overall, I found this to be a very interesting piece that put forth two arguments. It demonstrated to me the importance of including points and counter-points in an essay as well as serving as a good introduction to mass media, its defining characteristics and the different ways in which it is viewed by society.

Having written a thousand words on this, I will now consider the four key issues as instructed:

1.                 Theories using the concepts of mass culture were particularly influential from the late Nineteenth Century through to the late 1950s. What was meant by the phrase ‘mass culture’ and why do you think it was a popular term during this period in history?

Despite the text stating “it is not enough to say that mass culture is a consequence of industrialisation, since a more precise specification of the link between the two is required…”, it doesn’t offer any better ideas. I think it was a product of industrialisation for the reason I gave earlier. Mass media couldn’t exist without mass production, and nor could the methods of advertising required to sustain it. Mass media, by definition, requires methods of transmission and storage, e.g. Television, radio, computer, vinyl, CDs, DVDs etc, which can be produced and distributed en masse which, again, require the techniques brought about by industrialisation. As for why the terminology is no longer in such popular usage, I believe this is because it has become so strong and widespread that it no longer needs a label, it’s just the way the world is. The situation and its facts still exist, however.

2.                 Do you accept the idea that there will always be divisions between the culture and tastes of an educated elite and those of the ‘masses’?

Yes, for the foreseeable future.  I believe the ‘elite’, if they exist, define themselves by their culture and hold on tightly to the idea that their tastes and interests make them such. Particularly interests which are difficult or take practice to understand fully, such as poetry, classic literature and film, classical music and so on, help to assert their intelligence. In addition, expensive pursuits of the middle and upper classes, such as hunting and polo, gain a reputation for being elitist simply because only a small percentage of people can afford them, and also afford the education which introduces them to the culture. In short, the elites, as a culture if it exists, enjoy the division and will endeavour to sustain it. I find it interesting to note that in the question, “masses” was in inverted commas and “educated elite” wasn’t.

3.                 Do definitions of what counts as ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ change over time? Can you think of examples that illustrate that change? (e.g. how was jazz first viewed in the 1920s and how is it viewed now?)

Of course. I already mentioned jazz, but if you go back far enough, the ability to read and write was considered to be high culture because it education was only available to those who could afford it.  Of the few who engaged in hunting with birds, only the King could hunt with an eagle. I think much of this is to do with things becoming more available over time, largely due to certain things becoming less expensive, if not the product or pursuit itself, then the education required to appreciate it.

4.                 Is there a relationship between ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture and structures of power in society?

I think that would be too much of a generalisation, and this is a very subjective question due to the ideas of 'good' and 'bad'. The text I have read asserts the difference in viewpoints. I quote again “working class evaluations of mass culture have, at different times, differed markedly from those held by mass culture critics”. How can one establish a correlation between ‘good’ or ‘bad’, i.e. morality, and culture, which I can best describe as a sociological categorisation? I think the morality depends of which culture you view from. For example, it could be said, with gross generalisation, that the view of ‘the masses’ is that fox hunting is immoral, and therefore the ‘high’ culture that practises it is immoral. ‘High’ culture could be assumed to believe that gangster rap is immoral and therefore so is the ‘mass’ culture that supports it.  But this question would be impossible to answer well without first clearly defining ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, which is yet to be done in terms of their audiences, and then conducting a thorough survey. The best I can do here is to acknowledge that for as long as there is a divide between the two, each will attack the morals of the other.