This essay will explore the assumption of popular culture as a commodity subject to the dictates of market forces, where it is ‘produced to be consumed’ (Strinati 1995:242; Harrington and Bielby 2001:2). I shall use specific examples from ‘pop culture’ to illustrate the interplay between the production and consumption, exploring these threads against a contemporary backdrop of ‘mediated globalisation’ (Rantanen 2005) and the ‘postmodern’ era of mass media.
According to Harrington and Bielby (2001:2), attempting to define ‘popular culture’ is a necessary first step in any academic writing on the subject. They use the work of Raymond Williams (1983), to alight upon contrasting meanings of the word ‘popular.’ It can be ‘objects or practices’ that are either ‘well-liked by a lot of people’ or those ‘deemed inferior and unworthy.’ (Harrington and Bielby 2001:2). Within this simple binary the music of Goldie Looking Chain is placed in opposition to the likes of Mendelssohn. As a generality, the latter is characterised as a form of ‘high’ art, whilst the former is derogatorily viewed as the listening of homogenous ‘masses.’ Not only are the ‘artists’ of high culture juxtaposed with the capitalist producers of the culture industry, but these distinctions are seen as a matter of consumer taste, with Kantian philosophy establishing a binary between the ways art and mass culture are consumed. Art or ‘high’ culture is said to require learned thought: the ‘taste of reflection’, whilst popular culture is more immediate and bodily: ‘the taste of sense.'(McKee 2007:206). In comparison Pierre Bourdieu (1984) effectively deconstructs how dominant groups establish and use taste hierarchies as cultural capital to renew their social and economic power.
If popular culture “has come to be dominated by its status as a commodity which has to be bought and sold” (Strinati 1995:242), then our point of departure is to examine the mechanisms that put into place who produces and who consumes popular culture. For this purpose we can circumvent arbitrary closure upon any singular definition of ‘popular culture’, instead agreeing with Strinati from the outset that:
‘Any attempt to define popular culture inevitably involves its analysis and evaluation. It therefore seems difficult to define popular culture independently of the theory which is designed to explain it.’ (1995:xvi).
Accepting the art/popular culture binary ‘for arguments sake’ (McKee 2007:208), it is useful to assess ‘the culture of the masses’ with reference to the compelling, yet largely discredited view of the Frankfurt School. Influenced by orthodox Marxism but emphasising the importance of culture and ideology (Strinati 1995: 48-49), Adorno & Horkheimer (1944) depict ‘the culture industry’ as a type of machine that produces homogenised entertainment for the passively consuming masses. Standardised entertainment is accused of suppressing individuality in order to sustain a capitalist system. Whilst the critique’s conspiratorial tone remains alluring, it relies on a portrayal of audiences as ‘cultural dupes, social misfits and mindless consumers’ (Jenkins 1992:23). In contrast, contemporary media theory accepts that audiences are constituted of active consumers. Fans of popular culture are characterised as ‘textual poachers’ (Jenkins 1992), who can interact and creatively appropriate texts. An obvious example is the phenomenon of ‘slash’ fiction. Yet even with the increasing ability and validation of audience power, there is the seemingly incontrovertible ‘evidence’ of political economy, whose factual basis shows that on a global scale, the means of producing pop culture (i.e. control and ownership media companies) remain concentrated in the hands of very few (Boyd-Barrett 1998: 164).
Strinati argues that:
‘Regardless of its stated intentions, political economy is dependent upon a dominant ideology theory and not a theory of political economy…(and)… as such faces critical limitations as a theory of popular culture’. (1995:243)
As an alternative to Marx’s argument that ‘the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class (Ibid), the work of Stuart Hall et al (1976) uses a Gramscian notion of hegemony, where the ‘popular’ space becomes a valid site of “struggle”, for social groups to articulate and engage in ongoing contestations versus the power bloc (or dominant field of “ideological effects”.) Unlike the Frankfurt school and other strict adherents to Marx’s dominant ideology thesis, this enables us to see popular culture as determining and not merely determinant of economic conditions. In another work of the BCCCS, Hall describes how this acts within the ‘popular space’ of late modern Britain:
“this year’s radical symbol or slogan will be neutralised into next year’s fashion; the year after, it will be the object of profound cultural nostalgia. Today’s rebel folksinger ends up, tomorrow, on the cover of The Observer colour magazine.” (1981: 235).
This enables us to consider the resistance by consumers of popular culture, but due to “the double movement of containment and resistance” (Hall 1981:228), any subversive audience interaction may ultimately be incorporated and negotiated into the dominant system. Hence dominant ideology remains a central tenet of theorising popular culture, which becomes ‘the culture of the subordinated as they actively resist their own subordination.’ (Harrington and Bielby 2001:4). So the dilemma is whether in the first instance to accept dominant ideology as a fact and shift our emphasis to study this consumer subversion in popular culture (Fiske 1989) or secondly, interrogate the very notion of ideology as basis of theorising the link between popular culture and market forces.
Firstly, focusing on ‘active’ consumers, we see there are reams of literature on ‘popular aesthetic processes’ (McKee 2007). Where the art/popular culture binary retains its attraction, those who seek pleasure in ‘appreciating’ of classical music are distinguished from the enjoyment gained by ‘fans’ of rap music. But following Jenkins (1992), recent work on fandom (see Hills 2002; Sandvoss 2005) has dismissed ‘fan’ as a loaded term, and pointed towards a more casual use of the term. It seems useful to divorce ourselves from the high/popular culture binary as “too broad to be analytically useful” (McKee 2007:207) and instead think of many different fan ‘subcultures’ (Hebdige 1979) such as classical music fans; rap music fans; Star trek fans; football fans, all occurring within the popular space. The Bourdieurean taste hierarchy discussed above still works, but less so as a class-ist exercise of cultural power: “we cannot deduce a fan’s class position from his or her choice of fan object” (Sandvoss 2005:156). Rather where “one’s habitus and self-identity are divorced from class in fandom, they (fans) can no longer be conceptualized as a priori resistance against the ‘power bloc’. “(Sandvoss 2005: 156). A brief look at the various ‘unofficial’ websites of Arsenal football club exhibits the wide range of the fansites created by an equally widely ranging demographic of football fans. In addition we can see how Arsenal fansites like Arsenal News Review actively struggle with other fansites as well as the official website over the symbolic power to ‘name reality’ (Melucci in Couldry 2003:43) and hence query the “bipolar conceptualizations of power between media and audiences” (Sandvoss 2005:156).
Even where symbolic power appears overwhelmingly concentrated in media institutions like the big Hollywood film studios, the contemporary convergence of media online and increasingly affordable technology democratises access to symbolic means of producing popular culture. Some argue that the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred between the producers and consumers of popular culture. Shane Felux talks enthusiastically about his unofficial Star Wars film, a 40 minute production made over a three year period at a cost of $20,000 dollars and available for free download. Made outside of the official Lucasfilm canon, the film nevertheless possesses special effects with results ‘almost indistinguishable’ from those of the big studios. With the Internet enabling CGI artists to collaborate globally on such projects without even meeting each other in person, these “fan films” perhaps exemplify some of the most striking contemporary embodiments of fan as both ‘textual poachers’ (Jenkins 1992) and ‘mirrors of consumption'(Sandvoss 2005).
All this moves us away from Marxist ideology and structuralist representation towards a more ‘postmodern’ analysis of the ‘surface’ value of popular culture. The notion of any underlying cultural ‘truth’ collapses, with texts instead becoming open to a plethora of polysemic interpretations. As well as opening an extensive debate on the merits of relativism (See McKee 2007:204-223), this underlines the importance of theorising production and consumption within a more fluid, Foucauldian notion of power, that enables us to question the very existence of the ‘popular’ as an episteme.
In conclusion, we see that in an era of increasingly global media flows, our original assumption that popular culture ‘is produced to be consumed’, needs to be accounted for in a rather more dynamic sense than the Marxist model of ideology and base/superstructure. Yet, as the boundary between producers and consumers becomes fuzzied, and popular culture becomes increasingly fragmented into more and more ‘subcultures’, the only thing that remains fetishized in the interplay between culture and economy is the value of the commodity; an ideology in itself.