Behind the Scenes: Beautiful Things in Popular Culture (Part One)

A little while ago, I raised the question of whether one can be a “fan” of high culture and was pleased to see a high level of interest in this question.

I am excited to report that there is a new book, Beautiful Things in Popular Culture, which pushes even deeper into the question of how we evaluate various forms of popular culture and how those evaluations do or do not connect with the ways we assess work in high culture. Alan McKee, who teaches in the Creative Industires program at Queensland University of Technology (which I increasingly think of as the sister program to Comparative Media Studies), has brought together a world class mix of academics, fans, and journalists, who share with us what they see as “best of breed” examples across a range of different sites of popular aesthetics. So we get Will Brooker on the Best Batman Story (The Dark Knight Returns), Sue Turnbull on the Best Serial Killer Novel (Red Dragon), Thomas McLaughlin on the Best Basketball Player (Michael Jordan), Simon Frith on the Best Disco Record (“Never Give Up”), Sara Gwenllian Jones on the Best Villain in Xena:Warrior Princess (Alti), and John Hartley on the Best Propaganda (Humphrey Jennings, The Silent Village).

As this sample of the categories and judgements suggest, all of these claims are open to debate and that’s precisely the point. Contributors were asked to offer “defensible” but not “definitive” choices and then to deal precisely with the terms of debate that might shape the judgements we make in these particular sectors. If the categories here seem like a grab bag — and trust me, there are some even more surprising categories here such as the Best Motorbike, the Best Australian Romance Novelist, and the Best Website for Men who have Sex with Other Men — then it is because popular culture is not a unified field, not one thing that can be simply contrasted with high culture. (Of course, high culture is also not one thing but that’s a debate for another day.)

We would never judge Lisistrada, Everyman, Mother Courage, Oklahoma, A Noh drama, and A Doll’s House by the same criteria — each gets read according to terms defined minimally by a specific tradition and historical period and in some cases, by specific artists. (I never stop laughing at the college journalist who reviewed a Brecht play and complained that he just couldn’t identify with the characters.) So, why should we apply a single set of criteria to talk about popular culture and why in the world should that criteria get defined by the norms of high culture?

I will admit that I am biased since I have a piece in this particular collection — The Best Contemporary Mainstream Superhero Comics Writer (Brian Michael Bendis) — which I will excerpt here in a few days time. But I have rarely enjoyed reading any “academic” book as much as this one. McKee is an editor who values lively and personally engaged writing, someone who pushed all of the contributors to write to a general readership, and for once, they listened. I never knew academic prose could be this fun! And underlying it all are some powerful ideas about how we value the culture we consume.

I wanted to share some of McKee’s own thinking on this topic with my readers, so I asked him to address some core questions about the book’s premises and will run the interview here in two parts.


What constitutes a “beautiful thing” in the book’s terms and how do we recognize

one when we see it?

A ‘beautiful thing’ is the best example of an area of culture – the best serial killer novel, pair of sneakers, disco record … I decided to use ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘best’ because it ties us into the tradition of aesthetic judgments that has been jealously guarded by fans of high culture. And I love the idea that, in the case of the chapter on ‘the best website for men who have sex with men’, that webpages full of arse-fucking can be, in their own way, ‘beautiful’.

And how do we judge what’s ‘the best’ in a given area? How do we recognize a beautiful thing when we see it? The key here is that ‘we’ might not recognize it – ‘we’ – cultural theorists, researchers, academics – may in fact have to speak to the experts in the area, and ask them to explain to us what is beautiful and why it is so.

That’s a challenging idea for some Cultural Studies academics. Because there’s a still a strong remnant in Cultural Studies of the Literary Studies idea that what distinguishes us as academics – the reason that we’re worth our salaries – is because we’ve learned how to ‘read’ texts better than other people. Traditionally in Literary Studies one learned to read more ‘sensitively’, to understand the art in books that common people simply couldn’t see (my first degree was in Literary Studies – in fact I got a medal for the ‘Most Distinguished Shakespearean Scholar’ at the University of Glasgow! – so I’m familiar with this tradition). In Cultural Studies, it’s a similar thing – except we’re trained to think that our readings are better, not because they’re more sensitive to the art, but because we can see the ‘truth’ of ideology, exploitation, hidden capitalist messages, that the masses don’t see because they’re blinded by hegemonic processes, or not fully educated …

And so, to abandon that idea, and to think that we might actually be interested in – respectful of, and learn from – consumers talking about the interpretations that they make of texts … well, it’s a challenging idea for a lot of academics!

That of course, leads on to the question – if we’re not intellectually superior to the masses, and they don’t need us to lead them out of the darkness and show them the correct, ‘true’, anti-capitalistic interpretations of culture, then what is the purpose of academics? In brief I think that the answer lies in focusing on the ‘anthropological’ element of defining cultures. Nobody suggests that anthropologists should be telling the people they observe that their culture is wrong, and they’re blind not to see that. Personally, I don’t agree with some of the claims that anthropology makes to objectivity. But it’s still acknowledged that anthropology – trying to understand how a culture operates – can produce valuable knowledge.

A central goal of this book is to revitalize the place of evaluation in the writing about popular culture. Why do you think Cultural Studies has moved so far away from a focus on evaluation and what have we lost as a consequence?

I completely understand why Cultural Studies has a problem with evaluation – I’ve avoided it myself for many years. It’s because there has been so little awareness by academics in any area – including in Cultural Studies – of the aesthetic systems of popular culture. That meant that you could pretty much guarantee that whenever anybody said ‘we have to reintroduce aesthetics/evaluation into Cultural Studies’, what they meant was ‘we have to reintroduce high-culture aesthetic systems into the study of popular culture – and start studying television programs in terms of literary values such as philosophical themes, and references to T S Eliot’, and so on. Which is, of course, completely the wrong way to go about things.

Why have we thought that ‘aesthetic systems’ automatically means ‘high culture’s aesthetic systems?’. Well, it’s been hard to get away from the idea that an aesthetic system must be unitary. The idea that we could have multiple, irreconcilable, overlapping aesthetic systems coexisting has taken a long time to get established. I suppose it’s because, in order to do that, you pretty much have to throw out everything in the philosophy of aesthetics from Kant onwards and start again. Which I’m pretty happy to do, personally. But I know that not everyone is!

What has really surprised – and upset – me, working in Cultural Studies is the extent to which Cultural Studies has managed to smuggle traditional forms of aesthetic evaluation back in by the back door. We don’t say that art is superior to popular culture because it reveals insight into universal truths about humanity. Oh no – we say that art is superior to popular culture because art is politically progressive, and genuinely challenges capitalism, whereas popular culture is inextricably tied up in the capitalist economy within which it is produced …. It’s so depressing to hear this kind of nonsense. It really is just traditional snobbery dressed up in new arguments. And that has been the place that evaluation has played in Cultural Studies. We’ve kind of forgotten what we all know to be true, about the power relations and class relations involved in making judgments about what is good and bad culture – and fallen right back into lazy thinking about art being superior to mass culture. I blame Adorno. I mean, you read his work on ‘The culture industry’, and it’s so obvious that he doesn’t know anything about popular culture, he’s never consumed any popular culture – in fact, it seems like he’s never even spoken to anybody who’s ever consumed any popular culture!

So we’ve thoughtlessly accepted old prejudices about cultural value, smuggled in via the back door, which is one problem. And a second problem is that by refusing to study evaluative judgments in an anthropological sense, we’ve actually accepted the myth, perpetuated by the snobs, that mass culture is all the same. We actually play into their hands. But you can make an anthropological, or perhaps a sociological, study of aesthetic systems – one that asks how the consumers of popular culture make these judgments. And that isn’t the opposite of aesthetic thinking – it’s directly linked to it. It means that you can ask people ‘Why do you love this program, this book, this comic, so much?’. And then listen to their answers. It’s a simple idea – and yet, it hasn’t been done before.

The question you posed to your contributors — what constitutes the “best” in class within a given form of popular culture — is the stuff of many barroom conversations. I suppose that’s part of the point: we can’t talk about popular

culture without debating values and evaluation. But what do we as academics bring to that discussion which wasn’t already a part of fan knowledge and expertise?

I gestured towards this question before – if we’re not telling people that their interpretations are wrong, what is our function? How do we earn our hefty Professorial salaries, with associated benefits? As I said above, there is an anthropological function, trying to understand cultures better. And more than this, we can then act as translators, letting groups know about each other. The information that we gather is fan knowledge. We can bring that together, synthesise it, and put it into forms that different groups can access. Our skills here are in editing, building networks, understanding genres and communication and so on. And ultimately we can then help different parts of culture to be aware of each other. That’s an extremely important – and a very political – thing to do. I’m an old fashioned utopian, and my vision of the ideal world is a soppy, hippie, love-drenched place where people actually find ways to live together. I reveal this at one point in the book where I get all misty-eyed and say “knowing that there are people who do love and think about and discuss things that don’t engage me isn’t a threat to my way of thinking. It’s a source of delight. The more joy that’s in the world, the better for all of us, I say”. I know – I’m a sad old hippie. But it does seem to me that one of the most positive aspects of our mature capitalist democracies is that different groups in society are becoming more and more familiar to each other, and there’s an increasing interchange of ideas between cultures – across races, genders, sexualities and nationalities. I think that pretty much everybody would agree that the average, non-university-educated white man, for example, currently knows more about Black culture, or women’s culture, or queer culture, than they have at any point in the history of Western culture, simply because of the increasing visibility and recognition of those cultures in mass popular entertainment.

I’m afraid I also have to say that one of the main forces working against such cultural exchange is humanities academics and cultural theorists, who want to insist that there is only one good form of culture – rational, informed, artistic, high-quality public debate – and that other forms of culture – Black culture or women’s culture or queer culture, rap, debates about body image, emotional forms of communication and so on – are worthless. It bothers me that ‘my people’ (academics) are struggling so hard against what seems to me to be one of the most positive aspects of our cultures.

Comments

  1. Don Lafferty says:

    Good stuff, doc.

    Your down-to-earth bent is a refreshing change from the judgmental sticks and stones cast not only by academia toward the pop culture-consuming masses, but by those same consumers back toward the ivory towers of academia – and anybody else with an opinion fueled by education.

    I see it all the time at my father’s card game – six or seven retired guys bashing everybody from Ted Koppel to Prince Charles, while taking an occasional swipe at me just because I haven’t turned a wrench for a buck since I was a freshman in high school.

    Perspective shades everything, so be comforted in the knowledge that the masses are looking down their noses at academia too. This simple exercise in shifting one’s cultural perspective is the root of understanding markets and how to scratch as many itches as you can with as few stokes as possible.

    All that said, your point that academia’s idyllic role is that of a translator is spot on. In fact I think this is the crux of Henry’s program. Like the generals of West Point who grow crop after crop of warriors based on battles won by Hannibal and Patton, academics who apply the study of man to popular culture – who translate these feelings into a buffet of common denominators – they hold the keys to the kingdom for which Big Business will pay handsomely.

    I’ll allow you to take the high ground however, and believe that your wish really is to help the white man understand his fellow black man and both to understand the fellow who falls somewhere in between.

    As a child of the sixties myself, slugging it out down here in the trenches with the masses, I’ve seen my rose colored glasses stepped on too many times to wear them much anymore, but it is a comfort to know that there are others out there (albeit on the other side of the planet!) who can get me to pull all the curtains, sit on the floor and fire up the old black light.

    Just remember, cowboy, there’s no accounting for taste.

  2. Barry says:

    thanks for running this interview. I’m finding it very interesting as a journalism academic who has always struggled with the horrid value judgements we make against ‘trash’ current affairs programs. The elitism (and classism) of this perspective and the comparisons to the ‘Golden Age’ of journalism really prevents quality analysis of why journalism has changed.