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

This is the second part of a two part interview with Alan McKee, the editor and mastermind behind a fabulous new book, Beautiful Things in Popular Culture, which introduces what I see as a vital new approach for thinking about how we evaluate various forms of popular culture. The essays in the book combine anthropological and autobiographical insights — both asking about their own evaluations and then reading them against larger taste communities. The result is an academic book which is fun to read and which will itself spark countless conversations as people debate what might constitute the “best of breed” in their favorite form of cultural production. The book is sure to also raise debates at academic conferences where evaluative judgements have long remained taboo (even though all of the decisions we make are shaped by often unexamined evaluations about which texts are worth studying, writing about, teaching, etc.)

Early cultural studies sought to escape the shadow of high culture criteria as well as a history of insensitivity to work produced in alternative cultural traditions, yet it has in the process falsified its object of study. We ignore the degree to which evaluation and debating evaluations is central to the pleasure we take in popular culture. We ignore the kinds of popular aesthetics which shape these evaluations and allow to stand the myth of consumers as undiscriminating and popular culture as undifferentiated. And we essentially ignore the degree to which popular culture is, to borrow from my own writing, “the culture that sticks to your skin,” (see my book, Hop on Pop: The Pleasures and Politics of Popular Culture) and thus can not be meaningfully understood from a traditional stance of academic discipline.

My hope is that aca/fen can, in fact, break down this inhibition about evaluation while at the same time, develop new conceptual frameworks for thinking about how evaluation works in fan communities. This is why I am so happy to see McKee and his contributors do such a spectacular job in realizing his goals for this project.

You are clearly critical of the “belief that consumers of mass culture lack the ability for discernment.” What do you see as the negative consequences of this position in terms of writing about popular culture? What do we gain by looking more closely at the institutions and practices where popular evaluation occurs?

It’s funny. Every Cultural Studies academic agrees theoretically now that consumers are not brainwashed, that they make active choices about what to consume, how to consume it, and that the interpretations they make of it can never be predicted by the producers. That’s all common sense. But at the same time there’s this Freudian disavowal going on – ‘I know very well … but all the same’. We all know very well that the masses are, like us, thinking human beings who choose what to consume … but all the same … Rupert Murdoch gets to decide what he puts in his papers … and there would be a genuine demand for social debates on television, if the capitalist companies didn’t control what was shown … and there’s no such thing as ‘real’ choice in capitalism, because the producers make sure that the range of what is available is limited, so that nothing that would genuinely challenge capitalism is ever shown …. Etc, etc etc – all the same old clichés and worries about the masses being brainwashed by the culture industry!

I had this conversation with a friend – a cultural theorist – where I was telling her about this book. I was talking about how so much cultural theory relies on the idea that audiences take whatever they’re given. It’s an attitude that underlies concerns about globalization, about media ownership, about dumbing down, about ideology and hegemony, and so on. And she said ‘Are there really dinosaurs who still believe that kind of stuff?’. That was the word she used – dinosaurs – as though such an idea was so old fashioned that she couldn’t imagine any living human being thinking in that way.

And the conversation then moved on to populist, trashy current affairs shows, and I was saying how interesting I find them as a way of understanding the culture and interests of middle aged, non-university-educated women – the demographic for those shows. Because by watching the successful, popular ones, you find out what that audience thinks is important and interesting. And she immediately disagreed – she was saying things like ‘But there’s no evidence they actually like the programs – they only watch them because there’s no choice’. She knew very well that audiences won’t take whatever they’re given … but all the same …

I asked her which theorists she liked, and she was telling me about, I can’t remember, Nancy or somebody, and I said, ‘But you don’t really like Nancy, you didn’t make a rational decision to read him out of the theorists on offer – that’s just what you’ve been given’. And she actually said, ‘That’s really rude’. And then she realized that that was exactly what she’d just said about the viewers of A Current Affair.

And so I think that this is the key thing for our cultural theorizing – this is the insight that we get from studying these systems of popular evaluation. Of course no consumer has infinite choice – just as intellectuals don’t have an infinite choice about the theoretical books that they read. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no intellectual work involved in the choices of what to consume. At any given time in Australia, even in prime time, three quarters of the population aren’t watching television. If there’s ‘nothing on’, people will switch it off and do something else. I mean, that’s so obvious it’s not worth saying – and yet we forget that it’s true. So we have to remember that although intellectuals may have the luxury of time and resources to communicate their thinking about culture, and that may separate us out as a class, the basic intellectual work of making decisions about culture is common. All human beings are thinking creatures. And if we can remember that, and not dismiss it with ‘ … but all the same’, I think our theories of culture would benefit.

The book’s contributors deal with a broad range of different forms of popular culture. Do you see different criteria at work as people talk about serial killer novels, motorcycles, sports players, and running shoes, or is there such a thing as a “popular aesthetic” that shapes our response to these various

sites of cultural production?

Again, this is an interesting contrast with the tradition of aesthetic philosophy, which tends towards unitary aesthetic systems. There’s a tendency for people to seek out ‘the’ single, correct set of criteria for evaluating culture. This ties back into the binary, of course – everything in culture can be placed within a single dualistic system – popular culture vs art – and only art has a proper aesthetic system, therefore there can (/should) only be a single aesthetic system.

But I think that’s nonsense. I think that the whole popular culture/high culture binary is nonsense. The problem, as I see it, is that the way that this binary has emerged is that fans of high culture have a pretty good idea of what that is – it’s the culture that’s enjoyed by people with tertiary education. Having established that, the problem then is that the definition of popular culture becomes simply ‘everything that’s not high culture’. It’s all defined in relation to high culture. Which is silly – why would you make high culture – or ‘art’ – the centre of your definitions and models of culture? In practice, that means that ‘popular culture’ then includes everything that isn’t high culture – even minority cultural practices that most people would have a problem with (the casual gay sex of; or radical cultural practices that reject and attack the mainstream (community media). It doesn’t really make sense to lump together everything that isn’t art as though it were all the same.

A better approach, I think, is to think lots of different ‘subcultures’–including ‘art’ as just one more subculture – alongside mainstream entertainment as another particular subculture, alongside sexual subcultures, alternative experimental subcultures, radical subcultures and so on.

And so there are indeed multiple aesthetic systems for interpreting different kinds of culture. Even within a given community, there will be competing aesthetic systems. And I’m not sure that we can pull out any general rules about them. From reading the chapters in this book, a few things stood out for me. You can find some continuity with literary aesthetic systems, in a concern for characters which are psychologically believable. And there’s an element that came through in several writers that many consumers like to find the less popular and less well known examples of their genre, the whole ‘I like their early stuff’ approach to evaluating culture – the connoisseurs of popular culture can be terrible snobs just as much as art fans. But I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘the’ popular aesthetic system.

You refuse to draw sharp lines between popular and high art here. This is a conversation we’ve been having on the blog — whether we can be “fans” of high culture or whether the aura and institutional practices surrounding it tends to restrict how we engage with its contents. What can we take from the study of “Beautiful Things in Popular Culture” that we might apply back to the study of traditional high culture?

I know that this is a bit controversial, but personally I don’t believe there’s any difference between the fans of popular culture and the fans of high culture. I’ve recently been doing some research into Theory fans – people who read cultural Theory for pleasure. And their practices and pleasures seem to be exactly the same as Star Trek fans, for example. Theory fans buy the books. They buy books of ‘fan writing’ – books written by other fans who really like Theory and want to tell people how good it is. They read all of this for pleasure. They go to conventions/conferences, to meet other fans, and argue about their favorite bits, and about the interpretation of them. It’s all just fan behaviour. I found a great example recently, of a flyer advertising a Derrida conference, where the organizers said quite explicitly that the conference would ‘celebrate the enduring and urgent political significance and relevance of his work’. It’s celebration! You can’t get more fannish than that. And you can see the same thing for Shakespeare fans, and classical music fans, and performance art fans, etc etc etc.

Of course, there are differences about how such fandoms are treated in culture. As a fan of high culture, one is encouraged to think of oneself as a ‘connoisseur’. The myth is that there are real, ‘rational’ reasons to like high culture (because it is, ‘really’, ‘good’), while fans of popular culture are somehow excessive or misguided in their loyalty. But I can’t find any evidence to support this view – I’m pretty sure it’s just prejudice.

Many of the essays in the collection are deeply personal: people dig deep into their own memories to talk about the place of these “beautiful things” in their own lives and to establish their own credentials for offering evaluations. Much academic work seeks to expel such autobiographical impulses; what do we gain by including them in the study of popular culture?

I think you’re right that academic writing as a genre seeks to expel personal reactions to texts. I’ve worked like that for a long time myself. But I think that ultimately, it’s not intellectually sustainable. For example, look at Deleuze fans. Why are they so excited about Deleuze’s ideas, why do they want to write about them, and go to conferences about them? The answer can’t be found just in Deleuze’s writing, because there are plenty of intelligent, informed people who have read Deleuze and just shrug their shoulders and say ‘Whatever’. The reason for their passion is in the relationship between them as readers and the writings of Deleuze. It’s something about their own character, their intellectual and emotionalformation, their upbringing, that means that they are the kind of people who respond to that kind of writing. Again, the recent research I’ve done on Theory fans has been very interesting. Many of them talked about the thrill they get when they read something that’s initially incomprehensible, and then finally understand it. They talk about that thrill, combined with the secret, illicit pleasure of knowing that other people don’t understand it – that you’re special, you’ve cracked the code.

And so we can’t just talk about texts – any texts, Theory, popular culture, etc. We always have to talk about the relationship – between the texts, and the specific audience, or perhaps even viewer, who is interpreting them.