To my students in English 313: Studies in Popular Culture, welcome! I hope you’ll find 313 enjoyable, stimulating, and productively challenging. On this page I’ll try to further explain the focus of 313 and the kind of work we’ll be doing.
Scholars have long had a strange and strained relationship with “popular culture,” one based on suspicion and yet also, at times, deep interest. Such interest, though, has most often been disavowed or excluded for the sake of intellectual seriousness – an elitist attitude that has in effect hidden much of culture from study. Until recently, academic theories of mass culture have been dominated by dismissive or adversarial viewpoints based on refusal rather than sustained engagement; in fact, for a long time “Pop” was something that English teachers like me were happy to ditch at the door. Since the 1960s, though, interest in and commitment to popular culture studies has grown much stronger in colleges and universities, especially in the fields of English and Communications.
This change is due mainly to the increasing influence of Cultural Studies, which is an international scholarly movement devoted to studying the practice and artifacts of everyday life and the goods and genres of mass culture. Coalescing in the 1960s, Cultural Studies originally came out of Britain and, informed by Marxist theories, concerned itself with questions of ideology and social power. Such questions continue to be crucial to Cultural Studies; more particularly, matters of social class, ethnicity, nationalism, gender, and sexuality are always under study. However, Cultural Studies as a discipline has changed over the years, expanding beyond its focus on Marxist political economy (though by no means abandoning Marxist theory) and becoming broader and more eclectic in its theories and methods.
Today Cultural Studies draws from many disciplines, including (but not limited to) communication; political science; sociology; anthropology; philosophy; film, video and new media studies; art history and criticism; and literary and critical theory. American and other strands of Cultural Studies have complemented, sometimes challenged, the original British strand, going beyond a Marxist focus on cultural production to emphasize the different ways that audiences (that means we) may interpret and make use of cultural products. Today some Cultural Studies work is adversarial, and some celebratory; some is concerned with cultural production, and some with consumption, interpretation, and appropriation, that is, how consumers may use Pop to create their own meanings. We’ll explore these different strands in 313.
Here are the questions or debates that have guided me as I’ve prepared this course:
Why should we learn to look at popular culture more critically? Just what is at stake in the study of Pop?
Exactly how has Pop been studied, critiqued, debated, and understood by scholars? Who has the right, or the power, to determine how Pop is interpreted?
How should we describe the audiences, or consumers, of Pop? Are they (we) simply victims or dupes, sucking up whatever the mass media have to offer? Or can we be active agents, using Pop for our own positive purposes?
You should expect to address all these questions (whew!) in 313. Our assignments will include a group presentation, two major essays, a brief take-home final essay, and other homework if needed (see our Moodle syllabus for further information).
At first we’ll work on interpreting pop culture “texts,” including videotexts and retail environments. You’ll practice critically “reading” these things much as you would read a book. For this purpose we’ll discuss semiotics as a critical methodology. From there, we’ll study consumerism, from historical and ideological perspectives. In the second half of the course, we’ll examine various perspectives in audience studies, from descriptions of the audience as passive, uncritical, or vulnerable to descriptions of the audience as having creative and critical agency. In this context we’ll study fandom, i.e., subcultures fashioned and activities pursued by pop culture fans. When we finally get to the end of the course we’ll address, once more, the question of pop culture as a site of power struggle.
With all that in mind, buckle up and get ready for a faaaaast ride!