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popular culture

for, Mythologies, Rabelais and His World, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture

often overlaps, and/or is confused with, ‘folk culture’, ‘working-class culture’, ‘mass culture’, ‘consumer culture’, and ‘sub-culture’. The history of changing and contested semantics of the term ‘popular culture’ tracks not only the complex social and historical developments from so-called ‘traditional’ communities (‘pre-industrial’, ‘oral’) through the industrial revolution to late capitalism. Its usage also registers the more or less conscious ways in which the links between culture and society in their broadest senses have been defined and analysed, largely within the framework offered by Marxist theories of ideology and ‘cultural production’ (Walter Benjamin, Gramsci, and Raymond Williams).

To trace the changes which the word ‘popular’ has undergone from its original (Latin) legalistic and political sense of ‘belonging to the people’, to modern senses of ‘well-liked by many people’, and the more derogatory sense of ‘seeking favour with the people’, is to map very complex ground. Conjoined with ‘culture’, the term has come to adopt roughly three differing meanings. First, it refers to a body of ‘texts’ and genres from a wide range of media (folk-songs, chapbooks, detective fiction, the Romance novel, Hollywood movies, TV soap operas, etc.) produced either ‘for the people’, or (and this crucial difference colours much dissenting debate) ‘by the people’, which stands in contradistinction to the canon of established classic ‘great works’ representing a ‘High Culture’ of a ruling élite. Secondly, it refers more broadly to a whole way of life, set of beliefs and values, codes of social behaviour, that ‘the common people’ share. This sense finds its origins in ethnography and sociology and is close in its range of reference to the (ethnically or historically confined) traditional ‘folk-culture’. Thirdly, ‘popular culture’ has been recognized as a field of study within the academy: with the rise in interdisciplinary theoretical interests which bring together methodologies and disciplines embracing cultural and social history, literary textual criticism, semiotics, and (particularly French) psychoanalytical studies of the construction of the subject, a very fertile field of enquiry concerning everyday life, both past and present, is being explored. Theoretical articulations about the nature of ideological formations and cultural production and consumption (particularly the relation of ‘dominant’ to ‘subordinate’ cultures within societies) have been greatly enriched by the Marxist thinking of Benjamin, Gramsci, Althusser, and Williams. Simultaneously, from a critical perspective which tends to identify contemporary ‘popular culture’ with a capitalist (manipulative and debased) ‘mass culture’, the Frankfurt School (Adorno and Horkheimer), among others, has sought to identify a reactionary (if populist) aspect of the terrain. Cultural historians, some of the French ‘Annales’ School, have greatly enlarged the historical range of the subject into the medieval and early modern ‘Everyday’; while the work of Barthes on Mythologies (1957) and Bakhtin (Rabelais and His World, 1965) on carnival have proven seminal in offering an account of the complex relations of cultural hegemony, accommodation, and resistance existing between social groups and classes.

In Britain, those involved in Mass-Observation in the 1930s and writers as different as George Orwell (with essays on seaside postcards and boys' comics) and T. S. Eliot (Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948) had come to recognize the regional and class diversity inherent in the idea of a national culture, which the study of popular culture has elaborated. More recently, E. P. Thompson's work on plebeian and working-class cultures (The Making of the English Working Class, 1963), along with Richard Hoggart's ground-breaking The Uses of Literacy (1957) (a ‘left-Leavisite’ intervention) and Raymond Williams's works, have been crucial in establishing popular culture as a discipline within the academy. Dissatisfaction, though, with the gender-blindness inherent in much of the theory and procedures of these positions has led to an uneasy but productive dialogue with feminist historians and theorists (e.g. Coward, Female Desires, 1984).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Ellis’ [Edith Mary Pargeter] ‘Peters Biography to Portrait of Dora (Portrait de Dora)