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Is popular culture conservative?

The question whether popular culture or mass culture is inherently conservative, or whether it can be used in a subversive strategy as well, is equally hotly debated. It seems widely accepted that popular culture forms can function at any moment as anti-cultures. "Bad taste" products such as pornography and horror fiction, says for instance Andrew Ross (1989:231), draw their popular appeal precisely from their expressions of disrespect for the imposed lessons of educated taste. They are expressions of social resentment on the part of groups which have been subordinated and excluded by todays "civilized society".

The question whether popular culture can actually resist dominant ideology, or even contribute to social change, is much more difficult to answer. Many critics easily read popular fiction and film as "attacks against the system", neglecting both the exact ways in which the so-called revolutionary message is enacted, and the capacities of dominant doctrines to recuperate critical messages. Tania Modleski in "The Terror of Pleasure" (1986:159), for instance, presents exploitation horror films as attacks on the basic aspects of bourgeois culture. Thus a loving father cannibalizes his child, and priests turn into servants of the devil. Other scholars (e.g. Clem Robyns, 1991)claim that, by presenting their perversion as supernatural, or at least pathological, horror films precisely contribute to perpetuating those institutions.

Similarly, many critics exalt stories which feature a lone hero fighting for his ideals against an inert and amoral system. Thus Jim Collins in Uncommon Cultures (1989:30-31) sees crime fiction opposing a smart private detective and an inefficient police force as a critique of state justice. On the other hand, Thomas Roberts demonstrates in An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction (1990:173-174), a study of the historical background of the private detective model, how the detective story came into existence in the middle of the 19th century, at the time the institution of state police was developed. This force consisted mainly of lower class people, but nevertheless disposed of a certain authority over the upper class. The fears among the upper classes for this uncontrolled force were eased by domesticating the police in stories explicitly devoted to them. Their inability to pass on correct judgment was amply demonstrated, and forced them to bow for the individual intellect of the detective, who always belonged to the threatened upper class.

Finally, Umberto Eco's studies on Superman and James Bond (1988:211-256, 315-362) as myths of a static good-and-evil world view, should be mentioned as very early and lucid examples of a combination of semiotic and political analysis.

Still, there may be ways to wage revolt in an age of mass media. One way could be to introduce small gradual changes in products otherwise conforming to the requirements of a dominant ideology. The problem here, of course, is that isolated messages get drowned in the discourse as a whole, and that they can be used to avoid real changes. Some scholars however describe how opposition forces use the logic of the media to subvert them. In No Respect (1989: 123), Andrew Ross mentions the late sixties Yippie movement. Yippies would stage media events, such as the public burning of dollar bills in Wall Street, thereby drawing heavy media coverage. This politics of the spectacle brought the counterculture right into the conservative media and filled their forms with subversive content.

Whether this strategy is effective or not, it points to an important fact: the mass media are not above, but dependent on the public. As Alan Swingewood states in The Myth of Mass Culture (1977:84), the ideological messages the mass media receive are already mediated by a complex network of institutions and discourses. The media, themselves divided over innumerable specific discourses, transform them again. And finally the public meaningfully relates those messages to individual existences through the mediation of social groups, family networks, etc., which they belong to. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_culture_studies#The_possibility_of_a_.22subversive.22_popular_culture [Nov 2004]

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