In this fifth edition of his successful Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, John Storey
has extensively revised the text throughout. As before, the book presents a clear and critical survey
of competing theories of and various approaches to popular culture.
Retaining the accessible approach of previous editions, and using relevant and appropriate examples
from the texts and practices of popular culture, this new edition remains a key introduction to the area.
New to this edition
• Extensively revised, rewritten and updated
• Improved and expanded content throughout including:
The new edition remains essential reading for undergraduate and postgraduate students of cultural studies,
media studies, communication studies, the sociology of culture, popular culture and other related subjects.
John Storey is Professor of Cultural Studies and Director of the Centre for Research in Media
and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland. He has published widely in cultural studies,
including seven books. The most recent book is The Articulation of Memory and Desire (Guangxi
Normal University Press, 2007). His work has been translated into Chinese, German, Japanese,
Korean, Persian, Polish, Serbian, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, and Ukrainian. He has been a Visiting
Professor at the universities of Henan, Vienna and Wuhan.
• New chapter on ‘Race’, racism and representation
• New sections on the Panoptic Machine and Convergence Culture
Continued explicit links to the new edition companion reader Cultural Theory and Popular Culture:
More illustrative diagrams and images
Fully revised, improved and updated companion website at www.pearsoned.co.uk/storey providing
practice questions and extension activities, as well as annotated links to relevant sites on the web
and further reading, and a glossary of key terms, to promote further understanding of the study of
cultural theory and popular culture
CULTURAL THEORY AND POPULAR CULTURE
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Cultural Theory and Popular Culture
Visit the Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, fifth edition
Companion Website at www.pearsoned.co.uk/storey to find
valuable student learning material including:
Extension activities for each chapter
Extra questions to aid revision and further understanding
Annotated links to relevant sites on the web and further
Multiple choice questions to check basic understanding
Glossary of key terms
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Cultural Theory and Popular Culture
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What is popular culture?
Popular culture as other
The ‘culture and civilization’ tradition
Mass culture in America: the post-war debate
The culture of other people
Richard Hoggart: The Uses of Literacy
Raymond Williams: ‘The analysis of culture’
E.P. Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class
Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel: The Popular Arts
The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies
The Frankfurt School
Post-Marxism and cultural studies
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Slavoj yizek and Lacanian fantasy
Structuralism and post-structuralism
Ferdinand de Saussure
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Will Wright and the American Western
Roland Barthes: Mythologies
Discourse and power: Michel Foucault
The panoptic machine
Gender and sexuality
Women at the cinema
Reading women’s magazines
Men’s studies and masculinities
‘Race’, racism and representation
‘Race’ and racism
The ideology of racism: its historical emergence
Anti-racism and cultural studies
The postmodern condition
Postmodernism in the 1960s
Postmodern pop music
Postmodernism and the pluralism of value
The global postmodern
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10 The politics of the popular
A paradigm crisis in cultural studies?
The cultural field
The economic field
Post-Marxist cultural studies: hegemony revisited
The ideology of mass culture
Visit www.pearsoned.co.uk/storey to find valuable online resources
Companion Website for students
Extension activities for each chapter
■ Extra questions to aid revision and further understanding
■ Annotated links to relevant sites on the web and further reading
■ Multiple choice questions to check basic understanding
■ Glossary of key terms
■ Extension activities for the classroom
■ Discussion topics
■ Homework ideas
Also: The Companion Website provides the following features:
■ Search tool to help locate specific items of content
■ E-mail results and profile tools to send results of quizzes to instructors
■ Online help and support to assist with website usage and troubleshooting
For more information please contact your local Pearson Education sales
representative or visit www.pearsoned.co.uk/storey
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Preface to fifth edition
In writing the fifth edition I have revised, rewritten and edited throughout. I have also
added new material to most of the chapters (the book has grown from a first edition
of around 65,000 words to a fifth edition that is in excess of 114,000 words). The most
obvious addition is the new chapter ‘Race, racism and representation’ and the new
sections on the panoptic machine (Chapter 6) and convergence culture (Chapter 9).
I have also added more diagrams and illustrations.
The fifth edition is best read in conjunction with its companion volume, Cultural
Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, fourth edition (Pearson, 2009).
Preface to fourth edition
In writing the fourth edition I have revised, rewritten and edited throughout. I have
also added new material to most of the chapters (the book has grown from a first edition of around 65,000 words to a fourth edition that is well in excess of 100,000
words). The most obvious addition is the new chapter on psychoanalysis and the
sections on post-Marxism (Chapter 4) and the global postmodern (Chapter 8). I have
also added more diagrams and illustrations. Finally, I have changed the running order
of the chapters. The chapters are now chronological in terms of where each begins.
However, where each chapter ends may sometimes disrupt chronology. For example,
Marxism begins before post-structuralism, but where the discussion of Marxism ends is
more contemporary than where the discussion of post-structuralism ends. There seems
to be no obvious solution to this problem.
Preface to third edition
In writing the third edition I have sought to improve and to expand the material in the
first two editions of this book. To achieve this I have revised and I have rewritten much
more extensively than in the second edition. I have also added new material to most
of the chapters. This is most evident in the renamed, and reorganized, Chapter 6, where
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I have added a new section on queer theory, and where I have extended the section on
reading women’s magazines. Perhaps the most visible change is the addition of illustrations, and the inclusion of a list of websites useful to the student of cultural theory
and popular culture.
Preface to second edition
In writing the second edition I have sought to improve and to expand the material in
the first book. To achieve this I have revised and I have rewritten. More specifically, I
have added new sections on popular culture and the carnivalesque, postmodernism
and the pluralism of value. I have also extended five sections, neo-Gramscian cultural
studies, popular film, cine-psychoanalysis and cultural studies, feminism as reading,
postmodernism in the 1960s, the cultural field.
Preface to first edition
As the title of this book indicates, my subject is the relationship between cultural
theory and popular culture. But as the title also indicates, my study is intended as an
introduction to the subject. This has entailed the adoption of a particular approach. I
have not tried to write a history of the encounter between cultural theory and popular
culture. Instead, I have chosen to focus on the theoretical and methodological implications and ramifications of specific moments in the history of the study of popular
culture. In short, I have tended to treat cultural theory / popular culture as a discursive
formation, and to focus less on historical provenance and more on how it functions
ideologically in the present. To avoid misunderstanding and misrepresentation, I have
allowed critics and theorists, when and where appropriate, to speak in their own
words. In doing this, I am in agreement with the view expressed by the American literary historian Walter E. Houghton: ‘Attitudes are elusive. Try to define them and you
lose their essence, their special colour and tone. They have to be apprehended in their
concrete and living formulation.’ Moreover, rather than simply surveying the field, I
have tried through quotation and detailed commentary to give the student of popular
culture a ‘taste’ of the material. However, this book is not intended as a substitute for
reading first-hand the theorists and critics discussed here. And, although each chapter
ends with suggestions for further reading, these are intended to supplement the reading of the primary texts discussed in the individual chapters (details of which are
located in the Notes at the end of the book).
Above all, the intention of this book is to provide an introduction to the academic
study of popular culture. As I have already indicated, I am under no illusion that this
is a fully adequate account, or the only possible way to map the conceptual landscape
that is the subject of this study. My hope is that this version of the relationship between
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popular culture and cultural theory will encourage other students of popular culture to
begin their own mapping of the field.
Finally, I hope I have written a book that can offer something to both those familiar
with the subject and those to whom – as an academic subject at least – it is all very new.
I would like to thank students on the ‘Cultural Theory and Popular Culture’ modules
(1990–2008) at the University of Sunderland, with whom I have rehearsed many
of the ideas contained in this book. I would also like to thank colleagues in the
(University of Sunderland) Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, and
friends at other institutions, for ideas and encouragement. I would also like to thank
Andrew Taylor of Pearson Education for giving me the opportunity to write a fifth edition.
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We are grateful to the following for permission to reproduce copyright material:
Photo 6.1 (Paris Match), with permission from Hachette Filipacchi Associés; the text in
Photo 6.2 from an advertisement recruiting teachers in Empire, for the Department for
Education and Skills (1991). Reproduced with permission of the Controller of HMSO;
Figure 9.1 (Daily Express headline) reproduced by permission of Express Newspapers;
Figure 10.1 (Queen’s Theatre playbill) with permission from The Arts Library,
Manchester Central Library.
The following are the author’s own: Photo 2.1 (day trip to Blackpool), Photo 4.3 (two
figures on a beach), Figures 6.1 and 6.2 (Rock-a-day Johnny), Photo 9.1 (Cocacolonization of China), Figure 9.2 (the ‘foreign’), all © John Storey.
In some instances we have been unable to trace the owners of copyright material, and
we would appreciate any information that would enable us to do so.
We are grateful to all the reviewers who generously gave their comments on this new
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1 What is popular
Before we consider in detail the different ways in which popular culture has been
defined and analysed, I want to outline some of the general features of the debate that
the study of popular culture has generated. It is not my intention to pre-empt the
specific findings and arguments that will be presented in the following chapters. Here
I simply wish to map out the general conceptual landscape of popular culture. This is,
in many ways, a daunting task. As Tony Bennett (1980) points out, ‘as it stands, the
concept of popular culture is virtually useless, a melting pot of confused and contradictory meanings capable of misdirecting inquiry up any number of theoretical blind
alleys’ (18). Part of the difficulty stems from the implied otherness that is always absent/
present when we use the term ‘popular culture’. As we shall see in the chapters which
follow, popular culture is always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other
conceptual categories: folk culture, mass culture, dominant culture, working-class culture, etc. A full definition must always take this into account. Moreover, as we shall also
see, whichever conceptual category is deployed as popular culture’s absent other, it will
always powerfully affect the connotations brought into play when we use the term
Therefore, to study popular culture we must first confront the difficulty posed by the
term itself. That is, ‘depending on how it is used, quite different areas of inquiry and
forms of theoretical definition and analytical focus are suggested’ (20). The main argument that I suspect readers will take from this book is that popular culture is in effect
an empty conceptual category, one that can be filled in a wide variety of often conflicting ways, depending on the context of use.
In order to define popular culture we first need to define the term ‘culture’. Raymond
Williams (1983) calls culture ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the
English language’ (87). Williams suggests three broad definitions. First, culture can be
used to refer to ‘a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development’
(90). We could, for example, speak about the cultural development of Western Europe
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Chapter 1 What is popular culture?
and be referring only to intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic factors – great philosophers,
great artists and great poets. This would be a perfectly understandable formulation. A
second use of the word ‘culture’ might be to suggest ‘a particular way of life, whether
of a people, a period or a group’ (ibid.). Using this definition, if we speak of the cultural development of Western Europe, we would have in mind not just intellectual and
aesthetic factors, but the development of, for example, literacy, holidays, sport, religious
festivals. Finally, Williams suggests that culture can be used to refer to ‘the works and
practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity’ (ibid.). In other words, culture
here means the texts and practices whose principal function is to signify, to produce or
to be the occasion for the production of meaning. Culture in this third definition is
synonymous with what structuralists and post-structuralists call ‘signifying practices’
(see Chapter 6). Using this definition, we would probably think of examples such as
poetry, the novel, ballet, opera, and fine art. To speak of popular culture usually means
to mobilize the second and third meanings of the word ‘culture’. The second meaning
– culture as a particular way of life – would allow us to speak of such practices as the
seaside holiday, the celebration of Christmas, and youth subcultures, as examples of
culture. These are usually referred to as lived cultures or practices. The third meaning –
culture as signifying practices – would allow us to speak of soap opera, pop music, and
comics, as examples of culture. These are usually referred to as texts. Few people would
imagine Williams’s first definition when thinking about popular culture.
Before we turn to the different definitions of popular culture, there is another term we
have to think about: ideology. Ideology is a crucial concept in the study of popular culture. Graeme Turner (1996) calls it ‘the most important conceptual category in cultural
studies’ (182). James Carey (1996) has even suggested that ‘British cultural studies
could be described just as easily and perhaps more accurately as ideological studies’
(65). Like culture, ideology has many competing meanings. An understanding of this
concept is often complicated by the fact that in much cultural analysis the concept is
used interchangeably with culture itself, and especially popular culture. The fact that
ideology has been used to refer to the same conceptual terrain as culture and popular
culture makes it an important term in any understanding of the nature of popular culture. What follows is a brief discussion of just five of the many ways of understanding
ideology. We will consider only those meanings that have a bearing on the study of
First, ideology can refer to a systematic body of ideas articulated by a particular group
of people. For example, we could speak of ‘professional ideology’ to refer to the ideas
which inform the practices of particular professional groups. We could also speak of
the ‘ideology of the Labour Party’. Here we would be referring to the collection of political, economic and social ideas that inform the aspirations and activities of the Party.
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A second definition suggests a certain masking, distortion, or concealment. Ideology
is used here to indicate how some texts and practices present distorted images of reality. They produce what is sometimes called ‘false consciousness’. Such distortions, it is
argued, work in the interests of the powerful against the interests of the powerless.
Using this definition, we might speak of capitalist ideology. What would be intimated
by this usage would be the way in which ideology conceals the reality of domination
from those in power: the dominant class do not see themselves as exploiters or oppressors. And, perhaps more importantly, the way in which ideology conceals the reality of
subordination from those who are powerless: the subordinate classes do not see themselves as oppressed or exploited. This definition derives from certain assumptions
about the circumstances of the production of texts and practices. It is argued that they
are the superstructural ‘reflections’ or ‘expressions’ of the power relations of the economic base of society. This is one of the fundamental assumptions of classical
Marxism. Here is Karl Marx’s (1976a) famous formulation:
In the social production of their existence men enter into definite, necessary relations, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production corresponding to a determinate stage of development of their material forces of production.
The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of
society, the real foundation on which there arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The
mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual
life process in general (3).
What Marx is suggesting is that the way a society organizes the means of its economic production will have a determining effect on the type of culture that society produces or makes possible. The cultural products of this so-called base/superstructure
relationship are deemed ideological to the extent that, as a result of this relationship,
they implicitly or explicitly support the interests of dominant groups who, socially,
politically, economically and culturally, benefit from this particular economic organization of society. In Chapter 4, we will consider the modifications made by Marx and
Frederick Engels themselves to this formulation, and the way in which subsequent
Marxists have further modified what has come to be regarded by many cultural critics
as a rather mechanistic account of what we might call the social relations of culture and
popular culture. However, having said this, it is nevertheless the case that
acceptance of the contention that the flow of causal traffic within society is
unequally structured, such that the economy, in a privileged way, influences political and ideological relationships in ways that are not true in reverse, has usually
been held to constitute a ‘limit position’ for Marxism. Abandon this claim, it is
argued, and Marxism ceases to be Marxism (Bennett, 1982a: 81).
We can also use ideology in this general sense to refer to power relations outside
those of class. For instance, feminists speak of the power of patriarchal ideology, and
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Chapter 1 What is popular culture?
how it operates to conceal, mask and distort gender relations in our society (see
Chapter 7). In Chapter 8 we will examine the ideology of racism.
A third definition of ideology (closely related to, and in some ways dependent on,
the second definition) uses the term to refer to ‘ideological forms’ (Marx, 1976a: 5).
This usage is intended to draw attention to the way in which texts (television fiction,
pop songs, novels, feature films, etc.) always present a particular image of the world.
This definition depends on a notion of society as conflictual rather than consensual,
structured around inequality, exploitation and oppression. Texts are said to take sides,
consciously or unconsciously, in this conflict. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht
(1978) summarizes the point: ‘Good or bad, a play always includes an image of the
world. . . . There is no play and no theatrical performance which does not in some way
affect the dispositions and conceptions of the audience. Art is never without consequences’ (150–1). Brecht’s point can be generalized to apply to all texts. Another way
of saying this would be simply to argue that all texts are ultimately political. That is,
they offer competing ideological significations of the way the world is or should be.
Popular culture is thus, as Hall (2009a) claims, a site where ‘collective social understandings are created’: a terrain on which ‘the politics of signification’ are played out in
attempts to win people to particular ways of seeing the world (122–23).
A fourth definition of ideology is one associated with the early work of the French
cultural theorist Roland Barthes (discussed in more detail in Chapter 6). Barthes argues
that ideology (or ‘myth’ as Barthes himself calls it) operates mainly at the level of connotations, the secondary, often unconscious meanings that texts and practices carry, or
can be made to carry. For example, a Conservative Party political broadcast transmitted
in 1990 ended with the word ‘socialism’ being transposed into red prison bars. What
was being suggested is that the socialism of the Labour Party is synonymous with
social, economic and political imprisonment. The broadcast was attempting to fix the
connotations of the word ‘socialism’. Moreover, it hoped to locate socialism in a binary
relationship in which it connoted unfreedom, whilst conservatism connoted freedom.
For Barthes, this would be a classic example of the operations of ideology, the attempt
to make universal and legitimate what is in fact partial and particular; an attempt
to pass off that which is cultural (i.e. humanly made) as something which is natural
(i.e. just existing). Similarly, it could be argued that in British society white, masculine,
heterosexual, middle class, are unmarked in the sense that they are the ‘normal’, the
‘natural’, the ‘universal’, from which other ways of being are an inferior variation on an
original. This is made clear in such formulations as a female pop singer, a black journalist, a working-class writer, a gay comedian. In each instance the first term is used to
qualify the second as a deviation from the ‘universal’ categories of pop singer, journalist, writer and comedian.
A fifth definition is one that was very influential in the 1970s and early 1980s. It
is the definition of ideology developed by the French Marxist philosopher Louis
Althusser. We shall discuss Althusser in more detail in Chapter 4. Here I will simply
outline some key points about one of his definitions of ideology. Althusser’s main contention is to see ideology not simply as a body of ideas, but as a material practice. What
he means by this is that ideology is encountered in the practices of everyday life and
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not simply in certain ideas about everyday life. Principally, what Althusser has in mind
is the way in which certain rituals and customs have the effect of binding us to the
social order: a social order that is marked by enormous inequalities of wealth, status
and power. Using this definition, we could describe the seaside holiday or the celebration of Christmas as examples of ideological practices. This would point to the way in
which they offer pleasure and release from the usual demands of the social order, but
that, ultimately, they return us to our places in the social order, refreshed and ready to
tolerate our exploitation and oppression until the next official break comes along. In
this sense, ideology works to reproduce the social conditions and social relations necessary for the economic conditions and economic relations of capitalism to continue.
So far we have briefly examined different ways of defining culture and ideology.
What should be clear by now is that culture and ideology do cover much the same conceptual landscape. The main difference between them is that ideology brings a political dimension to the shared terrain. In addition, the introduction of the concept of
ideology suggests that relations of power and politics inescapably mark the culture/
ideology landscape; it suggests that the study of popular culture amounts to something
more than a simple discussion of entertainment and leisure.
There are various ways to define popular culture. This book is of course in part about
that very process, about the different ways in which various critical approaches have
attempted to fix the meaning of popular culture. Therefore, all I intend to do for the
remainder of this chapter is to sketch out six definitions of popular culture that in their
different, general ways, inform the study of popular culture. But first a few words about
the term ‘popular’. Williams (1983) suggests four current meanings: ‘well liked by
many people’; ‘inferior kinds of work’; ‘work deliberately setting out to win favour with
the people’; ‘culture actually made by the people for themselves’ (237). Clearly, then,
any definition of popular culture will bring into play a complex combination of the different meanings of the term ‘culture’ with the different meanings of the term ‘popular’.
The history of cultural theory’s engagement with popular culture is, therefore, a history
of the different ways in which the two terms have been connected by theoretical labour
within particular historical and social contexts.
An obvious starting point in any attempt to define popular culture is to say that
popular culture is simply culture that is widely favoured or well liked by many people.
And, undoubtedly, such a quantitative index would meet the approval of many people.
We could examine sales of books, sales of CDs and DVDs. We could also examine
attendance records at concerts, sporting events, and festivals. We could also scrutinize
market research figures on audience preferences for different television programmes.
Such counting would undoubtedly tell us a great deal. The difficulty might prove to be
that, paradoxically, it tells us too much. Unless we can agree on a figure over which
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Chapter 1 What is popular culture?
something becomes popular culture, and below which it is just culture, we might find
that widely favoured or well liked by many people included so much as to be virtually
useless as a conceptual definition of popular culture. Despite this problem, what is
clear is that any definition of popular culture must include a quantitative dimension.
The popular of popular culture would seem to demand it. What is also clear, however,
is that on its own, a quantitative index is not enough to provide an adequate definition
of popular culture. Such counting would almost certainly include ‘the officially sanctioned “high culture” which in terms of book and record sales and audience ratings for
television dramatisations of the classics, can justifiably claim to be “popular” in this
sense’ (Bennett, 1980: 20–1).
A second way of defining popular culture is to suggest that it is the culture that is left
over after we have decided what is high culture. Popular culture, in this definition, is
a residual category, there to accommodate texts and practices that fail to meet the
required standards to qualify as high culture. In other words, it is a definition of popular culture as inferior culture. What the culture/popular culture test might include is a
range of value judgements on a particular text or practice. For example, we might want
to insist on formal complexity. In other words, to be real culture, it has to be difficult.
Being difficult thus ensures its exclusive status as high culture. Its very difficulty literally excludes, an exclusion that guarantees the exclusivity of its audience. The French
sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that cultural distinctions of this kind are often used
to support class distinctions. Taste is a deeply ideological category: it functions as
a marker of ‘class’ (using the term in a double sense to mean both a social economic
category and the suggestion of a particular level of quality). For Bourdieu (1984), the
consumption of culture is ‘predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a
social function of legitimating social differences’ (5). This will be discussed in more
detail in Chapters 9 and 10.
This definition of popular culture is often supported by claims that popular culture is mass-produced commercial culture, whereas high culture is the result of an
individual act of creation. The latter, therefore, deserves only a moral and aesthetic
response; the former requires only a fleeting sociological inspection to unlock what
little it has to offer. Whatever the method deployed, those who wish to make the case
for the division between high and popular culture generally insist that the division
between the two is absolutely clear. Moreover, not only is this division clear, it is transhistorical – fixed for all time. This latter point is usually insisted on, especially if the
division is dependent on supposed essential textual qualities. There are many problems
with this certainty. For example, William Shakespeare is now seen as the epitome
of high culture, yet as late as the nineteenth century his work was very much a part of
popular theatre.1 The same point can also be made about Charles Dickens’s work.
Similarly, film noir can be seen to have crossed the border supposedly separating popular and high culture: in other words, what started as popular cinema is now the preserve of academics and film clubs.2 One recent example of cultural traffic moving in the
other direction is Luciano Pavarotti’s recording of Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. Even the
most rigorous defenders of high culture would not want to exclude Pavarotti or Puccini
from its select enclave. But in 1990, Pavarotti managed to take ‘Nessun Dorma’ to
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number one in the British charts. Such commercial success on any quantitative analysis would make the composer, the performer and the aria, popular culture.3 In fact,
one student I know actually complained about the way in which the aria had been supposedly devalued by its commercial success. He claimed that he now found it embarrassing to play the aria for fear that someone should think his musical taste was simply
the result of the aria being ‘The Official BBC Grandstand World Cup Theme’. Other students laughed and mocked. But his complaint highlights something very significant
about the high/popular divide: the elitist investment that some put in its continuation.
On 30 July 1991, Pavarotti gave a free concert in London’s Hyde Park. About
250,000 people were expected, but because of heavy rain, the number who actually
attended was around 100,000. Two things about the event are of interest to a student
of popular culture. The first is the enormous popularity of the event. We could connect
this with the fact that Pavarotti’s previous two albums (Essential Pavarotti 1 and Essential
Pavarotti 2) had both topped the British album charts. His obvious popularity would
appear to call into question any clear division between high and popular culture.
Second, the extent of his popularity would appear to threaten the class exclusivity of a
high/popular divide. It is therefore interesting to note the way in which the event was
reported in the media. All the British tabloids carried news of the event on their front
pages. The Daily Mirror, for instance, had five pages devoted to the concert. What the
tabloid coverage reveals is a clear attempt to define the event for popular culture. The
Sun quoted a woman who said, ‘I can’t afford to go to posh opera houses with toffs and
fork out £100 a seat.’ The Daily Mirror ran an editorial in which it claimed that
Pavarotti’s performance ‘wasn’t for the rich’ but ‘for the thousands . . . who could never
normally afford a night with an operatic star’. When the event was reported on television news programmes the following lunchtime, the tabloid coverage was included as
part of the general meaning of the event. Both the BBC’s One O’clock News and ITV’s
12.30 News, referred to the way in which the tabloids had covered the concert, and
moreover, the extent to which they had covered the concert. The old certainties of the
cultural landscape suddenly seemed in doubt. However, there was some attempt made
to reintroduce the old certainties: ‘some critics said that a park is no place for opera’
(One O’clock News); ‘some opera enthusiasts might think it all a bit vulgar’ (12.30
News). Although such comments invoked the spectre of high-culture exclusivity, they
seemed strangely at a loss to offer any purchase on the event. The apparently obvious
cultural division between high and popular culture no longer seemed so obvious. It
suddenly seemed that the cultural had been replaced by the economic, revealing a division between ‘the rich’ and ‘the thousands’. It was the event’s very popularity that
forced the television news to confront, and ultimately to find wanting, old cultural
certainties. This can be partly illustrated by returning to the contradictory meaning
of the term ‘popular’.4 On the one hand, something is said to be good because it is
popular. An example of this usage would be: it was a popular performance. Yet, on
the other hand, something is said to be bad for the very same reason. Consider the
binary oppositions in Table 1.1. This demonstrates quite clearly the way in which
popular and popular culture carries within its definitional field connotations of inferiority; a second-best culture for those unable to understand, let alone appreciate, real
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Chapter 1 What is popular culture?
Table 1.1 Popular culture as ‘inferior’ culture.
culture – what Matthew Arnold refers to as ‘the best that has been thought and said in
the world’ (see Chapter 2). Hall (2009b) argues that what is important here is not the
fact that popular forms move up and down the ‘cultural escalator’; more significant are
‘the forces and relations which sustain the distinction, the difference . . . [the] institutions and institutional processes . . . required to sustain each and to continually mark
the difference between them’ (514). This is principally the work of the education system and its promotion of a selective tradition (see Chapter 3).
A third way of defining popular culture is as ‘mass culture’. This draws heavily on
the previous definition. The mass culture perspective will be discussed in some detail
in Chapter 2; therefore all I want to do here is to suggest the basic terms of this
definition. The first point that those who refer to popular culture as mass culture want
to establish is that popular culture is a hopelessly commercial culture. It is massproduced for mass consumption. Its audience is a mass of non-discriminating consumers. The culture itself is formulaic, manipulative (to the political right or left,
depending on who is doing the analysis). It is a culture that is consumed with brainnumbed and brain-numbing passivity. But as John Fiske (1989a) points out, ‘between
80 and 90 per cent of new products fail despite extensive advertising . . . many films fail
to recover even their promotional costs at the box office’ (31). Simon Frith (1983: 147)
also points out that about 80 per cent of singles and albums lose money. Such statistics should clearly call into question the notion of consumption as an automatic
and passive activity (see Chapters 7 and 10).
Those working within the mass culture perspective usually have in mind a previous
‘golden age’ when cultural matters were very different. This usually takes one of two
forms: a lost organic community or a lost folk culture. But as Fiske (1989a) points out,
‘In capitalist societies there is no so-called authentic folk culture against which to measure the “inauthenticity” of mass culture, so bemoaning the loss of the authentic is a
fruitless exercise in romantic nostalgia’ (27). This also holds true for the ‘lost’ organic
community. The Frankfurt School, as we shall see in Chapter 4, locate the lost golden
age, not in the past, but in the future.
For some cultural critics working within the mass culture paradigm, mass culture is
not just an imposed and impoverished culture, it is in a clear identifiable sense an
imported American culture: ‘If popular culture in its modern form was invented in any
one place, it was . . . in the great cities of the United States, and above all in New York’
(Maltby, 1989: 11; my italics). The claim that popular culture is American culture has
a long history within the theoretical mapping of popular culture. It operates under the
term ‘Americanization’. Its central theme is that British culture has declined under the
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homogenizing influence of American culture. There are two things we can say with
some confidence about the United States and popular culture. First, as Andrew Ross
(1989) has pointed out, ‘popular culture has been socially and institutionally central
in America for longer and in a more significant way than in Europe’ (7). Second,
although the availability of American culture worldwide is undoubted, how what is
available is consumed is at the very least contradictory (see Chapter 9). What is true is
that in the 1950s (one of the key periods of Americanization), for many young people
in Britain, American culture represented a force of liberation against the grey certainties of British everyday life. What is also clear is that the fear of Americanization is
closely related to a distrust (regardless of national origin) of emerging forms of popular culture. As with the mass culture perspective generally, there are political left and
political right versions of the argument. What are under threat are either the traditional
values of high culture, or the traditional way of life of a ‘tempted’ working class.
There is what we might call a benign version of the mass culture perspective. The
texts and practices of popular culture are seen as forms of public fantasy. Popular culture is understood as a collective dream world. As Richard Maltby (1989) claims, popular culture provides ‘escapism that is not an escape from or to anywhere, but an escape
of our utopian selves’ (14). In this sense, cultural practices such as Christmas and the
seaside holiday, it could be argued, function in much the same way as dreams: they
articulate, in a disguised form, collective (but repressed) wishes and desires. This is a
benign version of the mass culture critique because, as Maltby points out, ‘If it is the
crime of popular culture that it has taken our dreams and packaged them and sold
them back to us, it is also the achievement of popular culture that it has brought us
more and more varied dreams than we could otherwise ever have known’ (ibid.).
Structuralism, although not usually placed within the mass culture perspective, and
certainly not sharing its moralistic approach, nevertheless sees popular culture as a sort
of ideological machine which more or less effortlessly reproduces the prevailing structures of power. Readers are seen as locked into specific ‘reading positions’. There is little
space for reader activity or textual contradiction. Part of post-structuralism’s critique of
structuralism is the opening up of a critical space in which such questions can be
addressed. Chapter 6 will consider these issues in some detail.
A fourth definition contends that popular culture is the culture that originates from
‘the people’. It takes issue with any approach that suggests that it is something imposed
on ‘the people’ from above. According to this definition, the term should only be used
to indicate an ‘authentic’ culture of ‘the people’. This is popular culture as folk culture:
a culture of the people for the people. As a definition of popular culture, it is ‘often
equated with a highly romanticised concept of working-class culture construed as the
major source of symbolic protest within contemporary capitalism’ (Bennett, 1980: 27).
One problem with this approach is the question of who qualifies for inclusion in the
category ‘the people’. Another problem with it is that it evades the ‘commercial’ nature
of much of the resources from which popular culture is made. No matter how much
we might insist on this definition, the fact remains that people do not spontaneously
produce culture from raw materials of their own making. Whatever popular culture is,
what is certain is that its raw materials are those which are commercially provided. This
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Chapter 1 What is popular culture?
approach tends to avoid the full implications of this fact. Critical analysis of pop and
rock music is particularly replete with this kind of analysis of popular culture. At a conference I once attended, a contribution from the floor suggested that Levi jeans would
never be able to use a song from The Jam to sell its products. The fact that they had
already used a song by The Clash would not shake this conviction. What underpinned
this conviction was a clear sense of cultural difference – television commercials for Levi
jeans are mass culture, the music of The Jam is popular culture defined as an oppositional culture of ‘the people’. The only way the two could meet would be through The
Jam ‘selling out’. As this was not going to happen, Levi jeans would never use a song
by The Jam to sell its products. But this had already happened to The Clash, a band
with equally sound political credentials. This circular exchange stalled to a stop. The
cultural studies use of the concept of hegemony would have, at the very least, fuelled
further discussion (see Chapter 4).
A fifth definition of popular culture, then, is one that draws on the political analysis of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, particularly on his development of the
concept of hegemony. Gramsci (2009) uses the term ‘hegemony’ to refer to the way
in which dominant groups in society, through a process of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ (75), seek to win the consent of subordinate groups in society. This will be discussed in some detail in Chapter 4. What I want to do here is to offer a general outline
of how cultural theorists have taken Gramsci’s political concept and used it to explain
the nature and politics of popular culture. Those using this approach see popular culture as a site of struggle between the ‘resistance’ of subordinate groups and the forces
of ‘incorporation’ operating in the interests of dominant groups. Popular culture in this
usage is not the imposed culture of the mass culture theorists, nor is it an emerging
from below, spontaneously oppositional culture of ‘the people’ – it is a terrain of
exchange and negotiation between the two: a terrain, as already stated, marked by resistance and incorporation. The texts and practices of popular culture move within what
Gramsci (1971) calls a ‘compromise equilibrium’ (161). The process is historical
(labelled popular culture one moment, and another kind of culture the next), but it is
also synchronic (moving between resistance and incorporation at any given historical
moment). For instance, the seaside holiday began as an aristocratic event and within
a hundred years it had become an example of popular culture. Film noir started as
despised popular cinema and within thirty years had become art cinema. In general
terms, those looking at popular culture from the perspective of hegemony theory tend
to see it as a terrain of ideological struggle between dominant and subordinate classes,
dominant and subordinate cultures. As Bennett (2009) explains,
The field of popular culture is structured by the attempt of the ruling class to win
hegemony and by forms of opposition to this endeavour. As such, it consists not
simply of an imposed mass culture that is coincident with dominant ideology, nor
simply of spontaneously oppositional cultures, but is rather an area of negotiation
between the two within which – in different particular types of popular culture –
dominant, subordinate and oppositional cultural and ideological values and elements are ‘mixed’ in different permutations (96).
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The compromise equilibrium of hegemony can also be employed to analyse different types of conflict within and across popular culture. Bennett highlights class conflict,
but hegemony theory can also be used to explore and explain conflicts involving ethnicity, ‘race’, gender, generation, sexuality, disability, etc. – all are at different moments
engaged in forms of cultural struggle against the homogenizing forces of incorporation
of the official or dominant culture. The key concept in this use of hegemony theory,
especially in post-Marxist cultural studies (see Chapter 4), is the concept of ‘articulation’ (the word being employed in its double sense to mean both to express and to
make a temporary connection). Popular culture is marked by what Chantal Mouffe
(1981) calls ‘a process of disarticulation–articulation’ (231). The Conservative Party
political broadcast, discussed earlier, reveals this process in action. What was being
attempted was the disarticulation of socialism as a political movement concerned with
economic, social and political emancipation, in favour of its articulation as a political
movement concerned to impose restraints on individual freedom. Also, as we shall see
in Chapter 7, feminism has always recognized the importance of cultural struggle
within the contested landscape of popular culture. Feminist presses have published
science fiction, detective fiction and romance fiction. Such cultural interventions represent an attempt to articulate popular genres for feminist politics. It is also possible,
using hegemony theory, to locate the struggle between resistance and incorporation
as taking place within and across individual popular texts and practices. Raymond
Williams (1980) suggests that we can identify different moments within a popular text
or practice – what he calls ‘dominant’, ‘emergent’ and ‘residual’ – each pulling the
text in a different direction. Thus a text is made up of a contradictory mix of different
cultural forces. How these elements are articulated will depend in part on the social circumstances and historical conditions of production and consumption. Hall (1980a)
uses Williams’s insight to construct a theory of reading positions: ‘subordinate’,
‘dominant’, and ‘negotiated’. David Morley (1980) has modified the model to take into
account discourse and subjectivity: seeing reading as always an interaction between the
discourses of the text and the discourses of the reader.
There is another aspect of popular culture that is suggested by hegemony theory.
This is the claim that theories of popular culture are really theories about the constitution of ‘the people’. Hall (2009b), for instance, argues that popular culture is a contested site for political constructions of ‘the people’ and their relation to ‘the power
bloc’ (see Chapter 4):
‘the people’ refers neither to everyone nor to a single group within society but to
a variety of social groups which, although differing from one another in other
respects (their class position or the particular struggles in which they are most
immediately engaged), are distinguished from the economically, politically and
culturally powerful groups within society and are hence potentially capable of
being united – of being organised into ‘the people versus the power bloc’ – if their
separate struggles are connected (Bennett, 1986: 20).
This is of course to make popular culture a profoundly political concept.
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Chapter 1 What is popular culture?
Popular culture is a site where the construction of everyday life may be examined.
The point of doing this is not only academic – that is, as an attempt to understand
a process or practice – it is also political, to examine the power relations that constitute this form of everyday life and thus reveal the configurations of interests its
construction serves (Turner, 1996: 6).
In Chapter 10, I will consider John Fiske’s ‘semiotic’ use of Gramsci’s concept of
hegemony. Fiske argues, as does Paul Willis from a slightly different perspective (also
discussed in Chapter 10), that popular culture is what people make from the products
of the culture industries – mass culture is the repertoire, popular culture is what people
actively make from it, actually do with the commodities and commodified practices
A sixth definition of popular culture is one informed by recent thinking around the
debate on postmodernism. This will be the subject of Chapter 9. All I want to do now
is to draw attention to some of the basic points in the debate about the relationship
between postmodernism and popular culture. The main point to insist on here is the
claim that postmodern culture is a culture that no longer recognizes the distinction
between high and popular culture. As we shall see, for some this is a reason to celebrate
an end to an elitism constructed on arbitrary distinctions of culture; for others it is a
reason to despair at the final victory of commerce over culture. An example of the supposed interpenetration of commerce and culture (the postmodern blurring of the distinction between ‘authentic’ and ‘commercial’ culture) can be found in the relationship
between television commercials and pop music. For example, there is a growing list of
artists who have had hit records as a result of their songs appearing in television commercials. One of the questions this relationship raises is: ‘What is being sold: song or
product?’ I suppose the obvious answer is both. Moreover, it is now possible to buy
CDs that consist of the songs that have become successful, or have become successful
again, as a result of being used in advertisements. There is a wonderful circularity to
this: songs are used to sell products and the fact that they do this successfully is then
used to sell the songs. For those with little sympathy for either postmodernism or the
celebratory theorizing of some postmodernists, the real question is: ‘What is such a
relationship doing to culture?’ Those on the political left might worry about its effect
on the oppositional possibilities of popular culture. Those on the political right might
worry about what it is doing to the status of real culture. This has resulted in a sustained debate in cultural studies. The significance of popular culture is central to this
debate. This, and other questions, will be explored in Chapter 9. The chapter will also
address, from the perspective of the student of popular culture, the question: ‘What is
Finally, what all these definitions have in common is the insistence that whatever
else popular culture is, it is definitely a culture that only emerged following industrialization and urbanization. As Williams (1963) argues in the ‘Foreword’ to Culture and
Society, ‘The organising principle of this book is the discovery that the idea of culture,
and the word itself in its general modern uses, came into English thinking in the period
which we commonly describe as that of the Industrial Revolution’ (11). It is a
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Popular culture as other
definition of culture and popular culture that depends on there being in place a capitalist market economy. This of course makes Britain the first country to produce
popular culture defined in this historically restricted way. There are other ways to
define popular culture, which do not depend on this particular history or these particular circumstances, but they are definitions that fall outside the range of the cultural
theorists and the cultural theory discussed in this book. The argument, which underpins this particular periodization of popular culture, is that the experience of industrialization and urbanization changed fundamentally the cultural relations within the
landscape of popular culture. Before industrialization and urbanization, Britain had
two cultures: a common culture which was shared, more or less, by all classes, and a
separate elite culture produced and consumed by the dominant classes in society (see
Burke, 1994; Storey, 2003). As a result of industrialization and urbanization, three
things happened, which together had the effect of redrawing the cultural map. First of
all, industrialization changed the relations between employees and employers. This
involved a shift from a relationship based on mutual obligation to one based solely on
the demands of what Thomas Carlyle calls the ‘cash nexus’ (quoted in Morris, 1979:
22). Second, urbanization produced a residential separation of classes. For the first
time in British history there were whole sections of towns and cities inhabited only by
working men and women. Third, the panic engendered by the French Revolution – the
fear that it might be imported into Britain – encouraged successive governments to
enact a variety of repressive measures aimed at defeating radicalism. Political radicalism and trade unionism were not destroyed, but driven underground to organize
beyond the influence of middle-class interference and control. These three factors
combined to produce a cultural space outside of the paternalist considerations of
the earlier common culture. The result was the production of a cultural space for the
generation of a popular culture more or less outside the controlling influence of the
dominant classes. How this space was filled was a subject of some controversy for
the founding fathers of culturalism (see Chapter 3). Whatever we decide was its content,
the anxieties engendered by the new cultural space were directly responsible for the
emergence of the ‘culture and civilization’ approach to popular culture (see Chapter 2).
Popular culture as other
What should be clear by now is that the term ‘popular culture’ is not as definitionally
obvious as we might have first thought. A great deal of the difficulty arises from the
absent other which always haunts any definition we might use. It is never enough to
speak of popular culture; we have always to acknowledge that with which it is being
contrasted. And whichever of popular culture’s others we employ, mass culture, high
culture, working-class culture, folk culture, etc., it will carry into the definition of
popular culture a specific theoretical and political inflection. ‘There is’, as Bennett
(1982a) indicates, ‘no single or “correct” way of resolving these problems; only a series
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of different solutions which have different implications and effects’ (86). The main
purpose of this book is to chart the many problems encountered, and the many solutions suggested, in cultural theory’s complex engagement with popular culture. As we
shall discover, there is a lot of ground between Arnold’s view of popular culture as
‘anarchy’ and Dick Hebdige’s (1988) claim that, ‘In the West popular culture is no
longer marginal, still less subterranean. Most of the time and for most people it simply
is culture.’ Or, as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (1987) notes, ‘popular cultural forms have
moved so far towards centre stage in British cultural life that the separate existence of
a distinctive popular culture in an oppositional relation to high culture is now in question’ (80). This of course makes an understanding of the range of ways of theorizing
popular culture all the more important.
This book, then, is about the theorizing that has brought us to our present state of
thinking on popular culture. It is about how the changing terrain of popular culture
has been explored and mapped by different cultural theorists and different theoretical
approaches. It is upon their shoulders that we stand when we think critically about
popular culture. The aim of this book is to introduce readers to the different ways in
which popular culture has been analysed and the different popular cultures that have
been articulated as a result of the process of analysis. For it must be remembered that
popular culture is not a historically fixed set of popular texts and practices, nor is it a
historically fixed conceptual category. The object under theoretical scrutiny is both historically variable, and always in part constructed by the very act of theoretical engagement. This is further complicated by the fact that different theoretical perspectives have
tended to focus on particular areas of the popular cultural landscape. The most common division is between the study of texts (popular fiction, television, pop music, etc.)
and lived cultures or practices (seaside holidays, youth subcultures, the celebration of
Christmas, etc.). The aim of this book, therefore, is to provide readers with a map of
the terrain to enable them to begin their own explorations, to begin their own mapping of the main theoretical and political debates that have characterized the study of
Storey, John (ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 4th edition, Harlow:
Pearson Education, 2009. This is the companion volume to this book. It contains
examples of most of the work discussed here. This book and the companion Reader
are supported by an interactive website (www.pearsoned.co.uk/storey). The website
has links to other useful sites and electronic resources.
Agger, Ben, Cultural Studies as Cultural Theory, London: Falmer Press, 1992. As the title
implies, this is a book about cultural studies written from a perspective sympathetic
to the Frankfurt School. It offers some useful commentary on popular culture, especially Chapter 2: ‘Popular culture as serious business’.
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Allen, Robert C. (ed.), Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, London: Routledge, 1992.
Although this collection is specifically focused on television, it contains some excellent essays of general interest to the student of popular culture.
Bennett, Tony, Colin Mercer and Janet Woollacott (eds), Popular Culture and Social
Relations, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986. An interesting collection of
essays, covering both theory and analysis.
Brooker, Peter, A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory, London: Edward Arnold, 1999. A
brilliant glossary of the key terms in cultural theory.
Day, Gary (ed.), Readings in Popular Culture, London: Macmillan, 1990. A mixed collection of essays, some interesting and useful, others too unsure about how seriously
to take popular culture.
Du Gay, Paul, Stuart Hall, Linda Janes, Hugh Mackay and Keith Negus, Doing Cultural
Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, London: Sage, 1997. An excellent introduction to some of the key issues in cultural studies. Certainly worth reading for the
explanation of ‘the circuit of culture’.
Fiske, John, Reading the Popular, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. A collection of essays
analysing different examples of popular culture.
Fiske, John, Understanding Popular Culture, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. A clear presentation of his particular approach to the study of popular culture.
Goodall, Peter, High Culture, Popular Culture: The Long Debate, St Leonards: Allen &
Unwin, 1995. The book traces the debate between high and popular culture, with
particular, but not exclusive, reference to the Australian experience, from the eighteenth century to the present day.
Milner, Andrew, Contemporary Cultural Studies, 2nd edn, London: UCL Press, 1994. A
useful introduction to contemporary cultural theory.
Mukerji, Chandra and Michael Schudson (eds), Rethinking Popular Culture, Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1991. A collection of essays, with an informed and
interesting introduction. The book is helpfully divided into sections on different
approaches to popular culture: historical, anthropological, sociological and cultural.
Naremore, James and Patrick Brantlinger, Modernity and Mass Culture, Bloomington
and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. A useful and interesting collection
of essays on cultural theory and popular culture.
Storey, John, Inventing Popular Culture, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. An historical
account of the concept of popular culture.
Strinati, Dominic, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, London: Routledge,
1995. A clear and comprehensive introduction to theories of popular culture.
Tolson, Andrew, Mediations: Text and Discourse in Media Studies, London: Edward
Arnold, 1996. An excellent introduction to the study of popular media culture.
Turner, Graeme, British Cultural Studies, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 1996. Still the
best introduction to British cultural studies.
Walton, David, Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning Through Practice, London: Sage,
2008. Another excellent introduction to cultural studies: useful, informative and
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2 The ‘culture and
The popular culture of the majority has always been a concern of powerful minorities.
Those with political power have always thought it necessary to police the culture of
those without political power, reading it ‘symptomatically’ (see Chapter 6) for signs of
political unrest; reshaping it continually through patronage and direct intervention. In
the nineteenth century, however, there is a fundamental change in this relationship.
Those with power lose, for a crucial period, the means to control the culture of the subordinate classes. When they begin to recover control, it is culture itself, and not culture
as a symptom or sign of something else, that becomes, really for the first time, the
actual focus of concern. As we noted at the end of Chapter 1, two factors are crucial to
an understanding of these changes: industrialization and urbanization. Together they
produce other changes that contribute to the making of a popular culture that marks a
decisive break with the cultural relationships of the past.
If we take early nineteenth-century Manchester as our example of the new industrial
urban civilization, certain points become clear. First of all, the town evolved clear lines
of class segregation; second, residential separation was compounded by the new work
relations of industrial capitalism. Third, on the basis of changes in living and working
relations, there developed cultural changes. Put very simply, the Manchester working
class was given space to develop an independent culture at some remove from the
direct intervention of the dominant classes. Industrialization and urbanization had
redrawn the cultural map. No longer was there a shared common culture, with an additional culture of the powerful. Now, for the first time in history, there was a separate
culture of the subordinate classes of the urban and industrial centres. It was a culture
of two main sources: (i) a culture offered for profit by the new cultural entrepreneurs,
and (ii) a culture made by and for the political agitation of radical artisans, the
new urban working class and middle-class reformers, all described so well by E.P.
Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (see Chapter 3). Each of these
developments in different ways threatened traditional notions of cultural cohesion and
social stability. One threatened to weaken authority through the commercial dismantling of cultural cohesion; the other offered a direct challenge to all forms of political
and cultural authority.
These were not developments guaranteed to hearten those who feared for the continuation of a social order based on power and privilege. Such developments, it was
argued, could only mean a weakening of social stability, a destabilizing of the social
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Chapter 2 The ‘culture and civilization’ tradition
order. It marked the beginning of what Benjamin Disraeli would call the ‘two nations’
(Disraeli, 1980), and it eventually gave birth to the first political and cultural movement of the new urban working class – Chartism. It is out of this context, and its
continuing aftermath, which the political study of popular culture first emerges.
The study of popular culture in the modern age can be said to begin with the work of
Matthew Arnold. In some ways this is surprising as he had very little to say directly
about popular culture. Arnold’s significance is that he inaugurates a tradition, a particular way of seeing popular culture, a particular way of placing popular culture within
the general field of culture. The tradition has come to be known as the ‘culture and
civilization’ tradition. My discussion of Arnold’s contribution to the study of popular
culture will focus mainly (but not exclusively) on Culture and Anarchy (1867–9), the
work that secured, and continues to sustain, his reputation as a cultural critic. Arnold
established a cultural agenda that remained dominant in debate from the 1860s until
the 1950s. His significance, therefore, lies not with any body of empirical work, but
with the enormous influence of his general perspective – the Arnoldian perspective –
on popular culture.
For Arnold (1960), culture begins by meaning two things. First and foremost, it is a
body of knowledge: in Arnold’s famous phrase, ‘the best that has been thought and
said in the world’ (6). Secondly, culture is concerned ‘to make reason and the will of
God prevail’ (42). It is in the ‘sweetness and light’ of the second claim that ‘the moral,
social, and beneficial character of culture becomes manifest’ (46). That is, ‘culture . . .
is a study of perfection . . . perfection which consists in becoming something rather
than in having something, in an inward condition of the mind and spirit, not in an
outward set of circumstances’ (48). In other words, culture is the endeavour to know
the best and to make this knowledge prevail for the good of all humankind. But how
is culture to be attained? According to Arnold, we shall attain it by ‘the disinterested
and active use of reading, reflection, and observation, in the endeavour to know the
best that can be known’ (179). Culture, therefore, no longer consists in two things, but
in three. Culture is now the means to know the best that has been thought and said, as
well as that body of knowledge and the application of that knowledge to the ‘inward
condition of the mind and spirit’ (31). There is, however, a fourth aspect to consider:
Arnold insists that culture seeks ‘to minister to the diseased spirit of our time’ (163).
This would appear to be an example of culture’s third aspect. However, we are quickly
told that culture will play its part ‘not so much by lending a hand to our friends and
countrymen in their actual operations for the removal of certain definite evils, but rather
in getting our countrymen to seek culture’ (163–4; my italics). This is Arnold’s fourth
and final definition: culture is the seeking of culture, what Arnold calls ‘cultivated inaction’ (163). For Arnold, then, culture is: (i) the ability to know what is best; (ii) what
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is best; (iii) the mental and spiritual application of what is best, and (iv) the pursuit of
what is best.
Popular culture is never actually defined. However, it becomes clear when reading
through Arnold’s work that the term ‘anarchy’ operates in part as a synonym for popular culture. Specifically, anarchy/popular culture is used to refer to Arnold’s conception of the supposedly disruptive nature of working-class lived culture: the political
dangers that he believes to be inevitably concomitant with the entry of the male urban
working class into formal politics in 1867. The upshot of this is that anarchy and
culture are for Arnold deeply political concepts. The social function of culture is to
police this disruptive presence: the ‘raw and uncultivated . . . masses’ (176); ‘the raw
and unkindled masses’ (69); ‘our masses . . . quite as raw and uncultivated as the
French’ (76); ‘those vast, miserable unmanageable masses of sunken people’ (193).
The problem is working-class lived culture: ‘The rough [i.e. a working-class political
protester] . . . asserting his personal liberty a little, going where he likes, assembling
where he likes, bawling as he likes, hustling as he likes’ (80–1). Again:
the working class . . . raw and half developed . . . long lain half hidden amidst its
poverty and squalor . . . now issuing from its hiding place to assert an
Englishman’s heaven born privilege of doing as he likes, and beginning to perplex
us by marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes (105; my italics).
The context of all this is the suffrage agitation of 1866–7. Arnold’s employment of
the phrase ‘beginning to perplex us’ is a clear indication of the class nature of his discourse. His division of society into Barbarians (aristocracy), Philistines (middle class)
and Populace (working class) would seem at first sight to defuse the class nature of this
discourse. This seems to be supported by his claim that under all ‘our class divisions,
there is a common basis of human nature’ (ibid.). However, if we examine what
Arnold means by a common basis, we are forced to a different conclusion. If we imagine the human race existing on an evolutionary continuum with itself at one end
and a common ancestor shared with the ape at the other, what Arnold seems to be
suggesting is that the aristocracy and middle class are further along the evolutionary
continuum than the working class. This is shown quite clearly in his example of the
common basis of our human nature. He claims that
every time that we snatch up a vehement opinion in ignorance and passion, every
time that we long to crush an adversary by sheer violence, every time that we are
envious, every time that we are brutal, every time that we adore mere power or success, every time that we add our voice to swell a blind clamour against some
unpopular personage, every time that we trample savagely on the fallen [we have]
found in our own bosom the eternal spirit of the Populace (107).
According to Arnold, it takes only a little help from ‘circumstances’ to make this
‘eternal spirit’ triumph in both Barbarian and Philistine. Culture has two functions in
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this scenario. First, it must carefully guide the aristocracy and the middle class from
such circumstances. Second, it must bring to the working class, the class in which this
so-called human nature is said to reside, ‘a much wanted principle . . . of authority, to
counteract the tendency to anarchy that seems to be threatening us’ (82). The principle
of authority, as we shall see, is to be found in a strong centralized State.
Why did Arnold think like this? The answer has a great deal to do with the historical changes witnessed by the nineteenth century. When he recommends culture ‘as the
great help out of our present difficulties’ (6), it is these changes he has in mind. The
‘present difficulties’ have a double context. On the one hand, they are the immediate
‘problems’ raised by the granting of the franchise to the male urban working class. On
the other, they are recognition of a historical process that had been in play from at least
the eighteenth century (the development of industrial capitalism). Arnold believed
that the franchise had given power to men as yet uneducated for power. A working
class which has lost ‘the strong feudal habits of subordination and deference’ (76) is a
very dangerous working class. It is the function of education to restore a sense of subordination and deference to the class. In short, education would bring to the working
class a ‘culture’ that would in turn remove the temptations of trade unionism, political
agitation and cheap entertainment. In short, culture would remove popular culture.
Against such ‘anarchy’, culture recommends the State: ‘We want an authority . . .
culture suggests the idea of the State’ (96). Two factors make the State necessary. First,
the decline of the aristocracy as a centre of authority; second, the rise of democracy.
Together they create a terrain favourable to anarchy. The solution is to occupy this terrain with a mixture of culture and coercion. Arnold’s cultured State is to function to
control and curtail the social, economic and cultural aspirations of the working class
until the middle class is sufficiently cultured to take on this function itself. The State
will operate in two ways: (i) through coercion to ensure no more Hyde Park riots, and
(ii) through the instilling of the ‘sweetness and light’ of culture.
Culture and Anarchy informs its reader that ‘education is the road to culture’ (209).
It is, therefore, worth looking briefly at his vision of education. Arnold does not envisage working-class, middle-class and aristocratic students all walking down the same
road to culture. For the aristocracy, education is to accustom it to decline, to banish it
as a class to history. For the working class, education is to civilize it for subordination,
deference and exploitation. Arnold saw working-class schools (primary and elementary) as little more than outposts of civilization in a dark continent of workingclass barbarism: ‘they civilize the neighbourhood where they are placed’ (1973: 39).
According to Arnold, working-class children had to be civilized before they could be
instructed. In a letter to his mother, written in 1862, he writes: ‘the State has an interest in the primary school as a civilizing agent, even prior to its interest in it as an
instructing agent’ (1896: 187). It was culture’s task to accomplish this. For the middle
class, education was something quite different. Its essential function is to prepare
middle-class children for the power that is to be theirs. Its aim is to convert ‘a middle
class, narrow, ungenial, and unattractive [into] a cultured, liberalised, ennobled,
transformed middle class, [one to which the working class] may with joy direct its
aspirations’ (1954: 343).
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Arnold (1960) called his various proposals, quoting the Duke of Wellington, ‘a
revolution by due course of law’ (97). What it amounts to is a revolution from above,
a revolution to prevent popular revolution from below. It works on the principle that
a reform given is always better than a reform taken, forced or won. Popular demands
are met, but in such a way as to weaken claims for further demands. It is not that
Arnold did not desire a better society, one with less squalor, less poverty, less ignorance, etc., but that a better society could never be envisaged as other than a society in
which the new urban middle class were ‘hegemonic’ (see Chapter 4).
Most of what I have said is a roundabout way of saying that the first grand theorist
of popular culture had in fact very little to say about popular culture, except, that is, to
say that it is symptomatic of a profound political disorder. Culture is not the main concern of Arnold’s work; rather the main concern is social order, social authority, won
through cultural subordination and deference. Working-class culture is significant to
the extent that it signals evidence of social and cultural disorder and decline – a breakdown in social and cultural authority. The fact that working-class culture exists at all is
evidence enough of decline and disorder. Working-class ‘anarchy’ is to be suppressed
by the harmonious influences of culture – ‘the best that has been thought and said in
Many of Arnold’s ideas are derived from the Romantic critique of industrialism (see
Williams, 1963). One writer in particular seems especially relevant, Samuel Taylor
Coleridge. Coleridge (1972) distinguishes between ‘civilisation’ (‘a mixed good, if not
far more a corrupting influence’) and ‘cultivation’ (‘the harmonious development of
those qualities and faculties which characterise our humanity’) (33). To simplify,
Coleridge suggests that civilization refers to the nation as a whole; cultivation is the
property of a small minority, whom he calls the ‘clerisy’. It is the function of the cultivated clerisy to guide the progress of civilization:
the objects and final intention of the whole order being these – preserve the stores,
and to guard the treasures, of past civilisation, and thus to bind the present to the
past; to perfect and add to the same, and thus to connect the present with the
future; but especially to diffuse through the whole community, and to every native
entitled to its laws and rights, that quantity and quality of knowledge which was
indispensable both for understanding of those rights, and for the performance of
the duties correspondent (34).
Arnold builds on Coleridge’s ideas. Instead of a clerisy, he writes of ‘aliens’ or ‘the
remnant’. But the purpose is essentially the same: the mobilization of culture to police
the unruly forces of mass society. According to Arnold, history shows that societies
have always been destroyed by ‘the moral failure of the unsound majority’ (1954: 640).
Such a reading of history is hardly likely to inspire much confidence in democracy – let
alone in popular culture. Arnold’s vision is based on a curious paradox; the men and
women of culture know the best that has been thought and said, but for whom are they
preserving these treasures when the majority is unsound and has always been, and always
will be, unsound? The inescapable answer seems to be: for themselves, a self-perpetuating
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cultural elite. All that is required from the rest of us is to recognize our cultural difference and acknowledge our cultural deference. Arnold is clear on this point:
The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are;
very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate ideas reposes,
and must repose, the general practice of the world. That is as much as saying that
whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small
circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its own work that adequate
ideas will ever get current at all (364–5).
The highly instructed few, and not the scantily instructed many, will ever be the
organ to the human race of knowledge and truth. Knowledge and truth in the full
sense of the words, are not attainable by the great mass of the human race at all
(Arnold, 1960–77: 591).
These are very revealing statements. If the mass of humankind is to be always satisfied with inadequate ideas, never able to attain truth and knowledge, for whom are the
small circle working? And what of the adequate ideas they will make current – current
for whom? For other small circles of elites? Arnold’s small circle would appear to be little
more than a self-perpetuating intellectual elite. If they are never to engage in practical
politics, and never to have any real influence on the mass of humankind, what is the
purpose of all the grand humanistic claims to be found scattered throughout Arnold’s
work? It would appear that Arnold has been ensnared by his own elitism: and the
working class are destined to remain to wallow in ‘their beer, their gin, and their fun’
(1954: 591). However, Arnold does not so much reject practical politics, as leave them
in the safe hands of established authority. Therefore, the only politics that are being
rejected are the politics of protest, the politics of opposition. This is a very stale defence
of the dominant order. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, his influence has been
enormous in that the Arnoldian perspective virtually mapped out the way of thinking
about popular culture and cultural politics that dominated the field until the late l950s.
For Matthew Arnold it was in some ways less difficult. I am thinking of the so
much more desperate plight of culture today (Leavis, 2009: 12).
The influence of Arnold on F.R. Leavis is there for all to see. Leavis takes Arnold’s cultural politics and applies them to the supposed ‘cultural crisis’ of the 1930s. According
to Leavis and the Leavisites, the twentieth century is marked by an increasing cultural
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decline. What had been identified by Arnold as a feature of the nineteenth century, it
is argued, had continued and been compounded in the twentieth: that is, the increasing spread of a culture of ‘standardisation and levelling down’ (Leavis and Thompson,
1977: 3). It is against this process and its results that ‘the citizen . . . must be trained to
discriminate and to resist’ (5).
The work of Leavisism spans a period of some forty years. However, the Leavisite
attitude to popular culture was formed in the early 1930s with the publication of three
texts: Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture, by F.R. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public,
by Q.D. Leavis and Culture and Environment, by F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson.
Together these form the basis of the Leavisite response to popular culture.
Leavisism is based on the assumption that ‘culture has always been in minority
keeping’ (Leavis and Thompson, 1977: 3):
Upon the minority depends our power of profiting by the finest human experience
of the past; they keep alive the subtlest and most perishable parts of tradition.
Upon them depend the implicit standards that order the finer living of an age, the
sense that this is worth more than that, this rather than that is the direction in
which to go, that the centre is here rather than there (5).
What has changed is the status of this minority. No longer can it command cultural
deference, no longer is its cultural authority unchallenged. Q.D. Leavis (1978) refers to
a situation in which ‘the minority, who had hitherto set the standard of taste without any serious challenge’ have experienced a ‘collapse of authority’ (185, 187). Just
as Arnold regretted the passing of ‘the strong feudal habits of subordination and
deference’ (see previous section), Q.D. Leavis is nostalgic for a time when the masses
exhibited an ‘unquestioning assent to authority’ (191).5 She quotes Edmund Gosse to
confirm the seriousness of the situation:
One danger which I have long foreseen from the spread of the democratic sentiment, is that of the traditions of literary taste, the canons of literature, being
reversed with success by a popular vote. Up to the present time, in all parts of the
world, the masses of uneducated or semieducated persons, who form the vast
majority of readers, though they cannot and do not appreciate the classics of their
race, have been content to acknowledge their traditional supremacy. Of late there
have seemed to me to be certain signs, especially in America, of a revolt of the mob
against our literary masters. . . . If literature is to be judged by a plebiscite and if the
plebs recognises its power, it will certainly by degrees cease to support reputations
which give it no pleasure and which it cannot comprehend. The revolution against
taste, once begun, will land us in irreparable chaos (190).
According to Leavis and Thompson, what Gosse had only feared had now come to pass:
culture has always been in minority keeping. But the minority now is made
conscious, not merely of an uncongenial, but of a hostile environment. . . .
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Chapter 2 The ‘culture and civilization’ tradition
‘Civilisation’ and ‘culture’ are coming to be antithetical terms. It is not merely that
the power and the sense of authority are now divorced from culture, but that some
of the most disinterested solicitude for civilisation is apt to be, consciously or
unconsciously, inimical to culture (1977: 26).
Mass civilization and its mass culture pose a subversive front, threatening ‘to land
us in irreparable chaos’. It is against this threat that Leavisism writes its manifestos, and
proposes ‘to introduce into schools a training in resistance [to mass culture]’ (Leavis,
1933: 188–9); and outside schools, to promote a ‘conscious and directed effort . . . [to]
take the form of resistance by an armed and active minority’ (Q.D. Leavis, 1978: 270).
The threat of democracy in matters both cultural and political is a terrifying thought
for Leavisism. Moreover, according to Q.D. Leavis, ‘The people with power no longer
represent intellectual authority and culture’ (191). Like Arnold, she sees the collapse of
traditional authority coming at the same time as the rise of mass democracy. Together
they squeeze the cultured minority and produce a terrain favourable for ‘anarchy’.
Leavisism isolates certain key aspects of mass culture for special discussion. Popular
fiction, for example, is condemned for offering addictive forms of ‘compensation’ and
This form of compensation . . . is the very reverse of recreation, in that it tends, not
to strengthen and refresh the addict for living, but to increase his unfitness by
habituating him to weak evasions, to the refusal to face reality at all (Leavis and
Thompson, 1977: 100).
Q.D. Leavis (1978) refers to such reading as ‘a drug addiction to fiction’ (152), and
for those readers of romantic fiction it can lead to ‘a habit of fantasying [which] will
lead to maladjustment in actual life’ (54). Self-abuse is one thing, but there is worse:
their addiction ‘helps to make a social atmosphere unfavourable to the aspirations
of the minority. They actually get in the way of genuine feeling and responsible thinking’ (74). For those not addicted to popular fiction, there is always the danger of
cinema. Its popularity makes it a very dangerous source of pleasure indeed: ‘they
[films] involve surrender, under conditions of hypnotic receptivity, to the cheapest
emotional appeals, appeals the more insidious because they are associated with a
compellingly vivid illusion of actual life’ (Leavis, 2009: 14). For Q.D. Leavis (1978),
Hollywood films are ‘largely masturbatory’ (165). Although the popular press is
described as ‘the most powerful and pervasive de-educator of the public mind’ (Leavis
and Thompson, 1977: 138), and radio is claimed to be putting an end to critical
thought (Leavis, 2009), it is for advertising, with its ‘unremitting, pervasive, masturbatory manipulations’ (Leavis and Thompson, 1977: 139), that Leavisism saves its most
Advertising, and how it is consumed, is Leavisism’s main symptom of cultural
decline. To understand why, we must understand Leavisism’s attitude to language. In
Culture and Environment, Leavis and Thompson state: ‘it should be brought home to
learners that this debasement of language is not merely a matter of words; it is a
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debasement of emotional life, and the quality of living’ (1977: 4). Advertising, therefore, is not just blamed for debasing the language, but condemned for debasing the
emotional life of the whole language community, reducing ‘the standard of living’.
They provide examples for analysis (mostly written by F.R. Leavis himself). The questions they pose are very revealing of Leavisism’s general attitude. Here is a typical example, an advert for ‘Two Quakers’ tobacco:
THE TOBACCO OF TYPICAL TWIST
‘Yes, it’s the best I’ve ever smoked. But it’s deuced expensive.’ ‘What’s the tuppence extra? And anyway, you get it back an’ more. Burns clean and slow that’s
the typical twist, gives it the odd look. Cute scientific dodge. You see, they experimented. . . .’ ‘Oh! cut the cackle, and give us another fill. You talk like an advertisement.’ Thereafter peace and a pipe of Two Quakers.
They then suggest the following questions for school students in the fifth and sixth
1 Describe the type of person represented.
2 How are you expected to feel towards him?
3 What do you think his attitude would be towards us? How would he behave
in situations where mob passions run high? (16–17)
Two things are remarkable about these questions. First of all, the connection that is
made between the advertisement and so-called mob passions. This is an unusual question, even for students of cultural studies. Second, notice the exclusive ‘we’; and note
also how the pronoun attempts to construct membership of a small educated elite.
Other questions operate in much the same way. Here are a few examples:
Describe the kind of reader this passage would please, and say why it would
please him. What kind of person can you imagine responding to such an appeal
as this last? What acquaintance would you expect them to have of Shakespeare’s
work and what capacity for appreciating it? (40).
Pupils can be asked to recall their own observations of the kind of people they
may have seen visiting ‘shrines’ (51).
In the light of the ‘Gresham Law’, what kind of influence do you expect the
cinema to have on general taste and mentality? (114).
What kind of standards are implied here? What would you judge to be the quality of the ‘literature’ he reads, and the reading he devotes to it? (119).
Why do we wince at the mentality that uses this idiom? (121).
[After describing the cinema as ‘cheapening, debasing, distorting’]: Develop the
discussion of the educational value of cinema as suggested here (144).
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It is difficult to see how such questions, rather than encouraging ‘discrimination
and resistance’, would invite anything other than a critically debilitating and selfconfirming snobbery.
In a temporary escape from the ‘irreparable chaos’ of the present, Leavisism looks back
longingly to a cultural golden age, a mythic rural past, when there existed a shared culture uncorrupted by commercial interests. The Elizabethan period of Shakespeare’s theatre is often cited as a time of cultural coherence before the cultural disintegration of
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. F.R. Leavis (1933) writes of Shakespeare belonging ‘to a genuinely national culture, to a community in which it was possible for the
theatre to appeal to the cultivated and the populace at the same time’ (216). Q.D.
Leavis (1978), in Fiction and the Reading Public, has charted this supposed decline. Her
account of the organic relations between populace and cultivated are very revealing: ‘the
masses were receiving their amusement from above. . . . They had to take the same amusements as their betters. . . . Happily, they had no choice’ (85). According to Q.D. Leavis,
the spectator of Elizabethan drama, though he might not be able to follow the
‘thought’ minutely in the great tragedies, was getting his amusement from the
mind and sensibility that produced those passages, from an artist and not from
one of his own class. There was then no such complete separation as we have . . .
between the life of the cultivated and the life of the generality (264).
What is interesting about their account of the past is what it reveals about their ideal
future. The golden age was not just marked by cultural coherence, but happily for the
Leavisites, a cultural coherence based on authoritarian and hierarchical principles. It
was a common culture that gave intellectual stimulation at one end, and affective pleasure at the other. This was a mythic world in which everyone knew their place, knew
their station in life. F.R. Leavis (1984) is insistent ‘that there was in the seventeenth
century, a real culture of the people . . . a rich traditional culture . . . a positive culture
which has disappeared’ (188–9). Most of this culture was, according to Leavisism,
destroyed by the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The last remnants of the organic community, however, could still be found in rural communities in
nineteenth-century England. He cites the works of George Bourne, Change in the Village
and The Wheelwright’s Shop, as evidence of this.6 In the opening pages of Culture and
Environment, F.R. Leavis and Thompson (1977) offer a reminder of what had been lost:
What we have lost is the organic community with the living culture it embodied.
Folk songs, folk dances, Cotswold cottages and handicraft products are signs and
expressions of something more: an art of life, a way of living, ordered and patterned, involving social arts, codes of intercourse and a responsive adjustment,
growing out of immemorial experience, to the natural environment and the
rhythm of the year (1–2).
They also claim that the quality of work has also deteriorated with the loss of the
organic community. The growing importance placed on leisure is seen as a sign of this
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loss. Whereas in the past a worker lived in his or her work, he or she now works in
order to live outside his or her work. But as a result of industrialization, the experience
of work has deteriorated to such an extent that workers are actually ‘incapacitated by
their work’ (69). Therefore, instead of recreation (re-creating what is lost in work),
leisure provides workers with only ‘decreation’ (a compounding of the loss experienced
through work). Given such a situation, it is little wonder that people turn to mass
culture for compensation and passive distraction; the drug habit develops and they
become junkies addicted to ‘substitute living’. A world of rural rhythms has been lost
to the monotony and mediocrity of ‘suburbanism’ (99). Whereas in the organic community everyday culture was a constant support to the health of the individual, in mass
civilization one must make a conscious and directed effort to avoid the unhealthy
influence of everyday culture. The Leavisites fail to mention, as Williams (1963)
remarks, ‘the penury, the petty tyranny, the disease and mortality, the ignorance and
frustrated intelligence which were also among its ingredients’ (253). What we are presented with is not a historical account, but a literary myth to draw attention to the
nature of our supposed loss: ‘the memory of the old order must be the chief incitement
towards a new’ (Leavis and Thompson, 1977: 97). But, although the organic community is lost, it is still possible to get access to its values and standards by reading works
of great literature. Literature is a treasury embodying all that is to be valued in human
experience. Unfortunately, literature as the jewel in the crown of culture, has, like
culture, lost its authority. Leavisism, as noted earlier, made plans to remedy this by dispatching cultural missionaries, a small select band of literary intellectuals, to establish
outposts of culture within universities to maintain the literar…
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