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American Popular Culture

Name : Muhammad Rizqi A.

NIM : C0306035

1. How do you define popular culture in the commitment to break with the

formulation which depend on a high/low, elite/mass distinction?

Defining popular culture to break the distinction between high and low, elite

and mass culture is needed to give a clearer understanding of the overlapping

concept of high/low, elite/mass and popular culture. From this point, I shall refer

cultural products made by elite as high culture and low culture to refer products

made by mass. Then, I want to deliver some definitions of popular culture. In this

paper, I would like to refer to Tony Bennett’s definition of popular culture that is

opposed by Collin MacCabe.. He identifies four elements to define popular

culture. However, Bennett’s definition of popular culture is overlapped with

definition of high/low culture as following.

Firstly, popular culture is defined in terms of descriptive definition. It

defines popular culture in terms of television ratings, record sales, and other

elements that are quantifiable. He argues that popular means having many

spectators, sold-out, etc. Collin McCabe argues that this definition is

unsatisfactory since, for instance, a highly watched serial does not merely refer to

popular culture. It could also include forms of high culture. For example, some

theater performances may talk about high subjects that are not easy to be enjoyed,

and yet, the audience is still tremendous. Secondly, pop culture is defined as a

culture that is more modern, not traditional. It is a culture having no traditional

elements in it. This definition is also arguable since popular culture is very rich. It

is rich for its heterogeneous elements that could only be obtained by adding

traditional elements in it. For example, a science fiction movie, Star Wars. The
traditional side is represented in the use of sword (even though it has been

modified to be a saber sword, yet it is still a sword). The values of samurai with

their pride as a knight who uphold their sword very high as their dignity is also

represented in the form of Jedi Knights.

The next is the definition of popular culture as a culture generated by

capitalist movement. This kind of culture make audience passive and they can take

meaning from elsewhere. It means that the audience has no power to control how

the story goes. McCabe opposes this culture to an older popular ‘folk’ art. It is a

culture that makes audience active and no distinction between performer and

audience. The last is the definition of popular culture as a new art that has more

performer-audience relationship so that people’s creativity could be transmitted

through this new art. It emerges from the working-class people that resist the

dominant people.

The definitions offered by Tony Bennett clearly show that popular culture is

often overlapped with high/low culture. It means that for this present day life, a

highly appreciated work of art cannot be merely considered as a high culture

work. It may be included in popular culture and vice versa. Popular culture’s

commitment to break the old formulation of culture is needed since the old

formulation is no longer suitable with the developing culture as what we have

now. The so-called high culture works may not be separated from ‘pop culture’

elements, even though the amount is very limited. Hence, what popular culture

attempts to do to break the old formulation of culture is something needed to

provide the rightful position of culture as what they are made and enjoyed.

2. What does it mean by ‘left popular culture’?

To answer the question of what left popular culture means, I shall refer to

the examples provided in the book for a better understanding. It is told that the

‘stop’ sign could be reused to express different meanings. It originally functions to

make people stop driving when they meet this sign. However, when words such as

‘rape’ or ‘war’ are attached to this sign, a completely different meaning and

interpretation is generated. Another example could be found in the story of the use

of dead fetus in a painting. These kinds of ‘refunctioning’ the already existing

cultural product are one of what ‘left popular culture’ does. They use an existing

product (the stop sign and dead fetus) to express their antagonism to the dominant

power. Feminists express their antagonism through ‘stop sign’ to express their

disagreement to raping. While fetuses are used to express anti-abortionist.

Abortion is legalized by government. Abortion is ‘provided’ by government.

Therefore, dead fetuses are also considered by ‘left popular culture’ as a product

provided by dominant power, in this case is the government. They ‘refunction’

what exists so that those tokens have different and even antagonistic meaning.

‘Left popular culture’, as what has been argued by Laura Kipnis, is a form

of ‘refunctioning’ the existing popular culture to express the antagonistic ideas to

the system (government, corporate, technology, etc). ‘Left popular culture’ cannot

be assimilated by powers of the dominant bloc. The concept of ‘left popular

culture’ is the same with the concept of populism (Ernesto Laclaus). Populism

deals not only with a particular class, but it deals with the antagonistic expressions

people have towards the dominant power. In this extent, populism shares the same

feature as the ‘left popular culture’.

In short, left popular culture is a form that articulates antagonism toward

the dominant power using the existing popular culture product. It is also often
used to express their political and ideological struggle toward the hegemony. Even

so, popular culture itself could be used to make a group of people become the

object of the hegemony.

3. Andrew Tolson differentiates between the particular definition of culture by

teachers and researches and the universalist discourse. In what way is the

definition different?

Culture is defined differently in the perspective of teachers and researches,

and universalist discourse. To understand what they are, we shall refer to a

moment when popular culture is institutionalized. Study of culture for a long

period has been under the scope of the universalist study. It lies on the study of

social commentary and ethnography as the traditional study of sociology.

However, these two have limitation in terms of two factors as has been argued by

Paul Willis. Firstly, he argues that ethnography cannot provide an objective and

thorough understanding. Ethnography gives understanding in terms of “subjects

speak for themselves”. It neglects other factors while culture is not as what

ethnography argues. Culture is not only for a certain group of people. It is wider

than ethnography argues. Secondly, social commentary is also not satisfactory

since the Marxist theory is not included in this type of study. Social commentary is

always produced in accordance to Marxist theory since talking about culture is

also talking about contest of struggle where theories of it could be generated from

Marxist study.

It is clear then that cultural studies under universalist umbrella can no

longer be acceptable. Study of culture is then shifted into academic scope or in

other word, institutionalized. Teachers and researches are then asked to define
what culture is. Study of culture is then directed to study of struggle and alliances.

It transcends the study beyond meanings. They study the technique to develop

culture. Teacher and researcher also study what marginalized people do to make

their culture popular. The study of culture is then more elaborated with the hope to

find a definition of culture.

In conclusion, the different definition of culture from teacher and

researcher and universalist discourse’s point of view is located from the way they

study culture. The universalist moments when culture should be studied under

ethnography and social commentary is over since its subjectivity. From now on,

the study of culture is included into academic study where teachers and

researchers can generate meaning of what culture is, based on a more elaborate

and objective way to look culture as a rich element.

4. Why is the discussion of popular culture related to cultural politics and

cultural struggle?

Discussing popular culture is always related to cultural politics and cultural

struggle. Why could it be so? It all may occur if we go back to the definition of

what popular culture as what has been stated in the point number one. I define

popular culture as a culture emerging from the working-class people that resist the

dominant people. One word is very important to relate this definition to the

discussion of popular culture in the terrain of cultural politics and cultural

struggle. That word is resist.

When we talk about popular culture, we will always remember that it is a

site of struggle of a working-class people to resist the dominant culture. At the

same time, their cultures make not only resistance but also power to emerge as a
new form of culture. For this thing is going to happen, contest of ideology is

needed. During this contest, the more powerful ideology is going to win. Then it

will become a hegemony. A light example could be generated from the Levis

Strauss’s denim (jeans). It was originally directed to miner workers since the cloth

is very thick, cannot be torn easily. However, after a moment, it becomes the

‘obligation’ for you to wear denim. Many people use it disregarding their class.

There is a power struggle from a low ideology (cloth for working class) that

interfere the high-class people.

Therefore, popular culture is related closely to cultural politics and cultural

struggle. Within popular culture, power and ideological struggle always occurred.

These two are included in the domain of cultural politics and cultural struggle.

These struggles always occur not only from popular culture to dominant culture

ideology but also inside popular culture itself. It is then what triggers piracy to

occur. One want to become ‘popular’ but does not want to be the object of popular

culture itself, in other words he resists to become the object. Hence, he creates

another product which has similarities as the product of popular culture. The more

powerful ideology in a given society, the more powerful the ideology of this new

product to resist the hegemony. In conclusion, contest of ideological and power

struggle always happen in the popular culture. Hence, discussing popular culture

is inevitable from cultural politics and cultural struggle.

5. “Teaching popular culture is like teaching pleasure”. How do you understand

this statement?

I will define some keywords of the statement “Teaching popular culture is

like teaching pleasure”. The first one is ‘teaching’. When it comes to my mind, I
get a boring concept of teaching. It is going to be theoretical and is not going to be

pleasurable. However, the next two keywords ‘popular culture’ and ‘pleasure’ are

two terms refer to an upside-down nuance with teaching. The two refer to movies,

music, television series, fashion or other popular culture products that are meant to

be enjoyed. So, how can we teach these enjoyable things without stripping the

enjoyable factors implemented in popular culture?

If teaching popular culture is like teaching pleasure then it simply means

that we have to teach what we like, what others like. Therefore, subjectivity is

something that should be avoided when one discusses about popular culture. It is

all because everyone has the right to generate meanings and interpretations of the

popular culture that is being observed. It all may base on the nature of popular

culture as sites of ideological struggle. One person may interpret a different

ideology from others when discussing popular culture. They are free to express

their likes, feelings, thoughts, appreciations to given product. However, there are

still certain boundaries that exist. These boundaries function to limit the

discussion in order not to go beyond what it should be. The boundaries are

methods of how to study culture as what have been explained in previous points.

In conclusion, teaching popular culture is like teaching what we like, what

other people like. We teach something pleasurable and enjoyable. In my opinion,

in order to make it still as the way it is, we should not strip the ‘popular’ factors

that make it enjoyable. We have to teach it as what it is made, based on theoretical

framework of how to analyze popular culture.