AMS 390 • Theories of Mass and Popular Culture
11:00 AM-12:30 PM
This course will present a historical survey of the major theories of mass and popular culture, a "greatest hits" that everyone working in the area should know. (Popular culture has returned to theoretical use, to describe literally what the people make of mass-reproduced artifacts and texts in everyday life.) After a brief introduction to the origin of aesthetics, particularly the German reading debate in the late eighteenth century, we will examine Charles Baudelaire's response to the invention of photography in the middle of the nineteenth century (by many estimates the signal event in the birth of modernism); the origins of theoretical approaches to mass culture in the 1930s (colored by critical orientations to modernism and the avant-garde); and ultimately concentrate at length on developments in the last 25 years or so, with the advent of cultural studies. I will try to keep matters grounded in literary issues, like our understanding of the avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism, and many of our subjects, such as Fredric Jameson, train a literary background on mass culture we will see, in fact, that until very recently virtually all intellectual discourse about mass culture has emerged from the precincts of literature.
The interests of individual class members, which will be the subject of oral presentations as well as the term paper, will largely dictate what specific texts are covered. I am reluctant to emphasize particular genres and/or texts first because I don't want to inject my own tastes (too much), which are oriented towards popular music, and second because there is a plethora of interpretations of individual texts out there, much of it done on an ad hoc basis. The point to a class on theoretical approaches is precisely to develop a wider, more fully considered perspective for such work.
Our readings should be of interest to anyone working with cultural studies, feminism, Marxist theory, and/or modernism and postmodernism. They will include Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, who define, against modernism, the aims of a genuine avant-garde, interested in drawing together art both high and low; the Frankfurt School, represented by Thedoro Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, who preferred the density of modernist texts, and thus excoriated the so-called Benjamin-Brecht position; and contemporary uses of both positions. There is an important feminist issue in the original _mass culture debate_: the way in which modernism cast mass culture and its presumably pacifying effects in feminine terms. This phenomenon still very much with us; thus we will also look at the recent feminist revaluation of emotion, as well as Janice Radway_s work on romance fiction. We will also read essays from British cultural studies by Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, Richard Johnson, Angela McRobbie, and Raymond Williams, and some of the best-known generalizing celebrations and critiques of postmodern culture by Jean Baudrillard, Iain Chambers, Guy Debord, John Fiske, Jameson, Meaghan Morris, and others.