Notebooks

Mass Culture, Popular Culture

03 Oct 1994 12:02

Revisiting this notebook after many years, I find myself uncomfortable with this category, which I basically got from reading a lot of mid-20th century cultural criticism (McCarthy and Macdonald, especially). The idea, so far as I can reconstruct it, is that there is (or was) a separate sphere of "mass culture" or "popular culture", sharply distinguished in form, genesis or content from other spheres of culture. I suppose what I had in mind, roughly, is commercially-produced culture, most of whose consumers are not, themselves, also producers of the same kind of culture --- as, for instance, most people who listen to commercial recordings aren't also musicians, and music-making is a business. But calling this "mass culture" seems to have a very unfortunate connotation, which I don't (any longer) accept, that most people are passive consumers of the degraded products of the manipulative Culture Trust, accepting whatever they're given without thought. There is a Culture Trust, and of course those who run it would have easier jobs if that were how things worked, but it seems to me to be false to the realities of how culture is produced, received and reworked, and how cultural trends and styles emerge and are used by the various people involved. "Mass culture" also seems to carry a connotation that once upon a time we lived in a non-alienated condition, where there wasn't the same distinction between producers and consumers, which seems again to be false.

See also Cultural Criticism


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