Summary and Keywords
At the core of what we know as popular culture studies today is the work of scholars associated with or influenced by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Popular culture itself and intellectual interest in its risks and possibilities, however, long predate this moment. Earlier in the 20th century, members of the Frankfurt School took an active interest in what was then referred to as “mass culture” or the culture industry. Semiotics, emerging in the latter half of the 20th century as an exciting new methodology of cultural analysis, turned to popular culture for many of its objects as it redefined textuality, reading, and meaning. The works of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco are exemplary in this regard. The work of the Birmingham school, also known as British cultural studies, drew from both of these intellectual traditions but went on to forge its own unique methods drawing on Marxist and poststructuralist theoretical legacies. Quickly spreading across the Anglophone world, Cultural Studies is now widely recognized, if not as a discipline proper, as a distinctive branch of the humanities. Other methodologies contemporaneous with this trend are also now clubbed together as part of this generalized practice of cultural studies. Important among these are feminist approaches to popular culture exemplified by work on Hollywood cinema and women’s melodrama in particular, the study of images and representations through a mass communications approach, and ethnographic studies of readers of popular romances and television audiences. A minor, theoretically weak tradition of popular culture studies initiated by Ray Browne parallelly in the Unites States may also be mentioned. More recently, Slavoj Zizek has introduced startlingly new ways of drawing popular cultural texts into philosophical debates. If all of these can be taken together as constituting what is generally referred to as popular culture studies today, it is still limited to the 20th century. Apart from the Frankfurt School and semiotics, British cultural studies also counts among the precursors it had to settle scores with, the tradition of cultural criticism in Britain that Matthew Arnold and in his wake F. R. Leavis undertook as they sought to insulate “the best of what was thought and said” from the debasing influence of the commercial press and mass culture in general. But the history of popular culture as an object of investigation and social concern goes further back still to the 18th and 19th centuries, the period of the rise and spread of mass literature, boosted by the rise of a working-class readership.
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