Traversing a thicket of signs

An Introduction to the Theories of Popular Culture
November 10, 1995

The study of popular culture is not as easy as it looks. It looks very easy indeed; one simply makes a discipline out of a distraction. On closer inspection, however, the subject is the site of innumerable squabbles and bitter conflicts between cliques, all of whom speak - and shout - in increasingly strange arcane dialects. It is not an academic area that has, at least until recently, made much effort to make the bewildered newcomer feel welcome. There are signs, at last, that things are beginning to change.

Dominic Strinati has produced an unpretentious introductory textbook which should provide those students who are new to the subject - or who have long been lost inside it - with a reassuringly lucid and good-natured overview of the contemporary theoretical debates. The basic argument is this: popular culture has come to play an essential role in all of our lives; if we are serious about wishing to understand modern societies, then modern popular culture is, indubitably, one of the things that we must take seriously; in order to take popular culture seriously, we must devise a suitably rigorous methodology for its analysis; the first step towards the establishment of such a methodology is the critical evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the major existing theoretical perspectives.

Strinati does not pretend to be in a position to take one any further than this first tentative step. Indeed, the book, in addition to its primary function as an accessible summary of the most influential academic approaches to the subject, is also, in a sensibly unobtrusive way, a more personal attempt by the author to convince himself of how best he might seek to move beyond them. After a brief recapitulation of the old mass culture debate, Strinati proceeds, at a brisk pace, to adumbrate the most salient characteristics of, and problems with, five theoretical perspectives: the critical theory of the early Frankfurt school; structuralism; Gramscian hegemony theory; feminist theories; and postmodernism. All five accounts, although inevitably prone to the occasional over-simplification, are neat and informative in a responsible and relatively uncoloured way. The chapter on the Frankfurt school, however, would have been more helpful if the work of Adorno and Horkheimer had been placed firmly within the very specific historical (and cultural) context in which it was conceived. It would also have been refreshing to see a more circumspect treatment of such cliched themes as Adorno's alleged "elitism" (if it is elitist to acknowledge, rather than deny, the iniquitous consequences of the division of labour, then Marx, without doubt, was elitist too). The respective chapters on feminist perspectives and postmodernism suffer most under the strain of drawing the disparate strands together while remaining comprehensible and concise, but, in the circumstances, both discussions manage to achieve broadly what they set out to do.

At the end of his critical survey, Strinati sums up the shortcomings of the current range of perspectives: theory continues to dominate at the expense of practice; the glamour of the idea of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of culture has obscured the fact that different disciplines have distinct traditions, assumptions and agendas which work against their combining into a coherent whole; and there is no conceptually and theoretically-informed definition of what the subject is, and is for, that meets with widespread agreement. Strinati deserves to be praised for providing students with this reassuringly level-headed introduction to this troubled subject. Where it leads them is, as Strinati acknowledges, quite another story.

Graham McCann is a fellow, King's College, Cambridge.

An Introduction to the Theories of Popular Culture

Author - Dominic Strinati
ISBN - 0 415 12469 7
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £11.99
Pages - 301

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