On “mass culture”

(from John Fiske, “Popular Culture,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study [rev. ed. 1995], 312-35)


There is another way of conceptualizing the people in industrial societies that share certain features with both anxious elitism and patronizing nostalgia. This was most comprehensively proposed by the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist social theorists who fled Nazi Germany to the United States. In their view, the industrialization of culture and the development of the mass media had destroyed all traces of authentic popular or folk culture and was rapidly eroding high culture. The culture industries ensured that capitalism could colonize people's leisure time as fully as their work time. They were crucial in enabling capitalism to saturate people's experiences and consciousness so thoroughly as to leave no space in which to experience a noncapitalist identity or consciousness, or to establish non- (let alone anti-) capitalist relations. The culture industries, then, were the means by which capitalism could erase any possibility of opposition and thus of social change. They alienated people from their social relations, whether with local communities or with their own class, and they turned the people into a mass of atomized individuals who had no sense of collectivity and were thus denied the social power that derives only from collective action. They commodified people by erasing their consciousness of all needs or desires except those that could be satisfied by commodities, and they produced one dimensional people who were incapable of criticizing capitalism because they had no experience of anything outside it. For the Frankfurt School, the universal human values of high culture provided the sole remaining noncommodified system of values, and they traced how capitalism set to work to extinguish this area of potential opposition as well. It commodified high art by using cheap reproductions of paintings in advertisements and by turning the products of human greatness into plastic souvenirs; it played classical music in elevators and packaged it for mass consumption; great books had their greatness taken out of them by being condensed and predigested for easy consumption. The result was what was later called a "middle-brow," conformist culture that seemed expressly designed for Matthew Arnold's Philistines. The industrialization of culture, then, destroyed both popular and high culture, the two possible sources of an authentic sense of being human from which to criticize the inhumanity of capitalist society. This critical pessimism was ultimately elitist because it saw the people as the helpless, passive victims of the system, and denied them any agency of their own. It did not allow them any ability to devise means of coping with, or exerting influence upon, the socio-economic forces that were ranged against them. (324-35)


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Mass culture, like high culture and like Brecht's putative popular culture, is a culture of products for products are readily sold. Mass culture produces cultural commodities, high culture produces artworks or texts. The cultural commodities of mass culture - films, 1V shows, CDs, etc. - are produced and distributed by an industrialized system whose aim is to maximize profit for the producers and distributors by appealing to as many consumers as possible. This industrialized mass culture is not popular culture, though it does produce many of the  resources out of which popular culture is made, and its market centered approach means that it is often more effective in producing texts that the people can use for their progressive purposes than was Brecht with his explicit progressive  intentions. The marketplace has always been a site of negotiation rather than one of economic exploitation, and the market places of capitalism are, in this respect, no different from those of other economic systems. In industrialized societies the people make their culture out of resources that are not of their making and are not under their control. Popular culture typically involves the art of making do with what is available. (326)