Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Difficulties in Problematizing Popular Culture and the Society in which it Operates

The phenomenon of popular in contemporary society will be examined using the vista of three thinkers, Jurgen Habermas, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno – all of whom wrote convincing treatises on the interplay of society, culture and identity. A critical Marxist reading on Habermas’ Discourse Ethics is essential to present a current worldview of contemporary society in which popular culture is produced and reproduced. On the other hand, the exposition on the writings of Benjamin and Adorno, both Marxist thinkers, will show the patent difficulties in defining what exactly the role of popular culture is, in contemporary society.

According to Habermas, human beings are uniquely rational creatures with the ability to converse but not necessarily being dominated by instinct and coercion. There is recognition of the vulnerability of the individual. In us, there is the capability to interact such vulnerabilities, to have actions of thoughtfulness and consideration by instructing ourselves to include those who have been individuated, ostracized or marginalized. An interdependency between the individual and the collective in which a Life-World is created and a language community is produced brought about by communicative action. Life-world is the scheme one brings in an everyday sense. It helps create a worldview, used to make judgments and builds a self-identity vis-à-vis the world. This is how we hope to conduct ourselves in our interactions with others. (Braaten, 1991)

Jurgen Habermas errs in assuming the absence of conversations, if at all, relationships bereft of domination by coercion or by instinct. In a pluralistic world, social contradictions of class continue emanating despite the absence of an over-arching authority such as a feudal Catholic Church dictating on people.

While it is true that there is recognition of vulnerability among individuals and everyone has the capacity to act thoughtful, kind or considerate, it is precisely this vulnerability which is exploited by those who wish to enslave and oppress, even under a system which has ceased having the state at the center of society. Even rabid capitalists who fund military-industrial complexes have this innate capacity to be kind, to even be philanthropists to foundations and pour their loose millions into its funds. But this is not because of a consensus between people who are part of a social intercourse but due to class determinations in which a mask of benevolence should be worn by scheming capitalists to elicit images of corporate social responsibility. Even Hitler had propaganda posters kissing babies! The fact that the individuated, marginalized and ostracized is still in society’s periphery holds despite changes in superstructures and even in the modes of production, without the necessary prerequisite of revolution. There is interdependency, yes, but interdependency based on exploitation of classes in the service of profit. It is never borne out of love, in a social scale, that is. The language community that Habermas speaks of is actually a language of coercion and deception, using quasi-love and terror tactics to achieve an end on a hapless ruled majority. Oh, there is a tacit language too, the language of war between classes. There is actually no consensual discourse that occurs even in a postmodern society where the relations of production continue to press forth. The worldview too that is created by this is a worldview of a need to destroy the class dictatorship of the rulers on one hand and the need to suppress the revolutionary progress on the other. This is truly how it is hoped one would conduct one’s life recognizing the existence of a class war, using overt and covert forms of language and communications to destroy and obliterate one another.

Moral problems can most definitely be resolved rationally and objectively. It is precisely our gift of cognition which separates us from lesser animals. Questions on pre-marital sex, abortion, gay marriage and other looked down upon social taboos can be resolved by the use of intellect. Habermas is correct in saying that such can only be done in a pluralistic society where there is no dominant authority out to sanction and control. (Horster 1992) Gay marriage cannot certainly be allowed in a very feudal-patriarchal society such as Iran, but it is certainly allowed in Scandinavian nations with very lax socio-cultural norms. Women will be stoned to death in the Middle East if they had lovers and had sex outside their marriages! A college couple in the Philippines would most certainly be asked to tie the knot had they been caught by their parents having sex at the girl’s house! Pluralistic societies, which many misconstrue as postmodern societies have the luxury of deciding for themselves what to do without the need for social pressures from norms and traditions. But this laxity over norms contributes also to a decadent popular culture with norms trashed for selfish purposes and elicits irresponsible and immature behavior, especially among the youth. This is caused by the consumerism of a postmodern world and a manifestation of economic contradictions in an advanced stage of capitalism where, in the guise of liberalism and openness to change, people are rendered ignorant further as they are eaten up by a culture of consumerism brought precisely by the rational mind by using choice as an excuse.

In this Marxist critique of Habermas’ depiction of social relations, it is clear that even the basis and conceptualization of society in which popular culture springs forth is deeply debatable using different vistas of analysis and problematization, that a unified theory in explaining popular culture in all its excesses and benefits seem difficult. Nonetheless, popular culture has now enveloped the world, from Houston and London to Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro, in which popular culture icons such as McDonalds and even Britney Spears are received in frenzy by the people. Despite the pervasiveness of popular culture and the critique it receives from critical and radical scholars, Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), described that popular culture, art specifically, had a radical role in the emancipation of culture from the mystification of the elite in different societies, especially in its mechanistic reproduction through photographs, film and music. Benjamin (1936) said that –

An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

At a certain time in the history of popular culture, especially those art forms which were mechanically produced to reach thousands of people, it laid the foundation towards the democratization of culture in which the people themselves and not only royalty can wonder at the sight of beauty and creativity of art and culture.

Moreover, in pursuit of his discourse that popular culture and its art democratize its access to the people, he found no other medium of culture that enabled the collective enjoyment of culture other than film. He (Benjamin, 1936) quipped –

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert. Such fusion is of great social significance. The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public.

Benjamin clearly saw in film the collective experience of the masses the depiction of their lives in its rawest form, bereft of the niceties that painting and other classical forms of art provided. Even up to now, descriptions that film is a communion with the people and society while in a movie theater abound – and such experience can never be replaced by all high-end HD LCD TVs produced for personal and individual consumption of the home. He also surmised that such art forms, even popular culture then and now, would pass from its previous radical state of emancipation towards a decadent epoch in the future, in which the reproduction of art and culture do not correspond anymore to its historic role in society. It can be said at present that popular culture might have passed on to the decadent stage already, in the face of tasteless box-office films with little social content but loads of entertainment value, and the rise of teeny-bopper artists without concrete musical talent save for their propensity to wiggle their bodies in sexy maneuvers. He (Benjamin 1936) said that –

One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form. The extravagances and crudities of art which thus appear, particularly in the so-called decadent epochs, actually arise from the nucleus of its richest historical energies.

These cultural excesses of present popular culture as anecdotally described and best represented by Britney Spears and Paris Hilton is no different from the artworks produced at the height of the reign of decadence in France prior to the French Revolution, in which art were produced at the expense of the poverty and hunger of the people. It is no different from the decadent cultural icons of today insofar as it permitted the reproduction of a popular culture that is bereft of any social content and value. Nonetheless, in classic Marxist analysis, such inertia towards cultural decadence is expected in a world capitalist system in chronic crisis as it is part of the tacit and express superstructural apparatuses of the bourgeois the world over, to make people forget the glaring socio-economic contradictions of the times – the decreasing healthcare benefits, the rising tuition in colleges and universities, the growing American death toll in Iraq, among other social issues, which the people can never play blind to, as these things, more than popular culture, define the enjoyment of their existence and their pursuit of happiness. The cultural push of popular culture, moreover, is no different from the celebration of the Roman Empire of gladiator matches and deaths, in a backdrop of economic contradictions wrought by an overextended empire and rebellions on all fronts.

This is the reason why Theodor Adorno, in The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944), said –

Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.

His treatise is a scathing indictment of the road popular culture now takes towards decadence and the overall exposition that the social system in which popular culture operates forces it to stagnate into less artful forms. He even criticized the barrenness of the present cultural reproduction of beauty that reactionary cultural fanaticism serves in its methodical idolisation of individuality, to the extent that people, especially women of the world, must now conform to a universal standard of beauty - what we now know as the slim, sexy and smart woman that men ogle their eyes on, instead of a beauty that is utterly determined in the eye of every individual person. On the other hand, Adorno (1944) says that with the decadence in popular culture –

The irreconcilable elements of culture, art and distraction, are subordinated to one end and subsumed under one false formula: the totality of the culture industry. It consists of repetition. That its characteristic innovations are never anything more than improvements of mass reproduction is not external to the system. It is with good reason that the interest of innumerable consumers is directed to the technique, and not to the contents – which are stubbornly repeated, outworn, and by now half-discredited.

This trend is clearly evident until now, to the extent that the film industry relegates an isolated category of art films from the mainstream film industry for the simple reason that the techniques and storylines art films employ are uncannily different from what sells in the business of mainstream Hollywood. By divorcing content from technique in the framework of the film business, the quality of the art and culture that the people digest become more and more isolated from the reality of their lives. The rap music genre is a good example to explain this phenomenon. The roots of rap music has been jazz and blues, which were concrete expressions of centuries of untruth that African-Americans were less civilized and barbaric than the White Man. But as the music progressed and African-Americans were emancipated from slavery and segregation, the present crop of African-American artists seem to reproduce a popular culture that does not conform to the origins of their music as the content now speaks of drugs, sex and violence rather than the liberating messages of love, peace and struggle. Instead of rap music being the present expression of the struggle and liberation of the African-Americans from poverty and discrimination, the message is obliterated in the altar of commercialism and the mad-dash of individualistic and rapid accumulation of wealth among the African-Americans. The display of their heavy gold bling-blings in the rap music video is the best evidence of this.

In all of these, it is evident that comprehensively analyzing popular culture is as difficult as explaining the society in which it operates and reproduces. It is clear that popular culture, at one point in its existence, had a radical role to fill in the history of the world, especially in the democratization of cultural consumption, against the limited cultural access prior to that by royalty and the elite. On the other hand, popular culture is also on the brink of decadence, especially at present, where cultural forms and even norms now be transported and transplanted across all corners of the world in amazing speed. Nonetheless, the message of this paper is clear – while it is difficult to stop neither the march of history nor the reproduction of popular culture, globalized pop culture even, societies and the people who consume such culture must always be wary of its disconnects and excesses, especially in the depiction of the reality and contradictions of the people’s lives. In the ultimate analysis, a culture, even popular culture, that does not liberate, in whatever way or aspect, stagnates the consciousness of a people.


  1. Adorno, T. & Horkheimer M. (1944). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment and Mass Deception. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Retrieved March 27, 2007 from industry.htm
  2. Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Retrieved March 27, 2007 at
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