The study of popular culture is booming. After all, the Spice Girls are sexier than Spinoza. If only universities took the subject seriously
Thursday 07 November 1996
Not all of the locals are pleased, but most of them are learning to live with it. True, their tired ears may prick up when they hear mention of Snoop Doggy Dogg or Quentin Tarantino during examiners' meetings, just as they may wince at the sight of another half-eaten McWhopper discarded on the street outside; but life is short, and time is money, and few look back in anger.
It is, none the less, a strange state of affairs. At least in the old days these academics behaved more consistently: they hated popular culture, and were happy to see it consigned to the relative obscurity of "Cultural Studies", once described - by a sympathetic observer - as being little better than "a rag-bag of butterfly interests". Now, all of a sudden, they say they cannot live without it. Strange days indeed.
It would make a little more sense if these people had experienced some kind of epiphany and been converted to the cause, but they have done nothing of the kind. They still giggle at the thought of "serious" studies of movie stars and pop singers, they still mock all the solemn seminars on soap operas and earnest lectures on The X Files. Nothing has changed. Even those who deign to teach it seem unconvinced about its potential for intellectual seriousness: some strive to sober it up with cheek-puffing empiricism, elaborate diagrams and personalised jargon ("mass- mediatisation", anyone?) in the vain hope that it may be invited to sit at the grown-ups' table, while others just let their hair down and resign themselves to the fact that they are slumming it.
So why do they do it? Why do they stoop so low for low culture? Why do so many departments find space for a subject they so obviously have no respect for? Money, one imagines, must be a major factor: in these harsh and competitive times, they know that a course that revolves around the Spice Girls will be easier to sell to eager 18-year-olds than one on Spinoza. Convenience, perhaps, is another reason: well, surely anyone can waffle on about advertisements? They may also feel that, at a time when the quantity of one's research is valued considerably more highly than its quality, a few "fun" articles on, say, "Neighbours and the Communitarian Impulse", or "Hi-de-Hi or Heidegger - the Post-Modern Moment", or "Rousseau, Nietzsche, Schwarzenegger: Where Will it All End?", would assuage an itchy problem.
They may be right, but it still seems a shame. The sharing of the study of culture between the disciplines could have been a step in the right direction, rather than, as it has been allowed to be, merely a small and sheepish step sideways. Popular culture really is too important a subject to be left to Cultural Studies: at a period in history when the President of the United States is able, and willing, to turn a televised political debate into something eerily reminiscent of Oprah, and when the leader of the Labour Party finds the slogans of the Lightning Seeds more inspiring than those of Marx or Morris, one ignores the realm of culture at one's peril.
There was someone who sensed this, and, without embarrassment or arrogance, suggested how the academy might best respond. The sad thing is that he died 40 years ago, and his writings are rarely read. Robert Warshow died young, at the age of 37, just as his influence was threatening to reach far beyond the New York intellectual circles from which he had emerged. The only book he wrote - or, to be more accurate, the only book he almost wrote - was a collection of essays, published posthumously in 1962, entitled The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre & Other Aspects of Popular Culture. It was an extraordinary volume, full of originality and insight: here was someone who wrote about popular culture with intelligence, sensitivity, maturity, wit and, yes, enthusiasm. "I have not brought Henry James to the movies or the movies to Henry James," he wrote, "but I hope I have shown that the man who goes to the movies is the same as the man who reads James."
It is a sentiment, and an ambition, that we could do worse than seek to emulate. Since Warshow, we have first ignored popular culture, then segregated it, and then exploited it. It is time, surely, that we started to come to terms with it.
The author lectures in social theory at King's College, Cambridge, and recently published his fourth book, 'Cary Grant: A Class Apart' (Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99).
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