Mass Culture in History & Theory

Mass produced consumer goods or “mass culture” pervades everyday life—and, arguably, the politics of everyday life—in modern societies.  From macaroni and cheese to cars, carpeting, and khakis, chances are a preponderance of these goods surrounds you at almost any moment of the day.  Their existence depends on an army of individuals, industries, and technologies working more or less in concert.  Advertising and P.R. firms, distribution systems, retail establishments, financial institutions, communication networks, legal codes, public rituals, labor practices—these and myriad other elements comprise the complex infrastructure, or “social matrix,” out of which mass culture emerges.

Despite (or perhaps because of) mass culture’s ubiquity, studying it can be a fraught undertaking.  Indeed, the critical study of mass culture poses numerous challenges, beginning with the issue of how best to define the object of study: “mass” or “popular” culture—or maybe something else?  Delimiting the object domain can be no less confounding.  Should we focus on production, distribution, exchange, or consumption?  Texts, audiences, or apparatuses?  Some combination thereof?  If so, in what proportions?  Assessing the politics of mass culture is a delicate endeavor as well.  How do we respect people’s investments in mass produced consumer goods while at the same time taking stock of mass culture, critically?

This seminar will help you to develop a powerful set of theoretical, methodological, and historical frameworks for making sense of mass culture.  Of course, we will discuss specific mass cultural artifacts.  More importantly, however, we will situate the latter within the social, economic, legal, technical, and material relations noted above.  In shuttling between the particular and the abstract, our goal will be to elaborate on two interrelated themes: the first, about the ways in which mass cultural goods have come to affect people’s lives at the level of the everyday; and the second, about a possible shift that may now be occurring in the relationship that mass culture shares to other domains human affairs.