For those of us in the academy who have been urging people for twenty years or more to take popular culture seriously, Jim McGuigan’s Cultural Populism footnote1 is a sombre read. A lucid account of how cultural studies took their place in the university curriculum, it pinpoints the ways in which studying popular culture has become a method of uncritical celebration.
Among other things it makes clear how much Raymond Williams is missed. McGuigan takes Williams’ 1958 essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’ as the beginning of his story, reminding us of Williams’ radicalism, his roots in an ‘unpopular’ working-class politics, his sense of history, and his dogged suspicion of the weasel words of commerce. Williams, you can only conclude, would have been dismayed by contemporary cultural studies’ cheerful populism, by academics’ new-found respect for sales figures, by the theoretical pursuit of the joys of consumption.
The problem of cultural populism has resonance outside the academy too. In the second edition of his book, McGuigan might well consider the curious case of the Modern Review, a magazine dedicated to taking popular culture seriously by defining itself against academic cultural studies. In sales terms, the Modern Review is not significant, but it exemplifies (both within its own pages and through its contributors’ obvious impact on general press coverage of pop culture) the dominant voice of lay cultural populism. Describing itself as providing ‘low culture for highbrows’ it furnishes a knowing middlebrow consumer guide.
For both academics arguing about the curriculum and journalists arguing about the arts pages, what is at issue is ‘popular culture’—how we should think about it, how we should study it, how we should value it. And two further points should be made about this. First, the questions are not only of concern to rival groups of academics and journalists. Popular culture is equally an issue for the political and cultural establishment. It is at the centre of the debates about the bbc’s future, for example: what is the ‘higher ground’ of broadcasting
It follows, second, that the questions of popular culture are not new. The education system since Arnold, the bbc since Reith, the Arts Council since Keynes, have all made cultural policy in the light of the perceived threat of pop and commerce. What is new, then, is not the problem but its formulation. It is as if the ghosts of Adorno and Leavis, ghosts who haunted discussion of popular culture for fifty years, have finally been laid.
McGuigan traces the rise of academic cultural populism to the demise of the ‘dominant ideology thesis’, the assumption that one could map culture from the top down, from capitalist manoeuvre to audience response; the Modern Review reserves its greatest scorn for cultural dogooders, those people who witter on about discrimination and taste. For cultural populists of all sorts, the popular is to be approached with new, modern assumptions, assumptions about the positive power of market forces, assumptions about the creativity of the consumer.
From our perspective, though, what is revealed in both McGuigan’s book and the Modern Review is a crisis of critical language: how can we talk about (or evaluate) popular culture without reference to its ideological effects? What does it mean to treat popular culture aesthetically? How, now, does the relation of high and low culture work? What authority does either a teacher or a critic have to assert that his or her reading of a popular text—Single White Female, say, or Civvies, or Madonna—is any more important than anyone else’s? Is popular culture just a matter of style and sale?