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5.4: Popular Culture is Only Useful as a Text for Criticism

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    Author: Mark D. Pepper, English, Utah Valley University

    Popular culture, once written off as lacking depth and importance, is now the subject of in-depth analysis both on college campuses and in non-academic venues. Students write extended considerations of how cult TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer explores teen insecurities through their embodiment in the show’s demonic villains. Bookstores sell essay collections with titles like Myth, Media, and Culture in Star Wars and The Sopranos and Philosophy. Online think pieces analyze how Taylor Swift’s lyrics may or may not be feminist. A public wiki devoted to the television show LOST still has devoted fans trying to figure out what it all meant (maybe even figuring out what those accursed numbers were all about).

    All this writing increasingly problematizes the argument that popular culture is primarily dumb, simplified fodder for the masses. In his book, Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson builds a sustained argument that popular culture (especially in the past three decades) has become more complex, better written, and cognitively stimulating. The existence of so many college courses, mass-marketed books, and online pieces of analysis suggest that popular culture warrants close textual scrutiny. The popularity of this writing also suggests a desire for consumers to dig deeper into what their entertainment is about and what broader cultural effects it may have. Considering the actual depth of pop culture texts, it’s not surprising that performing deep reading is so popular in the classroom.

    This textual analysis of popular culture for its deeper meanings or cultural effects is not a bad idea in and of itself; in fact, getting popular culture taken seriously was a hard-fought struggle in academic circles throughout the latter half of the 20th century. However, that battle was seemingly won on the idea that popular-culture texts should be treated in the same manner as classic literature where textual features such as symbolic and metaphorical messages are treated as important elements of the texts. Therein lies the problem. When popular culture is predominantly written about from the perspectives of textual analysis and cultural criticism, this writing often fails to capture the personal, varied, and complex experiences of consuming popular culture. Students often balk at these writing assignments because they recognize that something is missing (or murdered, in the words of William Wordsworth). Without different kinds of writing assignments that balance the rush to critique content, students are seemingly asked to disregard a lifetime of experience with these texts that do not seem valued by an educational setting that is laser focused on textual dissection.

    The Unique Place of Popular Culture in Daily Life

    When popular culture is brought into a classroom as analytical fodder for student papers, the results are often smart and well written. Such writing often presents the popular text in a “here’s its deeper meaning” light, sometimes to counter the still-common misconception that pop culture is lower or dumber than other forms of texts. Other written analysis often suggests how a popular text is damaging because of the problematic representations of society’s marginalized and disenfranchised groups through encoded, normalized messages and symbols. And the assignments work. Students writing in this vein hit all the checkboxes currently heralded by educational goals and outcomes statements: critical thinking, inquiry, close reading, and working with diverse texts. However, saying this type of writing works means something very specific and potentially limiting.

    When instructors ask students to write about Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Breaking Bad with the same focal points also applied to Hamlet or Moby-Dick, there’s an implied message that pop culture is not more than that. Sure, the texts may operate similarly in some ways (they all have symbolically charged, complex plots, characters, and themes), however, the popular texts operate in some uniquely different ways too. These are the texts we get hyped for and binge in encaptivating doses. These are the texts that inspire us to buy related t-shirts, toys, and memorabilia. These are the texts we avoid spoilers for and geek out with our friends about (sometimes while wearing costumes of characters from the text). These are the texts sometimes so bad that we watch them simply because they are so bad (hey, Sharknado). These are the texts that are sometimes just on or just there—a background tapestry for everyday living. Pop culture is a unique and contradictory site of meaning making that often (and usually) goes far beyond the definition of meaningfulness required by a textual analysis/critique writing assignment. It’s a realm of personal connections, emotional nuance, and messy contradictions that defies most traditional grading rubrics.

    This is not to suggest that literature (or even essays) offered for analysis in the classroom don’t also come with personal connections, entertainment value, and emotional perspectives. However, standard-issue writing assignments far too often ask that those factors be stripped away or ignored in the actual writing (some instructors of writing still inexplicably discourage the use of “I” in any situation). So it’s not hard to imagine how some students react negatively when they’re suddenly asked to dissect pop culture in ways that explicitly (or implicitly) ask them to disregard everything they know and feel about a popular text and reduce it to a textual artifact for parsing.

    Textual analysis often come with an implied demand for the readers of such pieces to reject their enjoyment (or, at least, feel guilty about it), and adopt the correct stance when a problematic element is being dissected. Fans may rightly ask: Why should this author’s critical interpretation affect my personal relationship with the text just because he or she has a degree or book contract? Another response may be: I see now that this text is problematic, but I still like it. After all, close textual analysis might change minds (or add some nuance) for some readers and writers, but it more likely allows readers who already have these specific critical tendencies to feel good about being on the right side of what they already know.

    Here, the unique status of popular culture must be noted again. Students likely expect that the authors of critical essays about Toni Morrison or Kafka know more about the texts than they do. Students often (but not always) have little prior experience with the work. And students write cautiously and with reservation about Beloved or The Metamorphosis because they’re treading new ground. But when pop culture becomes the topic of writing, students may have the feeling that something is missing because they bring so much prior experience with them to the blank page. They have a knowledge base from which to confidently observe, “Well, that hasn’t been my experience with the text.” Not to be misunderstood, it’s obviously good to encounter new perspectives and question previous assumptions. Nonetheless, the question becomes: What is being taught about writing when textual/critical analysis asks students to disregard their outside expertise, turn off their personal investments, and attack (from their points of view) texts that they know are more complex than narrative meaning and cognitive impact?

    Fandom Studies and Affective Musings

    Again, the problem is one of ratio. These textual/critical analyses wouldn’t be so potentially limiting if they were more frequently balanced with other ways of writing about popular culture. One alternate direction is summed up under the loose banner of fandom studies.

    In fandom studies, textual critique takes a backseat to observing how texts are reacted to, invested in, and made part of fans’ identities and daily lives. While textual critique often assumes a text’s particular effects, fandom studies goes to the source and lets fans and their practices speak for themselves (though still filtered through the critical lens of the observer). Fandom writing also brings a myriad of possibilities to the classroom. Students can write ethnographic research reports on face-to-face or digital communities that chart the movement of writing practices within a network of fan activity. Fan fiction can be analyzed (and even compared to the original work) as an exercise in learning style and voice. The clever and surprising alterations in fan fiction also have much to teach about creativity and invention. Finally, fandom offers avenues to analyze or produce transliteracy—the process of writing across different media with a variety of tools. For example, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a popular YouTube channel that video blogs (vlogs) the modernized lives of characters from Pride and Prejudice. Along with the vlogs, the characters use Twitter and Google+, which allows fans to co-create and shape the ongoing story.

    Popular culture may also be written about in ways that go beyond the confines of textual content. Lawrence Grossberg argues that outside the actual content being considered, the pleasure people take in popular culture, is primarily based in affective investments. Affect (admittedly a complex concept too broad for full exploration here) can aptly be understood as the motivating force that adds intensity to our daily interactions and subsequently leads to an individual’s sense of what matters—the feeling of life. Obviously, textual and ideological content sometimes matter in our enjoyment or dislike of a text; however, they are just two pieces of the puzzle because affect privileges the depth and complexity of feeling over textual meaning. Grossberg suggests that our encounters with popular texts are intensified (or come to matter) by the complex investments of emotion, passion, mood, and energy that we bring to them in the process of actively integrating popular texts into our identities and social lives. This is the element of popular culture consumption missed in a million close, textual readings. This is where textual meaning is merely a starting place for a text’s integration into a person’s identity and social performance.

    So what does affective popular culture writing look like? Such writing is less concerned with criticism and more focused on what the text means to the author’s life. The writing is more personally revealing and socially inviting as it attempts to chart the author’s investment in a text, while simultaneously inviting the audience to recognize themselves and reflect on their own relationship to the subject matter. Put differently, affective writing shows authors speaking directly for the texts that usually speak for them. The work of Chuck Klosterman, a pop culture essayist, provides an apt example. Though Klosterman does not avoid textual criticism and cultural effect (as in his essay critiquing how MTV’s The Real World created “one-dimensional personalities”), he consistently connects pop culture to his personal experiences in a memoir-like style. Whether he’s writing an ode to the universality of Billy Joel, analyzing how porn feeds our need for amateur celebrities, noting how people dismiss country music to sound cool, or what he learned from extensively playing The Sims video game, Klosterman’s work highlights how popular culture makes us feel, makes us connect, and makes us discuss.

    Embracing affect leads to a more personal style of student writing about pop culture but does not have to lead to completely subjective journaling (not that there’s anything wrong with that either). Though students are encouraged to write about their participation and engagement with popular culture, the focus is more on the intensity and complexity of that enjoyment. Pleasure (and distaste) is a complicated orientation that, from an affective perspective, is created by any number of extratextual features: early memories of the text (or its genre), opinions about the texts’ fans, how the text is publically disseminated, public images/narratives of the artist, and ways the text encourages social investment. By the nature of affect, some of these aspects will necessarily matter more or less. As student writings map this complex web of personal/ social investments (intensely engaging with some while possibly ignoring others), the writer understands that textual effects and reactions (plus the motivations texts may or may not spur) are often unpredictable, contradictory, and incomplete. Such a lesson is fundamentally important when a purely textual focus often implicitly teaches that writing has a unified effect and preferred interpretation.

    Textual/critical analysis certainly has an important place. However, as the dominant form of writing about popular culture, it often fails to account for the ways pop culture is used when the viewer isn’t specifically focused on critique. Pop culture is a complex space that creates diverse, contradictory, and messy ways to consume, participate, identify, discuss, and make meaning. And pop culture is too entrenched in the daily lives of millions to let one type of writing oversell its importance. Through balancing pop culture use in the classroom, students continue to learn analytical criticism while simultaneously being awarded for their current expertise and complex relationships with the source material.

    Further Reading

    For more information on the history of popular culture analysis and criticism, see Culture, Media, Language (Routledge), which charts the theories and methodologies of The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies throughout the 1970s. Though obviously not the only group of thinkers to influence how pop culture became a subject for textual criticism, many of the school’s members and writings form important historical touchstones for the type of analysis critiqued in this chapter. The book includes Stuart Hall’s (director of the Centre from 1974–1979) famous work, “Encoding/ Decoding,” which highlights how cultural producers create and distribute ideology and meanings through texts that readers can either accept/naturalize or critique/resist.

    For more on the theories and methods of fandom studies, Henry Jenkins is arguably the most well-known name in what is often a diverse field. His books, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Routledge) and Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age (NYU Press), both allow textual criticism to take a backseat to the practices and dispositions of fans. For a broader take on fandom studies as a whole, Mark Duffett’s (Bloomsbury) explores fan stereotypes, representations, and practices while citing many thinkers in the field along the way. His chapter, “Beyond the Text” is most applicable to this chapter, in that, it explores how criticism and analysis alone will always miss out on the lived experience of the text under scrutiny.

    As this chapter mentions, affect theory is complex and really needs a fuller study to appreciate both its usefulness and limitations. Lawrence Grossberg’s Bringing it All Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies (Duke University Press) collects some of his earliest writings on the relationship between affect and pop culture consumption and enjoyment. But for a more current take on competing definitions and applications of affect theory, Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth’s collection, The Affect Theory Reader (Duke University Press), probes much deeper into the nuances and ramifications of this pre-conscious, intensity producing force that shapes our attachments and affinities for popular culture’s offerings.


    affect, cultural studies, fandom, popular culture, taste studies

    Author Bio

    Mark D. Pepper is an associate professor of English at Utah Valley University where he teaches courses in composition, technical writing, popular culture, and graphic novels. Much of his research deals with how people use and talk about popular culture in their daily lives to create both personal identity and social belonging. His dissertation looked at how the popularity of texts is created and spread in a digital age of blogs, wikis, and social media. His own pop culture fandom started with comic books as a kid and carries on to a Netflix queue full of television series with far too many seasons to ever reasonably catch up on.