Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dwight Macdonald – "A Theory of Mass Culture" – summary and review

As a cultural critic, Dwight Macdonald combined a leftist, even radical, stance with cultural conservatism and elitism, two features of his thought which are manifested in his 1957 "A Theory of Mass Culture". in talking about a theory of mass culture Macdonald expresses his cultural conservatism in worrying about the statue and future of the accomplishments made by western culture and high art in the 20th century. Macdonald views popular culture as a threat to high culture with its wide circulation of shallow content and widespread popularity.    

Macdonald opens his theory of mass culture by stating that he prefers mass to culture to popular culture. popular can refer to the wide spread consumption of a cultural product that can be of good quality (like Mozart of Tolstoy). Mass culture, however, is in Macdonald's eyes related to nature of culture in industrialized societies. Upholding a prominent view argued for by sociologists of his time, Macdonald sees the industrialized society as one in which traditional social structures such as the community collapsed only to be replaced by a mass society of mutually alienated individuals (Macdonald relies on Riesman's concept of "the lonely crowd".

Mass culture, for Macdonald, is the culture of mass society, which is characterized by vulgarity, kitsch, homogeneity and standardization. These attributes position mass culture in Macdonald's view in opposition to the refine nature and diversity of high culture. mass culture's massive power is threatening high culture which cannot compete with mass culture's popularity.

Macdonald's "A Theory of Mass Culture" should be read as expressing a common view of its time, the post second-war days of the cold war, the beginning of a consumer society in the USA and early television broadcasting. Subsequent cultural developments, especially during the 60's and with the rise of cultural studies weakened many of Macdonald's conservative views on mass culture.