Friday, July 22, 2011

Stuart Hall: "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular'" –summary

The first part of Stuart Hall's "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular'" is an historical account of the development of British popular culture in late 19th and early 20th centuries. This period, according to Stuart Hall, saw some deep cultural changes in urban working classes with the appearance of cultural industries products and technologies. Hall holds that this period is characterized by questions which remain relevant to this day regarding the relation between corporate produced culture and the image of popular culture as belonging to the masses.  

In the main part of "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular'" Hall is discussing the problematic meaning of the word "popular" in "popular culture". Hall analyzes two common understandings of this concept. The first meaning of "popular" is the one of wide circulation and commerciality. Subscribers of this view often tie popular culture with manipulative consumerism and regard it as falsification and even degradation of authentic working class cultural content and tradition. Stuart Hall only partially accepts this view for on the one hand it views working class members as easily manipulated passive consumers while on the other hand seeking an "authentic" or "original" working class culture which does not really exist. Hall prefers a more dynamic and changing description of popular content and forms.

The second definition of popular culture scrutinized by Hall is the one which views popular culture as all the cultural activities of "the people". This definition is in fact a massive inventory list of various cultural and leisure activities. Hall is critical of this perspective as well for its essentialist view and it being based on the binary distinction between "the people" and the "elite".

Towards the end of "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular'" Stuart Hall offers another definition of popular culture which stresses its dynamic nature and constant tension and struggle. Hall understands popular culture as an ongoing process, similar the concept of Hegemony offered by Gramsci, is which relations of control and subordination are constantly shifting and certain cultural forms gain and lose support from institutions. Preferred of marginalized cultural content and forms are not fixed, according to Hall there is a constant movement and interchange between them as a result of shifting power relations, the assimilation of poplar content into "high culture" and vice versa. What Stuart Hall is essentially offering in "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular'" is a neo-Gramscian view of the power relation between high and popular culture, with a more mutual perspective of the assimilatory take originally offered by Gramsci who thought the high hegemonic culture assimilates and sterilizes popular culture. 

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