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Stuart Hall. "Notes on Deconstructing the Popular"

In “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” Hall disagrees with a number of commonly-held definitions of “popular culture.” The most common is that “popular culture” is “popular” because large amounts of people consume them. However, Hall disagrees with this definition  because the definitions suggests that all audiences are passive and accept what they are fed by the media. The second definition, Hall feels is more useful, is that “the popular” is all those things that people do or have done in their lives. Because the definition includes such a broad scope, Hall posits a third definition: Popular culture is a way of the lower classes struggling against the ideas the powerful are trying to push on them.

Hall calls this struggle a “changing field” where different social forces fight over values. Politics rarely happens without popular culture because culture is one of the modalities where the popular, as a constitutive iste of political actors and actions, is made material. Because the site continually changes and acts as a “dialectic,” Hall also argues against the idea that popular culture is “folk culture.” Folk is static, popular is not.

It’s easy to think of Hall’s arguments in terms of concrete historical examples. In The Listener’s Voice, Elena Razlogova argues that early radio listeners did not passively consume what CBS radio executives produced. Rather, they actively wrote letters to shape how they imagined radio would serve their needs. Over time, however, radio companies began to assess their success and make changes not by reading letters, but by quantitative analyses derived at Princeton University and spearheaded by Theodor Adorno. Susan Douglas discusses a similarly apropos history in Where the Girls Are. Growing up in the 1970s, Douglas received a number of mysoginistic   programs over mass media. However, she argues that these problematic programs helped shape and start third-wave feminism.

The point where CBS executives meet radio listeners, and All in the Family meets adolescent females is the “site of contention” that Hall wants scholars to look at.

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