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At the core of what we know as popular culture studies today is the work of scholars associated with or influenced by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Popular culture itself and intellectual interest in its risks and possibilities, however, long predate this moment. Earlier in the 20th century, members of the Frankfurt School took an active interest in what was then referred to as “mass culture” or the culture industry. Semiotics, emerging in the latter half of the 20th century as an exciting new methodology of cultural analysis, turned to popular culture for many of its objects as it redefined textuality, reading, and meaning. The works of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco are exemplary in this regard. The work of the Birmingham school, also known as British cultural studies, drew from both of these intellectual traditions but went on to forge its own unique methods drawing on Marxist and poststructuralist theoretical legacies. Quickly spreading across the Anglophone world, Cultural Studies is now widely recognized, if not as a discipline proper, as a distinctive branch of the humanities. Other methodologies contemporaneous with this trend are also now clubbed together as part of this generalized practice of cultural studies. Important among these are feminist approaches to popular culture exemplified by work on Hollywood cinema and women’s melodrama in particular, the study of images and representations through a mass communications approach, and ethnographic studies of readers of popular romances and television audiences. A minor, theoretically weak tradition of popular culture studies initiated by Ray Browne parallelly in the Unites States may also be mentioned. More recently, Slavoj Zizek has introduced startlingly new ways of drawing popular cultural texts into philosophical debates. If all of these can be taken together as constituting what is generally referred to as popular culture studies today, it is still limited to the 20th century. Apart from the Frankfurt School and semiotics, British cultural studies also counts among the precursors it had to settle scores with, the tradition of cultural criticism in Britain that Matthew Arnold and in his wake F. R. Leavis undertook as they sought to insulate “the best of what was thought and said” from the debasing influence of the commercial press and mass culture in general. But the history of popular culture as an object of investigation and social concern goes further back still to the 18th and 19th centuries, the period of the rise and spread of mass literature, boosted by the rise of a working-class readership.

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Cultural studies seeks to understand and explain how culture relates to the larger society and draws on social theory, philosophy, history, linguistics, communication, semiotics, media studies, and more to assess and evaluate mass media and everyday cultural practices. Since its inception in 1960s Britain, cultural studies has had recognizable and recurring interactions with Marxism, most clearly in culturalist renderings along a spectrum of tensions with political economy approaches. Marxist traditions and inflections appear in the seminal works of Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, work on the culture industry inspired by the Frankfurt School in 1930s Germany, challenges by Stuart Hall and others to the structuralist theories of Louis Althusser, and writings on consciousness and social change by Georg Lukács. Perhaps the most pronounced indication of Marxist influences on cultural studies appears in the multiple and diverse interpretations of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Cultural studies, including critical theory, has been invigorated by Marxism, even as a recurring critique of economic determinism appears in most investigations and analyses of cultural practices. Marxism has no authoritative definition or application. Nonetheless, Marxism insists on materialism as the precondition for human life and development, opposing various idealist conceptions whether religious or philosophical that posit magical, suprahuman interventions that shape humanity or assertions of consciousness, creative genius, or timeless universals that supersede any particular historical conjuncture. Second, Marxism finds material reality, including all forms of human society and culture, to be historical phenomenon. Humans are framed by their conditions, and in turn, have agency to make social changing using material, knowledge, and possibilities within concrete historical conditions. For Marxists, capitalist society can best be historically and materially understood as social relations of production of society based on labor power and capitalist private ownership of the means of production. Wages paid labor are less than the value of goods and services produced. Capitalist withhold their profits from the value of goods and services produced. Such social relations organize individuals and groups into describable and manifest social classes, that are diverse and unstable but have contradictory interests and experiences. To maintain this social order and its rule, capitalists offer material adjustments, political rewards, and cultural activities that complement the social arrangements to maintain and adjust the dominant social order. Thus, for Marxists, ideologies arise in uneasy tandem with social relations of power. Ideas and practices appear and are constructed, distributed, and lived across society. Dominant ideologies parallel and refract conflictual social relations of power. Ideologies attune to transforming existing social relations may express countervailing views, values, and expectations. In sum, Marxist historical materialism finds that culture is a social product, social tool, and social process resulting from the construction and use by social groups with diverse social experiences and identities, including gender, race, social class, and more. Cultures have remarkably contradictory and hybrid elements creatively assembled from materially present social contradictions in unequal societies, ranging from reinforcement to resistance against constantly adjusting social relations of power. Five elements appear in most Marxist renditions on culture: materialism, the primacy of historical conjunctures, labor and social class, ideologies refracting social relations, and social change resulting from competing social and political interests.