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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.

Article

Bruce Campbell

Mexican comic books are a cultural product whose development is tied to the history of the modern Mexican state. The consolidation of the state in the aftermath of the armed conflict period of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) shaped the conditions for the emergence of a domestic industry and market for comics, and in particular for comic books, alongside other important cultural industries such as radio, film, and television, through state supports for and controls over the nation’s culture industries. In the late 20th century, the neoliberal character of the Mexican state—for which official policy has centered on privatization of state economic enterprises, the reduction of public subsidies for goods and services, and the elimination of import tariffs—subsequently reshaped the conditions for production and consumption of the nation’s sequential art. The term “comics” is applied to graphic narrative generally, which in turn is defined by the sequential use of images, usually in combination with language, in order to tell some kind of story. Comics are therefore a broad category of cultural production that includes newspaper strips, comic books, graphic novels, fotonovelas (comprising photographs in series with inserted dialogue text), and, more recently, webcomics. Comics are a cultural commodity the production and distribution of which are affected by changes in public supports, as well as by governmental controls over comics content. In the period of institutional consolidation that followed the armed phased of the Mexican Revolution, government supports were provided principally through the subsidizing of newsprint and the implementation of national literacy campaigns. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—a tri-national trade liberalization regime signed by Mexico, Canada, and the United States and implemented on January 1, 1994—significantly altered the circumstances of comics in Mexico, in terms of both the economic conditions for comics production and readership, and the political environment and public discourses addressed and communicated through Mexican comics art. The most direct impact on comics production came through the Mexican state’s retreat from control of the paper supply under the terms of NAFTA. Because paper is a key productive input, changes in paper cost and availability had the largest impact on the cost of long-form or sustained graphic narratives, such as comic books. As a result, the NAFTA period (1994 to present) is marked by the emergence of the Mexican graphic novel and of webcomics. Both of these cultural forms are based on a reorganization of the economics of comic-book production. Comics production and consumption are therefore implicated in neoliberal policy constructs such as the North American Free Trade agreement, despite not being an explicit category of economic activity addressed by the treaty.

Article

Theater in Argentina and Uruguay, which together compose the Plata river region of Latin America, has been a predominant form of entertainment since the 19th century. Theaters abound in Montevideo, while its sister city. Buenos Aires, has its own Broadway in the famed Corrientes Street. In the age of digital culture, the theater remains a mainstay of cultural life for Argentines and Uruguayans. The success of theater and the making of a theatergoing public in the region have their roots first in the variety of entertainment offered by hemispheric travelers to the region from the 1820s through the 1880s and then, most significantly, in shows put on by itinerant circus troupes in the countryside that only later filled urban theaters. From the mid-1880s through 1900 these circus troupes performed plays known as dramas criollos that dealt with rural traditions and explored issues of migration, social stratification, and tensions of economic modernization. These Creole dramas, like the narrative and poetic tales of gaucho heroes that informed them, became wildly successful, attracting spectators in the countryside and city alike, in venues ranging from makeshift tents to the most opulent theaters. They also became the namesake of the circo criollo, which referred as much to types of performers staging the tales as to the circus event where people flocked to see the new main attraction—the dramas. In effect, the Creole drama phenomenon expanded the presence of popular entertainment across the region and consolidated a theatergoing public. It also gave way to a new strand of modern popular culture in which storylines and characters reappeared in other media, and the impact of the Creole drama experience long outlived the spectacle itself.

Article

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.

Article

K-pop is a form of South Korean popular music directed at a global audience that fuses Korean and foreign musical elements. While “idols” (performers who sing, dance, and engage in extra-musical activity) are the most visible, K-pop encompasses a wide variety of genres. Emerging in the wake of a major financial crisis that prompted a restructuring of the Korean economy, K-pop benefits from increased freedom in cultural expression, support by the Korean government, and a global cultural movement that reaches East Asia and beyond. The first K-pop groups appeared in the early 1990s, drawing on hip-hop and rhythm and blues popular in the United States. The use of rap and b-boying/breakdance style, along with emotional vocals of R&B, became staples for first-generation “idol” groups. Initially presenting an approachable image, they later took on more mature concepts before they disbanded in the late 1990s. Several continue to influence the K-pop music scene, even as subsequent generations of K-pop artists emerge. These idol groups have diversified their images as well as their musical styles. Several solo artists have emerged, and hip-hop groups continue to participate. All of this musical activity is governed by Korean agencies, the largest of which are responsible for the creation and management of “idols,” while others encourage indie artists and still others are led by K-pop artists themselves. In addition to the promotional strategies of agencies, media, both professional and fan-driven, play a large role in the global spread of K-pop. The fans themselves are also active participants, acting as both audience members and content producers.

Article

Sam Lebovic

According to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, Congress is barred from abridging the freedom of the press (“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”). In practice, the history of press freedom is far more complicated than this simple constitutional right suggests. Over time, the meaning of the First Amendment has changed greatly. The Supreme Court largely ignored the First Amendment until the 20th century, leaving the scope of press freedom to state courts and legislatures. Since World War I, jurisprudence has greatly expanded the types of publication protected from government interference. The press now has broad rights to publish criticism of public officials, salacious material, private information, national security secrets, and much else. To understand the shifting history of press freedom, however, it is important to understand not only the expansion of formal constitutional rights but also how those rights have been shaped by such factors as economic transformations in the newspaper industry, the evolution of professional standards in the press, and the broader political and cultural relations between politicians and the press.

Article

The first half of the 20th century saw extraordinary changes in the ways Americans produced, procured, cooked, and ate food. Exploding food production easily outstripped population growth in this era as intensive plant and animal breeding, the booming use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and technological advances in farm equipment all resulted in dramatically greater yields on American farms. At the same time, a rapidly growing transportation network of refrigerated ships, railroads, and trucks hugely expanded the reach of different food crops and increased the variety of foods consumers across the country could buy, even as food imports from other countries soared. Meanwhile, new technologies, such as mechanical refrigeration, reliable industrial canning, and, by the end of the era, frozen foods, subtly encouraged Americans to eat less locally and seasonally than ever before. Yet as American food became more abundant and more affordable, diminishing want and suffering, it also contributed to new problems, especially rising body weights and mounting rates of cardiac disease. American taste preferences themselves changed throughout the era as more people came to expect stronger flavors, grew accustomed to the taste of industrially processed foods, and sampled so-called “foreign” foods, which played an enormous role in defining 20th-century American cuisine. Food marketing exploded, and food companies invested ever greater sums in print and radio advertising and eye-catching packaging. At home, a range of appliances made cooking easier, and modern grocery stores and increasing car ownership made it possible for Americans to food shop less frequently. Home economics provided Americans, especially girls and women, with newly scientific and managerial approaches to cooking and home management, and Americans as a whole increasingly approached food through the lens of science. Virtually all areas related to food saw fundamental shifts in the first half of the 20th century, from agriculture to industrial processing, from nutrition science to weight-loss culture, from marketing to transportation, and from kitchen technology to cuisine. Not everything about food changed in this era, but the rapid pace of change probably exaggerated the transformations for the many Americans who experienced them.

Article

The themes of terrorism and counter-terrorism have infused the America media’s cultural production for several decades. These popular culture products were designed first for consumption by domestic audiences but also for export to audiences throughout the world, quickly assuming a role in US cultural imperialism. Much of this production took the form of news reports about political turmoil, sectarian violence and liberation, independence or nationalist movements—almost always occurring “somewhere else” in the world. Still others appeared as fictional narratives embedded within diverse entertainment genres such as political thrillers, war, sci-fi, romance and suspense, sometimes in a lifeworld that paralleled that of the domestic audience. But more often than not this production took the form of lifeworlds mimicking foreign lands, mythical pasts, or dystopian futures. Popular culture’s tales of terrorism and counter-terrorism maintained this relatively stable pattern for much of the last quarter of the 20th century. Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001 considerably impacted that narrative pattern, and while not fundamentally changing the script, this attack resulted in significant rewrites. To begin, the portrayal of terrorism and the War on Terror, both real and fictionalized, became the central theme in a great deal of popular culture, including television programs, feature films, PC/video games, YouTube videos, advertisements, popular music, and of course, the news. These mediated texts—in essence, stories that the US cultural industries tell about terrorism and the state’s attempts to fight it—reconstituted the social reality of terrorism and counter-terrorism. In the immediate aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attacks, the American cultural industries increasingly served as a conduit for US hegemony, both at home and abroad. While there is a long history of arm’s-length cooperation between the state and the entertainment industry in the production of popular culture products that can be traced back to the early 1930s, the immediate post-9/11 period heralded an era of not only more terrorism and counter-terrorism narratives but also narratives whose content changed incrementally (but ultimately markedly) largely as a result of the state’s direct involvement in crafting them. Chief among the changes was the streamlining of a narrative that emphasized the growing ubiquity of terrorist threats to the American people on US soil. Indeed, in the lifeworlds created by post-9/11 popular culture, terrorism and counter-terrorism are no longer things that happen primarily or exclusively elsewhere. America’s business interests abroad, its embassies and military installations, are no longer the only likely targets of terrorist activity. These traditional targets have been augmented by many others, including iconic buildings in major cities, national monuments, and critical infrastructure—as well as by more mundane parts of the US landscape, such as schools, sports stadiums, amusement parks, and shopping malls. Like that espoused by the state, the culture industries’ narrative is clear; no one is safe from terrorism. Predictably, the narrative shift that amplified the danger, barbarism, and proliferation of the terrorist threat was complimented by one which aggrandized the counter-terrorist efforts of the United States. In popular culture’s various lifeworlds counter-terrorism strategies, no matter how extreme, are understood as reasonable and legitimate. The narratives, comprised almost wholly of fetishized presentations of military, national security, and law enforcement agents with state- of-the-art weaponry dispatching terrorists with deadly force, provide virtually no political or socio-historical context and offer no alternative to resolving conflicts other than the unfettered use of state violence. As such, popular culture’s presentation of terrorism and counter-terrorism serves to provide the resolution that the real-world War on Terror promised but did not deliver, while at the same time contributing to a narrative that demands its continuation.