English 216: notes for Chapter 1 and 2

Chapter 1: What is popular culture?

  • defines culture, ideology, and the popular
  • thesis: all definitions are contextual; i.e., meaning is made in the context

Culture: three concepts (Raymond Williams)

  • high (“ideal”): intellectual, spiritual, & aesthetic enlightenment
  • practical (“way of life”): everyday culture of a group of people
  • signifying (“documentary”): anything that signifies
  • products & practices of intellectual & artistic activity



  • reductive: a system of beliefs belonging to a given group of people
  • Marxist: the beliefs of the dominant group, i.e., “false consciousness”
    • i.e., as opposed to the reality of materialism (see Ch 4)
  • hegemonic: culture is struggle b/w beliefs of dominant and dominated
    • dominant group has more power, tries to normalize its own domination
  • structuralist: naturalizes beliefs of dominant group through signification
  • performative: rituals and customs that perpetuate certain beliefs


Popular Culture

  • numerically popular: favoured by large numbers of people
    • problem: majority or plurality? how do we measure?
  • low culture: whatever isn’t “high”; a marker of class
  • mass culture: mass-produced, profit-driven, corporate
    • undeserving of intellectual engagement, only sociological study



  • meaning is produced by interaction of text and…
    • other texts (intertextuality): literature, theory, etc.
    • the reader (subjectivity): knowledge, experience, subject position
    • material situation: reading practices, nature of the medium, etc.
  • therefore: these definitions are in use all the time, depending on context


Chapter 2: The Culture and Civilization Debate

  • industrialization and urbanization push classes into the same space: cities
  • working class is created, starts to make its own culture
    (instead of sharing culture with the dominant class)


Matthew Arnold (mid-1800s)

  • culture is “the best that has been thought and said in the world”
  • popular culture is anarchy1 (i.e., rule by the people not the aristocrats)
  • solution: new middle class will run the democratic state
    • the state should instill obedience to that middle class
    • obedience can be fostered through aspiration to the middle class


Leavisites (1930s)

  • fully agree with Arnold, except that culture has further declined
  • tried to put his theories into practice:
    • i.e., recruit intellectuals to promote “culture”
  • in the process, they created terminology & theories of popular culture
    • i.e., the only way to talk about pop culture was to use Leavisite language


American “consensus” (post-WWII)

  • defend against cultural degradation from the inside; i.e., popular culture
    • i.e., just like they were defending against communism from the outside
  • solution: cultural consensus around individualism (democracy/capitalism)
    • i.e., class distinctions are meaningless if everyone has money & can vote
  • consensus almost exclusively white, straight, Christian, and male
  • excluded women, POC, Indigenous, other religions, queer, disabled, etc.

NB: these notes are compiled from John Storey’s Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, 7th Edition. They are for studying purposes only.

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