Shane Gunster – From Mass to Popular Culture: From Frankfurt to Birmingham

This article focuses on the differences between cultural studies approach to the commodification of culture, as articulated by the Birmingham School versus the political economic one proposed by the Frankfurt School. For the Birmingham School, culture is separated from politics, each taking place in a separate sphere. And, while culture influences and supports hegemonic structures within society, these are bound within the political arena. As well, the economics power of this undertaking is not done within the cultural sphere, but through political activity, where economic dominance is turned into broad social and cultural leadership. This is contrasts the views of the Frankfurt School, where the cultural industry is extricable linked to capitalism and the political economy of culture is dissected in a Marxist context. Notably, both approaches have strengths and weaknesses that are explored by the author. First, a lengthy deconstruction of the Birmingham School is provided with useful references to Adorno’s work as a means of understanding the two approaches. Gunster carefully builds the arguments of the Birmingham School from its inception by providing important historic references to the influential works of Althusser, Thompson, Barthes, Saussuer and Volosinov.

Hall and others break down the barriers set up by Adorno, saying ordinary people can understand and define culture – a stark contrast to the elitism proffered by the Frankfurt School. Althusser’s influence is found in Hall’s desire to reject economic reductionism. Instead of creating theories about mass culture, Hall, under the influence of Althusser, wants to study culture in its diversity where each social practice is relatively autonomous. And while Althusser’s theories are highly abstract, the influence of Barthes and semiotic theory bring the discussion down to a more practical level. It is only through social struggle that the multiaccentuality of an ideological sign can be understood. While Adorno might argue the culture industry would dictate the very meaning or ideology to be consumed, Hall would respond by saying commodification would not determine the range of meanings that would be generated when culture is consumed. The audience is not a docile group of lumps waiting to be dictated to by the elite. Rather, cultural studies seeks to search for multiple meanings in the context of the social framework of specific communities. For cultural studies, culture and commodity are separate.

First posted: 7/17/07

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