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Friday, October 14, 2011


Popular Culture & High Culture
by Herbert J. Gans
p. 1974
Revised & Updated Edition p. 1999

  This book is a culture studies classic-but dated.  The attempt to update a quintessentially out-of-date book comes off badly, particularly since the time of the update is just before the internet brought about the hypothetical possible scenarios postulated by a generation of social scientists raised in the mass-media hey day of the 50s and 60s.

  Understanding Gans' approach in POPULAR CULTURE & HIGH CULTURE requires understanding the situation that Gans was addressing in 1974.  The problem is that the conclusive statement of the high culture/low culture/popular culture divide- Lawrence Levine's, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, was not published until 1988.  Gans is trying to do this very 70s thing of turning an essentially non-scientific analysis into a quasi-scientific analysis.  Useful for the organizational schematic, it sucks as a guide for actual scientific endeavor, because applying science to taste is impossible.

  In Popular Culture & High Culture, Gans identifies the key insight of the breakdown between high/low- that different people have different tastes and they are all fine and good as long as they 'function' for the Audience member.   Unfortunately Gans makes the now cringe-worthy move of constantly talking about people based on their membership in these, huge, vague, groups- "High Culture" publics/audiences vs. "Low Culture" equivalents- even as he makes a valiant effort to defend Low/Popular Culture, he continues to abide by the distinctions imposed by the "cultural hierarchy" described by Levine.

      The fact is, talking about taste means talking about art, and taking about art requires criticism and philosophy not analytic schematics and science experiments.   The main mistake that Gans, and this whole category of 70s era popular culture academics make is that they don't talk about specific ARTISTS/CREATORS and their specific relationship with their specific Audience.   All "taste" is simply shared opinions of Audiences about specific Art/Cultural Products and their creators.   This audience fragmentation may not have been clear during the years when a tv show could draw 70 million viewers, but it's clear now.  "Taste" can't be described in terms of "high" and "low" because no one sees the world that way (outside of academics.)

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