Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Who put the "POP" in popular culture?: musings on Leo Lowenthal's "Historical Perspectives of Popular Culture"

Lowenthal’s study “Historical Perspectives on Popular Culture” brought to mind several aspects of Adorno’s “On Popular Music” that I felt worth discussing, primarily with regards to Lowenthal’s interest on the human need to create this ‘popular’ culture, and how the creation of this culture problematizes the interrelationships that exist between the individual, society (in all its forms, that is political, economical, social, etc...) and the existence of ‘popular’ culture itself. Many of the arguments that Lowenthal posits brought about another perspective to the many questions that surfaced during my reading of Adorno’s seminal text.
            The first section of Lowenthal’s article consists of a collection of historical references to popular culture as made by such philosophers as Nietzsche, Karl Kraus, Pascal and Montaigne, especially with regards to the differing views on leisure that these different thinkers held, and how these perspectives related to Adorno’s mention of pleasure and leisure that surface in many of his writings. In “The Culture Industry”, Adorno asserts that “pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown.” With this statement, Adorno seems to be arguing that with pleasure and leisure comes the danger of ignorance as to the present state of the world around the individual. In the opening paragraphs of “Historical Perspectives,” Lowenthal seems to be making the claim that the ‘birth’ of popular culture, so to speak, was the result of a collective desire on the part of most individuals to feel part of something bigger, outside the monotony, stress, and boredom of their daily existences. I found it interesting that even such thinkers as Montaigne and Pascal were aware of the implications of ‘popular’ culture, even at a time before effective mass media technologies such as radio and internet had been established.
            In regards to this idea of the birth of ‘popular’ culture as stemming from the individual’s desire to feel included in a larger, collective society, a series of questions regarding the inextricable relationship that appears to exist behind the idea of who creates who, and what drives what in the world of popular culture immediately came to mind. That is, are individuals the product of what they see and “digest” through ‘popular’ culture, or do individuals actually have more control over what puts the ‘popular’ in popular culture. This question, I suppose, takes on a bit of that age-old “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?” quality, which in turn, caused me to question Adorno’s notion of pseudo-individualization and at what point this pseudo-individualization begins to take form. Does the individual ever have the opportunity to drive ‘popular’ culture, or are they always at the mercy of the culture industry? One of the facts that both Adorno and Lowenthal seem to have overlooked is that this ‘popular’ culture machine is made up of a series of human cogs that keep it functioning. What role--or perhaps, more importantly, what responsibilities--do the individuals that work in this industry have in the creation and dissemination of a unifying ‘popular’ culture? One of the truly interesting points made by Lowenthal in the article had to do with his mention of the Austrian critic Karl Kraus’s theory on language and its role in this interrelationship between the individual and society. In one of his works, Kraus states that “the hollowing-out of language that we can see is the disintegration, and even the disappearance, of the concept and existence of the autonomous individual, of the personality in its classic sense” (Lowenthal, Page 11). Despite the fact that for Kraus, the emergence of language automatically precludes the formation of an autonomous self, it brings up the interesting dilemma that appears to exist side-by-side with the power of ‘popular’ culture. Humans appear to be a grand paradox in and of themselves in this sense. We favor individuality (especially in the West), yet the very fact that we seek relationships and inclusion into a greater community (made possible through the development of language) seems to force us to give up, to an extent, our full individual autonomy. Adorno’s idea of pseudo-individualization comes into power here in that it appears to respond to the classic dissonance that pervades the human psyche--that desire to remain part of a collective group, to fit into that collective group (something made possible by the fabrication of a ‘popular’ culture which creates that space by which individuals can find inclusion into these groups) while still holding on to that desire to maintain a certain sense of an individuality unfettered by the machinations of a mass, ‘popular’ culture.        


  1. Allie, this is a thoughtful and perceptive post, as well as a valuable reflection on the Lowenthal. I particularly like your decision to demystify Adorno's references to the culture industry by recalling the role of individuals in producing the dominant system. Philosophically speaking, you hit on the "chicken-egg" conundrum that does seem to arise again and again, as well as the ever-confusing nature of human inclinations. Well done!

  2. I have a presentation on Leo Lowenthal's Historical perspectives tmrw. This post is going to be of great help to me. Many thanks!
    Your blog is incredible. Keep up the good work...