The question of whether new media and popular culture can be usefully studied, or is in some way relevant beyond the superficial, is an apparently endless debate and one which is often used as a stick with which to attack academia; universities are accused of devaluing their courses by expanding them to include new media, or studying works of fiction not sufficiently “serious”.
I, in part, cannot disagree with this. The majority of mass culture, especially within new media, simply cannot be fruitfully compared with as a peer, or considered equivalent to, high culture. This is the very definition of mass or popular culture. Such a statement, though, appears to render this entire blog meaningless; it is based around taking a close look at mass culture and talking about what it does well. The solution to this apparent paradox is this; I would like to think I write about mass culture using the language of cultural analysis, but still accepting it is what it is and nothing more. It is entirely possible for mass culture to have something to say about society and to talk about it as doing so – but whether or not it says this usefully, or in any way that invites consideration beyond recognition, is another issue and the real focus of this argument. The very best mass culture is a window into society’s attitudes; while high culture explores on a by definition elevated level big questions, mass culture – and especially the mass culture which is the most popular – provides a window into how those same questions are being looked at on an ordinary level. Science-fiction is particularly good at this; things such as Robocop, the film – and book – of Starship Troopers, and even works like Judge Dredd and Gurren Lagann all have something to say about something despite being dressed in lurid covers. However, simply having a point of view and presenting it is not enough to make a work high culture or capable of sustaining in-depth debate.
I wrote the best part of 3,000 words about Gurren Lagann and how it takes the cliches of its genre and uses them to talk about accepting loss, growing up and embracing reason over aggression – but that does not mean it’s necessarily a great and significant work that will endure. It is simply a piece of science-fiction, using the trappings of a specific subgenre of science-fiction to make a point about the state of the science-fiction genre. Similarly, Robocop is a good satire of debates about policing and corporate influence, but at its heart it is still an action film about a mechanical law enforcer. Even the very best mass culture does not go beyond presenting a viewpoint into the space which makes high culture stand out – the space of engagement. Claiming that because a piece of popular fiction presents an opinion about a serious issue (and generally a very straightforward one, like “corporations shouldn’t get too powerful” or “a bigger drill won’t solve all your problems” or even just “excess is bad”) it is directly comparable with high culture is what leads to the accusations of the irrelevance of academia. For better or for worse, the works of any era which endure are those which do not simply thump out a polemic, but instead do it in some way which makes them worth considering as important.
This isn’t to say, though, that we shouldn’t consider Robocop, or Gurren Lagann, or even Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey as being important; but their importance is not so much to do with their exploration of corporate control, or maturity, or being an outsider, or eroticism, but instead to do with how their depiction of this sits in the environment they were created in. Robocop uses the language of bombastic action films to make some digs at American consumerism at a time when American consumerism was rampant. Harry Potter’s mixing of magic with the public school story at a time when public schools are pretty much a sideline for most of the country, rather than an integral part of the British culture as when the original public school stories were written is interesting because it shows what late 20th-century children wanted a fantastical school to be. Mass culture – the mass culture that succeeds – is hugely significant on a sociological level because it is the accessible face of an era’s worldview. High culture explores what its target audience, and its creators, think and how they think. Mass culture explores how these ideas are communicated to the ordinary people and the communication of an idea is as important as the idea itself from an analytical perspective.
So to wrap this argument up; yes, Judge Dredd might be a satirical look at fascism and consumerism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should study 2000AD comics in schools over Zola. The emphasis, when making academic study of mass culture, should be on its sociological impact and its position within a cultural corpus – not necessarily on any individual work on an in-depth critical level since there often isn’t enough there to be useful. And from this, one can draw the conclusion that it’s entirely useless to try and pretend much mass culture is directly comparable to high culture, because there is a difference in intent and audience that makes such comparisons a nonsense. Look at mass culture as mass culture; compare it with other similar things (Gurren Lagann is a more interesting and effective take on a less superficial mecha anime than Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example) but don’t try to elevate a work to being something it’s not.