Thinking Points (IV) – Harry Potter Studies, Robocop and Engagement Versus Exploration

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.

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10 comments

  1. senorrincognito

    While I’d personally agree that a separation of different fields and media are necessary for any accurate analysis, some of your language choices:”high”/”elevate”/”mass” I dont find useful: of course Zola and 2000ad are not comparable, so why compare them?
    Their suitability for study is hardly a measure of worth unless you factor in exactly what it is you are trying to teach, sequential-storytelling-composition-through-pictures, or literature, or history as reflected by cultural output?

    • r042

      I agree with your comment! However, what this is a response to is editorials within specialist media (such as the comics/video game communities, or the SF/Fantasy “fandom” who try to argue such equivalences that we’re both rejecting.

      Take for example this article from The Guardian, dated May 18 2012

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/18/harry-potter-order-60-scholars?INTCMP=SRCH

      It’s about a conference of literary academics arguing that the Harry Potter books are “These are the most important, seminal texts for an entire generation of readers” and “In any good literary text, there is so much depth and meaning to discover”.

      This is the sort of thing I’m challenging – the sort of confusing of “popularity” and “significance” that is seen and is being used in a time when higher education’s relevance feels under threat to claim it’s useless.

      This as well as the arguments about why SF novels never win the Booker Prize, and whether computer games (the other new medium that’s for better or for worse not considered equivalent to existing media) are “art” (art taken to mean “high art” in this case).

  2. r042

    As to your point about studying comics as pictorial narratives, I again quite agree – I did that at university in looking at the history of illustration in books and the focus was purely on the visual, rather than critical reading of the plots or writing (which of many modern comics is simplistic).

  3. otakulogix

    The whole problem begins when we try to erect things to ‘high culture’ in the first place. The space for the para-literary is just as important as the space for the literary. Everything is in the margin. In that sense I don’t think that what gives ‘paraliterature’ is popular appeal is due to its lazy reference to other semiotic cues, as any work, especially that of poetry, is contingent upon its reference to earlier forms in order to be paradigmatic at all. The problem seems to be that people want to ‘legitimate’ their object of study—what exactly needs to be legitimated about comics?…That it is art? Something doesn’t need to be ‘art’ to be meaningful or valuable. Is it worth studying? Depends on how much money society is going to invest in it or how much passion you have in learning about it. Scott McCloud for all of his work and grace, made a mistake when he tried to ‘justify’ comics—

    Is Kim Stanley Robinson or Samuel R. Delany any less valuable than the so-called ‘literary’ heavyweights? Is it impossible to conceive that there are different social and aesthetic functions proper to each generic formation? Or do they have to fit within that narrow and shifting domain we like to call ‘art’?

    I am not saying that Dickens should be compared to Starship Troopers. But I think that if we continue along this line, we will forget that what persists, how they persist, is very much related to how we think about them. So, in short, no: I don’t think we need a Harry Potter studies. But I don’t think that means that we don’t need to critically investigate Fantasy or Science Fiction or Anime for that matter. Some works engage humanist issues more than others; some have more ‘historical’ content in a long history of canon-formation, and that has much to do with how we ‘approach them’, how we are taught to approach them, and most importantly, reading codes that make such works legible.

    If I were to be more specific; while Gurren Lagaan may seem from this historical viewpoint to be a more effective take on the Mecha genre, that wouldn’t be viewing it from within its historical development. Personally, I think that Neon Genesis was much more subversive with respect to the whole of the Mecha Genre, and anime viewership for that matter because it played with how Mecha/Anime texts were read, and how we read Mecha texts , rather than its supposed plot/theme/content or whatever its message was supposed to be.

    Does it surprise you that Anime (limited animation) has its historical roots in the Japanese reception of Sergei Eisenstein? Does that change how you feel about it? Why?

    Because your concerns are more directed toward accusations of irrelevance in academia, the real question that should be asked is: What exactly is it about the things that we learn a bout in academia that is relevant? How is it relevant?

    It was not too long ago when people accused Derrida (and some still do) as a Charlatan. Is Academia’s purpose to do something instrumentally with respect to society, other than providing a space for critical thinking, constant questioning of the humanist tradition, historical retention, and cultural analysis? We come close to veering into the trap that equates the humanities with a price, when its true value, outside of its inheritence of its intrinsically humanist project (social justice, etc) , is that it is priceless. Why turn academia into a museum when the point of it is to make such works live, and continue as something that is meaningful to our cultural inheritance? And in another polemic, what can we really say about intent—does one think that Marquis De Sade intended his work to become canonical rather than subversive?

    • r042

      Your reference to anime as derived from Eisenstein is not surprising at all; I’ve studied the history of animation, illustration and so on for some time and am familiar with the cinematic roots of the medium.

      I think this article may have been unclear or poorly argued and apologise. My essential point was that firstly some fans and even academics need to realise “having something to say” does not inherently mean a work is high culture, and secondly that pop culture and mass media are more fruitfully studied in a wider way than close reading.

      The question of what makes something high culture is almost impossible to define, but I genuinely don’t believe it’s limited to specific genres or formats.

    • r042

      One further aside; SF authors like Simak, Pohl et al are undeniably great but should not be used to try and legitimise, say, Abnett or Traviss. Any genre or form can be usefully studied or employed, but it’s generally better to consider any work on its own merits. There is good and bad SF as much as anything else.

  4. Animanachronism

    I think close reading’s first justification is always that it is difficult and therefore fun — if someone wants to do practical criticism on trash, I don’t think that’s inherently a problem. The results are often more interesting to read than the primary material. And the last couple of decades have seen an unhelpful turn away from close reading in some quarters. Eagleton, of all people, has been muttering about getting over theory. So, broadly speaking, we need more close reading! I feel much the same about ‘inappropriate’ comparisons: if you can make me laugh by bouncing, e.g., Gower and Ludlum off each other, proceed.

    When close readings of trash do become a problem is when they get funded: that money could have paid for another Miltonist. In terms of funded research which takes place within the academy and filters into undergraduate teaching, I’d rather see trash studied by and in the social sciences.

    • r042

      This! You’ve very clearly and concisely summed up my point. Want to write for this place?

      In seriousness, you’ve got it dead on; unless you’re being sarcastic in which case I’m thick.

    • r042

      Do agree entirely that mass culture is a sociological phenomenon. Considering why and how a certain worldview exists alongside pop media is cool (see the nationalist war game in a time when conventional warfare fails)

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