Awakening to Cultural Studies

Leonard Nimoy’s death reminded me of a moment in college. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was talking with a student who was writing a paper—or was it a senior thesis?—on Star Trek. The thesis was about how the show’s representations of race filtered and processed various anxieties and aspirations of the Cold War, particularly ideas about civil rights in the US and decolonization abroad.

Remembering this conversation reminded me of one of the critical aspects of my college education: realizing that mass culture was a thing, something to be studied, analyzed, approached with the same critical eye that you would bring to a literary text or historical event.

I’m curious if other people had a similar moment in college or grad school or high school. I remember the first time this awareness hit me: I was a freshman in a class on Shakespeare. The preceptor (Princeton’s fancy word for TA), a grad student in the English department, went on a long tangent about Madonna, about her artistry, what she was doing vis-a-vis our ideas about gender and sexuality. Coming from high school, I had thought of Madonna as a pop star, someone you liked or didn’t like. It never occurred to me that there was any more meaning to her than that. But listening to my preceptor, I realized there was more to her, that “pop star” was a category to be mined, not dismissed.

The other time this awareness hit me, I was a sophomore. Michael Berkowitz, a senior who would go onto become a friend in later life, wrote an article in a progressive newspaper with which I was affiliated on the changing style and substance of black sitcoms, from Good Times and Sanford and Son to The Cosby Show. Again, the piece came to me as a revelation: the idea that pop culture had a history, and that in that history lay a whole story about how America was dealing with race and racism.

There are many intellectual awakenings that mark the transition from high school to college. Critical thinking, historical consciousness, political and ideological critique: all of these I brought with me to college, none was new. But one of the ideas I did not bring with me, one of the moves I really did learn in college, was to look at popular culture, this thing I had grown up with, this thing that was as familiar to me as my own family, as something strange, something to be studied and attended to, with the same rigor and intensity that one would devote to philosophy or history or literature.


  1. John T. Maher February 28, 2015 at 8:21 am | #

    Can we just admit that academics are window gazers who live vicariously? And that searching for signifiers and societal narratives in pop culture is more amusing to riff on than C of E sermons from the 1820s or Carl Schmidt?

    • ROM February 28, 2015 at 11:20 am | #

      No. But I am an academic of another sort who doesn’t live through others. I know very few in any discipline who do, actually. The incidence of living through others seems much more prevalent on the other side of town, where the parents tend to live through their children, with untoward effects on both. Still, I recognized at the age of 6-7 that reruns of “Father Knows Best” (about 10 years after the original) were sending a not so subtle message that was utter bullshit.

  2. Salvatore Fallica February 28, 2015 at 9:06 am | #

    my moment occurred when i wrote a review of The Doors first album, and used my then fledgling literary and theological vocabulary to discuss it. i think it was 1967?

  3. Roqeuntin February 28, 2015 at 9:27 am | #

    I was supposed to be an engineer. All the advanced classes I took in high school were math and science. My father was an engineer and I think his mindset was “this is what worked for me, you should do it too.” There was none, absolutely no precedence for scholarship in the humanities in my family. I spent the first semester in engineering and loathed the curriculum. I was still young and naive enough to believe that the game was to find what you liked, to learn about things which interested you. Actually, if I had it to do over again I would double major, choosing one solely and exclusively to make money (accounting perhaps) and another in the humanities (philosophy and literature, outside of music are about the only things I ever gave a shit about). You could pull that off in 4 or 5 years if you took enough credits and started the plan from the jump. I guess hindsight is 20/20. It amazes me now that we expect children of 18 or 19 years of age to have any idea what they want to do with their lives.

    Anyhow, I don’t remember something so specific as a paper, but I do remember taking introductory classes and realizing that most meaning is conveyed via connotation and subtext. That the denotative meaning of what is said is often mostly superficial. Everything else flowed from that, including attempts to analyze popular culture. Maybe I’m not as approving of it as I used to be either. Many years spent watching people view things through whatever political pet project they cherish has made me tend to see it more as a set of blinders than a set of glasses. I’m sure you catch my drift.

  4. Dene Karaus February 28, 2015 at 11:47 am | #

    Your awakening as described here is probably the exception, not the rule, for a majority of collegians, sadly.

  5. Hangaku Gozen February 28, 2015 at 11:52 am | #

    As a Trekkie I think I’m supposed to fluff up my feathers here and say, “Leonard Nimoy was NOT a pop star! He was a serious actor!” But I understand what you mean by that moment of awareness, where one realizes that the music, film and television shows she enjoys outside of “serious” texts in college also have meaning and depth.

    I was fortunate to start college at the time punk rock was just entering the public consciousness. (I remember the horrified tone of the “60 Minutes” story on punk rockers in London—oh, they put safety pins in their faces! they shave their heads. boys and girls both!) After a childhood of suffocating in a very traditional Asian family, discovering punk and its rebel yell was liberating. What surprised me however was finding the many critical articles on punk rock that came out of the UK and how it was linked to a greater reaction to Margaret Thatcher and the privatization of the “Conservative Revolution,” which paralleled Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” the giveaway of the US to corporate interests. So the punk rebellion wasn’t just kids wearing pink hair, black leather and safety pins: we were involved in a political movement, whether we knew it or not. It also made me aware that all the consumer choices I made, the work I chose to do (first journalism, then teaching), and the art and sports I enjoyed in my free time were all reflections of how I supported, or did not support, a larger political statement.

    I still have my old Sex Pistol and Clash records. I also continue to watch old episodes of Star Trek, and I am eternally grateful to Mr. Spock for telling a little girl it’s okay to not give in to emotional judgment and act agreeably when inside she knew “something’s not right.”

  6. mistahmattymcfly February 28, 2015 at 1:05 pm | #

    As a college student I find it comforting that someone has gone through what I am going through now. I’m a sophomore and feel like I am amidst my own “intellectual awakening” of sorts. Personally, there was no one single moment, but a series of seemingly unrelated events that built atop one another over time. I look back and find that it all started when I decided that I was going to experience things for myself: food, music, drinks, anything really. I was tired of hearing about how great a place was or how delicious a dessert was, I wanted to taste it for myself and know for sure if that restaurant has the best chocolate souffle in town or if the cheesecake is really the star of the dessert menu. Experience and not reinterpretation provides positive stimuli for the brain and soul (if you’re into that sort of thing). No one has ever gone skydiving and come to the conclusion that reading about it was more exciting than free falling towards the Earth’s surface at highway speeds.

  7. Paul February 28, 2015 at 2:42 pm | #

    Mine was reading Gravity’s Rainbow as a teenager (in the brilliant German translation by Elfriede Jelinek), and being fascinated but totally unfamiliar with the cultural context of both the 60s and the (inter-)war time. Slowly but surely, as I tried to make sense of what often seemed almost meaningless surrealistic quirks, I discovered that the text simply negotiates in a complex way pop cultural contexts… which I then realized it was possible to engage in such a complex way in the first place.

  8. LFC February 28, 2015 at 3:32 pm | #

    From Corey’s OP;
    Remembering this conversation reminded me of one of the critical aspects of my college education: realizing that mass culture was a thing, something to be studied, analyzed, approached with the same critical eye that you would bring to a literary text or historical event.

    I’m curious if other people had a similar moment in college or grad school or high school.

    I can’t remember offhand a similar moment w/r/t cultural studies in college. But then I’m about 10 yrs older than Corey R.; I was in college 1975 to ’79. I think cultural studies probably had not yet ‘arrived’, at least not in certain precincts yet.

    I wd note that listening to the news Fri. night I learned that Theodore Hesburgh died roughly at the same time as Leonard Nimoy. Seems fitting to note this on a blog such as this that often addresses issues in higher ed.

  9. Glenn February 28, 2015 at 4:19 pm | #

    A few years ago I saw some taped episodes of East Side/West Side and was amazed at how far television had regressed since that series appeared.

    From a comment at

    “1. social services take-away the child of a prostitute, who was portrayed as a devoted mother– her grief was seismic; 2. a young black father who loses a baby to a rat’s attack gets a weapon and wanders through Harlem looking for someone to kill; 3. a middle-class black couple moving to the suburbs sets off a calculated real-estate stampede, and even the liberal whites who sponsored them finally rebukes them.”

    One of the episodes I saw was about a black man who couldn’t join a union, for race reasons. His psychic torment at being unable to provide for his family made a lasting impression on me. It may have been the episode referred to by #2 above.

  10. Frank Wilhoit February 28, 2015 at 6:12 pm | #

    The study of mass culture is the study of propaganda, which, I think, has been a recognized subject for quite some time. What am I missing?

    • Frank February 28, 2015 at 6:20 pm | #

      Missing? A clue, perhaps?

  11. Frank February 28, 2015 at 6:23 pm | #

    That was way to harsh of me, sorry. But to reduce all mass culture to propaganda is not only reductionist, but it also misses many of the wonderful virtues of mass culture. Including, all of the wonderful ways in which Star Trek was a terribly progressive show.

    The mass culture as propaganda tropes seems more fascistic than does mass culture, which certainly can be fascistic, at times.

    • Frank Wilhoit March 1, 2015 at 4:48 pm | #

      This is worth exploring a little further. Since further back than I can remember, it has been apparent to me that all mass culture is didactic. (I select a more anodyne word than “propagandistic”, but I do not find any distinction of meaning.) It could hardly be otherwise. I do not see what is outrageous about that observation. I would have thought it was a commonplace.

      That does not mean that it is inherently worthless, only that it was created with a purpose, which purpose is typically at least partly covert. Again, I do not see how any of this could be controversial. I do not think Gene Roddenberry himself would disagree. Even “escapist” mass culture conveys the message that escaping is the appropriate response to the discontents of civilization.

      There are clearly worse and worst examples. There have, for example, been lots of cop shows and lots of doctor shows. The purpose of these is to convince a mass audience that these professions are exercised in a competent and conscientious manner, propositions that fly in the face of universal experience. The survival of these and of other specific institutions depends upon convincing the public that up is down, and mass culture is how that is done. Can you think of another method?

      • Frank March 1, 2015 at 8:34 pm | #

        I’m not sure there’s an argument here. But not because I agree, but because I wouldn’t know where to begin arguing with you.

        And it’s not just the claims are so clearly wrong to me, but that you can’t even see how they might be wrong. That is, as you said, you don’t see how any of this could be controversial. The confidence with which you make claims about every TV show ever created, every movie, every mass book, and every form of pop music is staggering.

        I wish I could be so confident making such blanket statements, Oh, wait, I don’t at all wish that. Certainly there is one cop show, or one doctor show, at some point in history, on some obscure television channel, that isn’t simply reducible to an attempt to convince us that doctors and cops are competent?

        In fact, many of them do the opposite. A claim that can easily be grounded in Marxist language too, insofar as many of us get much more pleasure out of seeing incompetent cops than we do in seeing competent ones, so that therefore that’s what we want to buy. So, I’m not sure how you arrived at your own theoretical conclusions, but faced with the great diversity of pop culture phenomenon, many of which refute your claims, maybe your claims are worth rethinking?

        • Frank Wilhoit March 2, 2015 at 10:56 am | #

          Here are my credentials: . I am an authentic creative artist, irrespective of whether or not you might find something to *like* in any of my music. I am an individual and my audience consists of individuals — probably few enough to count, the more the merrier, but the exact number does not matter; the point is that they are not a “mass”.

          I know when I am being lied to. There is a tone that people never use when they are speaking the truth and I learned to recognize it as quite a small child — it were to be hoped that each of us learned this.

          No mass culture has ever spoken to me (or to you, God help you) in any other tone. Nor can it, nor could it. It’s not possible, because it’s not speaking to me, or to you, but to a “mass”, who are, by definition and at best, a cardboard cutout.

          If I enjoy any such (which does happen), I am enjoying the craft, and/or (as you point out) an appeal to my confirmation bias.

          Now, if I have standing to make a suggestion, turn off your computer and your TV and go listen to some Beethoven. Listen until you hear him talking to YOU. It ought not take long (without preconceptions, seldom more than a fraction of a second); but however long it takes, it will be worth your time, because it will give you back the rest of your life.

    • Roquentin March 2, 2015 at 9:50 am | #

      The important thing to remember is that there is no one person or group of people dictating how mass culture (your term, we’re in Frankfurt School territory) is conducted. It is part and parcel of a fully functioning system/totality in which we are all also produced as subjects. To make it seem as if it is the conscious decision of a handful of men sitting in a boardroom somewhere is the stuff of conspiracy theories. It’s also worth saying that much of it is bottom up rather than top down deception. What I mean by this is that television is an art form produced for the viewer, and if there is false consciousness or fantasy in it, it because this is what satiates the desires of the audience. We demand the images and art mass culture throws back at us because it insulates us against change. If Fox News didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it. That’s the point.

      More on topic while mass culture and propaganda often do overlap, they are not synonymous nor the same thing. When speaking of advertising this distinction is more tenuous than ever, but I’d still be reluctant to use the two interchangeably.

  12. maberkowitz March 1, 2015 at 4:55 pm | #

    Brings back memories! I think that piece in the Progressive Review was my first foray into a sustained analysis of mass/pop cultural forms in writing. I had, however, been interested in the political meanings of culture dating back to high school. Not certain why, but maybe it’s because I had an older brother. I was also a bit countercultural — at least in my mind. My memory of you, Cory, was that you were very policy oriented in your early college years. Wasn’t your first piece in the Progressive Review about nuclear deterrence or something similar? But whatever my previous interest, I do think college provided me with the tools to theorize the relationship between politics and mass culture in a more sophisticated way. My undergraduate mentor, Gary Gerstle, was very much responsible for this. I remember reading Roy Rosenzweig’s Eight Hours for What we Will with him in an independent study. Rosenzweig’s Gramscian analysis of the struggles over leisure — saloons, public space, 4th of July celebrations and other leisure spaces and activities — rocked my world and led me down an intellectual path I haven’t veered from.

  13. wetcasements March 2, 2015 at 12:59 am | #

    Not to get all meta, but my high school Shakespeare teacher always emphasized the fact that his plays, like all Elizabethan theater, where very much styled for consumption by the working class They were just as pop-culture as today’s reality shows and Avatars. Sure, the nobles gave money to support them, but that’s how the system worked back then. To approach Shakespeare as rarefied “high culture” is to absolutely miss his cultural context and woefully misread him (sorry Professor Bloom).

    And still in high school, I won an award for doing my senior thesis on the history of the American game show and how it reflected / re-manufactured the Horatio Alger “self-made common man” ideology that is uniquely American.

    Hot damn, I guess I went to a pretty progressive high school. Them Quakers know how to edumacate.

  14. jonnybutter March 2, 2015 at 12:38 pm | #

    By chance I had recently to watch parts of episodes of the 1960s American TV sitcom ‘I Dream of Jeannie’, which I grew up watching, but hadn’t seen since the 60s. Reading this post caused me to focus the picture it drew at bit; hmmmm: powerful ‘Master’ who, as an astronaut, is both a scientist and a man of action, has perky sexy-cute blonde bimboish slave-genie (who speaks a ridiculously fake Arabic in first episode, btw). She calls him ‘master’ and is obviously in unshakable love with him. Master could abuse his (colonial?) magic slave woman but of course is inherently, even congenitally, good, and good natured, and so would never abuse his absolute power over her. She lives in a bottle, to which Master banishes her when she causes too much zany mayhem. Once she is in the bottle, he traps her there by putting the stopper on. Her super feminine cat-eyes shine through the bottle in the opening animation.

    yeah, nothing to analyze there!! ha ha ha

  15. jonnybutter March 2, 2015 at 1:00 pm | #

    Hit ‘post’ too soon – sorry.

    end of line 4/beginning of line 5 should read ‘a bit’.

    There was a very brief time in the late 60s early 70s, at least in the West, when the idea of a critical attitude to mass culture was itself, if not really mainstream, at least a very visible stream. Don’t know that such criticism was always as penetrating as its practicers thought it was – which is to say it was often a vulgarized or even commodified version. But it wasn’t always vulgar just because it was not academic.

    What I find interesting about these critiques of mass culture is the stuff which was too obvious to say at the time, but looks pretty weird now. For example, the idea that Major/Master Nelson would need to discipline the flighty slave girl by making her jump into a bottle was as unremarkable in the 60s as was Ricky Ricardo taking his wifey Lucy over his knee and spanking her butt in the late 50s and early 60s. Of course you would never see that now (the current fashionable conceit being that it is men who are congenitally silly and capricious, and it is women who always know best and never err).

    • Roqeuntin March 2, 2015 at 6:32 pm | #

      It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was supposed to feature that dynamic (Dee being the one who knew best and was a foil to the other three), but it quickly turned into her being just as bad as they were. I think that’s a big part of what made the show so funny in the first few seasons. It’s not so great anymore, but there was a time.

  16. jonnybutter March 2, 2015 at 7:32 pm | #

    I will check it out. Have heard of the show and having lived in Philadelphia, I love the title.

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