Postmodernism and Popular Culture

Postmodern theories of popular culture emphasise a breakdown of the boundaries between culture, society, art and popular culture, substance over style and a decline of metanarratives

Postmodern theories of popular culture have become increasingly dominant in recent decades. According to Dominic Strinati this is because capitalism is now focused on consumerism, and postmodern theories are being popularised by a new ‘creative’ middle class seeking power, and people are listening to them because of the erosion of collective identities.

In this post I summarise Strinati’s analysis of the main features of postmodern analyses of popular culture, his theory of why postmodern theories are so popular (summarised above) and his evaluations of postmodernism, which are mainly critical.

Five main features of a postmodern analysis of popular culture

There are five main features of a postmodern analysis of popular culture:

  1. The distinction between culture and society disappears
  2. Style is emphasised over substance
  3. A breakdown in the distinction between art and popular culture
  4. confusion over time and space
  5. A belief in the decline of metanarratives

The distinction between culture and society disappears

Postmodern culture is a media saturated culture. Rather than describing our social reality the media become so dominant and all-encompassing that they create our reality

Computers are the main hardware behind this. Virtual realities become more important than face to face in-person interactions and the economy is more focused on the buying and selling of digital products rather than physical products.

Style over substance

Particular products become popular because they have a label which evokes an attractive lifestyle.

Societies develop a ‘designer ideology’ – surface qualities become more important than anything deeper.

Playfulness and jokes become more important than substance content and meaning. Qualities such as realism, authenticity, integrity, intellectual clarity and seriousness are undermined.

A breakdown of the distinction between art and popular culture

In Postmodernism, art is anything which can be turned into a meme.

As a result elements of what used to be thought of as high culture become incorporated into popular, postmodern culture, and the status of individual pieces of art are undermined.

There is no longer anything special about ‘art’ – in Postmodern culture art is subsumed into everyday life, it becomes part of it.

An example of this is Andy Warhole’s ’30 are better than one’ in which he produced a print of 30 copies of the Mona Lisa…

Andy Warhole: 30 Are Better than One.

Confusion over Time and Space

Following the ideas of David Harvey, instantaneous communications and rapid travel mean that people’s sense of time and space become confused.

Instantaneous global news reporting mean that people get information about events taking away thousands of miles away as soon as they happen, and this means people’s sense of space gets confused – in the course of one news show, multiple events which are distant all seems close to oneanother!

Postmodern culture also relates confuses people’s sense of time. Theme parks recreate the past and try to create the future, incorporating copies of historical architecture with futuristic installations. Many city scapes are also bewildering mixtures of historical buildings and cutting edge works of postmodern skyscrapers.

Postmodern films and T.V. shows are also more likely to jump around in time, not moving straightforwardly from beginning to end, and thus our sense of linear time is disrupted.

The recent Netflix series, Kaleidoscope, is a good example of this

Postmodern culture involves the decline of metanarratives

Following Lyotard, postmodern culture also means people have a declining faith in the validity of ‘big stories’ such as political ideologies or religions, or anything else which makes a claim to the universal truth.

Postmodern culture rejects the idea that there is any sense of progress in history, and this is shown in the use of the collage which mixes elements drawn from many different genres, cultures and historical periods.

The implicit idea of the collage is that one can mix and match anything together and that no one aspect of the collage is any more valid than or superior to any other aspect.

Reasons for the Emergence of Postmodernism

There are three main reasons for the emergence of postmodern theories:

  1. Capitalism taking a consumerist turn, away from heavy production
  2. The rise of new middle ‘creative’ classes
  3. The erosion of collective identities.

Capitalism turns to consumerism

In the early phases of capitalism, capital invested in industry which focussed on the production of basic material goods to meet people’s basic human needs.

In advanced industrial societies the majority of people can meet their basic needs with a relatively small proportion of their income, and populations have more money and time for leisure.

Thus capitalism turns its attention to investing in mechanisms that can persuade people to buy goods and services they don’t actually need but they consume simply for pleasure and enjoyment in their leisure time.

Hence why the media becomes central in postmodern culture, it is the primary avenue through which capitalists advertise unnecessary yet desirable leisure products to consumers.

The New ‘Creative’ Middle Classes

In postmodern culture a new middle class emerges consisting of people with jobs in design, marketing, advertising and a whole host of creative industries.

People in these jobs are concerned with persuading people about the importance of taste, and once people are persuaded, these ‘creatives’ become experts who are relied upon, with people usually accessing their expertise through the media.

Strinati also sees jobs such as teachers and therapists as being more important because these people are concerned (at least to some extent) with guiding people into particular lifestyles, and thus encourage people to take their lifestyle seriously.

Ultimately once people adopt a lifestyle that they believe is suited to them, as advised on and legitimated by experts, they are more likely to consume goods and services to enhance that lifestyle.

Postmodern culture is accelerated by this new middle classes’ quest for power.

The erosion of collective identities

In postmodern society the bases of traditional collective identities such as social class, community and the nation-state have been eroded.

People’s identities become more individualised, with popular culture and media being the only frame of reference some people have to construct their identities.

An Evaluation of Postmodern Theories of Culture:

As well as describing postmodern theories of culture, Strinati also evaluates them.

Postmodern theorists greatly exaggerate the extent to which media realities have taken over from grounded reality. There is little evidence that people can’t distinguish that characters in soap operas are real, for example. Also, many people still look to work and family as important sources of identity, and a lot of people switch off their media devices from time to time as well!

Postmodern theory exaggerates the ability of the media to shape what people consume. Those who do purchase products are discerning and often choose not too (preferring to save for a house, for example), and also at least the bottom 15% of society are too poor to take part in a high-consumption lifestyle.

Postmodern is itself a metanarrative. The popularity of postmodernism undermines the claim that metanarratives are in decline!

Strinati accepts David Harvey’s view that people’s perceptions of time and space have been altered in postmodern culture, but notes that not all people have the same capacity to share in time-space compression. Most people in the world cannot afford to travel on airplanes!

Strinati accepts that there has been something of a breakdown in the distinction between art and culture in postmodernity, but this mainly applies to the design and creative industries (the ‘new occupations’). Most people can distinguish between art and popular culture.

There is still hierarchy in postmodernism, postmodernist put their playful collage culture at the top, at least they try to!

Postmodernism has had a limited impact on popular culture , mainly in the spheres of architecture and advertising, but elsewhere very little impact.

For example in film, most films still have distinct, modernist style narratives, or strong, linear story lines with familiar themes and characters. There is really very little new about them compared to films from the 1950s!

Postmodern theories of culture: Conclusions

Strinati concludes that postmodernists claims that we now have a distinct postmodern popular culture in which all boundaries and hierarchies have disappeared is greatly exaggerated.

Ultimately, postmodern theories of culture are too limited to help us develop a sociology of popular culture.

Signposting and Relevance to A-level Sociology

This material has primarily been written for students studying the Culture and Identity option as part of A-level Sociology.

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Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Andy Warhole: 30 Are Better than one (fair use)

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