Uncommon Cultures

Into the much disputed terrain of how we are to understand popular culture and theorize the post-modern condition. Jim Collins introduces a simply stated and relentlessly pursued thesis: “Culture is no longer a unitary, fixed category, but a decentered, fragmentary assemblage of conflicting voices and institutions”; if we are to read the artefacts of our culture with anything like the complexity and plurality of response they call for we must begin, contrary to almost every approach so far, by “investigating the ideologies they construct to legitimate themselves as privileged discourse within the field of competing discourses and heterogeneous audiences”. The key terms, then, are “decentered”, “fragmentary”, “conflicting”, and the key process is that of self-legitimation whereby a cultural product strives to persuade those who consume it that it and it alone speaks the language of truth.
Collins starts by dismantling the idea that “culture” is a Grand Hotel, a centrally organized unity orchestrating all cultural production and reception in the name and service of some master system. This is an assumption he finds deeply rooted in writers on culture as different as Matthew Arnold, Jean Baudrillard, Adorno and Frankheimer, as well as sundry academic culturists and detractors of postmodernism from Lyotard to Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton, all of whom operate under the nostalgic fantasy of a – their – common culture being engulfed by the chaotic banality of an undifferentiated and mindless “mass culture”. As soon as we check out from the hotel we see that matters are more complicated: high culture, Collins argues, hasn’t been unifed or common or dominant since the eighteenth century (the contrary claim being the self-legitimation of an élite), and “low” culture, far from being as amorphous and inferior residue, is a rich plurality of separate discourses and textual practices in sophisticated competition with each other for audiences.
In order to examine the forms of this competition in the crowded space of recent and contemporary texts and films, Collins positions himself theoretically through a series of polemics. He invokes Althusser’s notion of interpellation, the process whereby ideologies hail individuals and convert them into subjects, as correct from flawed in its insistence on a monolithic, dominant ideology rather than a heterogeneity of conflicting ones employing diverse strategies of self-legitimation: a diversity that requires a re-think of the forms and functions of narrative style. For this Bakhtin’s opposition between heteroglossia and internal consistency of style is the starting-point, but this too needs to be re-written to apply to individual discourses and genres rather than to some overarching categories such as the “novel”, or “literature”. Similar good-but-not-good-enough treatments are handed out to other culturalists and critics from Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton (seen in the end as Marxist neo-Romantics every bit as nostalgic/elitist as the bourgeois positions they attack) to the shortcomings of Christian Metz’s use of the histoire/discours model from linguistics to articulate the nature of film discursivity.
All this is carried out with a great deal of polysyllabic flair saved (some might think not) from any too swift ascent into inaccessible theorizing by a constant recourse to detective novels and films of various kinds. On this is must be said, however, that the skimpy references to popular music and the virtual absence from the book of any discussion of newspapers, advertising and television in favour of books and films – the popular forms most beloved by academics – result in an uncomfortable tunnel vision. This is a pity, since not only is the emergence of newspapers and the advertisements they were designed to carry inseparable from the history of popular culture, but advertisements exemplify in immediately familiar graphic forms, all the textual effects Collins talks so much about, from de-centredness, heteroglossia and fragmentation to the text’s self-promoting claim to be written in the language of truth.
The book culminates in a characterization of post-modernism that basically aligns itself with the views of those architects, such as Charles Jencks, who, having rejected the aesthetic and political terminalism of the International Style, argue for the viability of “double-coding”, where buildings and indeed all cultural texts can, by amalgamating professional and popular codes, so-called high-art and low-art styles, simultaneously address different audiences and aesthetic agendas, thus making eclecticism a conscious and deliberate means of stylizing and vernacularizing the very fragmentation of the contemporary context which appears to the critics of the post-modern as schizophrenic collapse.
However, the price for this happy eclecticism, this shift from the repressive rigours of the Grand Hotel of Modernism to untroubled consumption inside the post-modern shopping-mall, is a refusal to consider questions of the dissemination and consolidation of power. It may indeed be true that there is no longer any Master Ideology controlling some unified thing called the Masses, and that the circuits of meaning are complex, open-ended, heterogeneous and pluralizing. But failing to recognize how capitalism itself – and, from a different perspective, patriarchy – incessantly proclaiming their own truth, function as the nearest thing to dominant ideologies in contemporary culture, results in a political blandness that dulls what is otherwise a sharp and illuminating thesis.

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