Wednesday, November 24, 2010

McRobbie - Postmodernism and Popular Culture

McRobbie, Angela. Postmodernism and Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Happy Thanksgiving! I just finished my grading, which gives me... 1 week after break without grading to continue comp reading. Ugh. The grind continues...


In this collection of essays, McRobbie argues for a feminist postmodernism. "...a feminist postmodernism forces us to confront questions which otherwise remain unasked...we also find our academic practice and our politics undergoing some degree of transformation and change." (p.2) She goes on to say (on page 9) that the essays focus on "some aspect of social change." McRobbie uses feminist postmodernism to explore "how social relations are conducted" in popular culture. Thus, popular culture studies symbolize and reveal the experience of change.

Part I - "Postmodernity and Cultural Studies" [4 historiographic essays]
It seems to me, and perhaps this is an indication of how my brain works and how I learn, that collections of essays like this one are often organized backwards. I would prefer to start with examples of what the author is doing (as McRobbie offers in the last section) and then finish with an overview of the field, thus placing the author's work amongst the work of others. Of course, the historiography always comes first in a dissertation, and in a book proposal; the habit must emerge from those understandible practices.

Anyway, these four essays blur together in my memory. They discussa range of authors that are somewhat familiar, and who I have read only a tiny portion of. I'll list most of them below, for future reference, as well as to highlight names McRobbie is particularly interested in-

1 - "Postmodernism and Popular Culture": Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Dick Hebdige, Andreas Huyssen, Frederic Jameson, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal

Originally written in 1986, McRobbie defends postmodernism. (p.23) "The reason why postmodernism appeals to a wider number of young people [and intellectuals] that they themselves are experiencing the enforced fragmentation of impermanent work and low career opportunities. Far from being overwhelmed by media saturation, there is evidence to suggest that these social groups and minorities are putting it to work for them. This alone should prompt the respect and the attention of an older generation which seems at present too eager to embrace a sense of political hopelessness."

2 - "New Times in Cultural Studies": Jameson, Stuart Hall, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Hebdige, Sontag, Zizek, Frank Mort, Andre Gorz, David Harvey

Originally written in 1991, McRobbie explains the term "New Times," a term coined in Britain, and connoting the social and political upheavals of the 1980s.

3 - "Post-Marxism and Cultural Studies": Homi Bhaba, John Fiske, Stuart Hall, David Harvey, Jameson, Ernesto Laclau, bell hooks

This 1992 essay discusses the state of Marxism, connecting it to postmodernist cultural studies. McRobbie admits the state of Marxism's usefulness remains unclear, but she is far from dismissive of it.

4 - "Feminism, Postmodernism and the 'Real Me'": Bhaba, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Stuart Hall, David Harvey, Jameson, Laclau, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

"The passage of feminism into the 1990s should not be seen... as a process of political dismemberment, leaving behind a sadly dispersed band of individuals... Nor should it be understood, after postmodernism, as a politics of difference based simply on pluralism, on everyone going their own way. In short the strength of feminism lies in its ability to create discourse, to dispute, to negotiate the boundaries and the barriers, and also to take issue with the various feminisms which have sprung into being."

Part II - Key Figures in Cultural Theory
Essays on the work of Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin, and an interview with Gayatari Chakravorty Spivak.

Part III -Youth, Media, Postmodernity [McRobbie's own work]
McRobbie delves deep into various aspects of youth culture, using sociology, cultural analysis, and her own journalistic observations. These essays were all written in the early 1990s.

8 - "Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket": A discussion of the emergence of "retro-style" dress. McRobbie does a particularly good job of analyzing not only the clothes of youth, but the place where those clothes are displayed and purchased. Her conclusions are somewhat incomplete. She notes that the frequent criticism that retro-style dress is a characteristic of rich kids, and thus demonstrates their disconnect from the poor they claim to be trying to connect with, is no longer accurate- students are often poor and the working-class itself is no longer predominantly employed in (and dressed for) the factory. The pastiche style of dress reflects a common theme of postmodernism that McRobbie observes elsewhere, but she hesitates to explain its precise significance. She also notes that the designer is playing less of a role in fashion trends then commonly assumed.

9 - "Shut up and Dance: Youth Culture and Changing Modes of Femininity": This essay is typical of McRobbie's "Feminist Postmodernism" project. She offers numerous examples of "how fluid gender practices and meaning structures are." (157) The replacement of Jackie with Just Seventeen as the most popular magazine for girls from 12 to 16 is a positive move from a magazine that emphasizes a more traditional perception of the female as an object and victim of romance to a more autonomous being with a wider (at least relatively) range of identities. She brackets the essay with a personal anecdote about her parental worries about her daughter attending raves, noting that the underlying importance of the rave for youth culture is its separation from adult supervision, thus allowing the freedom for experimentation (drugs, sexuality) as the youth seeks his/her own identity.

10- "Different, Youthful, Subjectivities: Towards a Cultural Sociology of Youth": This essay reviews work on youth in both sociology and cultural studies in an attempt to bring them closer together. Her conclusion explains, (194) "...the emphasis in this chapter has been to encourage cultural studies away from an exclusive concern with texts and meanings, this is not to say that such an approach has no value and meanings, this is not to say that such an approach has no value whatsoever. Here I have been arguing for a return, not to the real world, as it is sometimes seen, but rather to the terrain of how young people live and how they experience the changed world around them."

11- "The Moral Panic in the Age of the Postmodern Mass Media": "Moral Panics" are moments of extraordinary public anxiety toward a particular incident of violence that are acted out in the news media. The term was analyzed in depth by Stan Cohen in his 1980 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. McRobbie includes an examination of how a moral panic works through mass media.

McRobbie is an excellent writer, and a creative researcher making this book a difficult yet enjoyable read. Occasionally, she is too Britain-centric for an American reader, but most of the time this is not a problem. Part I is somewhat dated, but individual essays from parts II and III could be useful for a graduate seminar.

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