Friday, January 20, 2012

Morrell / Urban Literacy Ed - 2

Popular Culture in Theory and Practice

In Chapter Two of Linking Literacy and Popular Culture – an introduction to popular culture – Ernest Morrell considers what literacy educators can learn from having a clear definition, a theoretical framework and an historical perspective of cultural theory. The chapter serves to demonstrate why “the relationship between mainstream media and social attitudes” has been central to Morrell’s research and teaching. Morrell argues that an “understanding of popular culture . . . is needed for effective teaching, and for critical citizenship.”

Chapter Two provides definitions of concepts connected with popular culture, including the Neo-Gramscian Hegemony Theory – outlines the chronological development of cultural studies – and examines the need for literacy educators to develop a broad understanding of cultural theory.


Neo-Gramscian Hegemony Theory

Morrell attributes the term hegemony to Antonio Gramsci, a theorist who “pushed upon Marx’s idea of ideology as false consciousness.” The OED defines hegemony as “Leadership, predominance, preponderance; esp. the leadership or predominant authority of one state of a confederacy or union over the others” and cites its original use as a “reference to the states of ancient Greece, whence transferred to the German states, and in other modern applications.”

In the context of cultural studies and pop culture, Morrell initially describes hegemony as referring generally to “the strategies, ideas, and beliefs that the dominant class would promote in order to manufacture consent among subordinate classes.”  The word is tied a political concept developed by Gramsci and other theorists to talk about pop culture and explain “the absence of socialist revolutions in Western capitalist democracies.”

Later in the chapter, hegemony is fully defined in the specific context of neo-Gramscian hegemony theory (NGHT) – where popular culture is seen as a site of struggle between the forces of resistance of subordinate groups in society, and the forces of incorporation of dominant groups in society.”

Ernest Morrell
So hegemony here is meant to imply “a process in which a dominant class . . .  leads [society] through the exercise of moral and intellectual leadership.” Morrell emphasizes that popular culture, as related to NGHT, “is not an imposed 'mass culture', or a 'people's culture', it is more of a terrain of exchange between the two.”

Morrell’s focus on NGHT is found to be a concept central to the information in Chapter Two as it concerns understanding critical theory. Morrell elegantly speaks to the basis of critical theory with the following: “Rather than accept any knowledge as absolute, critical theorists assumed that all knowledge was ideological and, therefore, sought to unpack the inherent power relations in all knowledge asking constantly, whose interests were being served and at what cost.”

History of Cultural Studies

In his review of the historical development of cultural studies, Morrell reviews the efforts and conceptual contributions of several researchers. He begins with two of the most famous Frankfurt School theorists, Ted Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and their view that the culture industries (which include popular music, film, television, and print media) were “tools by which the dominant classes could standardize art and culture, thereby constraining critical thought and controlling the actions of the masses.” Adorno, Horkheimer and others studied the ill effects of mass consumption of popular music, television, and film, and the ways in which “media culture could be used as propaganda to sway the public mood.”

Morrell speaks of Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and Stuart Hall as theorists who “sought to develop a tradition that celebrated the everyday mass culture of the working class that was denigrated in elite social contexts and in dominant social institutions such as schools.” These British theorists saw pop culture as “a celebration and site of resistance.” Hoggart is noted as author of the seminal book, The Uses of Literacy and as founder of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS).

Pointing to a key difference between the theories of the Frankfurt School and the Birmingham Centre, Morrell writes:

“While Adorno and Horkheimer located popular culture in the works of the culture industries, Hoggart, Hall, and Williams located popular culture in the everyday activities of working class peoples. Whereas the Frankfurt theorists saw popular culture as a tool for social control, the British cultural theorists saw popular culture as a celebration and site of resistance.”

Morrell stresses this central dynamic in cultural studies. “The same culture that represents working class resistance can also be marketed to reinforce social inequality,” he says, explaining, “the two sides to this discussion of popular culture as each having something important to offer to educators interested in teaching popular culture.”

Detailing the work of Raymond Williams, Morrell notes the import of his book, Sociology of Culture – “an historical analysis of the social organization of culture in terms of its institutions and formations.” Williams demonstrated that “the concept of culture had come into existence as a holistic protest against the fragmenting effects of industrialism,” and therefore concluded that all pop culture “belonged to a common heritage of opposition.”

Morrell documents pop culture as examined in American cultural studies and educational research, citing the contributions of Docker, Storey, McCarthy, Mahiri and Giroux. These theorists situate pop culture “in its resonance with oppressed groups while arguing for its position at the center of discussions of education and social change” and promote the study of popular culture “as a mechanism for social change.” Many of the American cultural theorists describe the “multiple, conflicting purposes of popular culture in contemporary society.” Morrell believes:

“that the more young people are given opportunities to explore these various roles, the better consumers and producers of popular culture they’ll be.” 

Henry Giroux is pointed out as having addressed “the crisis confronting youth . . .  where they are enmeshed in a culture of violence coded by race and class.” Giroux argued for a critical media literacy and examined “the negative connotations of youth culture promoted in popular media that propel youth toward mistrust, alienation, misogyny, violence, apathy, and the development of fugitive cultures.”

The Need for a Broad Understanding
of Cultural Theory in Literacy Education

In the final pages of Chapter Two, Morrell makes the case that, “it is important for English teachers to develop a broad understanding of the history and development of popular culture.” He lists several reasons, chief among them – to enable productive discussions between teachers and learners about pop culture “as a simultaneous site of resistance to and cooptation by the culture industries,” and to help literacy educators make the case for the inclusion of popular culture in the mainstream curriculum.

Link to the Henry Giroux Home Page

Quotes from Henry Giroux

As a concept, youth represents an inescapable intersection of the personal, social, political, and pedagogical.
-- from Fugitive Cultures

The futures we inherit are not of our own making, but the futures we create for generations of young people who follow us arise out of our ability to imagine a better world, recognize our responsibility to others, and define the success of a society to the degree that it can address the needs of coming generations to live in a world in which the obligations of a global democracy and individual responsibility mutually inform each other.

Justice is the merging of hope, reason, imagination, and moral responsibility tempered by the recognition that the pursuit of happiness and the good life is a collective affair.

Where I grew up learning was a collective activity. But when I got to school and tried to share learning with other students that was called cheating. The curriculum sent the clear message to me that learning was a highly individualistic, almost secretive, endeavor. My working-class experience didn't count. Not only did it not count, it was disparaged.
-- from Border Crossings

The class and racial war being waged against young people is most evident in the ways in which schools are being militarized with the addition of armed guards, barbed-wired security fences, and "lock down drills." As educators turn over their responsibility for school safety to the police, the new security culture in public schools has turned them into "learning prisons." It would be a tragic mistake for those of us on the left either to separate the war in Iraq from the many problems Americans, young people in particular, face at home, or fail to recognize how war is being waged by this government on multiple fronts.

Instead of providing a decent education to poor young people, American society offers them the growing potential of being incarcerated; buttressed by the fact that the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that sentences minors to death and spends three times more on each incarcerated citizen than on each public school pupil.

Any discourse about the future has to begin with the issue of youth because more than any other group they embody the projected dreams, desires, and commitment of a society's obligations to the future.
-- from The Terror of Neoliberalism


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