Mass Culture and Urban Space Field

To become a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University, one must complete two fields—literature reviews of areas of study. My fields were “Mass Culture and Urban Space” and “Contemporary Theories of Sexuality.” Attached below is the “Mass Culture and Urban Space” field, but before that is my introduction. The only disclaimer I have is that the section of the Frankfurt School needs work.

 

INTRODUCTION

Mass culture theories vary in their perspective and object choice; each has its own history and trajectory. Within this field I limit my scope to mass culture theorists engaging with the relationship between structures and subjects. Most theorists acknowledge both as pertinent but thoroughly examine only half of the dichotomy. Cultural theorists define subjects’ existence and their agency within capitalist produced structures in wildly different fashions depending on which half is studied. Within this discussion, I explore how theories regarding mass culture’s production and consumption have informed (and have themselves been informed by) discussions of the production and consumption of urban spaces.  In this way, this field recognizes that the discussion of urban space has always played a significant and central role in larger discussions of mass culture, and has recently gained renewed attention within critical and cultural theory.  The first half of the field thus focuses on the major arguments within the structure/subject dialogue in mass culture theories. The second half then narrows in on the influences, trajectory, and impact of geographers within cultural studies, particularly around questions of the production, appropriation, negotiation, and transformation of not only cultural commodities, but also urban spaces and places.

I begin with Karl Marx’s account of industrial capitalism’s rise and the subsequent alienating of subjects from themselves, their labor, and their culture. I move to Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Siegfried Kracauer, and Walter Benjamin of the Frankfurt School and their diverse accounts of the way institutions influence population in order to create the (passive?) masses and situate the public for the exploitation of their labor. Jürgen Habermas breaks away from this trajectory by showing how reason could but fails to combat the irrationality of the system described by the Frankfurt School. As a backlash against studying structures, the Birmingham School, including Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and David Morley, discuss mass culture as a site of ideological struggle between producers and consumers. Their models consider the consumer as active. Their influence within the field sparked others, most notably John Fiske and Ien Ang, into theorizing and investigating the audience and how they negotiate meaning. From here I examine political economists, such as Mark Andrejevic and Sut Jhally, who discuss how the industry transfers audiences into a source of labor. Other political economists, such as Robert McChesney, Vincent Mosco, and Herbert Schiller argue that economic strategies of monopolization, global saturation, and exportation of products and structures of thinking adversely affect political thought and cultural production.

The theories referenced above can easily be, and often have been, applied to the study of urban space. Capitalists produce both mass culture and urban space to suit its purposes, leaving subjects to navigate, acculturate, or appropriate within the systems provided. Marx, Benjamin, and Kracauer were early commentators on capitalism’s impact on space, either altering it to enhance productivity and reduce turnover times, or for the promotion and celebration of consumption. David Harvey draws upon Marxism and critical theory to examine the historical geography of capitalism and the inequalities, which result in the production of space suited to the needs of capital. His work began a long trajectory of other theorists, such as Neil Smith, Sharon Zukin, and Don Mitchell, each of whom examine the production of space and its impact on subjects on a global, national, and local scale. The work of these geographers contributes to questions raised by political economists. Differing in focus, cultural geographers such as Doreen Massey and Peter Jackson draw on the work of Michel DeCerteau, the Birmingham School, and feminists to examine how subjects navigate and alter spaces that seek to exclude them.

Mass Culture and Urban Space Field

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Filed under Frankfurt School, Mass Culture, Space/Place

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