Popular culture

Summarise and critically evaluate the view of ‘popular culture’ taken by Adorno and Fiske. In the 70s and 80s, there was a mass development of Cultural Imperialism around the World as a flow of cultural products emerged from Western, developed countries. This included programmes, films and adverts that focused mainly on targetting consumers with Popular Culture. This was generally designed to be consumed as an entertaining and easy past time that involved nothing but passive intake.

Programmes with easily understandable and adaptable story lines began to emerge and characters became recognisable, fitting into certain Genres such as that of a hero or a villain. A new wave engulfed the World as Popular Culture began to sell. Theodore Adorno and John Fiske argue opposing views of Popular Culture. Adorno argued that Popular Culture administered comfort and illusion and criticised mass culture as a product of a ‘culture industry’. He argued that Capitalism fed people with the products of this industry in an attempt to keep them satisfied and politically apathetic.

“Culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Film, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part” (Adorno: 10). Adorno saw that Capitalism was becoming more and more entrenched within society and that there was no sign that it would either breakdown or collapse. He dismissed Marx’ prediction that it would be economics that kept Capitalism afloat, and turned his attention and emphasis to the role of culture. He believed that it was the culture inflicted on society that would encourage Capitalism to thrive.

Popular Culture was seen as a huge selling product and Adorno argues that these easily absorbed products would increase and boost the Capitalist market. Adorno suggested that society had been steered away from more difficult art forms which may lead us to question our social life and instead had become absorbed into part of a group of unsophisticated products, which industry churned out on a mass basis. He did not feel that the culture industry could offer real pleasure and that “the diner must be satisfied with the menu” (Adorno: 13).

It was almost as if there was a battle between Artistic Modernism and the Culture industry, where they could not exist together. His overall view of Popular Culture was that it repressed and posed a real threat to society. Adorno believed that the Culture Industry created false needs within people. He argued that the Capitalist system used these false needs to their advantage by then supplying the consumers with Popular Culture to ‘satisfy’ them. However, Adorno felt that this replaced people’s ‘true’ needs and that they would be left without freedom, creativity, and genuine happiness.

Ultimately, Adorno’s was opposed to Popular Culture. He thought that television and other mediums would cause people to move away from communicating with each other and prevent them from actually thinking about their social lives and questioning if they were fully fulfilled. He saw people fitting Popular Culture into their daily routines and even starting to revolve their lives around Television and the addictive programmes it transmitted. His view was that people began to live their daily lives in order for this Popular Culture to fit in.

Although his view was an extreme opinion, to an extent, in the last twenty years, his predictions have come true. We live in a society where the ‘Culture Industry’ does exist and play a huge role on our every day lives. Our cultural landscape has altered dramatically and many of us do passively consume this ‘Popular Culture’. Today we are fully engrossed in this Popular Culture, planning our evenings, our weekends and even our jobs around television programmes that are broadcasted by the Capitalist society.

Adorno would see Media productions such as Eastenders, Big Brother and Coronation Street as just a few of the programmes that the public has become addicted too and feel unfulfilled if they miss a series. John Fiske, a proti?? gi?? of Stuart Hall, takes a different stance than that of Adorno’s. He argues that in order to understand popular culture we must firstly grasp the meaning of culture. In his view, “culture is the constant process of producing meanings of and from our social experience, and such meanings necessarily produce a social identity for the people involved” (Fiske: 1990).

Fiske does not believe that Popular Culture can be seen as a model of power. He argues that it is not possible to inflict a culture on society and he feels that people are free to choose what they consume from the immense variety of demand. Since culture cannot be inflicted on people, Fiske argues that it is obvious that the people make Popular Culture. This argument is that we exist in a society where supply and demands are met. The people decide whether a production will survive or fail. It is not up to the Capitalist giants.

The aim of producing Popular Culture is to produce meanings, and in particular meanings, that are relevant to every day life. The argument that every individual creates his own meanings is in favour of Fiske’s notion that there can be no dominant Popular Culture. However, the fact that people themselves produce meanings from ‘texts’ does not mean that there are no similar meanings. New allegiances are constantly made on different subjects and so Fiske argues that these are sometimes viewed as a dominant culture. Therefore, a large cultural consensus cannot be made as these alliances would constantly be changing.

Fiske’s main belief of Popular Culture is the struggle of power and resistance. Ultimately, this struggle is a struggle for meanings. People derive different meanings from different ‘texts’, which is the collective term for sources out of which people produce meanings. Fiske argues that Media industries try to dominate consumers but these consumers put up a resistance to this. However, although the public sometimes form alliances which could than be seen as them being dominated, these opinions and alliances are constantly reformed.

Fiske argues that when opposing domination, people have two options: resistance or evasion. “Evasion is more pleasurable than meaningful, whereas resistance produces meaning before pleasures” (Fiske: 2). In others words, Fiske argues that if we resist something, we look for meanings in it rather than enjoying it. In order to make Popular Culture out of certain, otherwise ‘unentertaining’ and ‘even boring’ media products, Fiske argues that the viewer needs to be able to make their own meanings and opinions out of them.

Producers must create programmes that provide meanings for consumers that we are able to relate to our own every day lives. Programmes therefore adapt their plots in order to attract an audience who can relate their own experiences to that of a character, e. g. domestic abuse or alcoholism. Ultimately Fiske argues a completely different view to that of Adornos’. Where Adorno feels that Popular Culture is imposed on society by the Capitalist giant above us, Fiske believes that it is in fact brought on society from within and below.

He moves away from Adorno’s belief and argues that it is the public that creates Popular Culture not Capitalism. Fiske also secures any argument that might go against his view by stating that there is always “an element of popular culture that lies outside social control” (Fiske: 2). He provides a more open argument to that of Adorno by doing this. Pleasure is definitely an issue when it comes to Popular Culture. It is meant to entice the viewer and this is why I am more inclined to favour Fiske’s views and arguments on Popular Culture.

Adorno would argue that this enticement was meant in an almost hypnotic sense but I believe that society is strong enough to make up their own choices and decisions. Fiske’s arguments support my own personal opinions on this subject. I believe that it is indeed society that demands entertainment and the Media industries provide this. I also agree with his argument that it is impossible to inflict a culture onto a society. One chooses what they want to see and what they want to be exposed to. We are always free to turn off the television or throw away a newspaper.

We still have the ability to escape what is known as Popular Culture. However, to an extent Adorno’s view that we do become attached to characters and story lines could be fitted into this but in a less extreme way. I do not completely agree with his opinions that we passively watch these products and take in every thing that is broad casted to us but we do enjoy watching soaps and relating characters experiences to our own. Ultimately though, every person still has their own opinions and feelings and it is their own choice how much information they choose to believe and keep with them.

I also do not agree with his argument that these programmes and music give us a false pleasure because many people do get genuine pleasure from these. A combination of both theorists work would provide the best analysis on Popular Culture. If one was able to include aspects of each of their beliefs, than I feel that they may come up with a theory that could by applied to Popular Culture in our society today.


Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. 1991, The Schema of Mass Culture in J. Berstein (ed. ) The Culture Industry, London: Routledge. Fiske, J. 1990, Reading the Popular. Routledge: London and New York.

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