Review — “Discrimination And Popular Culture” — Denys Thompson (ed.)

Discrimination And Popular CultureDiscrimination And Popular Culture by Denys Thompson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Discrimination And Popular Culture is an early entry into the study of popular culture, so is not beset by theory or post-modernism, and thus is an easy-enough read. It is a collection of relatively non-academic essays, published in 1964. Given the publication date, the essays reflect the popular culture of the early 1960s or even the late 1950s. Even The Beatles are so new they are only mentioned in a footnote. The essays have, therefore, little connection with cultural topics that would fascinate and inform subsequent studies of popular culture.

Youth culture is mentioned in a few of the the essays, yet isn’t given the prominence it would have in later books about culture. The essays seemed to grope for a structure or framework that would enable criticism of that culture. Youth culture pops up, unsurprisingly, mostly in reference to popular music and magazines. The swinging sixties, rock music, 60s film and fashion are notably absent. No David Bailey or Mary Quant here. For modern readers, the absence of photography and fashion as topics would be the most obvious omissions.

As the title suggests, the essays seek to address how consumers should discriminate between what is good and bad in popular culture, or between what is true or false. So, we have essays on advertising, film, radio and television, the press, magazines, recorded music, and design. The last essay in the book, on design, is a surprising inclusion, and feels like an odd-man-out; the essay doesn’t have the same emphasis on discrimination.

Discrimination is the underlying theme of the book. It is the method that enables popular culture to be analysed (and perhaps dismissed as frivolous folly). Discrimination is a matter of education, and this education should should start early. Discrimination between the “bad” and the “good” in newspapers, television, cinema, and so on, can be taught at school, it is suggested. And there’s a sense in which this indeed would be helpful, and the teaching of critical thinking at school is a topic for educationalists even today.

Critical thinking or good judgement as tools for discrimination can be useful for approaching newspapers, news magazines, or news and comment on television or radio. However, for more subjective areas, such as popular music, articles in say, teenage and music magazines, responses to movies, and so on, the use of discrimination sails perilously close to being simply a method to elevate high and denigrate low culture. For example, the essay on film discusses at length what is wrong with the movies The Guns of Navarone and Summer Holiday, while extolling the virtues of L’Atalante and L’Age d’Or — and while I’m sure the last two films are fine films, they are most certainly not “popular culture”. The medium might be popular, but the medium must be distinguished from artefacts of that medium. There are artefacts of the medium that are popular — Summer Holiday — and artefacts that are assuredly not, and are, indeed “high culture”.

Despite its age, the book can sometimes feel contemporary. This is partly because it talks about discrimination and education. Often, nothing seems to have changed. Newspapers mislead, or should be considered entertainment rather than news; television is banal; to make money, movies appeal to a wide audience rather than being the best art they can be; magazines for teenage girls concentrate on fashion and sexualise their readers too early; and so on. Plus ca change plus la meme chose. Replace some of the media discussed instead with the Web, phones and streaming, and the plaints sound familiar even now.

So – the two star review is not because the book is tedious or unreadable. It is, indeed, fine, it is okay. And because of the time at which it was written, you might find yourself gently smiling at such quaint turns of phrase as:

… this very same music, played at maximum volume in a youth club, would encourage a lively jiving session and a general atmosphere of exuberant vitality.

The essays are, however, unlikely to cause you to reappraise your views on popular culture, and for many readers with an interest in popular culture, will appear theoretically outmoded. Still, it is books like this that provide the underpinnings of cultural studies in the Britain, and so has historical interest.

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Review – “Total Man” – Stan Gooch

Total ManTotal Man by Stan Gooch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the one of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition. This was so long I started it last year and only finished this year!]

When I first read this back in 1977, I remember finding it interesting – but this time it has been most dull. And long! At nearly 600 pages, it could easily have been much (much) shorter. Back then, this would have been one of my first introductions to psychology, and  popular science, and it was also full of notions that seemed novel and interesting: essentially explaining “The Divided Self” as instantiated in brain structures and through them in culture, left hand and right hand, female and male, psychotic and neurotic, conscious and subconcious; a lot of polarities compared and contrasted (but with many fuzzy bits pruned).

Reading it this time, however, in a less innocent and more critical mode, I couldn’t help noticing quite how ridiculously speculative it all is, with lots of “if this is the case”, “if we were to suppose”, “if we can conclude”. If you ignore the hypothetical nature of the claims and just focus on the claims generated by the hypotheticals, it can all seem quite plausible, but the long chains of inferences seems a little weak to carry the bridge across the Gulf of Possible Nonsense.

As to the hypothetical nature of the arguments, you will find (opening the book at random) chains of sentences like this: “This is probably a serious misconception”… “was probably after all first on the scene”…. “Is it not far more likely“… “This is perhaps yet one of the further meanings”… “To generalise at this point”… “This claim is somewhat borne out”… “the difference may be perceived” “For reasons …by no means entirely clear“… “the possible exceptions to this statement”… “one has suggested…” (My italics) Webs of speculation feed into mazes of conjecture that terminate in knots of problematic conclusions. Because the conclusions rest upon so many interlinked hypotheticals, I began to find myself asking, “but what if it isn’t likely, or probable, or not borne out at all”, and so on.

The book is also structured in a way that hinders reading. Footnotes abound, but these are often additional speculations or clarifications associated with points just made. Many, many of these could have been added within the flow of the text, and in some cases might have helped the argument. As it was, I found myself breaking the flow of reading to jump to another point, and then having to regain my rhythm. Additionally, almost out of the blue, towards the end of the books and after spending 500 pages  describing Systems A and B — their polarity, their links, their conflicts, their associations with psychology — System C pops up. That a System C should exist after the previous speculations kind of makes sense — a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of A and B. But there has been little to prepare the reader for this kind of synthesis, although, of course, it explains the Total Man of the title. Yet, one also feels that this is also a way to marry Gooch’s theories with other world views involving trinities, which couldn’t be ignored if as he used culture, religion and literature as evidence.

The book also became a vehicle for other pet theories of Gooch’s that appeared in later books. One is tempted to think that he wanted to get these ideas out in some form in case he never got another book deal. For example, there is a very (very) long section on the differences and conflicts between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons that takes up nearly eighty pages — and yet by the end of it I had lost the thread of Gooch’s argument. This conflict was to become the subject of his “The Neanderthal Question” (and other later books). Similarly, there’s a short (and, again, confusing) section on probability and chance (when discussing the I Ching) that he expanded in his “The Paranormal” to even more confusing effect.

The book isn’t entirely without merit, and introduced me, 40 years ago, when I was young and not so widely-read, to a lot topics and notions. But it is a slog, and it is not well-structured, so come prepared for the long knitting session involved in handling the skein of suppositions.

Review – “The Thirties” – Julian Symons

The Thirties: A Dream RevolvedThe Thirties: A Dream Revolved by Julian Symons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julian Symons is perhaps best known as a crime writer. He also wrote poetry, social and military history, biography, literary criticism … He was prolific, as a glance at his Wikipedia page will testify.

This book looks at the role of the arts – particularly literature, and particularly Auden, in the decade of the 1930s. Symons also discusses political movements – particularly of the left – and their connections to those artistic currents. Symons, who was in his twenties at the time, was a member of the intellectual and political groups he discusses, so has first-hand knowledge of the authors and artists in those groups, and of the political atmosphere at the time.

My knowledge of Thirties literature – particularly poetry – and the politics of the intelligentsia is limited. This book was, therefore, an interesting introduction to the period. Because my knowledge is limited, however, I cannot tell if the book was tendentious. Symons, to his credit, sometimes mocks his younger self, sometimes is appalled by him. The feeling I took from the book was that Symons was sympathetic to left-wing views, but was not a prosletyser, nor a zealot. Indeed, as he admits – and here is one of those moments he was appalled with himself – he sometimes took on the persona of a more right-wing individual in reaction against the zealous left-ism of the intelligentsia in which he found himself.

The book is short and easy to read – useful if all of this is new to you – and the chapters snappy and concise (each chapter tends to introduce a topic and then spin and divagate around it) – Auden, poetry, politics, theatre, the New Left Review, Gollancz, and so on were all introduced in chapters of little more than five or ten pages. The subjects of these chapters would then reappear, weaving their way through the Thirties until Spain and Munich.

The book is, then, a concise look at a particular period in British political and intellectual history, and will be of interest to those, like me, who had little knowledge of that period and that milieu. The book also (re)introduced me to some poets I had heard of but knew little of, such as Stephen Spender and Gavin Ewart – and the few line lines and stanzas Symons provides from these poets to colour his themes has spurred my interest in reading more of them.

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