UPDATE: Pop/Theory: Criticism's Relation to Film, Television, and Popular Culture (8/15/04; collection)

full name / name of organization: 
Michael Eberle-Sinatra

*Pop/Theory: Criticism's Relation to Film, Television, and Popular
(Contracted for publication by Wilfrid Laurier University Press)


Due a large number of requests having to do with films rather than
television series, the editors have decided to extend the call for
papers to 15 August 2004 and to alter the subtitle to include film
along with television. Please submit your completed essays (5000-8000
words, Chicago manual of style) to Michael Eberle-Sinatra
(michael.eberle.sinatra_at_umontreal.ca) or Dino Felluga

This collection will examine the fraught relationship between critical
theory and popular culture, examining not only the recent turn of
theory to mass entertainment (thanks to postmodernism, cultural
criticism, and Lacanian criticism) but also those instances when
popular entertainment addresses high theory (from the Matrix's
conversation with Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation to Buffy
the Vampire Slayer's consistent implementation of Freudian and Lacanian
theory). In what ways, we will ask, do such crossings affect
assumptions between "high" and "low" culture or between the avant-garde
and mass-market kitsch?

Here is the challenge of this collection: we have been conditioned not
to think seriously about popular entertainment. Such fare is designed
to offer up easily consumable packages: direct narratives, transparent
cinematography, unchallenging scenarios. This fact has led earlier
critics to dismiss pop culture altogether, sometimes attacking it for
its enervating effects on an unsuspecting and easily misled public (eg.
Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, and
Fredric Jameson). Of course, much of that criticism is correct in its
assumptions. It is clear that most Hollywood fare, whether on
television or the big screen, follows extremely rigid and unthreatening
general parameters: 1) a reliance on highly conservative principles of
compositional unity, character motivation, sequential linearity, and
narrative closure; 2) a transparent presentation of scenes that does
not interrupt the mimesis of a story line or call attention to the
technology of the medium; 3) an acceptance of masculine hierarchies and
values (conservative gender roles, the objectification of women's
bodies, the conferral of agency to the male gaze). However, it is also
a fact that pop culture represents a fantastically varied field of
study, one that, because of the financial rewards, has attracted all
sorts of very smart writers and directors. The question we will explore
in this collection is not only how theory might help us to make sense
of the conservative bulk of cinema and television but also how we might
make sense of those moments in pop culture that resemble, or at least
invoke, the avant-garde.

In other words, the juxtaposition of the title, pop/theory, implies a
number of larger questions that have been insufficiently explored in
recent scholarship. Most works on mass entertainment explore the
question, "how does critical theory help us to understand pop culture?"
Although this question will interest this volume as well, we will be
interested in teasing out a number of other questions implied by the
juxtaposition, pop/theory:

1) How does pop culture shed light on critical theory? In particular,
what does pop culture tell us about the relationship of high to mass
culture? If theory is a product of elite institutions (universities,
professional organizations, journals), does it run aground when
addressing the praxis of pop culture? How is all this complicated by
postmodern theory, which tends towards high theory yet is concerned
with pop-cultural artifacts? The difficulty of answering this question
is illustrated by the distinction some critics have attempted to
establish between postmodernism (i.e. postmodern theory, including
poststructuralism, performance theory, critical legal studies, etc.)
and postmodernity (or the age in which we live, including such
characteristic phenomena as a loss of temporality, media proliferation,
late capitalism, virtuality, secondary orality, the internet, and so

2) What exactly should be the position of Cultural Studies vis-à-vis
pop culture? How have its insights succeeded or failed in helping us
understand mass entertainment. In other words, we will be interested in
seeing essays that discuss Cultural Studies in meta-critical ways. What
precisely is the legacy of Cultural Studies after a decade of dominance
in the publishing industry?

3) If, as many critics have argued, literary theory should concern
itself with literary discourse not specific literary works (ie. with
literariness rather than literature), what might theory have to say
about pop culture's popularness or about televisuality or the

4) What is the relationship of pop culture to the aesthetic object?
Seymour Chatman states that, in approaching an aesthetic work, "the
perceiver must at some point mentally construct the 'field' or 'world'
of the aesthetic object." What is the relationship of pop-cultural
artifacts to the construction of the aesthetic object? Is there an
aesthetics to pop culture or is pop culture by definition opposed to
the definition of the aesthetic? What precisely constitutes the "field"
of the pop-cultural work?

5) To put this question another way, can pop or mass culture be "high"
culture on occasion? Or, what happens to pop culture when it makes
reference to high culture in serious ways? We have already seen the
collapse of high and mass culture in both modern and postmodern art
(Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, Roy Lichtenstein's cartoons, Andy
Warhol's Campbell Soup art) but these works always address the
mass-cultural artifact from a distance, so to speak; they comment upon
mass culture or reflect upon the nature of high culture, often in
highly critical ways. What do we make of the reverse situation: those
instances when mass-cultural shows make reference to high cultural
artifacts: Seinfeld's backwards show, "The Betrayal" (and its
inspiration in Pinter's play, Betrayal); the "high" literary references
of X-Files episode titles ("The Goldberg Variation", "Sein und Zeit",
"Tithonus", "Arcadia", "The Post-Modern Prometheus", "Memento Mori");
the fact that in the Buffy episode, "Restless," Willow is painting a
copy of a Sappho poem onto Tara's body ( and in the original Greek
too); the many references to Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation in
the film The Matrix. There are a surprising number of examples. What do
we make of this rapprochement of two purportedly irreconcilable things
(pop and "culture")? What is the status of Bourdieu's concept of
"cultural capital" in relation to this phenomenon?

6) If avant-garde modernism tends to mark its self-consciousness by
highlighting the medial mechanism by which the reading effect and the
time effect are created in literature and film respectively (thus
highlighting the breakdown of meaning in the phonemic play of language
or in the photographemic interruption of film), what exactly is the
status of pop shows that do the same thing, that also self-reflexively
comment on their own mechanical transferal and medial technology? Does
such self-reflexivity mark the movement into the avant-garde or is it
perhaps that such self-reflexivity is by no means solely the province
of the modernist avant-garde?
Dr. Michael Eberle-Sinatra
Director of Graduate Studies
Departement d'etudes anglaises
Universite de Montreal
CP 6128, Station Centre-ville
Montreal, Quebec H3C3J7 - Canada
Editor *Romanticism on the Net*
Tel: (514) 343-6149 - Fax: (514) 343-6443

Dr. Michael Eberle-Sinatra
Director of Graduate Studies
Departement d'etudes anglaises
Universite de Montreal
CP 6128, Station Centre-ville
Montreal, Quebec H3C3J7 - Canada
Editor *Romanticism on the Net*
Tel: (514) 343-6149 - Fax: (514) 343-6443

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Received on Tue Jul 06 2004 - 01:10:02 EDT