Pop culture studies turns 25

When Ray Browne founded the first department to study "Star Trek" semiotics and cartoon aesthetics, he expanded the boundaries of academic study forever.


David Jacobson
March 5, 1999 10:29PM (UTC)

Somehow you expect Ray Browne to look a little bit more, you
know, radical. Maybe an earring as big as a migration tag or one of those
Einstein quantum 'fros. After all, he's the godfather of popular
culture studies; the founder and still editor in his emeritus years of
the Journal of Popular Culture, filled with dense analyses of slam-dancing,
country music and computer games; the co-founder of the Popular Culture
Association, whose 1,000-plus scholars annually present papers on everything from R.E.M. lyrics to porno flicks; the professor who was punted from the
English department at Bowling Green State 25 years ago because he was "disgracing the university," but who promptly established the only graduate program and undergraduate major in popular culture in our galaxy; the guy whose career, by his own account, constituted "a kind of class-action suit against conventional points of view and fields of study in the humanities."

But there he is, in all his photos, stolid and blandly groomed,
looking like the office manager of some midsized widget company. Yet his embodiment of the average Joe is utterly appropriate. After all, Browne's fundamental notion is that academia should pay the same kind of serious attention to the "common, everyday culture" of the masses -- from sitcoms to bestsellers, from rap to lawn ornaments -- as it traditionally has to elite stuff.

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In the quarter century since Browne founded the popular culture
movement, it has had wide influence. But no other school has followed
Bowling Green State and established a full department, not to mention a
library bursting at the seams with romance novels and "Star Trek" memorabilia, and a busy press publishing the history of American skinheads and collections of soap opera criticism. And even when it's studied under English or mass media, popular culture remains plenty controversial, mocked by the same media that feeds off it, derided by traditionalists hurling jeremiads about pandering and raising important questions about what is worthy of academic attention.

When he boldly confronted tradition, Browne wasn't dabbling in the
era's academic anarchy so much as honoring his own roots and character.
He was raised by a free-thinking agnostic father in the heart of the
Bible Belt -- a poor kid in rural Depression-era Alabama who never
stopped questioning privilege. In the Army, he saw plenty of the stockade, because "I did not have enough 'Sirs' in my vocabulary," he
writes in "Against Academia," his brief memoir and history of popular
culture studies. So it's not surprising that, while Browne cut his
academic teeth on more traditional literature and
folklore, he ultimately rebelled.

Browne was among the unwashed masses who poured through the college
gates sprung open by the G.I. Bill. Like later generations of women,
minorities and gays, some of those newcomers noticed that their own
culture, in this case that of the vast lower- and middle-class majority,
was largely ignored by academics.

To the extent that popular culture was being examined back then, it was
through the telescopic lens of history or with the long, cold tongs of
the social sciences. But Browne insisted on also looking at contemporary
material and applying to it the kind of close, comparative analysis that
had previously been reserved for highbrow culture.

Browne and his cohorts insisted that there were alternative and
significant aesthetics afoot below the esoteric radar of traditional
scholars.

"People make choices as to what book to read or movie to see,
and just as regularly evaluate the experience: This was a good thriller,
this is a great party song," writes BGSU pop culture professor Jack
Santino in summarizing the program's "socio-aesthetic approach." "These
aesthetic criteria are generally unarticulated, it is the task of the
researcher to identify them."

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Of course, the same folks in and out of academia who criticize
postmodern theorists for trivializing the object of study, reducing
Shakespeare to a commodified text, also rip pop culture scholars for
studying trivial objects, approaching video games as if they held the
depths of Shakespeare.

In fact, Browne's most radical argument may be that you can teach
critical thinking and gain as good a liberal arts education using pop
materials as with the old highbrow ones. "There's just as much glory and virtue in being a Madonna person as in being a Hemingway person," he says. "If you
want to study culture through Madonna, it seems to me that's a marvelous opportunity."

While a department of popular culture plopped down amid the cornfields
south of Toledo might seem like an intellectual Christo project, it made
political sense. If Browne was the catalyst, the administration at
relatively unknown Bowling Green State was also open to an unorthodox
department that might put them on the academic map.

Popular culture studies rapidly grew in size and notoriety. And BGSU's
eight-member faculty now teaches at least 2,000 students a year.
Eventually, it set up shop in an uncannily appropriate house built
from a 1930s Montgomery
Ward kit. The department was also distinguished by its
high profile in national and even international media attention.

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"Some people were delighted by that and some people were
embarrassed by that," says Michael Marsden, who worked with Browne at
the outset and is now dean of liberal arts at Northern Michigan
University.

Marsden suffered his share of knocks as a popular culture
scholar. After being barraged with faculty criticism when he became a certified Miss Ohio judge, in order to get "privileged information" for his research on beauty pageants, he fought back. "I'll file a grievance if you're suggesting there's some aspect of culture that's forbidden to be studied," he said.

A conference on "the history of roller coasters" at Ohio's famed Cedar Point amusement park garnered accusations that scholars were "squandering taxpayer money and doing foolish things," recalls Marsden. Two decades later, "that roller coaster course" is still cited by critics knocking the Bowling Green program.

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Yet such criticism still leaves pop culture scholars nonplused. Why should the study of a leisure activity necessarily be a leisurely activity itself? Department veterans like Professor Christopher Geist say popular
culture's more outrageous, perhaps publicity-seeking past has cast an
undeservedly anti-intellectual image.

While the ever-rebellious Browne still asserts, "I have never come
across something that I find worthless," Geist demurs: "I'm not at all
afraid to say some TV rots the brain, but I want to understand why
people are drawn to it."

Given crisscrossing paths of intellectual discovery, given the rise
first of American studies, then mass media studies and, more recently,
"cultural studies," it's tough to know how much of pop culture in academia was spurred by BGSU's program. But sometimes the effect is obvious. In the 1980s, Robert Thompson, a graduate student at Northwestern University, wrote a paper analyzing the appeal of top TV programs that is a model of pop culture scholarship. Drawing from studies that concluded that television viewing is characterized by inattention (up to two-thirds of viewers are engaged in other activities while watching), Thompson analyzed then-top-rated shows like "The Love Boat" and found that they appealed to their distracted viewers with lots of short scenes and reiterated exposition: "A moment's viewing at any time -- is enough to get a summary and an update."

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As he concluded: "All the things that make these shows appear
inartistic -- superficial themes, limited character development, low
intellectual demand -- are really their strong points."

Thompson's paper "'The Love Boat': High Art on the High Seas," not only
predicted the mega-popularity of multi-plot micro-scene shows like "ER"
and "Seinfeld," it launched his career as a pop culture scholar when it
was published in Browne's Journal of American Culture in 1983.

Looking back over 15 annual conferences of the Popular Culture
Association he's attended, Thompson says: "There was room for fans,
aficionados and lunatics. To put it bluntly -- it was more open and
exciting intellectually than most of the established, traditional
fields."

Earning his doctorate in TV studies, Thompson founded the Center
for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "I really
want to do to TV what English professors did to novels," he says. "I
want to engage our culture of choice, popular culture, television, with
the same sincerity and seriousness.

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At BGSU, there's a bulletin board near the pop culture mailboxes
where secretaries tack up media requests for commentary. The department
can't afford to return all the long-distance calls. Still, they pour in,
highlighting the media's strange relationship with pop culture studies.

Journalists love having a bona fide professor lend guru-esque legitimacy
to stories. Last year alone, Browne was quoted in the Wall Street
Journal about shortening cycles of nostalgia and in the Buffalo News on
criminality and pro athletes. In the Los Angeles Times, he discussed super-tiny
cellular phones and in the Arizona Republic, he dissected oversized
restaurant servings.

But when pop culture studies is itself the subject, then the media
invariably stress the supposedly oxymoronic clang of the professorial
and the popular.

"Schlock waves felt across U.S. Campuses" went a typical Dallas
Morning News headline (atop a Washington Post feature originally labeled
"Pop Goes the Culture" ) about this year's meeting of the Popular
Culture Association. The piece concludes: "They can't help themselves.
After endless years in higher education, constantly trying to plumb
meaning from turgid texts, they can't shut off when they hit the streets
or turn on the tube."

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In other words: Academics should stick to old, high-falutin' stuff or
the mostly incomprehensible warrens of advanced science. Leave the
popular and contemporary to non-egghead journalists who presumably won't
over-plumb.

Competitiveness aside, the media's knee-jerk knock on pop studies
reflects a disconcerting reality. When the subjects are as opaque to the untutored as Milton or Dante, the average citizen has to assume that the academics are scoring fresh, brilliant points in their ivory tower toils. But if the starting point is familiar, then folks can choose to see all the humanities as just a nutty game of intellectual free association.

Some articles in the Journal of Popular Culture are rich with insight.
A recent piece on slam-dancing truly mines the subject, employing
everything from Turner's social drama theory to field observation at
nightclubs. It even traces the mosh pit's cultural appropriation by, of all places, Disney World. By contrast a piece in an earlier issue that asks, "If Aristotle were alive today, what books would he read, what television shows would he watch?" (Answers: Tony Hillerman and the defunct "Strange Luck") just
seems like cheesy dorm-room riffing.

But whether or not pop culture scholarship is always profound and
unique, the media's mockery merely regurgitates conventional wisdom.
The New York Times' Russell Baker called Thompson's TV studies center at Syracuse
"a vision of hell," insisting that TV is trash and that only time can reveal the useful material. Essentially, he implied that this is a supernatural, not
an intellectual process: "Until the ages have spoken, [these shows]
remain junk."

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Despite such criticism from the popular press, these days it's tough to find purity in the opposing academic camps. Rebels like Browne and Marsden insist pop culture taught well must be historically and culturally comparative. And a traditionalist like Sanford Pinsker, Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College and journal editor of the National Association of
Scholars ("dedicated to the restoration of intellectual substance"),
teaches a course in American humor, drawing on magazine essays from
Calvin Trillin and Garrison Keillor. Some might consider that pop studies.

Still, there are indelible differences. "You can find the heroic
characteristics of 'Beowulf' in Batman comics," concedes Pinsker. "But the
differences are what's important. The literary texture. The depth of
vision."

Pop culture scholars would counter that the similarities really are important in helping students make sense of daily life. As Marsden puts it, "Culture changes but it doesn't disappear. It's like energy that just seeks another form."

Both sides wheel out the big guns of economic loathing. Browne
argues that academics have long traded in arcane knowledge that they
have marketed as valuable. Pinsker sees pop culture as dumbing down
curricula for mass markets: "Sheer economic facts have a lot more to do
with this than Ray Browne ever did. What we need now in colleges are
customers and what you do with customers is you make them happy: Here's a product you can sell."

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Back at Bowling Green State, the Popular Culture Library reflects the
discipline's continued boom and maturation. "We're still taming the
frontier here," says head librarian Alison Scott, riding herd on a
half-million items that include "a comprehensive collection of not only Harlequin romances, but Silhouettes, Heart Songs, Zebras, Intrigues and Candle Lights."

But the library's hubcap collection has been dispatched to a car
museum. The miniature liquor bottles? Also gone. "We didn't have the
cars, or the liquor -- or any useful information as to how to place them
in a larger cultural context," says Scott.

And even as Scott gets invited to "speak on the question of comic books
in academic libraries, pulp magazines in research libraries," by
traditional librarians taking pop culture more seriously, she seeks to
increase BGSU's 19th century materials.

Scott sounds positively Pinsker-esque when she notes, "We have young
students who are just shocked when you infer that there was popular
culture before they were born. And these kids were born in 1980."

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David Jacobson

David Jacobson is a San Francisco writer and consulting editor to Maxim magazine.

MORE FROM David Jacobson

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