John Story has pointed out, correctly, that ‘popular culture’ is essentially “an empty conceptual category.” That does not mean, however, that the many things and practices the term potentially signifies are not real or meaningful. Popular culture, as it is understood in cultural studies, surrounds us in our daily lives; it informs our values, our habits, and our desires—it provides us with ever-changing visions of the good life, it entertains us, and it moves us. Popular culture simultaneously mirrors and generates cultural imperatives and, in doing so, not only provides us with a variety of pleasures, but also holds decisive powers over the lives of people. From a cultural studies perspective, then, popular culture constitutes a rich and important field, one in which we can study and try to understand how societies create, negotiate, and strengthen or undermine values, identities, and behaviors. A city like Berlin moreover lends itself as the perfect context in which to experience the phenomena we talk about in class first hand.
When the eponymous heroine of the 1990s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer attends her first college class, titled “Images of Pop Culture,” her professor points out that “[t]he point of this course is not to critique popular American culture. It is not to pick at it, or look down upon it. And it is not to watch videos for credit.” This same applies to this seminar. We will follow cultural critic Eva Illouz, who argues that the “point of cultural analysis is not to measure cultural practices against what they ought to be or ought to have been but rather to understand how they have come to be what they are and why, in being what they are, they ‘accomplish things’ for people.” This does not mean, however, that our approach will be un-critical; but we will concentrate on trying to understand what the various instances of popular culture mean, how they work, and why they “‘accomplish things’ for people,” as Illouz puts it.
We will approach the heterogeneous cultural landscape subsumed under the moniker ‘popular’ by focusing in each session on a specific form or mode of popular culture—art, for instance, or music, or food—and using examples from the contemporary (mostly) American context to discuss the manifold ways in which the things, practices, and discourses acquire meaning for the people engaging with them. We will address politics and economics as well as aesthetics and form; we will discuss the pleasures we derive from popular culture as well as the destructive potentials it may hold. And we will turn to the practical side of things by going on a number of field trips to explore the pop cultural landscape of Berlin.
This course is open to all students. No previous experience with (pop) cultural studies is necessary.
Students should be able to speak and read English at an upper intermediate level (B2/C1).
A course reader will be provided at the first course meeting.