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Taking Seinfeld Seriously: Modernism in Popular Culture

From: New Literary History
Volume 37, Number 4, Autumn 2006
pp. 761-776 | 10.1353/nlh.2007.0005


The strategies employed by the creators of the critically-acclaimed show Seinfeld to reinvent the American television sitcom bear a striking resemblance to those that Gustave Flaubert devised to reinvent the French novel in the mid-nineteenth century, following late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's account. Far from being some transnational, transmedial, and transepochal coincidence, the similarity of Flaubert's and Seinfeld's "refusals" of pre-existing and contemporary models of their respective genres points to the universality of the mechanisms by which certain cultural producers effect a "modernist" revolution in disparate popular cultural "fields" in modern capitalist societies. The eruption of modernist transvaluations in mass cultural genres serves not only to legitimate specific cultural producers against others within these genres, but raises these media-bound genres to a more legitimate status within the field of cultural production at large. Modernism is not, then, tied to any specific historical period, national culture, or medium; it is rather a recurrent and repeatable event occurring non-synchronously across diverse national, historical, and media contexts. Such a definition opens up new possibilities in cultural studies for examining the "production" side of popular culture, which traditionally has received less attention than its "consumption" counterpart.

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