- Letter from the Editors
The articles in this issue of JAPPC are based on the annual Inhuman Screens Conference held at the Sydney Underground Film Festival and convened by Aleks Wansbrough and Stefan Popescu. Given the coronavirus in 2020, the conference was entirely virtual. This was strangely fitting for a conference about the way humans are mediated through the screen, as technology has changed the very concept of the human and therefore also of culture. But it is therefore relevant also to the theme of the journal as popular culture emerged as a concept from technological developments.
Pop culture, like the cognate term popular art, is, as Noël Carrol puts it, "an ahistorical term."1 In a modern and commercial sense, it is tied to the emergence of mass culture. While exploiting folk culture in the form of kitsch, popular culture began in part as the product of "the culture industry"—an extension of—or encroachment by—corporate industry into culture.2 Culture became something technologized and instrumentalized that could be divorced from locality, and instead was created by masses of people in a manner that resembled an assembly line—tested and approved before being released into a public that was ordered, conditioned, and manipulated into massified audiences, on a global scale. Such a claim may sound judgmental but it is a statement of fact: advertising, test audiences, media executives, and corporate funding are all part of cultural production. Mass culture, in short, required mass production and therefore also standardization.
This observation is not to deny the persistence of public spectacle that had previously trafficked on a more localized level. The arrival of mass culture conjured like nothing before mass and massive experiences. [End Page 1] Often linked to the emergence of totalitarian regimes, mass culture also inaugurated shared experiences and the ability for mass mobilization and change. It thereby issued forth a concretization of a relatively new political category: that of the collective masses, the multitude, the many rather than the few. The media forms of mass culture provided a return to mythic entertainment, portraying even banal or fanciful stories on large screens to large audiences, and thereby providing a shared reference point after the vaporizing processes of industrial modernity. Marx claimed in the nineteenth century that all that was solid had been melted into air.3 Mass culture in some sense provided a salve; a return to custom, order, and routine via standardization and Fordist production, amply supported by a state managed capitalism that persisted through the 1960s.
From one vantage point, popular culture in the mid-twentieth century reflected the social conceptions and developments of embedded liberalism, but from another vantage point it could be framed as a component of a Weberian "shell as hard as steel" or iron cage.4 (Popular movies from the '50s, for example, affirmed the value of being a good citizen, and contained warnings to those who would defy the norms of society; with arguable exceptions and subversions present in the genres of the Western and Film Noir.)
Adorno, heavily influenced by Weber, belonged to the latter category and complained bitterly, and critiqued relentlessly, what he saw as the return of a false salvation that glossed over the suffering fracture of modernity—recall his famous dictum: a "splinter in your eye makes the best magnifying glass."5 Yet Adorno argued against a romantic or reactionary critique of mass culture:
The struggle against mass culture can consist only in pointing out its connection with the persistence of social injustice. It is ridiculous to reproach chewing gum for diminishing the propensity for metaphysics, but it could probably be shown that Wrigley's profits and his Chicago palace have their roots in the social function of reconciling people to bad conditions and thus diverting them from criticism. It is not that chewing gum undermines metaphysics but that it is metaphysics—this is what must be made clear. We criticize mass culture not because it gives men too much or makes their life too secure—that we may leave to Lutheran theology—but rather because [End Page 2] it contributes to a condition in which men get too little and...