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For the Frankfurt School, popular culture – what they famously referred to as the ‘culture industry’ – is simply an extension of capitalism’s drive towards total control and domination into the realm of leisure time.However, while it may be tempting today to simply dismiss these ideas as representative of some kind of old-school elitism, it is important to remember when they first where articulated – during World War II, when the members of the Frankfurt School were forced to live in exile in the US, among other places, because of their Jewish heritage.Popular modernism is arguably one of the key concepts of Mark Fisher’s critical project; yet it was never extensively defined in his published writings.
– cognitive estrangement also turns out to be a useful resource for pinpointing the utopian underpinnings of (popular) modernist culture.
In a discussion of the concept of utopia, Freedman – drawing upon the major utopian thinker Ernst Bloch – points out that the aesthetic potency of utopia lies in how certain works of art are capable of estranging the empirical reality of the present by introducing fragments of other realities that are radically different from our world as we know it.
Particular modernist techniques were not only disseminated but collectively reworked and extended, just as the modernist task of producing forms which were adequate to the present moment was taken up and renewed.
But beyond Mark’s personal experiences, popular modernism is also an important concept insofar as it encompasses much of what was culturally progressive during the post-war decades – and in that way indexes an internal shift that took place in popular culture roughly from the 60s and onwards.
In that regard, their wider cultural import lies in the fact that increased mediation and technological reproduction does not necessarily have to lead to the narrowing of reality concomitant with the culture industry and postmodern consumer culture, but in fact provides fertile ground for augmenting the realm of authentic culture.
So, whereas Adorno only writes about the encounter between authentic and popular culture in negative terms – for instance, when classical music appears in commercials it loses its antagonistic force vis-à-vis popular culture, or the culture industry – aesthetic forms of the kind alluded to above invite us to think about this encounter differently (this does obviously not mean that Adorno’s analyses are incorrect, but rather that they are limited in scope).
The concept of popular modernism was coined by Mark in order to theorise the culture that he grew up with in post-war Britain and that formed him as an individual.
For Fisher, cultural phenomena such as parts of the music press and public service television, Penguin paperbacks, post-punk, rave and brutalist architecture were all parts of an overarching cultural ecology that came to set the standards of an entire generation of thinkers working at the intersection between so-called ‘high theory’ and popular culture.
In a series of essays on post-war popular culture in his book Oriented around cultural phenomena such as pop art, rock music, beat poetry, psychedelia, new criticism and the counterculture, pop became synonymous with the new lifestyles of the post-war youths and their rebellion against the norms of existing society.
For this generation, pop was understood as a critique rather than as an affirmation of existing society, and as a way of getting out of the elitism of high modernism by overcoming the rift between high art and popular culture.