Review: Theorising the Popular 2017

Liverpool Hope University

The seventh annual international conference held at Liverpool Hope University’s idyllic Hope Park Campus, ‘Theorising the Popular’ showcased fresh and innovative research surrounding popular culture across a variety of social and historical contexts. The two-day event aimed to challenge traditional academic hierarchies of culture and explore the ways in which emergent work on popular culture interacts with other, often more ‘traditional’, scholarly disciplines. As a result, the conference was innately interdisciplinary and facilitated conversations that cut across discursive barriers to illuminate connections between seemingly disparate fields. The organisation of the panels reflected this: media ranging from literature, film and television through to music, paratexts, video games, and theatre – and much more – were well represented.

The panel ‘Questions of High and Low Culture’ kicked off the conference, embodying one of the key concerns at the heart of work in the field: how might we re-evaluate our definitions of popular culture and the value judgements placed upon it by both scholarly and mainstream discourse? Although assumptions persist regarding ‘popular culture’ as mass-produced, wholly commercial or vacuous, popular texts and practices are now so deeply embedded in western lifestyles that any supposed distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture require persistent challenging. As scholars such as John Storey have noted, our ideas of what constitutes popular culture are not historically and socially fixed, but rather subject to a number of variable cultural and class distinctions.

The opening panel therefore proved valuable in showcasing work that continues to challenge these distinctions. Alice Kelly (University of Edinburgh), for instance, argued that the publication of ‘pulp’ versions of Joseph Conrad’s novel Chance (1913) enabled a subversive and literary story to be circulated within a more legitimised, populist format. Consequently, Kelly noted that those pulp versions operated as a site in which boundaries of high and low culture were blurred and contested. Alison Offe (Université Catholique de Lille), meanwhile, deconstructed the genre of the historical novel, using Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) to demonstrate the ways in which historical fiction occupies a liminal position between high and low culture, defying easy categorisation. The precarious nature of these cultural boundaries extended well beyond this opening panel.

A particular example of this was in a paper by Emma-Jayne Reekie (University of Liverpool), which explored how political establishments seek to co-opt the cultural capital of popular musicians by offering awards such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom or knighthoods. The threads woven between similar papers at the conference led to insightful discussions between panellists and audience members, with common feeling suggesting that these categories of ‘high’ or ‘low’ often preserve hierarchies and notions of value which obscure the more complex relationships between audiences and texts.

In fact, in his talk in the ‘Fandom and the Popular’ panel, Martin Barker (Aberystwyth University) suggested an alternative category to ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture, which he labelled ‘culturally sought and valued’. He argued that this term facilitates a more nuanced understanding of media by considering its audience engagement and cultural impact. What happens, however, when a mainstream text or phenomenon becomes defined by its lack of cultural value? That is to say, how can we account for the unpopular? Barker sought to address this question through reference to some of the results from his recent ‘The World Hobbit Project’ (2014-15). The project, huge in scope, drew on over 36,000 participant responses in 46 countries. Noting that disappointment with The Hobbit films was a recurring theme within the collated fan responses, Barker considered the usefulness of disappointment as a tool for understanding how audiences engaged with the franchise, and in his hugely engaging paper he explored fans’ strategies for managing this disappointment.

From the same panel, Martin Ian Smith’s (Northumbria University) paper on A Serbian Film (2010), a horror film that pushes boundaries of taste in its depiction of sex and violence, offered a useful complement to Barker’s work. Drawing on responses from a subset of audiences who define themselves in opposition to the film, Smith built on work on anti-fandom (by Jonathan Gray and others) to highlight the importance of studying anti-fans in order to engage with other segments of audiences and films. Indeed, case studies such as these prompt scholars to reflect on existing definitions of the popular, and to think differently not only about the texts we study but about the ways in which audiences engage with mainstream media. These papers and the subsequent discussion were particularly insightful in their demonstration of how increased scholarly attention to the unpopular can reveal our own academic subjectivity, illuminating under-valued texts and reconfiguring our understanding of consumption and reception.

It was rewarding to see audience-based research flourish throughout the conference, for these contributions served to illuminate the lived experiences of those who consume popular media. In some cases, as with Florencia Garcia-Rapp’s (Pompeu Fabra University) cultural reception analysis of Game of Thrones (2011- ) through responses from Spain, Germany and Argentina, this contributes to work exploring cultural specificities through which popular media is received. Case studies in participatory culture and fan labour also made a strong appearance throughout the conference; Nadia Sartoretti (University of Geneva), for instance, provided a vibrant study on Chinese fanfiction websites, and Aris Emmanouloudis’s (University of Amsterdam) paper on the Mortal Kombat (1992- ) video game series debated the agency that fans possess in shaping the franchise.

Elsewhere, the conference was characterised by a wide range of methodologies and case studies, which is a testament to the diversity and scope of the field as it stands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the large remit of the event, this led to a somewhat broad-brushstroke effect on occasion, and the event could perhaps have benefited from a keynote address to outline some of the cross-disciplinary challenges facing scholars of popular culture. Yet the structure of the panels tied together complementary themes and fostered coherence throughout the two days, and the numerous lively debates fostered by the conference made fruitful connections possible. Ultimately the conference demonstrated the depth and strength of research in popular culture, provided a space for doctoral researchers and early career academics in particular to contribute, and, crucially, provoked questions regarding new avenues for future study.

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About Cassie Brummitt

Cassie Brummitt is a doctoral researcher and part-time lecturer in the Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. Her PhD thesis examines the brand development of the Harry Potter franchise post-2011 through an examination of its paratexts. In October 2016 her article entitled ‘Pottermore: Transmedia Storytelling and Authorship in Harry Potter’ was published in The Midwest Quarterly.
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