The Debate on Mass Culture
If the new criticism established a specific role in American culture for literary analysis, it also provided one of the co-ordinates for a view of the quality and nature of the mass culture of press, radio, cinema and television. Paul Lazarsfeld, a pioneer of the debate on mass culture and its effects, has commented on the fact that the role of mass culture and its relationship to other cultural forces such as those of high culture was a major preoccupation of intellectual life from 1935: ‘In this country we attained a peak of discussions about mass culture between 1935 and 1955’.2 The purpose of this chapter and several of those that follow it is to describe the development of this debate in the work of a number of literary, cultural and sociological investigators of the impact of mass culture on American society. One emphasis will be on the proponents of the conservative critique of mass culture which stressed the low level of aesthetic complexity and intellectual content in mass culture. The work of this group, from T. S. Eliot to Dwight Macdonald, proceeded by a comparative method in which the products of mass culture were evaluated in a balance against those of high or avant-garde culture. The balance invariably tilted in favour of the latter. This conservative critique intersects at a number of points with the Marxist critique of the Frankfurt School of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse who, in the 1930s, took up residence in the USA as a result of the rise of Nazism.
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