On Popular Culture
Volume 1 Issue 2
Letter from the Editors
June 15th, 2017
Welcome back to returning readers and a warm welcome to those who are visiting the e.g. journal site for the first time. After our winter special issue: On Violence, we decided to delve into an frequently misrepresented field of interdisciplinary research: popular culture. Historically, scholars who study popular culture have often been pigeon-holed as doing fringe research which, though entertaining, is outside the heavy-hitting work of most academic departments. The study of popular culture has sought to resist the division of cultural forms into “high” and “low,” arguing that there is as much value to be found in comic books as there is in opera. Our hope, by offering this special issue on the topic, is to create space for students who study popular culture from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives to show how popular culture shapes the ways we engage with the world and helps codify timely discussions of race, economics, politics, social movements, etc. in the global imagination. We were not disappointed. This issue marked a sharp uptick in submissions from a wide range of disciplines: film studies, gender and women’s studies, and media studies. We have selected two essays that speak to the current scholarly moment in the study of popular culture.
In our first essay, “Die Antwoord: The Face of a Homologous Subculture, or a Purposeless Façade of Zef?”, Julia Engel makes use of Dick Hebdige’s theories of subculture formation to analyze the cultural context, artistic contributions, and political significance of the South African rap-rave performance group Die Antwoord. Engel argues that the Zef movement in South Africa, emerging from ideological and material challenges that working-class white Afrikaners experienced post-apartheid, does not conform to the aesthetic or political frameworks of most subculture movements. Engel’s work decenters the scholarly conversation on subculture and punk movements and challenges the reader to grapple with cultural appropriation as a tool to generate apolitical art in post-apartheid South Africa. In our second essay, “The Histories of Todd Haynes’s Carol”, Camille E.B. Boechler explores three distinct critical perspectives on the film (production history, critical reception, and popular reception). Boechler argues that by engaging the film from these three distinct critical perspectives readers can carve out new ways of interpreting representations of queerness, femininity, and mid-century white womanhood in Haynes’s Carol. Taken together, these essays help shape our understanding of how diverse and rich the interdisciplinary study of popular culture can be.
We hope you enjoy the work of our talented contributors in the e.g. special issue: On Popular Culture, and can use it to help frame conversations at your institutions, in your classrooms, and in your communities. Please also note the link to the CFP for our upcoming summer special issue, which will focus on the environment. We look forward to reading new student work and continuing the project of cultivating engaging, scholarly discussions for our readers and generating new opportunities for students to showcase their writing!
AJ Burgin & Steph Hankinson
This paper utilizes Dick Hebidge’s “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” to create a working definition of the concept of subculture. Against this framework, I discuss whether the South African techno-rave band Die Antwoord can be defined as the spearhead of the subculture of Zef, or if the group’s representation of Zef is more superficial than an authentic identifier of the Zef movement. I use Hebdige’s example of punk culture to first illustrate the tendencies of an authentic subculture to create boundaries around itself with the use of daring fashion, pervasive art, and highly identifiable musical sound, through which it digs its niche place outside of mass popular culture. With this example and Hebdige’s definition of subculture, I analyze a multitude of songs and music videos by Die Antwoord, as well as multiple interviews with band members ¥o-landi Vi$$er and Ninja to discern whether Die Antwoord can be accepted as a participant in subculture under the Hebdige definition.
I find through this extensive research that while Die Antwoord exemplifies particular aspects of Hebdige’s subculture definition—in its particular style of dress, in its political message in one exclusive music video, in its attempt to create discomfort within its viewers with its strange sexual displays—the group also creates a wide variety of problematic dynamics for itself which ultimately outweigh these subcultural details. Its use of blackface as well as its submission to product placement in its music videos are both key indicators that Die Antwoord faces some contradictory aspects to its attempt to be the ‘face of Zef music.’ Thus, the group presents a highly troubling dynamic—while it thinks of itself as subcultural and verbalizes such in its music, Die Antwoord’s actions indicate more so that it is a troubling façade of subculture who is in reality a participant in mass cultural tendencies.
These three essays examine three distinct histories of Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes, which overlap each other: the production history, the critical/academic history, and the popular reception history. The purpose of this project was to develop a closer and more in-depth understanding of Haynes’s film, not only of its content and form but also of the conversations that surround it. In researching what has already been written about the film, this project proposes to add meaningful insight and rhetorical analysis of the film as well as the mainstream critical discussion it has garnered. The first two sections written on Carol’s production and critical/academic histories are brief, although that is not to say that the histories themselves are not deeply complex and lucrative. Rather, the focus of this project is shifted toward an examination of the popular reception of the film. This larger section takes a close look at popular reception for Carol and identifies trends in reviews that, despite being favorable, do little justice for the film and also carry homophobic undertones. Mainstream discussion of Carol has so far offered little generative commentary on the film, instead often attempting to universalize the film and thereby erasing its important representation of Queer women. Discussion of the film also has a tendency to take an apophatic tone by defining Carol by what it is not, rather than what it actually is. In completing this project, I hope that it may shed light on the indiscretions in conversations about Carol and steer discussion toward a richer and more nuanced way of digesting the film’s many triumphs and complexities.