Reification and utopia in mass culture

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Citation: Frederic Jameson (1979) Reification and utopia in mass culture. Social Text, Duke University Press (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Reification and utopia in mass culture
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) sociology (RSS)


In this influential article, Jameson aims to complicate the traditional notions of mass (or popular) culture and high culture. Traditionally the two spheres are defined in opposition to each other and generally attributed to either popularity or elitism. Jameson reworks this definition through the help of thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School and the Marxist theory of reification. He writes:

“ seems to me that we must rethink the opposition high culture/mass culture in such a way that the emphasis on evaluation to which it has traditionally given rise—and which however the binary system of value operates (mass culture is popular and thus more authentic than high culture, high culture is autonomous and, therefore, utterly incomparable to a degraded mass culture) tends to function in some timeless realm of absolute aesthetic judgment—is replaced by a genuinely historical and dialectical approach to these phenomena.”

Other ways Jameson rethinks this opposition is through the various ways culture is commodified and instrumentalized. And in particular, how this instrumentalization occurs via images and utility—or culture as a “means to an end.” Here, Jameson cites contemporary books as an example of reading “for the end” wherein readers “transform the transparent flow of language as much as possible into material images and objects we can consume.”

Later in the essay Jameson argues that while the Frankfurt School provide a helpful lens with which to analyze mass and high culture, in today’s era of late-capitalism their theoretical insights are a bit outdated. For instance, Jameson suggests, “the ‘popular’ as such no longer exists... the commodity production of contemporary or industrial mass culture has nothing whatsoever to do, and nothing in common, with older forms of popular or folk art.”

Jameson then goes on to point to various cultural works that have interpenetrated high and low culture. He also references several theoreticians who have paved the way for this type of thinking that moves beyond the Frankfurt School and their limited modes of analysis and critique.