Edgar Morin 1965

Intellectuals and Mass Culture

Source: Communication, no.5, 1965;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2012.

I will situate myself along the axis of what Paul Lazarsfeld said. The concepts of mass culture and higher culture were posed by the intellectual class. There must be an auto-observation, an auto-critique on the part of the intellectual class. We must perhaps even put in question the legitimacy of the two concepts of higher and mass culture.

The legitimacy of the first concept is easy to contest. Paul Lazarsfeld said it already: we are living in an era when the avant-garde has become one of the forms of academism. There is, as Harold Rosenberg called it, a “tradition of the new.” In a sense higher culture, which once lived in the avant-garde, has become a generalized academism, reaching as far as the avant-garde. In another sense this culture is in crisis in the 20th century. It puts itself in question, and this questioning has become one of the elements of culture. In American and French universities this questioning has not been pushed too far. I mean by this that as much as painting puts in question the traditional forms of expression; as much a music puts itself in question; as much as Surrealism and all that followed it constituted a putting in question of the very notions of art and culture, to that extent it seems that as soon as we are at the scholarly or humanist level the pieces are glued back together and once again people speak of Culture (with a capital “C”).

The notion of art has been one of the most embattled notions of the past century. For France the great shaker-upper was Rimbaud, who loved the Latin of the church and carnival tents: in short, everything that appeared to artists and aesthetes to be a caricatured degradation of art. But the entire 20th century saw that art was a combat between two irreducible and antagonistic tendencies: on the one hand academic art, and on the other hand new art. Where then is the unity of art, of culture? Today there is a mixing together of academism and the avant-garde that is occurring so rapidly that it is difficult to precisely situate academism, since the “new” is a new academism. Nevertheless, the multiplicity of tendencies, of values, points out to us that it is difficult to pose higher culture as a value and a homogeneity. The unifying vision is above all a reassuring vision, and this vision has always been contested by creative movements in the realm of culture.

That takes care of higher culture. I am not saying that everything is disintegrating into separate fragments, and my conclusion is not that there is no culture. My conclusion is that what we are dealing with is a half-true notion because it contains as much heterogeneity as unity. We find ourselves before an unstable notion, and we use it and discuss it incorrectly, given that we manipulate a conglomeration as if it were something simple.

What is more, it would be erroneous to speak of culture when it is in crisis, and this crisis opens it to interrogation. One of the most meaningful words in modern art is “investigation”: painting, sculpture and music are carrying out investigations. But investigation also deals with the truth, with values, with the bases of culture. Culture ceases to be clear in itself. Today we cannot use the words “high culture” as a guiding light.

Let us now speak of mass culture. I have come increasingly to believe that we are wrong to use the concept of mass culture. I say “we,” myself included, since I have often used this concept. In the first place we know that we cannot identify mass culture with what is distributed through modern technical methods. We cannot say radio and television = mass culture, because there is political news, there is educational radio, there is religious programming. Telecommunications are used on the sea between ships. It is what remains (shows, entertainment) or what wraps things (news, not to mention religion) that we call mass culture and which we can to a certain degree unify, in function on one hand of a theme (individualism, youth, beauty, love, etc.) and on the other hand in function of the notion of mass production and distribution.

I believe that during the years 1925-50 a mass culture developed with clear common standards. But I also believe we are entering a new era of diversification, where the notion of mass culture risks becoming artificially unifying.

We see today there are different stratifications. Mass culture develops along the road to plurality, not homogeneity. Let us take the cinema: today three cinemas are developing: the cinema of super-productions, the cinéma d'auteur, and the television cinema of reporting-communication and cinéma vérité, while the preceding period was dominated by a standard commercial cinema with marginal currents.

What is more, we today see the proliferation of mutual contamination between so- called higher culture and sectors of mass culture. First, higher culture raises certain products of mass culture to aesthetic dignity. What Paul Lazarsfeld said about the ‘20s is true today in France. In that era the intellectuals, following the Surrealists in this, annexed Charlie Chaplin. There was a great struggle to have the cinema called “the seventh art.” And in the end, despite bitter resistance, the cinema imposed itself as an art among the “cultivated.” Recently the Western and the crime film have succeeded in imposing themselves as modern epics and tragedies, when before the war they were rejected by the mass of the “cultivated.” I will skip rapidly over this. But we see that today there are efforts to integrate the aesthetic into vulgar genres: the recent integration of films on Roman antiquity, the rehabilitation of the popular novel of the 19th century... Currently the comic strip is being integrated with art: a year ago a comic strip club was created in which they examine, as seriously as the Princesse de Clèves, certain strips of the high era. These phenomena of integration into the aesthetic are not simply a wish to appear original or a refined snobbery or a seeking of the ultimate refinement in the trivial.

In short, all of this represents an extremely interesting phenomenon because what differentiates mass culture from the aesthetic, i.e. from high culture, has to do not only with the work itself, but essentially with how we look at it. For example, right now I am following the process of aestheticisation of comic strips. Until now comic strips were situated in a formless world. They were consumed and that was that. But integrating them into culture means introducing hierarchy and value to them; the differentiation between the beautiful and the not-beautiful. And so in the strips of the “Pieds-Nickelés” people distinguish between the good and bad periods. We see that the process of acculturation in this sense consists in establishing order and giving value to the senses of beauty and non-beauty. But the integration of so-called vulgar genres is at the same time the disintegration of the traditional hierarchy and the disaggregation of low art.

To be sure, in the multiplicity of current interferences and osmoses between higher culture and mass culture there is a reciprocal attraction, an encounter between the most accessible levels of higher culture and those levels of mass culture that raise themselves the highest.

But it’s not only this. There is also the fact that what appeared to be the most vulgar, the dullest, the most ridiculous, the lowest from the classic point of view of culture now appears to the “integrators” as something poetic, charming, true, etc. For example, the geste of Italian films on antiquity (“Hercules Against Samson,” “...Against Ulysses,” etc) has something naively poetic about it that charms the esthetic sense of many of the “cultivated.” Personally, I believe in the naïve art of low class commercial films, in the art brut of semi-documentaries, slices of life and longest days... But let’s set my taste aside. What matters is to note that there are zones of reciprocal contamination between the two cultures.

In these conditions, we should note among the phenomena provoked by the reciprocal actions of the two cultures one that manifests itself on an important scale: the constituting of a new sphere. Certain zones of so-called mass culture constitute a sphere that orbits like a satellite around both the technological nucleus of mass culture and the cultural nucleus of higher culture. You thus have a satellite with two suns. Such is the case for the art cinema – the cinéma d'auteur – which now has its own theaters, circuits, system of production.

And so I think that beyond a certain point the words “mass culture” and “higher culture” are of no help. I don’t cast these words into an undifferentiated chaos. They are sufficiently appropriate that we can preserve them up to a certain point: we feel they concern something. But at the same time they neither define nor discern everything. And for my part I feel I was wrong in the essay I dedicated to this question in not sufficiently reflecting on the conceptual problem in order to find a solution. I think that in order to palliate this difficulty we must above all see the great lines of force that are the industrial, the cultural, the technological, the social, and the political, around which we must align the problems. We cannot content ourselves with these two polarizing concepts alone; we require others, and it is possible to find a certain number. This would be all the more necessary if, as I believe, historical development sees the accentuation of diversification in both high culture and mass culture, the accentuation of contamination; if the adventure of art and the adventure of culture explode these oppositions while recreating other oppositions without bringing to an end the opposition between original investigation on the one hand and conformism and snobbery on the other.

In conclusion, to refuse an analysis and dispute in terms of the opposition between “high culture” and “mass culture” means not only avoiding the antagonistic colliding and the verbal choice. To refuse the choice of a question posed in terms of an alternative between a high and a low culture doesn’t mean refusing to choose; it means refusing a schematic and dogmatic question.