Friday, November 18, 2005

Discourse Out of Place

Mary Douglas' famous essay, "Symbolic Pollution," provides a framework through which the debates over mass culture could be interpreted. Douglas considers "dirt" to be "matter out of place." Consequently, dirt reveals what being "in place" means; that is, it reveals an underlying structure for guiding conduct, belief, and ritual. Says Douglas, "...[O]ur pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications" (Douglas, in Alexander & Seidman 1990, p. 155). Douglas goes on to also argue that pollution is "a particular class of danger ... which is not likely to occur except where the lines of structure, cosmic or social, are clearly defined."

The analogy being offered here, then, is that "mass culture" is symbolic pollution in Culture (as conceived, affirmed, legitimated, structured and ritualized by Critics of Culture). "Mass culture" is discourse out of place, since it is regarded as "dirt" (even "trash"). The discourse out of place becomes, indeed, a particular class of danger among conservatives, liberals, and Marxists, because it is a discourse that did not originate within the sacred circle of critique; rather, it is an outsider's discourse -- a discourse "of the people," which is to say, not of the academy -- not of, perhaps more precisely, that class of literate experts which has for centuries been the arbiters of what counts as acceptable discourse.

Therefore, the debates about mass culture could be analogous to pollution behavior that "condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications." In essence, pollution behavior reifies the classifications, purifies them, and saves them. If popular fare become moral offenses that demand address -- and purification -- via rituals of reconciliation, expungement, fumigation, and so on, not only do these offenses reveal the ritual order of commentary on mass society, they also enable the commentary to continue.


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