Theory & Concepts

There were a few theoretical concepts that I wanted to discuss in class that I never had time for.  These have come up in more than one discussion about peoples' final papers.  These concepts are complex and difficult to explain, but I'm going to try to give you a brief inkling of them here:

The process of taking something (like a cultural artifact) and using it for a purpose other than its original intention.  Postmodern art is all about this.  Satirizing Mickey mouse, sampling from "Pretty Woman", drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol's campbells soup cans are all forms of appropriation.  Books on postmodern art are full of explanations of and references to appropriation.

The process by which radical or revolutionary oppositional elements are absorbed by the system they are fighting, and turned into things that that system can deal with on its own terms.  For example, the punk movement started as rebellions against the way society was structured.  But it was recuperated into record industry contracts and pre-torn clothing that
could be sold as commodities and fashion.  The recuperated result looked like punk on the surface, but was stripped of its stinging critique. People have said that the web as a revolutionary communications medium ("where anyone can be a publisher") has been recuperated into another marketing device.  The process of recuperation was explained the most fully by the french Situationists 30 years ago in books like Guy Debords' "Society of the Spectacle" (short but very hard to read).

A very complex and difficult to explain process.  First articulated by Antonio Gramsci, a working-class revolutionary, while he was sitting in an Italian prison.  He was wondering why the working class Italians had embraced Mussolini even though doing so was totally contrary to their own best interest.  He came up with the concept of hegemony to describe the forces that serve to reframe issues so that the real important issues are masked, and less important issues are highlighted.  More recent authors have analyzed the media's role in this (see Todd Gitlin's "The Whole World is Watching" from about 1980).  This concept explains why the real important underlying questions do not enter into public discourse, which instead concentrates on debates over more surface-level things (instead of getting at or even acknowledging the roots of problems).

In no way should these explanations be seen as adequate definitions of these terms.  This is just to give you a brief taste of these concepts.

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