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the Complete Review
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Revolt of the Masscult

Chris Lehmann

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To purchase Revolt of the Masscult

Title: Revolt of the Masscult
Author: Chris Lehmann
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 79 pages
Availability: Revolt of the Masscult - US
Revolt of the Masscult - UK
Revolt of the Masscult - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B- : not entirely convincing examination of culture in the contemporary world

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post . 20/4/2003 Jennifer Howard

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The complete review's Review:

       Chris Lehmann's book considers what has become of the idea of "mass culture", and looks at how culture (popular and otherwise) is consumed, considered, and judged nowadays. He is not pleased by what he sees.
       'Mass culture' has morphed into 'popular culture', an even more disturbing behemoth of simplistic fare for the masses -- ostensibly a manifestation of democratic impulses, but in fact of dubious worth. Lehmann is largely unimpressed by so-called popular culture, and sees as a central problem and consequence of the phenomenon the absence of anyone seriously pursuing:

critical distinctions within the study of culture -- those outmoded judgments that rate, rank, and qualify content, quality and intended audience for cultural production.
       This seems, at the very least, debatable -- but he has something of a point when he considers such recent events as Jonathan Franzen's clash with a market-anointed arbiter of culture (Oprah Winfrey and her Book Club; see also our article on A Book, an Author, and a Talk Show Host: Some Notes on the Oprah-Franzen Debacle). For Lehmann, that incident (and all its components) reinforces his certainty about "the premiere rule of engagement in contemporary cultural warfare: The market is always right" -- though we weren't entirely convinced by how he made his argument.
       Lehmann also looks back on the transformation of mass/pop-culture theorizing, especially the Frankfurt school and its critics. Edward Shils, Herbert Gans, Clement Greenberg, and Dwight Macdonald, among others, are discussed -- cleverly, somewhat usefully. Interesting too is the discussion of Robert Warshow, and the twisted interpretations (so Lehmann) of his work by a number of contemporary writers.
       Eventually he circles back to Oprah and Franzen, and the resulting fallout. Fun facts and fun quotes: but again it doesn't add up to an entirely coherent argument (in no small part because the supporting evidence presented is selective).
       Lehmann has a sharp tone and enlists some interesting facts, but it's a quick, compact polemic, and though receptive to aspects of what he seems to be after we found the jumpy argument neither entirely cogent nor -- as made -- compelling.
       Possibly Lehmann's argument and approach require greater familiarity with those he argues for and against -- and the language in which those debates take place: a fair amount of Lehmann's jargon was largely indecipherable to us. In his conclusion, for example he writes about:
the great masscult absorption of all prior structures of feeling -- the eclipse of the avant garde, the empty politicization of aesthetic postures and the obsolescence of any and all publicly aired criteria of taste.
       We can parse some of this -- though as to the meaning of notions such as "structures of feeling" (and it's "absorption") and "aesthetic postures" (and its "politicization"), we can only hazard guesses -- but even allowing for the language such sentences seem to raise more questions than they are worth. Isn't it in the very nature of any avant-garde to be eclipsed ? Can one really say "any and all publicly aired criteria of taste" has become obsolete ? And is the politicization of those darn aesthetic postures (whatever that might mean) really empty ?
       (Note, of course, that there may be readers who are more receptive to arguments phrased in such ways. If the above quote appears to you to be a sensible statement, then you'll likely get far more out of Lehmann's book than we did.)

       Revolt of the Masscult is of some interest, with enough clear parts -- regarding some popular cultural phenomena, as well as the history of masscult theorizing -- that are worthwhile, but as a whole isn't nearly as clear (or focussed) enough.

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Revolt of the Masscult: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chris Lehmann is an editor at The Washington Post Book World.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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