Getting to Know the Culture Industry

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Thomas Hart Benton, “Hollywood” (1937-1938). Image Credit: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

A couple years ago in graduate school at the University of Maryland, I took a course on history and contemporary theory. It was pretty much a combination of philosophy, historical theory, and historiography. A difficult class, but I certainly learned a lot.

One of the projects in the class, as I can remember it, was to design a lecture for undergraduate students about one aspect of historical theory and create an accompanying book list for reading. Given my interest in popular culture and business history, I decided to talk about the “Culture Industry” a theory that came from Frankfurt School historians/theorists in the mid 20th century (see also my blog post on War of the Worlds for more on this theory). I wasn’t able to give this lecture to an actual group of students, but I did film it and post it on Youtube. If you’d like to see the lecture, click here.

A few people commented on the video saying that they’d like to see the slides, so here is a link to my power point: The Culture Industry_presentation.

If you’re interested in learning more, this is my recommended Culture Industry reading list, complete with a variety of primary and secondary sources that explore the commodification of leisure and entertainment from a variety of angles: Continue reading “Getting to Know the Culture Industry”

Soap Sandwich

Radios became extremely popular and widespread in the late 1920s and especially the 1930s, in no small part because of soap operas. Writing a decade later, this is what writer James Thurber had to say about the new kind of entertainment that still dominates daytime entertainment:

“A soap opera is a kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.”

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Cast of the “Ma Perkins” radio show, a popular soap opera. Image source: otrcat.com
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James Thurber (right). Image source: xroads.virgina.edu

Thurber was a humorist and writer in the same vein as Mark Twain. He was most famous for his articles and drawings in The New Yorker, but my favorite work from him is The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948), which features “Soapland,” the best history and commentary on the soap opera that I’ve ever seen. Definitely worth a read!

There is a section in Internet Archives called “Old Time Radio” where you can listen to thousands recordings from the early years of radio. There are tons of good soap operas available here too. Listen and see if you agree with Thurber’s description!

War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)

My first experience with War of the Worlds was pretty frightening, to say the least. It was in second grade, and I was sick with pink eye on Halloween day. I was home with Dad, and for reasons I can’t remember why anymore, we decided to watch the 1953 classic War of the Worlds. Though I thought I was brave enough for an ‘old people’ movie, I never made it to the end. Too scary for me. And to this day, I haven’t ever gone back and finished the film. Maybe I never will, who knows?

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A lot of accounts of the famous 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds sound like my own experience with the terrifying tale of alien invasion. There are a lot of newspaper headlines from the next day that read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama on as Fact,” or something similar, painting a picture of masses of listeners confused, scared, or some mix of emotions that resulted in general panic and outrage. As a result, fire was added to ongoing debates about radio and its influence on society, and Orson Welles earned a reputation as a dramatic actor that would help him have a long and storied career.

Orson Welles
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Now, there seem to be two schools of thought about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and its reception: 1- it scared tons of people, or 2- it didn’t scare anyone at all. Its easy to search the internet for sensational headlines about the War of the Worlds panic, and there are still a lot of accounts of millions of Americans who believed that invasion was upon them. In 1940 Hadley Cantril, a big name at the time in radio research, co-authored a book with Herta Herzog and Hazel Gaudet called The Invasion from Mars. Using data from the American Institute of Public Opinion, the book claimed that over one million people believed that the broadcast was a report of a real-life invasion and was not made-up at all. Continue reading “War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)”