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The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy

Democracy and Popular Culture

April 19-20, 2002
The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy
The University of Chicago



This conference will be devoted to exploring the current state of popular culture and its relation to democratic life, an issue that has become increasingly contentious not only in the United States but in much of the world.  Americans have always had an ambivalent relation to cultural distinctions, as even the earliest foreign observers noticed, and that ambivalence seems to bear some relation to the American understanding of democratic society.  In the decades following the Second World War, however, the rise of a so-called “mass” or “pop” culture – popular films and music, comic books, then television – attracted the attention of American intellectuals, who found themselves divided over just what this development meant for the state of culture generally, and what it reflected about the nature of American life.  Partisan Review, the leading periodical of the New York intellectuals at the time, ran an important symposium called “Our Country, Our Culture” that posed the question in stark terms: did the acceptance of democracy as a political principle, one that had proved its strength in the face of fascism, necessitate the acceptance of democratization in cultural life, and if so, was that a problem? 

Developments over the past forty years – the growth of an enormous entertainment and media industry, the embrace of popular culture by mainstream cultural institutions, the dominance of American popular culture abroad, the institutionalization of the academic study of popular culture – might seem to have rendered such questions outdated.  We do not think so.  On the contrary, it strikes us how intensively divided opinion on them remains.  In the two decades following the apparent triumph of the democratic idea in world politics we have seen the rise of a renewed pessimism about the cultural possibilities of democratic life in the West and around the world.  Are we, as critic Neil Postman put it in the title of his best-selling book, “amusing ourselves to death”?  Or are such concerns simply another form of American provincialism?  Can we really say we understand the nature and effects of popular culture, and the role it plays in modern democratic life?

The aim of this conference will be to assess democratic cultural pessimism critically.  To do so we will invite a range of participants for whom these issues have been central, including journalistic critics, and scholars from various disciplines.  We will have four sessions.  The first, “Our Country, Our Culture, the American Debate,” will be devoted to the history of the high/low cultural debates in American intellectual life and what we have to learn from them now.  The second session, “Democracy in Culture,” will bring together a group of journalistic critics to discuss how they see the relation between high and popular culture in their own domains today, and what forces for democratization are at work in them.  The third session, “Popular Culture and Citizenship,” will reverse the poles of that question and ask: how has the rise of the popular culture industry affected the nature and possibilities of democratic citizenship in our time?  A large fourth session, “Americanization? Popular Culture Abroad,” will give the floor to scholars and critics from other regions of the world – Eastern and Western Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia – to discuss how debates over popular culture are handled there, how the presence of American popular culture affects local cultural and political life, and whether they share the pessimism about culture and democracy that has become so evident in the United States.

Conference Schedule

Friday, April 19

9:30 a.m. Our Country, Our Culture: The American Debate

                             Rochelle Gurstein          Author, The Repeal of Reticence


David Brooks  Senior Editor, The Weekly Standard, author, Bobos in Paradise         

Paul Cantor     Department of English, University of Virginia                   

Greil Marcus   Author, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century         


2:00 p.m. Democracy in Culture

                             Edward Rothstein   Culture Critic, The New York Times


John McWhorter  Department of Linguistics, University of California at Berkeley         

Jed Perl   Art Critic, The New Republic

A.O. Scott  Film Critic, The New York Times                   


Saturday, April 20

9:30 a.m. Popular Culture and Citizenship

                             James Miller  Ed., Daedalus; Director of Liberal Studies, New School University


Paul Berman   Fellow, The New York Institute of Humanities at New York

Cass Sunstein   Law School, The University of Chicago         

Frédéric Martel  Ecole des Hautes Etudes (Paris) author of  The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France Since 1968         


2:00 p.m. Americanization?  Popular Culture Abroad

                             Michael Rutschky   Author most recently of Berlin: Die Stadt als Roman


         Nina Khrushcheva  International Affairs Program, New School University

         Carlos Monsivais  Author, Mexican Postcards, and Amor Perdido 

Gadi Taub   Co-editor of Mikarov: Journal of Literature and Society

                    N. Frank Ukadike   Film, and African and African Diaspora Studies, Tulane University

Jianying Zha   Independent writer, critic, columnist, and author of China Pop



All sessions will be held in Swift Hall (1025 E. 58th St.).  Further questions may be addressed to Stephen Gregory

 at 773-702-3423 or stephen-gregory@uchicago.edu


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©2001 The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, University of Chicago
Revised: September 23, 2001