On entertainment: The politics of vulgarity

Sprigge, Sam (2001) On entertainment: The politics of vulgarity. MPhil(R) thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

This thesis looks at the cultural field of British "light entertainment", and aims to locate its specificity in relation to its history, its political stance, and its textual strategies. The thesis asks the questions "What does entertainment do?" and "What is entertainment for?". I argue that modern entertainment attempts to simulate a more anarchic and disruptive cultural form, taking access to Bakhtin's account of the European tradition of carnival to explain this point, while also contriving always to contain and limit its celebrational and chaotic nature. I refer to a general social trend toward ever-increasing domestication and privatisation of our leisure activities, so that the very public and unifying carnival of the middle ages can in fact in no way be allied with any modem cultural form, and I argue that this can be seen as a historical shift, from a society based on carnival to one based on entertainment, that can be related to Foucault's explanation of changing power structures within modem Europe. In seeking to be mainstream, and to be acceptable to a general, mass audience, entertainment - as disseminated by the "show business" industries - aims to appear daring while remaining unthreatening. A television programme of the 1980s is analysed in some depth to explore how this strategy works, and a particular aspect of note is that in attempting to appeal to all sections of a diverse audience, entertainment refuses to acknowledge this diversity, and aims to represent us as all the same underneath, with some tensions immanent in the text because of this. The thesis argues that modem light entertainment, as described here, is a historically and culturally specific category. I use the work of Raymond Williams to explore the development of a language around culture in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Within an increasing differentiation of the cultural field allowing the consumption of particular cultural forms to confer and confirm cultivation on their consumers, entertainment aims to appeal universally to all of us. Thus, entertainment has an obvious classed nature, but refrains from marking its spectators off as working class (in contrast to high culture's capacity to mark its consumers as upwardly mobile or cultivated). Entertainment is traditionally understood in contrast to "art", a contrast carrying an implicitly recognised and accepted set of polarities. If culture is serious, worthwhile, lasting, demanding, creative and original, entertainment is trivial, valueless, ephemeral, easy, and formulaic. Within this construction, entertainment is essentially characterised by absence - it lacks the qualities that distinguish true culture. I argue that this polarity is not so much an external interpretation imposed on entertainment, as a strategy within entertainment itself. I refer to Bourdieu's account of the political functions of so-called "legitimate culture" in maintaining class distinction, and posit a parallel function within entertainment, which continually articulates this set of polarities, allowing entertainment texts to represent themselves as pleasurable in contrast to the hard work involved in engaging with high culture, and as universally appealing in contrast with the minority appeal and pretentiousness of "art". I explore a British film from the 1930s starring George Formby to demonstrate this point. I name this strategy within entertainment texts as vulgarity, defining this as a deliberate refusal to be respectable, and to place oneself outside of the field of culture. In setting up this vulgar space, entertainment provides us with a period of relief from social aspiration, within which we do not seek to demonstrate cultural knowledge or cultivation. This representation of itself as without artistic merit is essential to the working of entertainment, and the fluidity of the category is demonstrated by the many cultural texts which have shifted historically from the field of entertainment to that of art, and vice versa.

Item Type: Thesis (MPhil(R))
Qualification Level: Masters
Keywords: Mass communication, Cultural anthropology
Date of Award: 2001
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2001-72132
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 17 May 2019 12:52
Last Modified: 17 May 2019 12:52
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/72132

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