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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York …

Plenary Examines Popular Culture as Propaganda and Critique

by Bonnie Thornton Dill, University of Maryland and ASA Vice President

Popular and commercial cultures have long been important sites of cultural con- flict, where ideas about social relations are persuasively embedded and in constant negotiation with critiques of such ideas. Academic discussions on popular culture started as soon as contemporary mass society formed itself, and the views on popular culture that were developed at that time still influence popular culture as propaganda and critique within contemporary America.

Given the explosion in scholarly interest in popular culture, which encompasses such mediums as comic books, digital media, hip-hop, television and the Internet, the “Popular Culture as Propaganda and Critique” plenary on August 11, 2007, offers diverse perspectives about the extent to which these cultures can serve as a force for progressive social change. Central to this year’s theme, “Is Another World Possible: Sociological Perspectives and Contemporary Politics,” this plenary is dedicated to the development of dialogue not only between classical and sociological perspectives and contemporary politics but also between the United States and the peoples and their countries whom we affect and who affect us.

As globalism spreads, the intellectual formulations, political stakes, and popular investments about the extent to which popular and commercial cultures can serve as a force for progressive social change also increases. For example, there is considerable debate around popular culture’s capacity to address issues of inequality within a capitalist economic structure, where the dissemination of ideas and ideologies is so tightly bound to economic resources. These themes suggest that to understand where global entertainment and popular culture are headed, one should begin by looking afresh at the starting point: The fundamental cultural, political, and economic landscape of contemporary America as it stands today. The plenary’s format is a moderated conversation among cultural producers, critics, and scholars. In a “multilogue” orchestrated by Herman Gray of the University of California-Santa Cruz, five distinguished participants will explore the limitations, challenges, and possibilities of critique in the popular and commercial culture arena as well as its use and mobilization for understanding contemporary social life. Their conversation will provide a critical lens for examining the goals, dilemmas, and challenges involved in creating and disseminating these products.

Participants include:

Sarah Banet-Weiser is associate professor in the Annenberg School of Communication. Her teaching and research interests include feminist theory, race and the media, children’s media, popular culture, and national identity. She is author of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (1999), which explores the interconnections of gender, race, and national identity within the Miss America pageant. In addition, she has published articles on sports and gender, children and technology, and children, media, and national identity.

Daphne A. Brooks is associate professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University where she teaches courses on African American literature and culture, performance studies, critical gender studies, and popular music culture. She is the author of two books: Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 and Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Brooks is currently a Behrman Fellow in the Humanities at Princeton University and former Samuel Davies Preceptor.

Jeff Chang is the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which recounts the origins of hip-hop, showing how a generation of neglected kids from The Bronx reinvented— through speech, music, fashion, dance, and art—first their world and, eventually, ours. Though ostensibly about hiphop, the book is really a people’s history. It tackles topics as diverse as race relations, media studies, multi- and poly-culturalism, globalization, and the politics of containment and abandonment. Chang’s writing has appeared in Mother Jones, The Village Voice and The Washington Post, among other publications. He has just edited Total Chaos: The Art & Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, a groundbreaking collection that showcases the voices of hip-hop’s pioneers, innovators, and mavericks as they trace hip-hop’s influence on other mediums, such as theater, poetry, photography, literature, and the visual arts.

Byron Hurt is an anti-sexist activist who provides cutting-edge male leadership, expert analysis, keynote addresses, and workshop facilitation in the field of sexual and gender violence prevention and education. His most recent film, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, recently aired on PBS and is currently touring college campuses. Hurt’s company, God Bless the Child Productions, Inc., is a documentary production company that creates socially relevant, cutting-edge documentary films about race, class, and gender for diverse national and international audiences. Hurt’s mission is to educate and inspire men to help reduce the high levels of men’s violence against women throughout the United States and the world. God Bless The Child Productions, Inc. is dedicated to bringing various racial and gender groups together to push awareness, stimulate healthy civic dialogue, and enlighten audiences using film and video as the medium.

S. Craig Watkins is associate professor at the University of Texas-Austin. His teaching and research interests focus on race, media, youth culture, and hip-hop studies. His latest book, Hip-Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement, takes readers inside the phenomenal world of hip-hop. Watkins is also the author of Representing: Hip-Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Representing is the first book to fully explore the impact of hip-hop culture on the film industry and African American filmmakers. In 2006, Watkins was selected to join the MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, a collection of scholars, visionaries, thought leaders, and practitioners from across the world to explore the intersection of digital media, everyday life, and learning.

Herman Gray, professor of sociology, University of California-Santa Cruz focuses his research on cultural studies, popular culture, mass communication and minority discourses. He is the author of Watching Race: Television and the Sign of Blackness and Producing Jazz and has appeared in the documentaries Color Adjustment and Signal to Noise.