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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Politics & Popular Culture
John Street

(Philadelphia: Temple University Press,1997)
212pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $59.95; ISBN 1-56639-602-6. Pb.: $19.95; ISBN 1-56639-603-4.

In Britain at least, spin-doctory, image manipulation, sound bites and unashamed populism seem the very stuff of the contemporary political scene. For many commentators the trend is unwelcome: at best a confusing triumph of seeming over substance, at worst a distortion of the democratic process which leaves political discourse ever more distant from the concerns of the people. Others see this in less sinister terms, the continuation of politics by other (legitimate) means. In this thought provoking book, John Street introduces the key debates concerning the linkages between popular culture and politics clearly and concisely. This welcome quality, combined with an ongoing concern to engage with current theories and academic debates, underlines the book's usefulness for cultural and media studies, sociology and politics.

Given the wide-ranging scope of Street's enquiry, it is perhaps inevitable that the reader should at times be left hoping for a little more illustrative material to place some of the theoretical debates in context. For instance, one of the strongest sections, on the relationship between local government and the provision and control of popular culture, is based on the author's own detailed empirical research. Nevertheless, the ways that politicians (often cynically) seek to use popular culture to bolster their position and the impact of political decisions and policies at a global, national and local level are clearly brought out. Examples such as Norman Tebbitt's 'cricket test' of national loyalties, or the culture of Loyalist communities in Northern Ireland explore connections between culture and nationalism. Street's argument that politics and popular culture has become inextricably linked is well supported.

Less convincing is the claim that when considering popular culture and politics we engage in a similar critical process based on aesthetic/ethical choices and the organisation of our identities and interests. Thus 'in arguing about popular culture we are arguing about ways of life' (p. l98). However, as Street himself demonstrates in the main body of the text, it is often questionable whether the cultural products emanating from multinational corporations, media conglomerates and on occasion, politicians can really be said to be 'popular'. This is a culture that is supplied and sold to the people, not produced by them. In that sense, the experience of cultural consumption, including individual choices over what is 'good' or 'bad', remains predominantly passive. Political judgements on the other hand, tend to spring from collective circumstance, are usually made on material rather than aesthetic grounds and ultimately, are capable of changing the world.

Richard Murgatroyd
Brunel University

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