Featured Guest:
Professor Marshall Fishwick

Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to present) we feature an interview, or a conversation, with a preeminent scholar in the field of American popular culture studies.

This fall 2003 edition, we are featuring Marshall Fishwick, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of both the American Studies and Popular Culture programs at Virginia Tech. He is co-founder of the Popular Culture Association and was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the American Culture Association in 1998. As a Fulbright Distinguished Professor, he has worked with scholars and students in many countries and helped establish the American Studies Research Center in Hyderabad, India, the largest Asian collection of American books. In addition, he co-founded the journal International Popular Culture, serves as Advisory Editor to the Journal of American Culture and the Journal of Popular Culture, and is a Senior Editor at Haworth Press.

Of course, he has also authored many books including American Heroes: Myth and Reality, American Studies in Transition, Icons in Popular Culture, An American Mosaic: Rethinking American Culture History, Popular Culture: Cavespace to Cyberspace, and Go and Catch a Falling Star.

This past summer we talked to Professor Fishwick about his latest book Popular Culture in a New Age and other related matters.

Before we get to our conversation about Popular Culture in a New Age, the focus of this interview, we want to ask you about the formation of the Popular Culture Association. Talk to us about founding the Popular Culture Association in the 1960s with Ray B. Browne and Russell Nye. How did the idea first come about? Why did you three think it was important?

In the 1960s, which was the age of revolution with the hippies and everything turned upside down, one of the new enterprises of academia was American Studies, which had enjoyed considerable expansion after World War II. A number of people began Ph.D. programs in American Studies. Among those were Ray Browne, Russ Nye, and I, and we found that the academic establishment, the English and history departments, were not very friendly. In fact, it’s still true today. Many English departments do not accept popular culture studies. Even some American Studies programs don’t. It’s not “traditional.”

We thought maybe we should do something to make popular culture an entity in itself; it could be established in the university as part of a program or a separate program which has been done in a number of places. The outstanding example is Bowling Green State University. We were traveling around, and we realized in 1967 that we would be near or in Detroit for meetings. We met in Detroit, and at that meeting we decided we would go ahead and found the Popular Culture Association. At that moment, we had no enrollment and no support, but we had a good idea. We grew in steps and stages, and we decided we would have a journal: The Journal of Popular Culture. Ray Browne was able to get some modest support from Bowling Green where he taught. Most importantly, he got office space, and he got permission to do the printing which was necessary.

The formal study of popular culture began to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a medium for the ideas that could not be expressed in most of the academic programs. Since then, many popular culture studies programs have been established. Now the interesting thing is that American Studies is in some trouble because the field has become very politicized and is controlled by people on the outer fringe of their subjects. I believe popular culture studies has taken the place of American Studies in many institutions. Of course, there is still resistance from the “good old boys,” the old school, art and sciences people who have held dominion since Plato. We don’t wish to diminish their fields of study, but popular culture is the new boy on the block.

You mentioned that American Studies has been politicized.

Yes, it has been dominated by the PC movement, race wars, and gender wars. For example, at Yale, my alma mater, the gender issues are so intense in that department that a lot of males refuse to deal with it. We all agree that these issues are important, but they aren’t the only ones. Also, it seems in some instances that American Studies has entered into commercial alliances, for example, with Washington; and as you know, no one gets money from Washington who doesn’t go along with Washington’s ideas. We feel a scholar is not a free agent who is paying dues to forces in various places.

Tom Wolfe wrote the Foreword in Popular Culture in a New Age, and you mention him several times throughout the text. Tell us about your relationship with your former student and why he was a good choice to write the Foreword.

I was teaching at Washington and Lee University and met Tom Wolfe. He was one of my students. Tom was a gifted writer and I recognized that. He wrote a wonderful term paper for me in which he described the place as a zoo full of zebras. From the first, he was a very astute and interesting observer of America. At my behest, he went to Yale for American Studies. I was able to help him get in. He’s always said that I shaped him twice. Once at Washington and Lee and once at Yale. We’ve been in close touch ever since. He’s been kind enough to do Forewords for some of my books. I count him as a personal friend.

Some scholars distinguish between an older popular culture or folk culture and the new popular culture magnified one hundred fold in the late nineteenth century and twentieth with such mass media as radio, film, and television, yet you seem to see no line of demarcation and see popular culture as popular culture—something that has always existed. You cite the Greeks, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

People who think popular culture is a recent phenomenon forget that the same problems which beset us beset the Greeks. Really, the first great writers on popular culture were Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. They, like the Greek tragedians, were dealing with the issues of the hoi polloi. If you go through every culture, you’ll find that there is a very strong current of the same problems we meet now: class, race, gender. These problems have always been there, sometimes more overt, sometimes covert. I maintain, for example, that the popular culture that came out of the Renaissance was witnessed and recorded by Shakespeare. No one can read Shakespeare without marveling at his understanding of the common people, what he called the “mechanics,” like Wall and Peasblossom. We forget that great writers have studied, understood, and written about popular culture. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is pop culture. The great poets of England were very much aware of it. In the twentieth century, popular culture took a bad turn when it got into the hands of Hitler, who used popular culture and the myth of the superior race and the recreation of German mythology. Many people are using popular culture. In fact, the very word populus, meaning the people, is the root of the words “popular culture,” the culture of the people. Cultus, which means to break the soil, to cultivate the soil, to go underneath the soil, is what the cultivator or the farmer does. If you put the people and the breaking of the soil together, you always get the basic dilemma of humanity: to learn how people live and how they react.

So you don’t see a distinction with the explosion of mass media spreading popular culture faster? Everybody wants to buy rainbow suspenders because Mork is wearing them on Mork & Mindy?

Mass media has changed the setting and given a whole new set of questions, but when I watch television today, especially the ads, I see the same issues in cultures of all ages. I see the glamorization of females, the separation of the races, the great themes of human nature. Mass media is a portion of popular culture, but only a portion. Mass media has become so powerful we’ve lost the historical understanding of pop culture. One of my goals is to teach that you have to understand the whole history and not just the history of film and television since the 1950s. I find that my students do little reading and a lot of work on the computer online. Therefore, they are increasingly poorly educated because they don’t go back beyond the life of their father or mother.

Y2K is a metaphor for you.

The problem is that we are moving away from human intelligence to machine intelligence. For example, my wife is preparing a book. She came home this morning because her computer was down--so she can’t work on the book. For centuries, people wrote good books with pen and pencil, and it’s a shame that if your computer is down, you’re out of the ball game. When you think of the consequences of the viruses, it’s incredible that someone in Russia or Africa can put a virus in your computer and stop it. We’ve got a very unreliable substitute for the human brain and for the human hand. I’m a great believer in the hand and mind over the machine.

You note in “Millennium Merrymaking” that Survivor was the number one rated show. Later in “Sacred Symbols,” you state, “That is what we are beginning to do, when films are ‘reel’ illusion and real life is becoming more novel than fiction.” Could you relate those comments to the new reality show craze?

I don’t think they are reality shows. There’s not much real about them, They’re obviously dramatized for the audience. Reality shows are another form of Disneyland. These people are performing on TV. I don’t think you could go anywhere in the world and have people call this reality. If you want to see reality, go to the war in the Congo or go to the war in Iraq. That’s reality. That’s not what you get on Survivor. It’s sentimental and it’s maudlin and vulgar.

What isn’t vulgar?

Human thought that reflects humanity--first-rate thinking. My favorite author is William Faulkner, popular and profound master of Southern folklore. He knew precisely the people he was writing about—black and white—how they operated, what they thought. He understood the poor whites; he understood the masters. He extended this in his novels; but he never left the sense that he belonged to the people. You can’t confuse Faulkner with another writer. You certainly can never take Faulkner out of the South because that was part of his inheritance. It’s also very interesting that many major writers of the twentieth century were from the South. Perhaps that has something to do with the relationship between folklore and popular culture.

In Sacred Symbols, you argue, “Instead of being on our knees, we find ourselves online. But is that not a new form of worship?” Can you elaborate on that point?

Consider this: take many people in the working class, now the academic class. They spend more time at their computer than they do any other occupation in life. They spend more hours online than they do in the library, more time at the computer than they do on vacation, more time at the computer than they do at home. The computer has the ability to reach out and grab you, surround you and almost ensnare you. I see these people as being drawn into a net. Once you get in it, it’s hard to get out. Do you know how many people who are constantly on the computer have trouble with their wrists and with their back? It takes a terrible toll on their body; but most of all what it does is depersonalize people and make the computer the master when it should be the slave. Recall Neil Postman’s Technopoly. When the computer says to do this or that, you do it. In other words—I am your master. I think this is a new form of slavery. It’s also a new form of one-upmanship. The computer is always one up, and you’re always one down. That is very dangerous. More and more people are beginning to realize it. Some scholars have begun to talk about technopoly, I don’t think anyone would fault technology, but technopoly comes into affect when the machine controls the people. That may not be here, but it seems to me it’s coming. When you watched the war in Iraq, if people took the wrong turn because the computer told them to, they were captured or killed. Bombs were dropped. If you hit the wrong house, you don’t kill Saddam Hussein. You kill his neighbors. A complete dependence on technology leads to technopoly. A number of writers are beginning to understand this. A strong wave of “anti-mechanism” thought is developing in the academic world.

There’s also the constant upgrade requirement. Your technology goes out of date and you have to invest in more equipment. It’s extremely expensive.

It’s expensive and what do you get when you upgrade? Do you really get anything different? Your machine goes a little bit faster. It’s like this so-called smart road between Blacksburg and Roanoke. They’ve been building a smart road full of ciphers and such. It tells you how fast you’re going, what the weather’s like, and all the county goodies, but it’s only saves minutes on a trip to Roanoke. For those minutes, we’re spending millions of dollars. Now ask yourself, “Is it worth it? Is it really worth it? Is it a smart road or is it a gigantic waste of money?” At this time, we are hugely in need of money for the national debt, to pay for the sheriff, to pay for school. All these things we need, and we’re putting funds into technopoly. I think that’s a very dangerous trend.

You name Walt Disney as popular culture’s Man of the Century—that’s quite a venerable position. Tell us about that decision.

Walt Disney is an interesting character. As you know, he was in World War I as an ambulance driver. He was never particularly well-educated. He was from a Midwest farm, and he invented Mickey Mouse on a train going to Kansas City. His wife wanted to name him Mortimer Mouse, but he chose Mickey Mouse. He had a genius for glamorizing and recreating the kind of childhood world he knew, which was the all-American home: patriotic, mainly white, largely sentimental. He made up these wonderful characters beginning with Mickey Mouse, who’s really a marvelous character. He’s become a dominant figure around the world. I guess he’s the best known animal ever created. What Disney did was to gamble a great deal on animation which was very crude when he began. If you see his first production, Tugboat Willie, the figures jerk when they move and so forth. You can hardly see them. But when you see Snow White, whether or not you like the story, it’s beautifully animated. Disney improved the whole art of visual communication from the naïve point it was in when he was out of the war in 1918 or 1920. In about fifty years, he revolutionized how we look at the world and especially how we think about America. We call this the Disneyfication of America. He was very important in World War II because he did training films for the Army and Navy and so forth. In effect, he taught soldiers how to do things because he knew how to animate. He knew how to explain things very well. He was a genius, although very limited in some ways. He was very biased against hippies and gays and lesbians and change.

You mention Harry Potter in “Surprise Attacks.” We presume the record-making sales of J.K.Rowling’s fifth book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix don’t surprise you.

No, they don’t. She’s like Walt Disney. She enjoys popularity. She doesn’t pretend to have any great intellectual insight. She simply has a keen eye for the obvious and realizes that young people are fascinated by fictional young people. Harry Potter is Everyman. Harry Potter is Mickey Mouse in English clothes. I relate her to Disney and to Mr. Rogers, “Come into my neighborhood.” There’s a certain type of person who’s able to catch the interior moods of young people, and older people too. They do it without cluttering it up with ideology. It’s not capitalism, it’s not existentialism, it’s not subtle, it’s just a good story, well told, that wins in the long run. It’s a good story people are telling a hundred years after it’s made up. It’s not all these harangues and all these political movements. It’s not about Bush vs Gore or what we’re going to do about abortion. Those things are important, but they get solved or they don’t get solved, and we move on. Good stories are what we need. They are the top row of understanding. They have a certain insight.

You were clearly impacted by Marshall McLuhan; in “The Electric Shocker” you even deliver a kind of eulogy. Tell us about his impact on your work.

What he understood was the media would control the news. I read the other day that eighty percent of the people get their news from the television, only a small percentage read the newspaper, and fewer listen to the radio. McLuhan came up with a wonderful catch phrase: “The medium is the message.” That’s one of the great insights of the twentieth century. The media control the message, and by controlling the message they control the people. He was also able to write in a very amusing manner. He had a great sense of humor. He was a punster. His Ph.D. dissertation was a series of puns on James Joyce. He had a fine mind and great insight. He influenced a number of scholars and writers—a truly original character. Interestingly enough, he’s fading now. Everybody agrees with him. We all know the medium is the message, so his idea is not novel anymore.

You devote a chapter to “Black Popular Culture.” Tell us about the decision not to use your zoom lens on Asian or Hispanic American cultures.

Asian and Hispanic cultures have emerged recently in terms of their impact on American pop culture. When I was doing my early writing and publishing, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, who was looking at those other cultures? All that has changed now. I’m trying to “zoom in” on them in my current work.

I taught for six years at Lincoln University, a pioneer black university. I’ve always been disappointed that white scholars have never been accepted by some black intellectuals. The Jesse Jackson attitude and the Al Sharpton attitude implies that the Caucasians can’t understand the blacks. They may be right. It may be hard for a person who grew up with the ultimate freedom and money to go to good universities to understand what life meant to people whose mothers and fathers were cooks or laborers who never got a shot at a good education. But all this has changed.

Talk to us about what you call the “media directed world.”

Arnold Toynbee may be important to a small group of people, the intellectual élite, the people who are writing history. But he may not have the effect of a great storyteller. He doesn’t grab public attention like Harry Potter. We have some very bright people who are coming along, who are first rate. Most of them go to television, on Washington Week or CBS news and so forth. I think the private intellectual, the one that dominated a generation ago, is not finding a niche in American life the way he once did. Universities have become “popular” orientated. They get their superstars and pay them enormous salaries. Even the universities are becoming part of the media directed world. A man like Howard Mumford Jones is seldom heard of anymore even though he was a first rate figure; we can name some others like Eric Susman, who had enormous range and was highly popular among the historians, or Charles Beard, hugely important, who defined the entire labor movement. A lot of these people get lost because we’re in an age in which the élite intellectual is not so important. The people who are important are Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Tiger, Madonna, and two tennis players, Serena and Venus.

One of the great swings in popular culture has been toward athletics. Do you realize that everybody who plays basketball who is a “star” is a millionaire? And the best pitcher for the New York Yankees gets a thousand dollars for every pitch he makes, not every game he wins? The pendulum is swinging away from the mind to the muscle. The muscle is taking the place of the mind. That scares me a lot-- especially since my muscles are growing old.

You make an argument in “Global Village—Utopia Revisited” that rather than a global village we concentrate on a new regionalism.

The term “global village" was invented by Marshall McLuhan. He was the first to popularize the notion that we could be everywhere at once. If we try to be everywhere at once, in the Congo, in Iraq, in North Korea, we make a mess of things. Globalism won’t succeed because it can’t correct the prejudices, the misunderstandings, and especially the class warfare. Globalism will disappear; instead we’ll have regionalism. Regions will be very strong. A European region will extend from England down to Italy. An Asian region will be very strong with a few countries dominating. The whole world will not come along with this idea of a global village. I don’t think we’re going to make any real progress with much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia unfortunately. I wish we could, but I think the global idea is a utopian dream. Most utopias look better on paper than they do when you get there.

More than a government push toward globalism, is it really more of a corporate force? Is it the international corporations looking for markets that want to reach their tentacles into Africa and other places?

I think that’s true. The people who stand to make the great money and achievement out of the global village are, for example, bankers and the traders in the stock market. We see what happens when the corporation moves in. Take Nike, the tennis shoe people. They’re becoming very suspect. They make shoes in South America or wherever for five or six dollars a pair and sell them in America for a hundred dollars. The point is the people who do the real work don’t get the money. The corporation takes the lion’s share. The scandals of companies like Enron and World Com will be an important moment in our history. They prove that smart executives can become millionaires and produce nothing. That’s what happens when a corporation runs amuck. The collapse of our economy and especially our stock market in 2001 shows us that the system is flawed. The stock market is global and look what we got. Three years of depression.

Is popular culture all polluting? All negative? On page 41, for example, you say, “Our folk heritage has been cheapened.” The chapter “Style,” as a second example, seems sarcastic and mocking toward fads, trends, style changes.

All polluting or negative? Absolutely not. I think you have to add a factor in here that is painful and rather tragic. Namely, one generation outgrows the last. As you get older, you move from one age to the other. Shakespeare said it best with his seven ages of man. If you came from the time I did, a great entertainer would be Katherine Hepburn or Fred Astaire or John Wayne. If you’re raised on that and then you look at what you get today—of course, it’s so different that it’s hard to make the transition. I can remember hearing my parents talk about their heroes who were English actors of the 1890s and 1900s. Here we get the culture lag as we move from one generation to another. I also think many people who make a lot of money and make a splash are not always talented. They’re just loud. They wiggle and squiggle and scream. To me that’s not art. I understand why in many cases Europeans cannot believe the things we give the golden prizes to. By the way, notice how quickly the idols change. Where’s Madonna or Michael Jackson now, you know? That’s why we had this huge outpouring of emotion for Katherine Hepburn and Bob Hope in 2003 when they died. They excelled for fifty years; very few do. Time is the factor here. Here today, gone tomorrow. With my class, I like to use the wonderful line from an old movie: “I will never forget old what’s his name.”

You use Milne’s Winnie the Pooh as one of your closing images. Tell us about Pooh and Tigger and popular culture.

Winnie the Pooh has a very strong folklore background—animals that can talk and know wise things and illuminate life. What Winnie the Pooh is saying with Tigger is that you have to prepare for change and you have to bounce back and adapt to the new. I admire that, but sometimes the bounce goes out and you can’t bounce back. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, like Mickey Mouse, won’t die because they’ve got the folklore background.

As you reflect upon Popular Culture in a New Age in the wake of September 11th, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq, do any revelations or connections come to mind? You only reference these events briefly in “A Different World.”

We’re all going to be waiting to see the impact of these events, because they’re very recent in terms of human history; but my feeling is that they will have enormous and traumatic effects. There are only two events in American history that rival these events in terms of shock value. One was, of course, the Civil War, which was a terrible thing in which over 600,000 people died. The other was the American Revolution itself. 9-11 changed our whole outlook. It moved us from an era in which we were protected by two oceans, by our great wealth, and by our understanding that we were leading the world. We did not realize that we were so vulnerable that a smart person like Bin Laden might be able to undo us with our own planes, with our own weapons. The feat of hitting New York’s twin towers, our two tallest buildings, sent a shock wave through our country that I think we’ll never get over. 9-11, as we read it, will be one of the three or four pivotal moments that woke America up. We found out that all the things we believed in were under attack, and we don’t know yet whether or not we can defend them. Just last night on television, a senator was saying how unprepared we still are in the event of an attack. If terrorism gets worse, 9-11 might become the dominant image of the twentieth century.

In this latest book, you truly try to change the universe. You send out such calls to action as “We must learn from the past, live in the present, and help shape the future”; “We must work hard to find both mission and meaning in our tumultuous time—look for and welcome new views of who we are and who we want to be”; “They recall Dr. King’s credo that none of us is free until each of us is free—white, black, brown, red, and yellow; rich and poor; Protestant, Catholic, gentile, Jew, and Muslim; gay and straight. This dream, and those who choose to follow it, represents the crowning achievement and hope of twenty-first-century black popular culture.” You’re not just an academic, you’re a scholar activist bent on saving the world. Tell us about that impulse, that calling.

I’m glad I met you because people don’t notice that. Most scholars are content with studying the way the world is and reporting it in their books. I come from a family which has produced missionaries, adventurers, and people going around the world. I still have this notion that I can change things, that I can make it a better world. The older you get the more you realize that you’re not going to change it much. I think scholar activist is a good term, and I am involved in a lot of movements and organizations I think are good. Unfortunately, they’re not ones that younger colleagues are a part of. “I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear my trousers rolled.” I still think of T.S. Eliot as a great poet, and many of my students have never heard of him. I’ve had Fulbight grants and traveled the world at least thirty times, but I don’t think I’ve changed things much. I hope we can.

I want to close with one of my favorite couplets from English literature, “Life is a jest and all things show it. I thought so once and now I know it.” If you can laugh, things aren’t so fearful. If there’s a will, there’s a way.

© 2003 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture