Featured Guest:
Professor Arthur Asa Berger

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.

Arthur Asa Berger is Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University and a very prolific writer. In a little over thirty years, Professor Berger has published over sixty books, including Pop Culture, Media Analysis Techniques (now in its third edition), Popular Culture Genres, and Manufacturing Desire: Media, Popular Culture & Everyday Life. He’s also done a little genre-busting with a series of academic mystery novels: The Hamlet Case, Postmortem for a Postmodernist, The Mass-Comm Murders: Five Media Theorists Self-Destruct, and Durkheim Is Dead: Sherlock Holmes Is Introduced to Social Theory.

In the fall of 2005, we spoke to Professor Berger about his career, American Studies, popular culture studies, and one of his latest books, shop ‘til you drop: Consumer Behavior and American Culture.

In 1965, you completed a Ph.D. in American Studies. In 1973, you published Pop Culture. You truly are one of the forefathers of popular culture criticism. To paraphrase an old country song, you were studying pop culture when pop culture wasn’t cool, especially in the halls of academe.

My approach to popular culture and my other work all began, I now realize, in 1951 when I saw Rashomon. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll return to Rashomon later.

You may want to consider me a “founding father” of popular culture studies, but “foundering” or “floundering” father might be more correct. That’s the impression I get from some of my critics. My first publication dealing with popular culture and the media was in Italian, in 1963. I had a Fulbright to Italy and did a paper on the Italian magazine press that was published in an Italian journal, Il Mulino. I also wrote a review of an Italian book on popular culture and comics and an article about American and Italian comics for Studi Americani while I was in Italy.

I got started with popular culture in America in 1964, when I wrote my dissertation Li’l Abner: A Study in American Satire, at the University of Minnesota. I wrote it because of my interest in humor and in cartooning. I am a cartoonist and illustrator and did drawings for The Journal of Communication for a dozen years. I also illustrate my own books and have done illustrations for other books, as well.

When I told my brother, in 1960, that I intended to get a Ph.D. in American Studies he said, “American Studies is a shmoo. If you bake it, you're a historian. If you fry it, you're a sociologist. If you boil it, you're a literary scholar. Better to profound yourself in a discipline.” My brother is a landscape painter who is still going strong at the age of 81.

My dissertation on Al Cap was published in 1970 by Twayne. They held it for
several years and finally got around to publishing it when I visited them in New York and reminded them they had the manuscript. The first sentence in my book reads, “They laughed when I sat down at the typewriter.” I believe that it was the first sustained analysis of a comic strip done as a Ph.D. dissertation in the United States, but I’m not certain. (Not being certain about things I write and publish might be one of the keys to my productivity.) When the president of the University of Minnesota announced the title of my dissertation at graduation ceremonies, everyone in the audience laughed. That event, I realize now, was a sign from the gods that my relationship with academia would be essentially a comedic one.

Publishing Pop Culture was a matter of chance and good luck. I’d heard that Pflaum publishing was an innovative house, so I sent a letter to the editor, Jack Heher, and told him I had a number of essays that could be combined into a book on popular culture. He asked to see the essays. A few weeks after I sent them off to him I received a letter from him saying, “I like the essays and I think they will sell.” And so I published Pop Culture. I also edited a reader on what might be described as popular anthropology, About Man, for Pflaum. Shortly after that, Pflaum was absorbed into a bigger publisher and that connection with an “appreciative editor” dried up.

My interest in comics led me to write another book, The Comic-Stripped American, which was published in 1974 by Walker as a trade book. I then published The TV-Guided American in 1975 with Walker, which had an introduction by Marshall McLuhan. The book was, to my surprise, reviewed in The New York Times. The conclusion of that review went “Berger is to the study of television what Idi Amin is to tourism in Uganda.” I love that line. It was not the last nasty review that my work was to receive by vitriolic journalists, malevolent professor-reviewers, or mean-spirited editors. Over the next couple of years, I wrote a few other books and before I knew it, I had something like eight books published.

Unlike most scholars, I write my books and then try to find editors who will publish them. Occasionally, I’ve been asked to write a book, but that’s rather unusual. Usually, I write a book because a subject interests me, and I want to find out more about it. Writing forces you to come to conclusions about things.

What changes have taken place in American Studies, in general, and popular culture studies, in particular, over the last thirty years?

I realized, shortly after I became an academic, that most scholars in American Studies had a serious inferiority complex. This was because professors in the traditional disciplines looked down their noses at people with American Studies degrees as knowing a lot about a number of things but not knowing very much about anything. My spoof of this idea, in my “Lamentation for a Dead American Studies Scholar,” is as follows:

A mind
Wide ranging, and judicial
He skimmed the surface
Of the superficial.

As a result of this inferiority complex, professors with American Studies backgrounds tended to search for deadly “serious” subjects and wrote dreary and overly researched essays on matters of relatively little significance. It was as if they were throwing down the gauntlet to professors of literature or history or the other traditional disciplines and stating, “We can be duller and more boring than you can!”

I think American Studies and popular culture studies, as well as a number of other traditional disciplines such as literature, history, sociology, and political science, were saved by the development of cultural studies. All of a sudden (and I’m simplifying matters to make a point), English professors who couldn’t get ten students in a Milton class discovered Cultural Studies, which originated, in large measure, at the University of Birmingham in England. In the early days, cultural studies was highly ideological, by which I mean Marxist, but this was washed off to some measure in the United States, though we probably have more Marxists teaching in our universities than any other country. I may even be one myself.

Now, professors in any discipline can offer courses in anything they want: cross dressing, lesbian bisexual gay transgender pop music, romance novels, Madonna, comics, wrestling, Star Trek, you name it, and feel good about what they are doing. And, what’s better, they can get students. It’s important to recognize that popular culture is, as I see things, a kind or form or level of culture, and culture is now a dominant concern in the humanities and social sciences.

What are your thoughts as you reflect back on forty years of writing sixty-plus books. Have your interests or approaches changed or do you see a consistency throughout your work?

I’ve been keeping a journal since 1954 and have written some eighty volumes. Since I’ve published some sixty books, I can say that I’m the author of 140 books, eighty of which are about myself. Some would say all of my books are really about myself, and all of them should be considered fiction. In my journals, I play around with ideas, plot out new books I might write, design courses, note what the weather is like, make little drawings, and complain that I have no interesting new ideas or projects.

If you look at what I’ve written, you see that a number of my books deal with the mass media and popular culture, in general, or with certain media, such as comic strips or television, in particular. I’ve also written a number of books on humor: An Anatomy of Humor; Blind Men and Elephants: Perspectives on Humor; The Art of Comedy Writing; The Genius of the Jewish Joke; and Jewish Jesters. Many of my other books contain chapters on humor and all of them are informed by my sense of humor. Some critics have suggested that my books are really elaborate “put-ons” and should never be taken seriously. They may be right. I may be a satirist, parodist, and ironist, biting the hand (academia) that fed me. I once wrote, thinking I was being funny, “I make it all up as I go along and throw in charts to make social scientists happy,” but a lot of people took that statement as a confession.

In addition to my scholarly or professional books, I’ve written a number of darkly comic, satirical, and exceedingly hostile academic mystery novels, such as The Hamlet Case, Postmortem for a Postmodernist, The Mass-Comm Murders: Five Media Theorists Self-Destruct, and Durkheim Is Dead: Sherlock Holmes Is Introduced to Social Theory. (All of these mysteries, incidentally, are being translated into Chinese.) In The Hamlet Case, a berserk literature professor from the University of California at Berkeley, Agostino Glioma, murders the entire editorial board of a journal he edits, but not before each of them has offered a different disciplinary interpretation of Hamlet. Thus we find a semiotic analysis, a psychoanalytic interpretation, a sociological analysis, a Marxist critique, and a structural analysis of Hamlet in the book. All of my mysteries have an international cast of characters, so you will find comic stereotypes of Russian, French, English, German, Japanese, Italian and other nationalities in them.

I’ve described The Hamlet Case in detail because it is typical of my approach to whatever subject I’m interested in, whether it is material culture or shopping. I usually think to myself “round up the usual suspects,” by which I mean the approaches used in all my mysteries from The Hamlet Case to The Rashomon Case (which I’ve just self-published on www.lulu.com). This interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, pan-disciplinary, or undisciplined (as some would have it) perspective is found in just about all of my books. I spelled out this approach in an article in The Journal of Communication many years ago. George Gerbner, the editor, asked me to write an article on how I worked, and I wrote a long and overblown essay that had three parts. Gerbner junked the first two parts and published the third part, which was titled “The Secret Agent,” accompanied by a caricature I drew of myself as a secret agent. (That’s how I became a Secret Agent.) In it, I list the various approaches one can use in analyzing anything. Or interpreting a text.

When I realized that American culture was a text, and that almost anything can be seen as a text, and as such, susceptible to socio-semiotic, psychoanalytic interpretation, it was a valuable insight. My most direct analysis of American culture and society can be found in my book Bloom’s Morning. I had an idea of writing a semio-sociological analysis of one day in the life of a typical American and wrote a manuscript called Ulysses Sociologica. It has thirty-five short chapters covering everything Bloom does from the moment he is gets up until he has breakfast. In the book, I analyze everything from clock radios and king-sized beds to electric toothbrushes and trash compactors. I had a devil of a time getting it published. One editor thought he might use it, made me write an introductory section and a conclusion, and then rejected it. I finally found a poet, working as a communications editor at Westview Press, who took it. It has a drawing I made for each of the thirty-five different objects and activities found in the Ulysses Sociologica part of the book and a number of other drawings, of James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, etc.

In recent years I’ve taken to writing scholarly (to the extent that any of my books can be described as such) books on tourism. I realized, recently, that Bloom’s Morning was the template for my analyses of other cultures. That is, it focuses upon important rituals and objects (material culture) in these countries and is a kind of ethnography. I’ve always believed that by studying other cultures we find out about ourselves. I’ve published Vietnam Tourism, have another in press, Thailand Tourism, and am working on a third, Bali Tourism. I got the notion of doing these kinds of books from reading Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, which is a semiotic analysis of important signifiers of what Barthes would call “Japanese-ness.” An editor asked me to write books on Asian Pacific countries, and I’m knocking them off, one at a time. When I’m done with Bali, I’m thinking of doing Laos, but may find another country that interests me more.

So you can sum up my books by saying that the topics may differ but the approach remains the same.

As you have already discussed, you are known for writing in an accessible, whimsical, often hilarious voice – which we have certainly heard in this interview. Talk about your decision to abandon academic speak in your otherwise academic books. You note that other academics try to out-bore each other.

I lack the higher seriousness, perhaps because I come from a family of humorists. My mother told me several very dirty jokes on her deathbed. My brother is a compulsive punster, who uses four or five languages for his wordplay. And I am, it could be said, a satirist with a playful attitude and a comedic personality. That, of course, has gotten me into trouble at times, and has led others to dismiss me, since I’m not solemn, as not serious. Many reviewers and others have used the word “accessible” in describing my writing. I concluded that it doesn’t make sense to write a book that hardly anyone would read, so I decided to write in what might be described as the “plain” style.

It also serves me well, since I inject a lot of humor in my writing, being unable to resist a play on words, a bit of fooling around with ideas, a touch of facetiousness, and that kind of thing. I’ve written one book that is a hoax: Aristotle: Comedy. In it, I claim to have found Aristotle’s lost book of comedy and translated it from the Greek. It is really part of a mystery, The Aristotle Case. Many of my books can be described as both playful and passionate.

My sense of humor has also shielded me from some of the tribulations of academic life. A colleague once wrote about me, “We thought he was an absurdist but concluded he was an absurdity.” This colleague told me that all my books were unpublishable. When I asked him why he never published anything, he told me his writings were “too good to be published.” One professor started his review of one of my books writing, “How do you review a book that never should have been published?” Comments like that explain why I take such relish in killing off professors in my mysteries.

Because I write in an accessible style, many of my books are described, by my publishers (and others) as “primers” or “introductions” to whatever it is I’ve written about. One of my publishers described one of my books as an “introductory primer,” if I recall correctly. The implication is that I’m a “low-level” thinker, or write material for introductory courses, at the most. An Italian professor said that my book Media Analysis Techniques, published in an Italian translation, might be suitable for high school students. And professors commenting on one of my most recent books, Making Sense of Media, said the same thing. Another professor from England said it might be suitable for A-Level students or students at universities with no knowledge of communications and media studies. What struck me about the comments, and there must have been sixty or seventy professors who sent comments back about this book, is that hardly any of them mentioned the humor in the book, my comic drawings, or the book’s innovative aspects.

My accessible writing style has led any number of editors to try to get me to write one of those humongous introduction to communications tomes, promising I would make enough money to take my wife to Europe every summer. I always refused. I explained that they should think of me as a wide receiver, floating around out there on the field and doing what I wanted to do. I added that they needed a burly fullback, to grind out 1000 pages of preferably dull prose. It is my destiny, I recognize, to write slender volumes, so even though I’ve published sixty books, I think I only have 8,000 to 10,000 pages in print from my books. I’ve also published more than a hundred articles and countless books reviews.

Despite my accessible style and use of humor, I still would say it is correct to say that very few students have ever read a book of mine unless it was assigned in some course, and they knew they were to be tested on it. Except, maybe, in China?

Consuming is certainly an American passion. Tell us about the decision to write shop ‘til you drop.

I wrote this book while I was waiting for some professors to send comments about a manuscript of mine that my publisher had sent them. The professors kept the manuscript five or six months and then sent back reviews that weren’t terribly useful. Sometimes, of course, you get reviews that are very helpful, and I’ve gained a good deal from some reviews that were made of my manuscript. In any case, while I was waiting for the reviews to come in, with nothing else to do, I decided to write a book on consumption. I’ve written a number of books waiting for professors to send back comments on my manuscripts. Many of these comments can only be described a brutal, though, because I have a track record, they generally weren’t enough to derail my books from being published.

Shopping is a fascinating subject. I seem to have progressed, over my career, in writing about what people do in terms of the amount of time they spend doing things, from reading comics (two minutes a day) to consuming media (eight hours a day) to touring (all day while traveling) to shopping (an entire lifetime).

In shop ‘til you drop, I used John Calvin’s and Max Weber’s ideas to deal with the sacred dimension of consumption. The notion that divine providence is behind the unequal distribution of wealth is very comforting to the wealthy. And a straightjacket on the poor. I dealt with what psychologists and other social scientists had found about kinds of consumers in my discussion of the psychographics, the VALS (Values and Lifestyles) typology, and demographics, the Claritas sixty-six consumer cultures. Each of these sixty-six consumer cultures can be considered a kind of subculture in America, I would suggest, and perhaps also a micro-audience. “Birds of a feather flock together, and consume together.”

I also used Mary Douglas’ Grid-Group typology, which argues that there are four dominant lifestyles in the modern societies: Elitists, Individualists, Egalitarians and Fatalists. What’s interesting about these four dominant lifestyles is that people who belong to them don’t recognize that they do, but are guided in their consumption preferences by their membership in a lifestyle. In addition, as Douglas points out, these lifestyles are in competition with one another and shopping is agonistic, a struggle to define not what one is but what one is not, as she puts it in her article “In Defense of Shopping.” Cultural alignment, she argues, is the best predictor of preferences in many different fields. Thus shopping becomes a means of defining oneself, but in the best Saussurean manner, by what one is not. Saussure had defined concepts negatively, saying their meaning comes from their place in a system and most precisely in being what others are not.

But you see problems with consumer cultures.

Consumption is part of everyday life. We have to eat and we need to have clothes and a place to live. The problem with consumer cultures, as I see things, is that personal consumption dominates our lives as individuals and American society. We should allocate more resources to public needs and move some funds from private consumption to what might be thought of as public investment or social consumption.

I wrote an article a number of years ago, about deoderant ads titled “I Stink Therefore I Am,” and another one modifying slightly Bishop Berkeley’s famous dictum, “To Be Is to Be Perceived” and suggested that “To Buy Is to Be Perceived.” The connection between consumption and identity and a sense that one is a person is obvious. I quote Baudrillard about our sense of obligation to consume. I’ve been interested in advertising and consumer culture for forty years. I once suggested, in a grad seminar at the University of Minnesota, that studying advertisements was worth doing but was shouted down by my classmates and the professor, who informed me that advertisements were trivial, bastard works of art. I don’t recall what I wrote my paper on in that course, but as soon as I got my doctorate and a job, I started writing about advertising, as well as many other aspects of popular culture, such as wrestling, washing cars, and hamburgers.


I wrote an article in the early sixties, published in The Minnesota Daily, “The Evangelical Hamburger,” in which I suggested that McDonald’s had the same dynamics as evangelical Protestant religions, and I predicted that McDonald’s would conquer the world.

shop ‘til you drop almost had another name.

I wanted to call my book Consuming Passions, because I thought the term “passion” captured an important element of consumption. We fall in love with the things we buy, for the moment at least, and there is a kind of passionate intensity to shopping that most people do not recognize. I find it in myself, on occasion.

My title, shop ‘til you drop, which is a commonly used phrase, describes the drama that occurs when we buy things and captures our need to shop until we are exhausted, physically and financially. The term “shopping” now covers a variety of matters. You hear people talk about “shopping for a university,” as if attending a college is one more aspect of consumption, and to some extent it is nowadays. Many colleges and universities are now reshaping themselves so that they will be better consumable items, with elaborate student unions and other facilities resembling country clubs. The professors, in this scenario, are regarded (by students and administrators) as hired help. As a student once said to my wife, who also taught, “I’m paying good money for this course, and I expect to get a good grade.”

You incorporate a lot of theory into this book.

In shop ‘til you drop, I did the same thing I do in many of my books. I use something commonplace and popular, such as shopping, to sneak in concepts and ideas by important scholars in a number of disciplines. That is, I sugar coat the didactic pill. And in shop ‘til you drop you find I deal with theorists and thinkers such as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, John Calvin, Ernest Dichter, Mary Douglas, Mircea Eliade, Sigmund Freud, Jean-François Lyotard, Max Weber, Marshall McLuhan, Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles S. Peirce, and Aaron Wildavsky. I quote them, explain their ideas, and show how they relate to consumption in America and elsewhere, but I always try to make their ideas and theories understandable and show how they offer important insights into shopping. I have a new book, in press, that takes the notion of dealing with important theorists to an extreme. It has short selections (three hundred words at the most) from fifty different theorists of communication and media, along with my commentaries, in it. I would like to call it CommTEXTS but what it will end up being called is hard to say. That call will probably be made by my publisher’s marketing director.

You mentioned Marshall McLuhan. He must be one of the most widely quoted scholars in American Studies.

I consider Marshall McLuhan’s book, The Mechanical Bride, one of the fundamental texts in American cultural studies and in understanding our consumer culture. What McLuhan did, and what I’ve done in my books, is to use many of the methods and techniques of traditional literary analysis (my B.A. is in literature) to analyze pop culture, mass mediated culture, whatever you want to call it. I also found Barthes’ Mythologies to be an important book. In it, he discusses wrestling, soap powders, margarine, and all kinds of other seemingly trivial phenomena that have, he suggests, a mythic content. This book made me feel confident that my interest in popular culture was worth pursuing. The Grid-Group typology of social-anthropologist Mary Douglas, discussed before, has also informed a good deal of my thinking.

What are the dominant methodologies that have informed your work?

The two dominant methodologies or disciplines that I’ve been drawn to are psychoanalytic theory and semiotics. Thus, in shop and in my other books, I use these two approaches, often in conjunction with other ones, to make my analyses. That is why you see citations and applications of ideas from Saussure, Barthes, and Freud in many of my books. Being a Freudian, of sorts, has led to all kinds of snide and sometimes nasty comments from all the post-Freudians floating around nowadays.

And postmodernism?

In recent years, I’ve become interested in postmodernism, and have published a mystery (Postmortem for a Postmodernist, in which the victim, Professor Ettore Gnocchi, is killed four different ways on the first page) and two other books on the subject. I also make sure to have psychoanalytic critics, Marxist critics, semiotic critics, and postmodernists in my mysteries, so I can poke fun at them, and in some of my mysteries I even poke fun at myself. These mysteries, incidentally are full of hidden gags that seem to have escaped notice of most of my readers.

I deal with postmodernism in shop ‘til you drop because there is a strong connection between postmodernism and contemporary consumer culture. Because in postmodernist cultures, identities and lifestyles keep changing, we have to purchase the proper means of consolidating our images and identities and dealing with these seemingly endless changes.

It’s one thing to know about different methods of analysis; the name of the game is applying them. One of my most successful books, Media Analysis Techniques, which I consider to be a postmodernist book, now in its third edition (it was published first in 1982), deals with four primary techniques of analyzing media, and by implication, anything. In the book, I have chapters on semiotic analysis, psychoanalytic theory, Marxist theory, and sociological theory as they can be applied to media. In the second part of the book, I offer chapters in which I utilize these four methods. When I taught criticism courses, I always focused on methods of analysis rather than what this or that professor said about some text or topic. For example, I would explain semiotic theory and then show my students a text in class, and ask them to make a semiotic analysis of the text. The problem my students faced was moving from an understanding of the methodology to actually applying it, but they managed, often, to do very interesting and perceptive papers. It is these four techniques that I used, in conjunction with others (depending upon what I’m dealing with) which inform my analysis of shopping and most other topics I write about.

Are you a writer or a teacher?

I would conclude by saying that I always saw myself as a writer who happened to teach. Teaching paid the bills and provided other rewards, but I got most of my kicks from writing books. It is easy to become involved with the complexities of complex institutions, such as universities, and most people get ahead by becoming cogs in the machine. A comic poem I wrote about these types is as follows:

Good at committees
For which he was cherished.
He never published,
And he never perished.

I have a cultural studies mystery about identity, Mistake in Identity, that was published in August of 2005, and I self-published (on www.lulu.com) two other mysteries, The Rashomon Case, which is about different interpretations of the film, and Terminal Papers, a detective story that teaches how to write compositions.

You said you would come back to Rashomon.

I saw Rashomon at Smith College in 1951 (I think it was that year), and now I realize that it profoundly shaped my work as a writer and scholar. I would suggest that Rashomon is one of the dominant texts of postmodernism and that it planted a germ that was to grow into my adopting what probably is best described as a postmodernist, interdisciplinary approach to texts and other aspects of media and popular culture. Once you realize that there’s no definitive answer to a lot of questions, you are free of many of the obsessions and compulsions of modernist thought.

After a possible book on tourism in Laos, what’s your next book?

Maybe Singapore? I find that for the first time in a long time I don’t have any ideas for new books and literary projects on media and communication. I think I may finally have written myself out on these subjects. I should admit that I’ve been writing notes to that effect in my journals for the past thirty years. But what if I’m right this time?

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