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
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
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
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
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:
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
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,
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
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
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
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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