Was bei vielen Beach­tung findet: Zu den Trans­for­ma­ti­o­nen des Popu­lä­ren (2021)


Being popular means getting noticed by many. Popularity is measured as well as staged. Rankings and charts provide information on what is popular while vying for popularity themselves. They do not speak to the quality or originality of the popular, only to its evident success across different scales of evaluation. People do not buy good products, they buy popular ones; they do not listen to the best music, but to popular music; they do not share, like or retweet important, but popular news. Even the ‘unpopular’ can be popular: a despised politician, a hated jingle, an unpopular measure.

The popular modifies whatever it affords with attention. Its quantitatively and hierarchically comparative terms (‘bestseller’, ‘outperformer’, ‘high score’, ‘viral’) generate valences that do not inhere in the objects themselves. Conversely, the non-popular, which does not find any measurable resonance in these terms, risks being dismissed as irrelevant or worthless simply because it does not appear in any rankings or ratings. This can also be observed particularly with artefacts whose relevance as part of high culture could be taken for granted even when they do not achieve mass resonance.

Our paper proposes the following central hypothesis: The transformations of the popular, which began in Europe around 1800 and introduced the powerful distinction between low culture and high culture, establish a competitive distinction between the popular and the non-popular becoming dominant over the course of the 20th century. As a result, the popular is no longer either culture of the ‘lower classes’ or the inclusion of the ‘people’ in the service of higher goals. The popular today is hardly the object of desired transgressions (Leslie Fiedler’s “cross the border, close the gap”) or an expression of felt or feared “massification” or “flattening”. The dissemination of the popular is no longer a normative project. It has, in fact, become an inescapable condition of cultural self-understanding in the globalised present. The purpose of our research is to devise a theory of the popular that does justice to this fact. Our research outline identifies two decisive transformations that have led to this condition:

  1. the popularization of quantifying methods to measure attention in popular culture around 1950;
  2. the popularization of the Internet around 2000, whereby the question of what can and cannot
    become popular is partially removed from the gatekeepers of the established mass media, educational institutions and cultural elites and is increasingly decided via social media.


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Jörg Döring, Niels Werber, Veronika Albrecht-Birkner, Carolin Gerlitz, Thomas Hecken, Johannes Paßmann, Jörgen Schäfer, Cornelius Schubert, Daniel Stein, Jochen Venus: "Was bei vielen Beachtung findet: Zu den Transformationen des Populären". In: Kulturwissenschaftliche Zeitschrift 2 (2021), 6. Jg., S. 1–24.