The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture

By Henry Jenkins | Go to book overview

PART II

The Immediate Experience

Writing shortly before his death in 1955, Robert Warshow argued that “the unresolved problem of 'popular culture'… has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism, intruding itself on all our efforts to understand the special qualities of our culture and to define our own relation to it.”1 Three decades had passed since the publication of Gilbert Seldes's The Seven Lively Arts. There was a growing recognition that Seldes had correctly identified the cultural importance of popular art, but there had not yet emerged a critical language to talk about what was most engaging and interesting in those traditions. In the introduction to his book The Immediate Experience, Warshow identified a need for criticism of popular culture “which can acknowledge its pervasive and disturbing power without ceasing to be aware of the superior claims of the higher arts and yet without a bad conscience.”2 On the one hand, he viewed himself as reacting against writers such as Rudolf Arnheim whom he saw as elevating film to the level of art through elitist claims of aesthetic purity; on the other, he viewed himself as reacting against writers such as Siegfried Kracauer who he claimed used films simply as indexes of mass psychology. Both approaches slighted “the actual, immediate experience of seeing and responding to the movies as most of us see them and respond to them.”3 Warshow accused both critics of denying their own personal stakes in the works they criticized, “holding the experience of the movies at arm's length.”4 For Warshow, any meaningful criticism of popular art “should start with the simple acknowledgement of his [the critic's] own relation to the object he criticizes.”5

Warshow began his collection of essays with a description of his own relationship to the cinema: “I have felt my work to be most successful when it has seemed to display the movies as an important element in my own cultural life, an element with its own qualities and interesting in its own terms, and neither esoteric nor alien. The movies are a part of my

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