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Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(4) (1993) 26-27

Popular Culture Genre: Theories and Texts

Author: Berger, Arthur Asa
Publisher: Beverley Hills CA: Sage.
Year: 1992

At the beginning of this book, Berger notes that his critics fall into two camps: those who think his work is "far out and ridiculous" and others who think that "everyone knows this stuff already." The latter criticism could easily be applied to this small book, for it deals with a subject matter with which most of us feel very familiar: Bond movies, horror stories, detective novels, and science fiction. One feels that one knows the characters and plots as well or better than does Berger who, nevertheless, provides a capsule summary of each text he analyzes at the beginning of each chapter. But this is the nature of the beast of popular culture: we are, by definition, part and parcel of that culture. It ought to be familiar to us. Indeed, it ought to be intimately familiar to us.

What, then, does Berger add to our knowledge? Although the book is purportedly about genres--perhaps a "pop" topic in itself these days in textual criticism--it is really about much more than this. It is a bold attempt to classify various texts into particular categories, and, after the classification has been established, to analyze an example of a text typical of each of these genres. It seems to be assumed that, having set up the genre, the genre itself then dictates the particular form of analysis.

About half of the book is devoted to a review of the literature on genre theory and criticism, which offers the novice an excellent and straightforward introduction to the literature. The second half of the book analyzes one example of each genre. These analyses are refreshingly simple in their approach and presentation. This is intended as a compliment: Berger's style is thankfully free of the jargon of post modernism (and all the rest). There is an[End page 26] enormous amount of information or, should one say, "implied theory" in the many (non-statistical) tables Berger presents which analyze themes and plot structures, and reflect his preference to analyze texts in terms of their opposites (following Levis Strauss). The rather simple expository text that weaves around these tables leaves a great deal unsaid. If one spends much time looking closely at these tables (for example, there is one which lists the polar oppositions of a typical Bond plot), one finds oneself beginning to disagree, or at least to want to move the categories in the table around quite a bit. Berger's commitment to the binary oppositional structure of popular culture texts seems almost absolute, although he does, in some places, offer other types of analyses (again in a table), such as "Marxist," "sociological," and "semiotic." These do, however, cry out for further substantive analysis, but Berger does not really make a serious attempt tp expound on these different approaches to literary criticism in popular culture.

Clearly his favorite is Freudian analysis which, this reviewer freely admits, does seem to offer the more profound insights into the dynamics of the popular culture texts, but at the same time it does lend itself to the former criticism of "ridiculous" in its adherence to the rather old fashioned (and narrow) interpretations of Freud by sticking too closely to the Oedipal complex. Neo-Freudian theories, such as, for example, Becker's Denial of Death, or Brown's Life Against Death, would offer equally or more fascinating Freudian based accounts of some of the popular genres analyzed by Berger, particularly his account of Frankenstein and the problem of "living dead."

In spite of these criticisms, however, this book offers an extremely useful introduction to the literature on popular culture, and certainly establishes the concept of genres as of considerable importance in current popular culture theory. To the criminal justice scholar, the book is of great significance. Of all the examples chosen by Berger as typical of a particular genre, almost all the texts (i.e., movies, stories or novels) involve justice and/or criminal justice themes, victims of one kind or another, and all texts involve the pursuit, unveiling, and punishment of villains. All things considered, this book deserves three gavels on the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture's rating scale.

Graeme Newman
University at Albany
State University of New York
School of Criminal Justice[End page 27]