Book Review: George Lipsitz's "Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture"

By Doctor Comrade

Lipsitz, George. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Lipsitz’s Time Passages examines the complicated interplay between popular culture and popular memory, including the myth-making enterprises of dominant cultures and the resistant responses by oppressed peoples. In his potent account of pop culture and its role in the formation of various ideologies in America’s post-WWII cultural landscape, Lipsitz contends that popular culture is not only a legitimate historical archive, but that popular culture allows historians to deconstruct the various contradictions within American society’s ideologies of capitalism, consumerism, and racial and sexual domination. The central thesis of the book is that popular culture presents a coded and multilayered version of history, a “repository of collective memory that places immediate experience in the context of change over time… [that] provides[s] meaningful connection to our own pasts and to the pasts of others” (5).

lipsitz time passages

George Lipsitz is a prominent scholar of race and cultural history who has published numerous books on popular culture, racial inequality, and social movements. He currently serves as a professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also serves as the chairman for the board of directors of the African American Policy Forum. He edits the journal Critical American Studies, illustrating that his interests in American culture incorporate elements of critical literary theory while focusing primarily on issues of race in America. Time Passages was initially published in 1990, and some of his subsequent works have addressed some of the same issues: Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music, published in 2007 also by University of Minnesota Press, expands upon the third part of Time Passages by analyzing the social contexts of music from the 1970s to the early 2000s. In a broader study of white supremacy, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, originally published in 1999, Lipsitz argues that white supremacy is as much a product of material conditions as of racism writ large. This appears to be within the same intellectual vein as his arguments about consumerism and materialism that develop throughout Time Passages as white elites, who constitute the dominant culture, projected their material desires through ideologically driven media.

Time Passages is largely a manifesto on the legitimacy of popular culture as a historical resource. Lipsitz begins the work by examining the recent literature in post-structuralism and literary criticism that elucidates critiques of the Enlightenment and the crisis of representation. He argues that “Popular music and films seemed to resonate with the tensions of the time in a way that more formal academic texts did not” (x). Because of their widespread appeal and audience, popular culture speaks to the core of American values, both because it expresses the worldview of those who produce it as well as reveals something about the audience, whether they are receptive to its ideological messages or resistant to them. These arguments are underwritten by Lipsitz’s contention that popular culture espouses a twisted form of collective memory in which Americans have attempted to contextualize their present by reading the past as represented in popular culture. Therefore, pop culture has “contributed to retraining and reshaping the masses to serve the interest of capital, but also to articulating unfilled desires and expressing disconnection from the past” (12). In this way, Lipsitz illustrates that popular culture reifies the very real ideologies of capitalism and consumerism while also exposing the contradictions inherent in media’s portrayals of the past.

However, popular culture and its representations are not uncomplicated vehicles for ideology and memory. By demonstrating culture’s linkages to particular versions of the past, Lipsitz is at his best. He deploys deconstructionist theory to argue that traditional historical archives like libraries and books and the troves of primary source documents historians have used for centuries privilege the subjectivity of dominant classes. This is a critique of the Enlightenment: historians have hidden behind archival sources as objective artifacts of the past without realizing that archives disguise subjectivity by excluding those who do not leave behind written accounts of their experiences. In this sense, traditional archives can only ever present an account of the past, rather than the account of the past (31). Thus, historians must turn to popular culture because of the multitude of possible histories that arise from popular discourse; in effect any account of historical conditions is necessarily incomplete without examining how “ruminations on the past reflected [in pop culture]… equal or exceed the quality of historical acumen represented in most political speeches or history textbooks…. historical memories and historical evidence can no longer be found solely in archives and libraries; they pervade popular culture and public discourse as well” (36).

These theoretical outlines form part one of the book, and the subsequent parts are arranged by the kind of media under examination: television, music, film, and narrative. Each part contains two essays, and all of the essays are united by Lipsitz’s defense of popular culture as a critical form of historical consciousness and its connections to collective memory. In the section about television, Lipsitz argues that television’s rapid proliferation in the 1950s helps historians understand contemporary constructions of race, class, and gender. For instance, in the third chapter, the author contends that even though early TV shows depicting urban and ethnic families may seem to have run contrary to dominant media ethics, their representations actually “underscore[d] the important role played by television in explaining and legitimizing those transitions to a mass audience…. They evoked the experiences of the past to lend legitimacy to the dominant ideology of the present… as a vehicle for ideological legitimation of a fundamental revolution in economic, social, and cultural life” (42). For Lipsitz, the postwar economy faced a crisis of capitalism precipitated by the Great Depression, so postwar capitalists had to justify and reinscribe capitalist values. But they also had to explain new economic imperatives in America, and TV “provided a relentless flow of information and persuasion that placed acts of consumption at the core of everyday life” (47). In order to transmit these messages in easily interpretable ways, TV programs appealed to their audiences’ conceptions of the past. This could be accomplished by associating products with historically sanctioned behaviors. For example, “The focus on the family in early network-television situation comedies involved a special emphasis on motherhood” by portraying the ideal situation as the nuclear family of the 1950s, and portrayals of Black Americans had to conform to racist stereotypes (54, 64). But television was not an uncomplicated cavalcade of consumerist images, but also nurtured the conditions for its own critique. By appealing to a supposed shared past of “false collectivities,” TV had to embrace the fissures within those experiences because history is inextricably complicated. Therefore, historians can contextualize “the historical reality behind the construction of television texts” in order to “demystify their ‘organic’ character and reveal their implications as created artifacts” (74-75).

Perhaps most clearly in this chapter, Lipsitz’s sources illustrate his methodology. He includes numerous examples of contemporary texts, including shows like The Goldbergs, Amos ‘n’ Andy, and Mama, but he does not quote from them merely to illustrate points about structural similarities between them. Instead, Lipsitz treats each show as if it is an advertisement not only for products placed in the shows but also an idealized version of American life. In this dissection, the author illustrates how shows were polyvalent: they provided platforms for department stores like Macy’s to demonstrate the desirability of consumer goods, but also, they were covert ideological vehicles for the normative form of American living.

This too illustrates how Lipsitz reads sources against themselves to find common themes as well as contradictions. In the seventh chapter about popular film, Lipsitz argues that despite obvious differences between Ride the Pink Horse and Till the End of Time, they both portray moderately credible lies about the past in “depictions of the past and present that are comprehensible to us and that locate our own private stories within a larger collective narrative” (163). In this sense, they are unified by audience reactions to their portrayals of versions of the past. Films do not amount to “brain-washing or a stupefied numbness engendered by the power of the media apparatus [but a]… gap between lived experiences and human hopes in a world with too many broken promises and too many unrealized dreams” (177). Films marshal an idealized version of the past to prime audiences for social interactions in the future, especially concerning conformity of shared experience and obedience within cultural norms portrayed as natural by films.

In addition to this stunning deconstruction of dominant ideologies, Lipsitz is also clear on how popular culture inaugurates its own critique. Because pop culture draws on the past for its legitimacy and appeal, it must also speak to powerful counter-memories and resistance. When “Cultural institutions and the mass media alike depict dominant cultures as ‘natural’ and ‘normal,’” they exclude the vantage point of ethnic communities, which uniquely imbues these communities with the ability to speak truth to power through irony (134-135). By ironizing dominant mythologies through subversive cultural traditions, the popular culture of ethnic communities more accurately depicts the social contexts in which all forms of culture are generated. Lipsitz specifically declares that this is why historians must examine popular culture rather than or in addition to archival sources because ethnic community “experiences spoke with special authority about the ideas and alienations felt by others” (136). Moreover, this illustrates how the sources Lipsitz chose for the book can be read at multiple levels, which he accomplishes by examining their overt messages and the different ways their covert messages can be interpreted by various audiences.

Although Lipsitz expertly analyzes what he calls the diachronic contexts for specific cultural productions, his argument could be strengthened by examining audience reactions to works outside of their immediate temporal construction. For example, in his discussion of Picnic (1955), he argues that the film depicts threats to the model version of family life, and compares it to 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. But what remains unclear is how an audience from 1979 or 1990 would view Picnic because its specific messages may seem archaic or inassimilable to audiences in later decades. If Lipsitz had explored Picnic’s ideological formulations within the context of 1990 politics, his arguments about diachronic dynamism would be substantially more formidable, especially if he was able to reveal significant continuities between Picnic and later works. More importantly, this would expand his arguments about the value of popular culture as historical artifacts because those artifacts would take on different meanings for different times: he would be able to argue that because 1990 is significantly different than 1955, audiences should perceive the messages of Picnic in predictable and identifiable ways. This decentered temporal scope could apply to any of the works Lipsitz refers to in the book, broadening his diachronic lens across the cultural sweep of history rather than limiting it to specific historical moments.

Time Passages is a fascinating and compelling analysis of the value and complexity of popular culture for historians. Lipsitz’s critique is neither unidirectional nor uncomplicated, but instead demonstrates how pop culture embodies both the values of the dominant culture as well as the immanent critique of those values inherent within appeals to an imagined past. By drawing on this notion of collective memory, Lipsitz problematizes historians’ narratives that have solipsistically treated popular culture as merely a vehicle for ideological assimilation without considering how aggrieved peoples can re-appropriate cultural forms for their own purposes. This book is indispensable for cultural historians, practitioners of American Studies, and studies of the subaltern.