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MASS CULTURE IS MASSIVELY REVEALING

It can be found everywhere: a tacky 1970s leisure suit, music of the Great Depression, dishes in a roadside diner, themes of Melville that surface in "Star Trek."

American popular culture is undisciplined, colorful, noisy, artistic. It is everything that's American; the history people live every day.And it's more than the sum of its parts, many in academia say.

More than 2,200 academics meeting in Philadelphia last week tried to make sense of different corners of the American experience, presenting hundreds of papers aimed at sorting it out.

"Popular culture is the driving machine of all that we are," said Ray Browne, a Bowling Green State University professor who 25 years ago founded the nation's first academic department to study mass culture.

"It is what has developed democracy through the ages," he said. "It is the culture of the un-enfranchised."

There's a lot to be learned from Tony Bennett's renaissance and Tupperware and cocktail shakers, and from vintage TV like "I Love Lucy" - even from the Three Stooges.

The idea of studying everyday life for its own merits is relatively new. History has typically been viewed as event-driven, so past generations of students would study how World War I affected America's youth rather than how America's youth affected World War I.

But new generations pushed pop culture into the academic arena - one spanning diverse disciplines of literature, history, economics, and sciences.

"Every medium has a certain tool box of devices to communicate with its audience," said Peter Rollins, a professor of English at Oklahoma State University. "We're trying to figure out how these tools operate."

Many trace the movement to the end of World War II, when mass media - especially television - expanded folk culture into mass culture. TV, pop music and literature pushed pop culture out front in the 1960s; people realized that statesmen and military commanders weren't the only ones who determined how history turned out.

With that, the ordinary became the extraordinary and grew worthy of study - and also grew into a billion-dollar industry.

Today, academics have greater leeway to incorporate once-unthinkable material, such as the strange product fetishism at the "Niketown" athletic museum in Chicago, where even a visitor's receipt is presented in a box as a souvenir.

"We are in danger of becoming an object-oriented culture rather than a people-oriented culture," said Carnegie-Mellon doctoral student Joel Woller, who studied Niketown. "In many ways we're lost as a nation, and we need to know how we got to this point."

Elizabeth Jan Wall Hinds, who teaches at the University of Colorado, turned a critical eye on the movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."

She found its theme and plot echoed Melville's "Moby Dick," and the film's main villain, Khan Noonian Singh, quoted from Captain Ahab.

Simple dramatic license? Hinds thinks not. She sees it as a way mass media export themes of classical literature - the tragedy of exploration, in "Moby Dick's" case - to new audiences.

"The values that were perpetuated in previous centuries through books are now transmitted through TV and movies," Hinds said. "The themes recur, and the themes are preserved. That's popular culture's use."