Abstract: This article starts from the observation that popular culture resides in a contradictory space. On the one hand it seems to be thriving, in that the range of media objects that were previously studied under the rubric of popular culture has certainly expanded. Yet, cultural studies scholars rarely study these media objects as popular culture. Instead, concerns about immaterial labor, about the manipulation of voting behavior and public opinion, about filter bubbles and societal polarization, and about populist authoritarianism, determine the dominant frames with which the contemporary media environment is approached. This article aims to trace how this change has come to pass over the last 50 years. It argues that changes in the media environment are important, but also that cultural studies as an institutionalizing interdisciplinary project has changed. It identifies “the moment of popular culture” as a relatively short-lived but epoch-defining moment in cultural studies. This moment was subsequently displaced by a set of related yet different theoretical problematics that gradually moved the study of popular culture away from the popular. These displacements are: the hollowing out of the notion of the popular, as signaled early on by Meaghan Morris’ article “The Banality of Cultural Studies” in 1988; the institutionalization of cultural studies; the rise of the governmentality approach and a growing engagement with affect theory.
Keywords: affect theory; banality; cultural studies; Foucault; governmentality; media environment; popular culture; the popular