Friday, December 3, 2010
Popular Culture & Literary Studies: A Few Tentative Reflections
Before I start talking about the relationship between Popular Culture and Literary Studies, let me offer a few general observations on what I understand by the term ‘Popular Culture.’ There is no denying the fact that Popular Culture is certainly a contested category and so deserves to be examined very closely. If one were to look into the definition of the term, one would certainly be confounded not only by the sheer range, variety and versatility of its meanings but also their self-contradictory, self-annihilating postures and possibilities. To give you an example, some people may think of Popular Culture as something of a people’s culture (which is a very broad way of defining the term. Besides, ‘people’ is too generalized and amorphous a term to be used here) while others may associate it with a certain class of people, say, the working class, or the rural people or the urban masses or sometimes, even a confused aggregate or conglomerate of urban and rural consumers. Going further, one may talk of Popular Culture as a Post-Industrial (or Post-technology) Culture (whose beginnings coincided with the proliferation of the technology, viz., the printing press, photography, cinema, television and now Internet) whereas some others may continue to see it as re-articulation of essentially agrarian feudal/folk cultural forms (original or pastiche) in the contemporary world.
Popular culture has been defined as everything from “common culture” to “folk culture,” from “people’s culture” to “mass culture.” While it has been all of these things at various points in history, Post-War America undeniably associated popular culture with commercial culture and all its trappings: movies, television, radio, cyberspace, advertising, toys, nearly any commodity available for purchase; several forms of art, photography, games, and even group "experiences" like collective comet-watching or rave dancing on ecstasy. While humanities and social science departments before the 1950s would rarely have imagined including any of the above listed items in their curricula, ‘popular culture’ is now a well-established discipline, enmeshed in a complex set of institutional practices. Though “pop culture” is, today, one of the US’ most lucrative export commodities, making everything from Levi's jeans to Sylvester Stallone movies popular on the international market, it should not be analyzed or studied exclusively from the perspective of the US material, economic and political culture. Americanization, or if I may say so, MacDonaldization of ‘popular culture’ is of a fairly recent origin, going as far back as the early decades of 20th century, so it only tells half the story. Globalization of this phenomenon has resulted in the blurring of fault lines, masking the contradictions of its cultural history, erasing the specificities of its multiple variants in different cultural contexts.
In order to capture the plurality, multiplicity and differentiated variety of ‘popular culture,’ it is necessary to look into the specificities of its nature, function and even history in different cultural contexts. Much before we start looking into its history, let us first cast a glance at some of the definitions of ‘popular culture.’ One of the most incisive definitions of ‘popular culture’ has, indeed, been offered by Peter Burke, who says that it is “everyone’s culture that could be consumed by both wide audiences and restricted ones.” While reflecting on this description, let us also bear in mind that cultural strata have a history, something not always very easy to pin down. Besides, popular culture is a complex phenomenon, hard to define and difficult to analyze. What might seem ‘popular’ may really be ‘elite’ and what appears to be ‘elite’ may really be ‘popular’ and the relationships between the two undergo qualitative as well as quantitative changes over time. Interrogating Peter Burke’s ‘populist’ definition of popular culture, Sue Wiseman gives it a definite ‘elitist’ twist and orientation. Her contention is that popular culture is all that is the “left over,” ‘the residual form’ after we have decided what high culture essentially is all about. She looks upon popular culture as a reassembled collage of classical, biblical and contemporary texts that otherwise percolate throughout society, a matter of connecting and fusing different registers, narratives and styles of writing and thinking.
Now if we do wish to understand the dynamics of this antithetical relationship between the popular and the elite culture, or how and why ‘popular’ became the ‘Other’ of the elite culture, we shall have to return to history, which I don’t want to do right now, purely for the tactical reasons. Any such attempt at this juncture may only result in an unnecessary digression, which I’d eminently like to avoid, though I shall ultimately return to this issue, a little later in this essay. At this point, all I would like to emphasize is that though the distinction between the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ cultures may have remained central to all theoretical discussions on ‘modernism,’ with the slow emergence and proliferation of ‘postmodernism,’ it certainly stands challenged, even invalidated. Postmodern approach to culture no longer recognizes the distinction between the ‘high’ and the ‘low,’ the ‘elite’ and the ‘popular,’ the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane.’ Even though the fault lines may have thus collapsed, this binary opposition, as John Storey points out in his book Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, has always been somewhat spurious, and therefore suspect in real historical sense. He says, regardless of whether we talk of the Shakespearean plays or the novels of Dickens, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or its film version, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather or Mario Puzo’s novel from which it drew inspiration, there is a very thin line of demarcation that marks the ‘classical’ off from the ‘popular.’
To put it differently, ‘popular culture’ is a contestable category, not only because of the blurred fault lines but also due to the contradictions inherent in its nature and character. While some people look upon it in apolitical terms as an “authentic” culture of the people, others emphasize its radical and political potential by treating it as “a site of struggle and resistance between the subordinate and dominant groups within a society.” While media critics like Marshall McLuhan and several others celebrate its arrival, academics like Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag denounce it for its “dumbing down.” Unlike those who applaud the media for its instant message and/or communication, there are others who bemoan the fact that “the newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip or pictures of scantily dressed young ladies,” that “television reality shows and asinine soaps,” only reveal people’s pre-occupation with ‘trivia’ or their immersion in celebrity culture. The problem with popular culture is that just when you think you have understood it; it starts facing in exactly the opposite direction, thus revealing its Janus-faced character. One of the major semantic, or should I say, theoretical worries about it is that it can’t easily be pinned down or demarcated. Often, it is difficult to decide as to what should be included in and/or excluded from the purview of this eminently ‘slippery’ term.
If I’m pointing out the difficulties in either defining or perceiving popular culture as a conceptual category, it is simply to underline the fact that this term creates semantic problems of its own; some of which I propose to outline in my essay, as I go along. Having said that, let me also emphasize that the problem of semantic instability is not something peculiar to ‘popular culture;’ as much the same may be stated about several other ‘modern’ and/or ‘post-modern’ terms, including the umbrella terms viz., ‘modern’ and post-modern.’ If definitions are problematic, do we have other modes of accessing, mediating or interrogating popular culture? This is where I draw strength from Michele Foucault, who has not only articulated alternative modes of historical discourse but has also given us the apparatus for excavating ‘archeology’ of knowledge in general, and that of human sciences, in particular. Following his lead, I, too, would like to make an effort, howsoever audacious and unsatisfactory, at excavating the archeology of popular culture, that, to my mind, lies embedded within the discourse of literary studies itself. If we look carefully enough, we would discover that the notion of ‘popular culture’ has been present in the mainstream culture right from the beginning, sometimes in the emergent, sometimes residual and sometimes, in the dominant form.
In a manner of speaking, popular culture has been present in the discourse of literary studies right from the beginning, though the realization that it could also be recognized as a separate, discrete and independent discourse, with its own theoretical apparatus, has only emerged in the 20th century. Much before Herbert Marcuse, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Frederic Jameson and others had begun to theorize about ‘popular culture,’ it had existed within the mainstream culture of Western literary discourse itself. Poetry, especially when it was initially started, say by Homer (if we could treat him as an originator of poetry in the Western tradition), was essentially a popular form as it was orally sung and recited among the people whose aspirations, dreams, beliefs and ideas it sought to capture. In other words, poetry was a people’s discourse, not a dominant one, at least, when it initially originated. A few centuries later, owing to a number of historical factors, which I don’t wish to go into at this stage, drama replaced poetry as a popular discourse. The fact that at any given point of time, a single performance of a Greek play by Aeschylus or Sophocles was witnessed by no less than twenty thousand people, even more, does speak of its popularity among the masses.
With the onward march of history, and the slow emergence of different literary forms dependent upon a variegated living, material and cultural practices, the ‘popular culture’ slowly moved to the subterranean regions of the Western literary discourse. This is when a clear-cut notion of ‘what was dominant’ or ‘what must be dominant’ had begun to emerge within the social and political practices of the Western history. With the rise of Christian ideology and feudalism as its main ally, the notion of ‘popular’ almost became a ‘pariah,’ synonymous with everything that was ‘vulgar,’ ‘uncouth,’ ‘uncultured,’ even ‘primitive.’ With the objectification, even demonization of the ‘popular,’ undoubtedly, ‘popular culture’ moved to the subterranean zones of the Western living traditions. No wonder, when ‘comedia dell arte’ surfaced in the medieval Italy as a popular form of dramatic improvisation, it could only find its articulation as a ‘nukkad natak;’ its performance space coinciding not so much with the hallowed precincts of the church, but circumscribed instead by the unofficial, market or public square. To my mind, this kind of marginalization of the ‘popular discourse’ had two distinct implications; while de-legitimizing the ‘popular,’ it paved the way for the legitimization of the ‘dominant,’ which, through history, has very closely been tied to the ideology of the royalty, nobility, aristocracy, in particular, and the ruling establishment, in general.
Therefore, when the historians of ‘popular culture’ term it as a 20th century American phenomenon, emphasizing that it has no precedent or archival history of any kind in cultures other than Western, this assumption becomes questionable. My point is that popular culture came into existence much before the idea of America was constructed, and that it has had presence not only in the Western discourse but discourses of other cultures, too. To set up a direct equation between the ‘popular culture’ and the Jazz or Hippie generations of America or the working class in the West, is not only a total denial of history but a misreading of the literary and social practices of virtually all living cultures, other than Western. Of course, if we associate ‘popular culture’ with ‘mass media,’ then certainly it is a post-technological phenomenon. However, if we are willing to extend the notion of mass-media to incorporate the notion of visual culture, then perhaps we shall have to think of ancient cave paintings, wall murals, sculptors at Ajanta and Ellora, too, as expressions of visual/popular culture. However, if ‘orality’ is to be treated as one of the features of ‘popular culture,’ then it could be said to have a history as old as that of the oral literatures. To carry this idea to its logical conclusion, we may then think of Ramlila (based upon the canonical text The Ramayana) and paintings, dramatic compositions and children’s stories (based upon The Mahabharata) as instances of popular culture, too.
Let me now return to yet another book of John Storey on Popular Culture. Undoubtedly, he has done some seminal work in this area and so deserves serious attention from us. In his extremely well-conceived, well-argued book, Inventing Popular Culture: From Folklore to Globalization (Blackwell, 2007), John Storey suggests how the ‘folk culture’ had actually begun to emerge as a subject of special inquiry and investigation among the 18th century European intellectuals. (It is ironic, isn’t it that ‘folk culture’ was not the invention of the people, but the intellectuals, a fact Roger Cartier, a French historian also corroborates). John Storey further emphasizes that there were mainly two reasons for this growing trend, one, the collapse of a sense of community owing to industrialization and urbanization, two, a surge of nationalism sweeping through most parts of Europe, culminating into a genuine need for a very specific cultural identity. To some extent, we find evidence of both in the Preface of Wordsworth, especially when he lays stress upon using “the real language of men” or restoring to poetry the simplicity and spontaneity of unlettered peasants and leech-gatherers. However, these efforts at the revival or retrieval of the ‘folk culture’ received a severe setback with the spread of education and literacy, and consequent democratization of the British society in the 19th century. No wonder, Matthew Arnold saw in it a real possibility of social anarchy, which, in turn, compelled him to advocate the cause of high-brow, bourgeoisie culture, thus dismissing all notions of ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ culture as perverted forms of philistinism. Though 20th century marked the advent of modernism, yet as far as the ‘popular culture’ was concerned, it continued to be treated as a ‘pariah’ term, little understood, but easily dismissed, even demonized.
In a manner of speaking, Eliot and F.R. Leavis, through their insistence upon the continuation of ‘The Great Tradition’ did nothing to pull ‘popular culture’ out of a limbo into which it had sunk in the 19th century. So shrill was their rhetoric in support of the dominant, hegemonic culture, and so persuasive their logic for its legitimization that if they had their way, they would have probably buried this whole idea of ‘popular culture,’ with an indecent haste. But that was not to be. In the early 1920s, ‘popular culture’ unexpectedly reared its head in the U.S., with an entire generation tapping to the vibrant, sinewy ‘blues’ of the melodious Jazz. It is important to note here that though it essentially started as a counter-culture, the music of the blacks, Jazz didn’t take long to move from ‘the bars and brothels’ of New Orleans to the more respectable auditoria for ‘vaudevilles,’ ultimately finding social and cultural approbation at Carnegie Hall, New York. If I have digressed from the main point to recount this short history of Jazz music in the U.S. it is essentially to make an important observation about popular culture; i.e., often what is designated as ‘popular culture’ starts as a ‘counter-culture’ or a ‘culture of protest,’ soon becomes subversively popular, and then either threatens to join the mainstream culture, or is inevitably subsumed by it.
What I’m suggesting is that ‘popular culture’ is only ‘popular’ at a particular point of time in history, and that it emerges in response to a set of specific social or historical conditions present in a particular culture. In other words, popular culture may not ever start off as an ‘episteme,’ but it certainly does have the potential to become one. So long as it doesn’t become an episteme, it continues to exist in a particular culture as an aberration, or as the ‘Other’ of the High Culture. And so long as it continues to be the ‘Other,’ it remains a victim of the politics of cultural exclusion. So far, we have only attempted to see the distinction between the folk and the popular cultures, that too, vis-à-vis, mainstream or dominant notions of culture. To put a slightly fine point on this distinction, let me say, that the notion of ‘folk culture’ is born out of man’s primeval desire to create, capture or retrieve a sense of community that he has lost through the processes of progress and urbanization, while ‘popular culture’ starts off as a ‘niche culture,’ catalyzed by a combination of social and historical factors operating within a given context.
In the early 1930s, when the Europe was beginning to succumb to the multiple seductions of the mass media, the exponents of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists such as Adorno, Marcuse and Horkheimer stepped in quickly to introduce yet another term into our lexicon i.e. ‘mass culture.’ Undoubtedly, in their diverse theoretical writings, they have provided a trenchant and systematic critique of the mass culture. For them, ‘mass culture’ was largely the product of mass production of objects, images, arts and artifacts, a process that suffered the twin limitations of ‘fetishization’ and ‘commodification.’ As mass culture, according to them, was largely machine-made, it resulted in equally mechanical, thoughtless and choice-less processes of mass consumption. So much so that it became a way of denuding a living being of his soul, a mode of de-personalizing an individual, reducing him to ‘one dimensional organizational man.’ This is where, they averred, the de-humanizing impulse of the mass culture ultimately became self-evident. Marcuse is known to have identified a life-denying ‘Thanatos’ with mass culture, thus equating it with ‘mass suicide’ of a race, a society or a nation. On the contrary, he believed, the ‘popular culture’ is not only life-giving and soul-nourishing, but also a vital and irrepressible expression of the people’s Eros.
While this distinction between mass and popular culture, as advanced by the Frankfurt school, was extremely invaluable, it did little to either rehabilitate or promote the concept of popular culture. As a matter of fact, the term ‘popular culture’ gained a degree of respectability only through the efforts of such cultural theorists as Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, that too, around late 1950s or early 60s. In one of his early works, Culture and Society (1951), we find Raymond Williams anticipate the notion of ‘popular culture’ in his concept of ‘expanding culture.’ He says, “We live in an expanding culture, yet we spend much of our lives repeating the facts, rather than seeking to understand its nature and function.” (iv). It is another matter that his magisterial pronouncements with regard to ‘popular culture’ emerged only in one of his later essays, viz., “Culture is Ordinary” in which he postulates that culture must be wrested from “the privileged space of artistic production and specialist knowledge” and move directly “into the lived experience of everyday.” It is a well-known fact that Raymond Williams, along with Hoggart and Stuart Hall, was largely responsible for institutionalizing ‘popular culture’ too, which they did by setting up the Centre of Cultural Studies at Birmingham, way back in 1964. This is how ‘popular culture’ invaded the academy, creating gaps and fissures within the hallowed notion of the classical and/or canonical literature.
In a way, with the emergence of Cultural Studies as an independent, autonomous discipline, two things happened almost simultaneously; one, the proletarianization of culture, and two, institutionalization of popular culture. Ironically, it is with this institutionalization of popular culture that ‘culture’ has finally stepped off its high-end rostrum; shed its exclusivity, its elitism, and made a bid to enter the all-pervasive, all-inclusive domain of “everydayness,” which as Stuart Hall puts succinctly is “all those things that people do or have done – the cultural norms, customs and folkways of the people.” (234). In his “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” Stuart Hall suggests that ‘popular’ is not “uni-accentual” as it is often believed to be, but multi-accentual” in nature. He further suggests that it has to be posited as “a site of containment and resistance.” a position that reiterates the politicization, even radicalization of the ‘popular.’ For him, “popular is a battleground” where “cultural power and domination have real effects,” despite being not all-powerful or all-inclusive. Stuart Hall has certainly managed to enlarge our understanding of the ‘popular’ by linking it up to the notions of ‘representation,’ ‘cultural positioning,’ ‘cultural identity’ and ‘cultural politics,’ especially in a multicultural society. Thus, he has not only revolutionized the ‘popular,’ but also opened up personal/social/cultural spaces for its articulation, which it apparently had no access to, earlier.
Let me say, by way of conclusion, that cultural theorists, now-a-days, are no arm-chair intellectuals who pontificate on ‘culture’ from their theoretical high-ground, but men-about-town, who observe all that is happening in their backyard, even trail multiple practices or discordant articulations of the ‘popular,’ before they start theorizing. Whether it is Frederic Jameson, responding to the “postmodern culture as a byproduct of late capitalism” or Roland Barthes discussing fashions or food, cooking or clothes, wrestling or other sports; everyone has had ears close to the ground. Not only do they listen to the voices from the ground, but also help us decode the complex eclecticism of Jazz rhythms, hip-hop and rock-n-roll; of news headlines, ad commercials and soap operas; of half-clad women gyrating to the dissonance of remixes, of misquoted scraps of classics intermingling merrily with the Gothic, and so much more that surrounds us. Let’s admit that we are poised at a critical juncture in history, when the ‘popular’ can simply not be wished away.