Approaches to popular culture: Contemporary perspectives [Archives:2006/994/Education]

October 30 2006

Dr. Jitendra Narayan Patnaik
Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India
[email protected]

In its traditional sense, culture is that realm of human life which is opposed to the barbarian and which distinguishes the human from the sphere of the merely natural. It constitutes a set of values and codes that regulates social relations and manners as well as the production and consumption of art products. This evaluative orientation of culture was emphatically asserted from the later part of the nineteenth century, with the emergence of the ideology of progress fostered by industrialization and the consequent growth of a huge mass of working class that threatened to subsume the Arnoldian 'sweetness and light' in the welter of materialism and utilitarianism. Today this normative sense of culture is not only marginalized, but also its very basis – the authenticity of the moral and aesthetic assumptions – is interrogated. The questions of perfection, decorum and social discipline seemed relevant at a time when class distinctions were taken for granted, when the elite-mass binary was treated as a natural aspect of social formation. However, with the spread of technology and education and the mass media, the very basis of the social organization is now under radical critical scrutiny. Cultural Studies, as an academic project, seeks to address itself to a descriptive task of approaching culture as “a whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual” (Culture and Society xiv). In other words, Cultural Studies seeks to investigate culture as a multi-discursive phenomenon that is mobilized in a number of different discourse including Mills & Boon, television soap operas, superman comics and James Bond films, which have been traditionally dismissed as outside the canon of cultural discourse. Culture is not a storehouse of materials that constitute a canon but a concrete embodiment of the real condition of existence. It describes the ways in which societies make sense of the common experience of its members. Cultural Studies aim at salvaging what was once derided as mass or popular culture from the margins of social discourse and thus proposes a revisionary version of culture that eschews all paradigms of the Arnold-Leavis-Eliot tradition.

The most distinguishing feature of the contemporary Cultural Studies project is its problematisation of popular culture, its attempt at decolonizing “high” culture and legitimizing the study of those social and material practices that have been traditionally undermined as unworthy of rigorous academic inquiry. The debate centering round elitism and populism as dichotomous stances is being increasingly trivialized, generating a great deal of ideological polemics about the legitimacy of existing political and social structures and relations. Elitism is associated with such ideas as aesthetics, taste, cultivation, discrimination, sensibility and humanity and has a tendency to identify culture with some social classes and to dissociate it completely from others. It upholds certain values as sacrosanct and as grounded in certain beliefs such as tradition, continuity, judgment and competence. Popular culture, on the other hand, can be seen as providing space for producing and reproducing the actual arena of conflict and contest that constitutes social relations of everyday life. Elitism, as Stuart Hampshire aptly suggests, asserts that in every period of history, “a minority of otherwise intelligent persons, including artists, are deeply interested in one or more of the arts, and have devoted a considerable part of their lives to their involvement with them, and to thinking about them. The judgments of artistic merit by such persons are the best guides to artistic merit that we have” (TLS 13 May 1977). Populism, on the other hand, stoutly repudiates the Arnoldian-Leavisian position that popular culture is elitism's antithetical other, and shifts attention from the concept of a canon of 'high ' cultural texts to an inclusive focus on all discursive and material practices. Contemporary Cultural Studies subverts the conventional sense of 'official culture' that “demands moments of attention that are separated from the run of daily life” (Chambers 120). It seeks to investigate culture as a set of activities, which is lived, which constitutes everyday life. This is what Iain Chambers implies when he speaks of popular culture as offering a “democratic prospect for appropriating and transforming everyday life” (13).

In repudiating all distinctions between elitist and popular culture, contemporary Cultural Studies Priviliges “counter-hegemonic” culture, Gramsci developed the concept of hegemony in the 1930s whose central assumption was that in certain historical periods, the dominant classes exercised social cultural leadership and by these means rather than by direct coercion of subordinate classes, they maintained their power over economic, political and social institutions. As Graeme Turner puts in the British Cultural Studies, “hegemony offers a more subtle and flexible explanation than previous formulations because it aims to account for domination as something that is won, not automatically delivered by way of the class structure” (212). In this context, Althusser's distinction between state power and state control seems quite relevant. State power is maintained by what Athusser calls repressive structures, which are institutions like the law courts, prisons, the police and the army, which are operated by external force. However, the power of the state is also maintained more subtly, by seeming to secure the consent of the citizens, using what Althusser calls ideological structures or “Ideological State Apparatuses” (136). These are political parties, schools, the media, religious institutions, the family etc. which foster an 'ideology', a set of ideas and attitudes, which are sympathetic to the aims of the state and the political status quo. Thus, each of us feels that we are freely choosing what is in fact imposed upon us. The crucial aspect of the notion of hegemony is that it operates not by forcing people to concede power to the already powerful, but by their willingness to be subordinated. Hegemonic culture attempts to define culture from the top down. It eventually acts as an insidious instrument of power, as what Foucault calls 'governmentality', which is made possible by the construction of experts, institutions and disciplines such as medicine, psychology and psychiatry, which can wield power through producing “myths of truth” (“Space, Knowledge and Power” 239). Gramsci's counterhegemonic culture resists this disciplinary power and proposes alternative formulations that challenge mainstream culture and promote non-traditional forms of cultural expression.

Popular culture undermines the hegemonic effects of 'governmentality'. It challenges dominant culture by providing what John Scott calls “a hidden transcript” (37) in which is written, “the anger and reciprocal aggression denied by the presence of domination” (38). Popular culture can thus become an instrument of resistance, a form of defiance, a weapon with which state power and state control can be challenged in such carnivalistic forms as soap operas, jokes, folk narratives, rituals and euphemistic modes in which figures of authority are mocked in satires and comedies. Quite often, it elicits passions that are both familiar and novel. While it is customary to look at popular culture as a form of entertainment that is available to large numbers of people cutting across social barriers, implicit in this perception of popular culture is its ability to make people feel things and experiences sensations, its ability to move us. As Simon Frith says, “Pop songs do not 'reflect emotions but give people romantic terms in which to articulate their emotions” (123). In articulating emotions, popular culture, as John Street remarks, “links us to a wider world. Part of the pleasure of soap operas is their endless playing out of everyday moral dilemmas, posing questions and suggesting answers to our worries about what we should do”(9).

This view of popular culture as a form of protest against subordination, as embodying actual feelings and passions of the majority of people and as an alternative and legitimate mode of cultural expression is of course in contra-distinction to the concept of culture-industry, first developed in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) by Horkheimer and Adorno and later promoted by the Frankfurt school. The culture-industry suggests that (a) culture has been commodified in late capitalism: cultural artifacts are produced in order to be exchanged for money; thus degrading culture and diminishing its emancipatory possibilities and (b) people are narcotized to accept a subordinated relationship to the giant colossus of corporate cultural production: the relationship between production and consumption is one-sided, with production driving consumption through the media of advertising as well as through facilitating easy access to entertainment such as switching on the electronic receivers. These views, which imply that the pervasiveness of mass media has alarmingly led to the reification of culture, seemed sensible when the Marxist concept of a proletariat as an exploited and deprived class seemed real in the early capitalist regimes. But today, in the ambience of late capitalism, the capitalist-proletariat distinction has lost validity as people shrink from being identified as workers, as employment opportunities expand, as technology replaces much of the manual labor and as the purchasing power of the people increases, leading to the so-called workers possessing telephones, television sets and refrigerators. Mass media have now made 'the high culture' easily accessible to a wide audience, and this is particularly true of the television viewers. Conditions of open society and consumerism have facilitated uninhibited expression of all that was once considered uncivil and immoral. All these changed conditions of social, economic and political realities have led to the reconstitution of the parameters of culture in terms of a radical shift from normative injunctions to a descriptive discourse that crazes all binary distinctions and is distinguished by its capaciousness to incorporate diverse insights, positions and social realities. Today the works of high culture are produced in exactly the same forms as those of low culture: the paperback, the cassette, film, radio and television. Thus it becomes impossible to differentiate between high-cultural and low-cultural products in terms of their relation to the market, further, the pervasiveness of mass media has obliterated the hierarchical relationship between the high and the low, between the popular and the elitist. The relations between domination and subordination, as John Frow remarks, have been modified in the twentieth century by the formation of mass audiences which are inclusive rather than exclusive. This seems to be particularly true of the audience for television which is constructed as a homogenous group of viewers across social classes” (24). It is perhaps for this reason that the Birminhgm Centre for Contemporary Culture studies, founded by Richard Hoggart in 1964, has engaged itself basically with Gramsci's hegemony theory rather than with the assumptions of the Frankfurt school. Stuart Hall defines the objectives of the Birmingham Centre in terms of studying all expressive forms such as language, media, myths and symbols “within which the society conducts the dialogue with itself.” The Birmingham school, whose initial critical engagement was with the working-class culture, stresses on a broad definition of culture that rejects high-low distinction and treats all cultural expressions as legitimate. It envisage the cultural totality of a society in terms of both the artifacts such as texts, films and other art products, and the practices and processes of production, distribution and reception. It seeks to dissolve, as Simon Frith aptly observes, the three-fold distinction of culture as “art”, folk discourse and popular discourse (Diacritics, 21:4:109) into what Raymond Williams calls “the study of relationship between elements in a whole way life” (The Long Revolution 62).

In erasing distinctions between the elitist and the popular, Cultural studies legitimates and celebrates popular culture and repudiates the elitist view that it is only a shadow phenomenon. It denies all forms of cultural stratification and defends popular culture as a site where the social relations of everyday life are produced and reproduced. Contrary to the fear of Adorno and Horkheimer that popular culture has reified every aspect of human life leading to the perception of personality that “scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions” (167), contemporary cultural studies asserts that it is in the process of active consumption of popular culture which constitutes, in the words of P. Willis, “the vibrant symbolic life and symbolic creativity of everyday life, everyday activity and expression” (1) that our “collective and individual identities” (6) are formed. Through the consumption of popular culture, as John Fiske remarks, people can make meanings for “social identity and social experience from the semiotic resources of the cultural commodity” (37).

Works cited:

– Althusser, Louis. Lenin & Philosophy & Other Essays. Tr. B. Brewster, New York Monthly Review pres, 1971.

– Chambers, Iain. Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience, London, Methuen, 1986.

– Fiske, John. “The Cultural Economy of Fandom.” In L. A. Lewis (ed). The Adoring Audience Fan Culture and Popular Media, London: Routledge, 1992.

– Foucault, Michel. “Governmentality”, Ideology and Consciousness, No. 6, Summer 1986, 5-21.

– Frith, Simon. Music for Pleasure.Cambridge; Polity, 1988.

– Frow, John. Cultural Studies and Cultural Value, Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1995.

– Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. ed. & trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971.

– Hall Stuart. Fifth Report of the CCCS, Birmingham: 1968-69.

– Hampashire, Stuart. “Private Pleasures and the Public Purse.” Times Literary Supplement, 13 May 1977.

– Horkheimer M. & T. W. Adomo. Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso, 1970.

– Scott, John. Domination and the Arts of Resistance, New Haven; Yale University press, 1990.

– Street, John. Politics and Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

– Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies: An Introduction. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

– Willams, Raymond. Culture and Society. New York: Columbia University press, 1958.

– Willams, Raymond. The long Revolution. Harmondsworth; Penguin, 1965.

– Willis, P. Common Culture. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1990