POLITICS OF POPULAR CULTURE: SOME REFLECTIONS
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One cannot live on a myth in the present; the tradition is being constantly transformed; old is giving way to new in ways more than one. The new changes, or the crossover of trends and fashions, may be generating a feeling of existential urgency; the sublime seems to be melding with the trivial and the creative with the conventional. A sort of re-orientation is going-on so rapidly that the classical concepts of culture appear outdated.
It is also a fact that the greatest number of new ideas in contemporary art, literature and culture have been coming out from the West. Western artists and cultural leaders have been extending the concept of what constitutes contemporary art. It is important to take note of a convergence of new attitudes, especially as there has been a marked shift from the idealist to the materialist view.
The fabric of popular culture, now a celebratory, is interwoven with changes in the world of media, along side too much Soap Operas, MTV music, Mcdonald fast food, sexist jokes, designer-label jeans and aerobic sports-wear—all with a view to maintaining ‘standards’. The so-called ‘cultural industries’ have been denigrated as tools of the hegemonic classes to impose a passive subservience on the majority of people, be it Europe, America, Asia or Africa. They manipulate the multilayered site of contemporary consumerist culture as well as the emerging hybridization of cultural identity.
A scrutiny of the ‘popular’, its texts and practices, should help us in negotiating the profound shifts in culture studies as also in relating post-modernist orthodoxy to the post-Cold War developments (in the erstwhile Soviet bloc, and/or East European countries), post-apartheid developments (in South Africa and elsewhere on the African continent), post-colonial developments (in Asian and African countries), and more recently, post-Sept 11, 2001 developments (in South/South-east/West Asia, middle East, USA, and Europe).
The politics of popular culture, howsoever post-modernist or post-colonial, is essentially the politics of the ways in which we see ourselves, just as the cultural, the social, and the economic are hardly easily distinguishable from each other. The relationship between popular culture and its two arms, commerce and profit, is highly problematic. Instead of passively consuming a product, users now actively absorb it and reworth it to construct their own meaning of self, of social identity, and group cohesion.
After the Sept 11 terrorist attack on American soil, there has been a greater American hegemonic political and economic presence in every country: TV programmes, newspapers and magazines have been replete with American style and vision. Gradually, the American domination here, there and everywhere, has resulted in a struggle by the subordinate and subaltern forces, even terrorist forces, to demolish it.
A slow ideological indoctrination (to sustain consumerist culture) of the masses, especially the expanding middle class by powerful interests, is going on. The middle class culture is frequently less affiliated to specific class, religion, race, country or politics, and unofficially also remains indifferent to ‘national’ questions, practicing a sort of ‘transnational’ solidarity, as far as consumerism is concerned. The American popular culture has given rise, not so much to economic exploitation as the capacity to be able to represent something, or someone, in a peculiar way: as symbolic power; as popular culture within the ambit of power. The media society – whatever its form, shape, size, or colour – articulates this power, perhaps selectively, in a contradictory fashion throwing open for others to decide with whom to associate or empathize. It exposes the mechanisms of identity-creation, participates in identity politics, creates awareness of exclusion or inclusion, and constructs counter-narratives with new critical spaces and social practice. It acts as “central political agent” of the powerful.
The politics of popular culture reveals the conditions under which relationships of power have been shaped in various parts of the world and apparently developed in an emancipating way as everyday culture, or high culture, where new things are emerging and creativity is thriving. In music, for example, since the mid-1990s, musicians have been more lucrative. Choreographers have developed a new sense of body movement and dance aesthesis. Computer evolution has already led to a ‘net culture’ which links various art forms. Literature is already rooted in this world today and trends in fashion industry are set by FTV models.
At times it may appear difficult to reconcile the various impressions, including the desire to break free of all constraints in art or destruction of its intrinsic significance. The inherent contradictions and heterogeneity of the ‘melting pot’ that popular culture seems to have turned into may not help us open the path to the human consciousness or even initiate an intellectual debate. But whom to blame when “art blends so seamlessly into the utilitarian”? To quote Hanno Rauterberg, “Art, after all, is not dead, it is in a state of self-induced paralysis.”
We are marching into an indistinct future. We experience the effects of globalization in such fields as communication, the media, and the financial markets just as we are experiencing fragmentation of politics vis-ŕ-vis widespread religious, casteist and ethnic conflict, secular nationalism, and regional fundamentalism. At the same time, we are witnessing impoverishment and economic marginalization of a large part of the society. Almost all accepted norms and values are being called into question, just as standardization and differentiation obtain at the same time. However, the struggle continues for coexistence of the glorious past and naked modernization almost everywhere.
What appears more appropriate is the need to appreciate the emergence of a greater degree of interculturalism. The ruling politicians should respect ones right to be different and help create new cultural spaces for others to belong. They should help defuse, absorb and avoid those conflicts that result from the collision of world religions and cultures which are rigidly separated and social differences must be honoured and dogmatism must give way to dialogue. Our living together in a global civilization is not possible without some sort of global ethos on the part of our country’s politicians.
R K Singh