The Class Question

Politics of Popular Culture

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Wikipedia nowadays has superseded all dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias, and all sorts of or reference works. A look there at 'Popular Culture' and whatever is associated with it, particularly in the domain of Cultural Studies, reveals that there is no unanimity in either defining or describing what this appellation stands for. One point, however, is clear: it is a recent phenomenon. Similarly, media, both print and electronic, and the power and prestige they wield now were inconceivable even one generation before. Literature, on the other hand, has a hoary past and a living presence. The juxtaposition of these three would not yield anything meaningful. One may lament over the present state of affairs, particularly the cheapening of art and culture as a whole, thanks to the big-budget films made in Bollywood and Tollywood, and the tear-jerker mega-serials on the TV screen. Some others, on the other hand, may opt for an apparently value-free evaluation of these phenomena and applaud Popular Culture as a liberator from the shackles of elitist culture (a la Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and T S Eliot's Notes towards the Definition of Culture). Either way, there is no room for dialogue between the exponents and the opponents of Popular Culture, whatever it may mean.

If one is prepared to take the word 'culture' in its widest possible sense (as used by the anthropologists) to embrace the way of life and the way of thought of a given people, there are a few facts that can be considered indisputable in the life and manners of the middle-middle-class educated Indians (the social group which does not constitute the people but is the dominant minority) today:
a. The power of words has gone down and the power of images has gone up (even the new Arden and new Cambridge editions of Shakespeare cannot do without profuse illustrations),
b. Cursive writing and good handwriting are rarely to be met with among present-day students,
c.  Memorizing lines from poetry and drama is no longer encouraged or expected,
d. Capacity for distinguishing between a work of art and a merely useful one is on the wane, and, last but not least,
e. Cosmopolitanism in fashion has unseated both nationalist pride and internationalist commitment.

The fragmentation of culture and the names given to the fragments—Elite Culture, Popular Culture, Mass Culture, and Folk Culture—merely reflect the features of a class-divided society. Since every sociological category, however carefully defined and distinguished, always overlaps with others, the study of Popular Culture without any reference to the class it serves is futile. Such a discussion can at best be descriptive without offering any direction for change. In other words, such Culture-centric studies implicitly steer clear from any possibility of change for the better. This is precisely the politics of Popular Culture: it is meant to foster a sense of status quo ante and perpetuate the division of culture into popular and non-popular.

Those who have faith in human progress would positively refuse to abide by such a division. In the earliest societies, even in a slave society that prevailed in Athens in the fifth century BCE, there was only one culture. All residents, including the helots, (but excluding the women and the slaves) had a nodding acquaintance with Aeschylus' plays. Even later, during the early days of capitalism in England, the motley crowd that constituted the audience of the Globe Theatre could and did enjoy Marlowe and Shakespeare. But with the passage of time and the promotion of arts and culture by the power elite, culture has become both an industry and a barrier to separate the commoners from the highbrow. Not only that, Frederick Engels observed as early as 1845, that the working class has gradually become a race wholly apart from the English bourgeoisie, and the workers speak other dialects, have other thoughts and ideals, other customs and moral principles, a different religion and other politics than those of the bourgeoisie. When the human race finally gets rid of class division and oppression, and will have enough leisure to improve itself, the distinction between Popular Culture and Elite Culture will also wither away along with the state. This is why V I Lenin insisted on raising the cultural standards of the people as a whole, beginning with the improvement of work culture and leading ultimately to an appreciation of true art. What is now called elite culture will be available to the people and they will be in a position to enjoy the best that has been created in the world of culture. They would no longer be subjected to the assault of privately-owned media, print and electronic, deliberately commodifying not only women but everything that is grist to their mill. Then the masses too would start learning how to distinguish between what is truly valuable and what is purely ephemeral.

Vol. 46, No. 37, Mar 23 - 29, 2014