Critique of Popular Culture
In 1992, at a conference to mark a decade of cultural studies carried out by the Birmingham school, Stuart Hall spoke very critically of “the theoretical fluency of cultural studies in the United States.” He was not, he said, demanding that American cultural studies become more like British cultural studies. The problem was not that American cultural studies was unable to theorize power in the field of culture or that it had formalized out of existence the relations of history and politics to culture. On the contrary. “There is no moment now, in American cultural studies,” he said, “when we are not able, extensively and without end, to theorize power — politics, race, class and gender, subjugation, domination, exclusion, marginality, otherness, etc. There is hardly anything in cultural studies which isn’t so theorized.” But by carrying out this task through an “overwhelming textualization” of the material it studied, cultural studies was in danger of “constituting power and politics as exclusively matters of language and textuality itself.” This allowed no room for cultural studies to become “a practice which always thinks about its intervention in a world in which it would make some difference, in which it would have some effect.” Hall then went on to propose that Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectual” and Michel Foucault’s “specific intellectual” were alternative ways of thinking how the student of culture might intervene in the real world of culture. In any case, whatever the particular method by which this was done, Hall’s plea was to “return the project of cultural studies from the clean air of meaning and textuality and theory to the something nasty down below.” I take this to mean that cultural studies should not avoid making moral, aesthetic, or political judgments about the world of culture that it claimed to study.1
But how did it come to be that a field of study that promised to investigate the production, consumption, and valorization of culture by connecting it to relations and practices of power found itself unable to make judgments about good and bad culture? Why did the scholars of culture have to restrict themselves to locating specific cultural acts within complex structures of power but refrain from becoming cultural critics? Let me approach this question by making a quick review of the study of popular visual culture as it has developed in India in the last three or four decades.
To take the case of cinema first: there is a framing debate, going back to at least the early 1960s, about the relation between cinema and the viewing culture of the public in India. On one side is the argument that the mass audience of the Indian cinema, steeped in traditional beliefs and practices and raised for generations in premodern viewing cultures, is simply incapable of understanding or appreciating the rational-realist cinema. As a result, not only has serious art cinema failed to take root in India’s modern aesthetic life, but the film industry, too, has routinely churned out mythological and melodramatic rubbish that is cinematically infantile and ideologically retrograde. As Chidananda Das Gupta, one of the most articulate proponents of this view, claimed, the audience of the popular Indian cinema was unable to distinguish between fact and myth. This was shown by the political deification of film stars in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and the persistence over half a century of Hindu mythological themes in the popular Hindi cinema. Das Gupta also pointed out that, unlike folk art that is produced organically within communities, the popular cinema is industrially produced, and “vast manipulative forces” are at work.2 Reasserting the importance of taking a stand on social values, he rejected the trend of uncritically endorsing the popular cinema as popular culture. Culture could not be allowed to go uncriticized, he seemed to be saying, simply because it was popular.
On the other side was the provocative argument offered by Ashis Nandy, who insisted that the nonmodernity of the popular Indian cinema and its audience was a sign of the resilience of a tradition of viewing practices that still refused to cave in before the global onslaught of a culture of modern technological and commercial rationality. The alleged failure of Indian cinemagoers to appreciate realist cinematic narrative was in fact a rejection of the cultural values of modern industrial life and an endorsement of the inherited virtues of tradition, faith, and community. Indeed, Nandy even insisted that the popular Indian cinema, though industrially produced, has “a built-in plurality that tends to subvert mass culture even when seemingly adapting to it passively.”3 It was neither classical nor folk, yet “now that modernity has become the dominant principle in Indian public life . . . it is the commercial cinema which, if only by default, has been . . . more protective towards nonmodern categories.”4
This is a difference in viewpoints that still persists, at least in the public domain in India. There is no hesitation here in making aesthetic, moral, or political judgments about the cinema, whether high or popular. In the scholarly domain, however, things are quite different. As Ravi Vasudevan has reminded us in his survey of the analytical literature on the Indian cinema, the extreme terms of the debate between Das Gupta and Nandy have been largely superseded by the profusion of empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated studies that have appeared in the field of Indian film studies in the last decade and a half.5 Both sides in that old debate had assumed a certain pregiven and fixed structure of the viewing practices of the allegedly premodern Indian audience. That structure, both positions assumed, could confront the modern technology of the cinema only on the terms allowed by their own inflexible practices; the structure could not adapt or change to accommodate the new. Most theorists and historians studying the Indian cinema today will reject this assertion and, hence, reject both of the views represented by Das Gupta and Nandy. The popular Indian cinema, they will say, has in fact modernized itself as well as its audience by adapting traditionally available narrative forms and performance techniques and inserting them into a modern technological medium. In the process, both the cinema and its audience have been transformed, albeit in complex ways that need to be documented and understood. This would be the prevailing common sense among students of Indian cinema today.
I believe this change in the terms of the debate is part of a larger change that has taken place in the last two decades in cultural disciplines such as anthropology and literary theory as well as in approaches to the study of cultural history.
The older debate was fundamentally informed by a historical paradigm of modernization, whether Weberian or Marxian. The model was that of a modern sector, with modern economic, political, and cultural institutions, breaking into and transforming the traditional sector. It was with this model in mind that one set of scholars, impatient with the slow pace of transformation, complained of the rigidities of traditional practices and the lack of initiative, and perhaps even sincerity, within the modern sector to change the premodern. And the same model provoked the rival group of scholars to bemoan the loss of traditional virtues and celebrate the traces of resistance to modernization. What has happened in the last twenty years with the critique of anthropology as a colonial science, on the one hand, and with the emergence of postcolonial literary and cultural studies, on the other, is a realignment of the terms for the study of modernity.
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This was a keynote address delivered at the Crossroads conference of the International Cultural Studies Association in Istanbul in July 2006. I am grateful to Koray Caliskan, Kuan-Hsing Chen, Ayça Çubukçu, Nilufer Göle, Larry Grossman, Wang Hui, Meaghan Morris, Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, and other participants for their comments. I am also grateful to Ira Bhaskar, Moinak Biswas, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Ranjani Mazumdar, Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam, Gyan Prakash, Madhava Prasad, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ravi Vasudevan, and my colleagues at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), for discussions on earlier versions of this essay. I am particularly grateful to Kamalika Mukherjee and Abhijit Bhattacharya of the CSSSC Archive for their invaluable help in putting together the illustrations.
- 1. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (London: Routledge, 1992), 277 – 94.
- Chidananda Das Gupta, The Painted Face: Studies in India’s Popular Cinema (New Delhi: Roli Books, 1991), 256 – 57.
- Ashis Nandy, “Introduction: Indian Popular Cinema as a Slum’s Eye View of Politics,” in The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, ed. Ashis Nandy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 13.
- Ashis Nandy, “The Intelligent Film Critic’s Guide to Indian Cinema,” in Nandy, The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), 235.
- Ravi S. Vasudevan, “Introduction,” in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, ed. Ravi S. Vasudevan (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1 – 36.