The Stone: Popular culture as a historical fact


            The term ‘popular culture’ has become quite slippery and so a convenience to journalists but a nuisance to serious students, and yet it is the serious student or the serious activist that are responsible for this state of affairs through their shifting usages governed by their respective disciplines or programmes.  In a way, this was perhaps avoidable, given the available senses of the words ‘popular’ and ‘culture’.


            The adjective ‘popular’ can mean either of three things:


1.      By people at large (rather than this or that group or individual), such as vote cast, notion held, or uprising started.  Thus, popular vote is vote cast by people at large.


2.       For people at large (rather than this or that group or individual), such as measure undertaken, religion propagated, or government conducted.  Thus, popular measure is measure undertaken for people at large.


3.      By or for the ordinary people (rather than the select few), and so plain (as with popular, non-technical parlance”), or affordable (as of price), or of general appeal (as of a leader or a teacher).  (Having a specific appeal is being popular with a group.)  Thus, popular parlance is parlance by or for ordinary people; popular leader of factory workers is leader with appeal for factory workers.


The noun ‘culture’ can mean either of two things:


1.  (As distinct from natural ways) way of life nurtured by available past or present experience or conditioned by past or present actions (as in: city culture, Congress culture, culture gap between Maharashtra and Gujarat, Stone Age culture – compare also: cultured pearls or bacteria).


2.  (As distinct from ordinary nurture) way of life nurtured with greater care or wider available opportunity (so that, for example, it need not be plain, affordable, or of general appeal) (as in: a man of culture and taste, a cultured family- compare also: a man of refinement).


A moment’s thought will show that only the combination of ‘popular’ in sense 3 and ‘culture’ in sense 1 is viable, the remaining combinations being either self-contradictory or tautologous.  ‘Popular culture’, then, is:


Way of life nurtured by or for ordinary people or conditioned by their opportunities.


Now, in traditional or pre-industrial societies, association with ordinary people was not something to be cherished, at best it was accepted as unavoidable; indeed even the ordinary people themselves accepted their ordinariness with resignation or even with ease.  In the Indian civilization, for example, popular culture was seen as culture of greater accessibility and general appeal.  The select (budhajana) did have their refined culture, but then they freely participated in popular culture on special occasions, such as a popular festival or a royal coronation.  In the civilization of Classical Europe (with its distinction between hoi polloi and oligos or aristos, between ‘plebeians’ and ‘patricians’) or of Medieval Europe (with its distinction between ‘common folk’ and ‘gentry’), the situation was not radically different.  (Socrates was quite particular about offering the votive cock to the god of medicine, though he had questions to ask about Greek myths.)


In modern or post-industrial society, the situation is different; indeed there are complications, even radical complications, when one deals with the distinction between ‘masses’ and ‘classes’.   


1.      The ‘ordinary people’ from the older traditional dispensation, say, from village or tribal communities or from craft guilds or occupational castes, face a more localized and more stable way of life with a simpler technology.  But the ‘ordinary people’ from the newer modern dispensation, say, from urban working-class neighbourhoods or industrial colonies, face a more homogenized, more fashion-renewed, and more commerce-manipulated way of life with a more complicated technology.  In consequence, popular culture in a plebeian or folk ambience and that in a mass ambience are seen to be vastly different, even though they are often found co-existing today.  So much so that the term ‘pop culture’ is never applied to folk culture but always applied to mass culture or that once we apply the term ‘popular culture’ to folk culture we cannot bring ourselves to apply it to mass culture.  The term ‘popular culture’ thus tends to become ambiguous between folk and mass culture rather than remain an inclusive term for both.  We have just spoken of their co-existence, but the indications are that the co-existence may not continue.  Mass culture threatens to displace or engulf folk culture.


2.      The second ambiguity that be sets the term ‘popular culture’ is not so much an ambiguity of range (as the last one was) as an ambiguity of definition.  In the older traditional dispensation, popular culture was both by and for the ordinary people.  In the newer modern dispensation, one cannot be so certain.  Even when there were culture professionals (such as priests or craftsmen or entertainers) in the older set-up, one cannot describe older popular culture as culture for ordinary people but by culture professionals – the ordinary person not only paid the piper and called the tune but often set the tune or played the tune.  In the newer modern set-up, the separation between ordinary consumers and select producers comes to be so complete that popular culture turns out to be culture for but not by ordinary people.  The select producers like admen, art designers or managers, professional holy men may not consume what they produce.  Strange as it may seem, there is popular culture that is by ordinary people but not for them.  The Benares brocade may be by ordinary craftsmen for the select few; but it was part of refined culture in any case; but such is not the case with ‘ethnic’ goods and services served up to the select (folk culture that is no longer for the folk who may be satisfied with mass culture) or with ‘camp’ goods and services served up to the select (mass culture that is ‘warmed up and served’ not to the masses but to the classes).  Think of the Marilyn Monroe cult in the smart set.


3.      Who are the ordinary people anyway? In the older traditional dispensation, the distinction ordinary/select was based on ascribed ritual status or power status, and as such fairly clear-cut.  In the newer modern dispensation, the distinction has its power base, but it is not too clear in any given situation whether the power in question is economic power (the noveau riche may share mass culture or affect a ‘vulgarized’ version of class culture) or political power (the new power elite may flaunt ‘vulgarized’ class culture or mass culture or even folk culture) or information power (the middle class may celebrate their class culture and look down upon its vulgarized version or upon mass or folk culture).  Cultural dominance may not be identical with economic or political dominance.


4.      In an older traditional dispensation, popular culture was looked upon with modest pride by ordinary people and with condescension (ill-tempered or good-humored as the case may be) by the select; select culture was looked upon with obvious pride by the select and with reverence (uncomprehending or comprehending as the case may be) by ordinary people.  In the newer modern dispensation, there have been shifts in this attitude.  Ordinary people begin to look upon folk culture with a quiet disdain, upon mass culture with an immodest if not defiant pride, and upon class culture with difference if not open contempt or with concealed or frank admiration.  The select begin to look upon folk culture with a distance-keeping nostalgia (Wordsworth celebrated the simple folk but never mixed with them), upon mass culture with open contempt or with concealed tolerance or as their secret vice or with dutiful admiration (as with many ‘progressive’ or ‘politically correct’ intellectuals), and upon class culture with modest celebration or dutiful pride or even hostile disdain (as with ‘progressive’ or ‘politically correct’ intellectuals faced with modernist art).  This is an ambiguity of a most subtle kind – ambivalence of attitude towards popular and select cultures.


It will be appreciated, I trust, that the term is multiply ambiguous because the relevant historical facts are complicated.  In discussing the relevant terms, we are discussing substance and not jụst verbal usage.


The Stone: Popular culture as a lifestyle with an underlying worldview.


            We have been speaking of two contrasting dispensations, the older traditional dispensation and the newer modern dispensation and we have associated folk or gentry culture with tradition and mass or class culture with modernity.  In so doing, we have indicated that there has been a major worldwide shift, a watershed so to say, give or take a couple of centuries if we consider the major world civilizations, the Indian and the Western being just two of them.


            We are not using the terms ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in the original sense: in the original sense, today’s modernity will be tradition the day after tomorrow.  Rather, we are using these terms as if they are not relative but absolute.  At the same time, any way of life and passes on certain features to descendent ways of life.  (Thus, Indian modernity will not wholly resemble Western or East Asian modernity in that it will have taken over certain features from the Indian tradition.)  Finally, any way of life is liable to copy certain features from other ways of life that it has come into lasting or even fleeting contact.  (Thus, Indian tradition may partially resemble South-West Asian tradition in that it has come into lasting contact with it in ancient and medieval times.)


            But then what makes Indian or Western modernity modernity and Indian or Western tradition? How does one characterize the major shift from Tradition (with a capital T) to Modernity (with a capital M)? The capital T or M indicated that one is dealing here with frozen absolutes.  Of course, we are dealing with large abstractions here; we are dealing here not with single features or even collections of features but rather with whole life-styles and the underlying world-views.  We can no more than attempt to spell out the relevant world-views and life-styles associated with Modernity (marked M1, M2 etc.) and with Tradition (marked T1, T2 etc.) Spelling out a world-view or a life-style is a philosophical activity.  More specifically, to spell out a world-view is to spell out a philosophy of understanding and the reality understood and to spell out a life-style is to spell out a philosophy of coping with life and the life being coped with.  Let us take up serially Modern World-view, Traditional world-view, Modern life-style, and Traditional life-style.  To repeat, we are dealing here with large abstractions.


            Modern world-view:


M 1      Observation and inference, both appropriately elaborated, are the foundation of knowledge both of the world and of man in the world.


M 2      The phenomena grasped through observation and inference are to be explained by postulating causal regularities and operative forces underlying the world and man in the world.


            Traditional world-view:


T 1       Mental perception of some reality behind appearances is the foundation of knowledge.  Man as we see him is but a train of apparent behaviour and the world around man is but a spectacle of appearances.


T 2       Appearances are understood when seen as the manifestation of pervasive energy embedded in the unmanifest (say, a seed/ a young man) as potency or tendency that gets released by a trigger (say, soil and moisture/ a nubile young woman).


            Modern life-style:


M 3      Man, being a living being like any other, needs to come to terms with the environment through adapting himself to it to the extent needed.           


M 4      And through adapting the environment to himself to the extent possible, necessity being the mother of invention, that is, getting what he likes.


Traditional life-style:


T 3       Man, being a living like no other, needs to come to terms with himself through gaining contact with the pervasive energy that makes life possible.


T 4       And through arranging his coping with the world he is in to the extent needed, freedom consisting in the recognition of necessity, that is, the necessity of liking what he gets.


            The major shift from Tradition to Modernity, then, is the shift in bias from T 1-4 to M 1-4.


            A Digression on culture change


            There is no putting the clock back in sociocultural action any more than in personal action.  There is no going back from Modernity to Tradition against the arrow of time.


            At the same time there is no wiping the slate clean in sociocultural action any more than in personal action.  There is no simple ridding oneself of the baggage of Tradition to make room for Modernity.


            Select culture of gentry/classes tends to be more innovative, even subversive, than popular culture of folk/masses; popular culture tends to be more conservative, even confirmative, than select culture.  In other words, there is a culture lag between select culture and popular culture.  This is how traditional select culture often conveys intimations of modernity and how modern popular culture often conveys survivals of tradition.  Again, this is how in traditional select culture kept filtering itself into popular culture.  (Think of the theory of Great and Little tradition of Milton Singer.)  And how in modernity select culture keeps filtering itself into popular culture.  (Think of the theory of Avant Garde and renovation of mass culture.)


            Culture change could be relatively abrupt culture displacement: earlier, we spoke of mass culture displacing or engulfing folk culture.  But this is comparatively infrequent.  The more common mode of culture change is relatively smooth culture diffusion: we have just spoken of select culture filtering into popular culture.  While there is no putting the clock back in culture history, that is, there is no such thing as successful revival of an older way of life.  There of course have been such attempts at revival of the past: but on closer examination they turn out to be not attempts at revival of the past so much as refurbishing of the past and attempts at diffusion of past features into the present.  Diffusion is a smooth mode of culture change in that the existing way of life is partially reshaped in a certain direction: copying a neighbhouring society, copying a neighbouring social layer, or copying one’s distant ancestors are all instances of such diffusion. 


            To recapitulate, while culture change cannot operate against the arrow of time, that is, there cannot be any true revival, any true putting together of the splintered vase, culture cannot stand still either and culture change is inevitable.  Culture change can be a relatively abrupt culture displacement or a  relatively smooth culture diffusion.


            But in recent times, there have been attempts at planned culture change through sociocultural action rather than trusting ‘natural’ sociocultural processes to bring about the displacement of one way of life by another or the diffusion of one way of life into another.  A signal historical example of such planned culture change is the measures associated with the French Revolution—the metric system, the legal code, state initiative in ‘public instruction’, the new modes of appellation in lieu of the old titles, and all that. While some of these measures fell by the wayside, the new calendar for example, it is astonishing how many of them succeeded.  (Macaulay copied the new legal code, for instances, in drafting the new Indian Penal Code or the new Criminal Procedure Code.)  Indeed the idea of planned culture change through conscious sociocultural action came to stay with humankind.  While the measures associated with the French Revolution attempted abrupt displacement, some of the later attempts at educational reform were attempts at smooth diffusion.


            It is useful to keep in mind, however, that in culture change ‘natural’ process and ‘planned’ action remain inextricably mixed.  Planned smooth diffusion is actually an attempt to exploit this unavoidable and inextricable mixing of processes and action.  Another rather amusing example of this is the rôle of hypocrisy or bad faith in planned culture change.  Planned sociocultural action may be undertaken in good faith with idealistic motivation or in bad faith with the motivation of enlightened self-interest.  Consider the state initiative in education in India under the British rule: the Whigs introduced it in good faith as a fulfillment of Britain’s civilizing mission and the Tories acceded to it with some enthusiasm as 2 way of ensuring a steady supply of ‘your most obedient servants’ with a modicum of competence.  In the natural process, the Empire was weakened as well as strengthened.  (One visionary Whig even Foresaw the Weakening and Welcomed it—Mount Stuart Elphinstone the First Governor of Bombay Presidency.)


            Now, is there any room for such planned and conscious sociocultural action or intervention in the ongoing historical shift from Tradition to Modernity? To keep things simple, let us hope and assume that any such intervention would be in good faith.


            The two birds that one hopes to kill are obstacles to Modernity and undesirable side effects of Modernity: the very designation ‘mass culture’ for modern popular culture smells, for example; the actual thing smells even more.  In more positive terms, these are not killing measures so much as measures for promoting and redeeming Modernity through planned intervention in popular culture.


The First bird: Popular culture for promoting Modernity


            Once we set our eyes on Modernity, a certain agenda comes into view: spread of literacy, inculcation of family planning, spread of hygienic literacy, elimination of bandit criminality, encouraging smooth flow of information between generations or between groups, and so on.  It is not our purpose here to spell out the agenda, but rather to suggest possible rôles for popular culture in the implementation of this agenda.  (It may be noted in passing, however, that this is not a historically fortuitous agenda but directly or indirectly flows from the Modern worldview and lifestyle.)   


            We have already indicated that Traditional popular culture or folk culture is not simply a baggage to be thrown out of the window.  Even though one rejects the Traditional worldview and lifestyle in a wholesale manner (there are of course few takers for this extreme position—the ‘post-modernist’ moves have made this loud and clear), one has to reckon with the sales resistance of ordinary people to the agenda of Modernity (the very phraseology à l ‘Américaine of selling and buying ideas smells, in any case).



            It is wiser, therefore, to speak of recycling folk culture and retooling mass culture.


            Folk culture in spite of well-meaning attempts on the part of the select to save the endangered species is steadily being rejected by the folk themselves.  Why not recycle it for spreading literacy and so on?


            Mass culture has its saving graces.  Chaplin and Groucho Marx are the darlings of intellectuals and progressives.  Why not retool mass culture for promoting the Modernity agenda? ‘Sesame Street’ is a celebrated example.  In retooling mass culture some of the more attractive vestiges of folk culture embedded in it will have to be accentuated.  If the so-called ‘market forces’ have no use for such promotional programmes, state subsidy or intervention may be necessary till such time when enlightened self-interest motivates the continuation of such programmes.


The Second bird: Popular culture for redeeming Modernity


Even the most ardent supporters of Modernity have accepted, reluctantly to be sure, that Modernity has its undesirable side effects.  One thinks of a prevention and elimination agenda such as the following: stopping planned and unplanned wastage, stopping needlessly invasive therapy, elimination of conman criminality, preventing environmental depredation, lowering stress potentials of modern urban life, stemming the tide of pulp fiction or inane sitcoms or the like when these cease to be harmless, stopping imposition of dead uniformity, and so on.  The list doesn’t need to be extended here.  What is the rôle for popular culture in the implementation of this agenda? (It may be noted in passing, once again, that this is not a historically fortuitous agenda but directly or indirectly flows from the Modern worldview and lifestyle.)


            Let us speak then of using folk culture as a corrective and of transforming mass culture into a truly popular culture for and by the people (rejuvenating it, in short).


            Suppose one tries to recycle folk culture for saving environment.  Depredation of environment is not exclusively a problem of modern times.  There have been environmental disasters even in the ancient past—the episode of the burning down of the Khandava forest in Mahābhārata or the legend among Native Americans of the Canadian and United States west about the destruction and subsequent restoration of the forest cover are probably cases in point.  What one can be even more sure of environment preserving measures in folk culture - the custom of dev-rāī (god-dedicated tree-grove) in Maharashtra, for instance? Why not recycle them? But there is something much deeper to it.  Consider the worship of farm and wild animals, trees, rivers, indeed the earth in the Indian folk tradition.  These could be no mere tools but are correctives.  Maintaining environment is no enlightened land and water management or even trusteeship.  It is deeply caring for environment and not selfishly taking care of it.


            Again, one certainly could retool mass culture for the prevention and elimination of the undesirable side effects of Modernity.  One could thus give Ayurvedic therapy or even diagnostics a place in the sun because these are cheaper and less invasive, but what does one do with the Ayurvedic word-view and life-style? It will be folly on our part to throw them by the wayside.  (Incidentally, Ayurveda was once part of the select culture though now it has almost been ‘reduced’ to being a part of popular culture.)


            The deeper question is what one does with the whole Traditional world-view and life-style? This is of course a larger philosophical question which, at this point, I can only adumbrate and not negotiate.  But even keeping this question at the back of one’s mind will held us in the redeeming of Modernity or, to use a catchword, of giving Modernity a human face.




            This has remained unpublished.