CULTURE AND CHANGE
TWO BIRDS IN ONE STONE?
Popular culture as a historical fact
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’.
adjective ‘popular’ can mean either of three things:
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
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.
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:
(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
(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’,
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’.
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.
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
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
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.
Stone: Popular culture as a lifestyle with an underlying worldview.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
major shift from Tradition to Modernity, then, is the shift in bias
from T 1-4 to M 1-4.
Digression on culture change
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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
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.)
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.
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
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.)
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).
is wiser, therefore, to speak of recycling folk culture and retooling
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
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).
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.
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
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.