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In this research paper I present some conceptual frameworks for examining popular culture. I discuss how popular culture includes media, sports events, advertisements, street fairs, and tourism. I then describe how popular culture provides us with a lens to trace larger historical processes and public debates on issues as wide-ranging as family and kinship, nation, intimacy and sexuality, and the transnational. I posit that, in the contemporary world, it is essential to examine popular culture in its transnational dimensions. Popular culture is also a critical node in the generation and circulation of not just ideologies but also regimes of affect. In every sense, popular culture is socially and politically consequential. I trace different scholarly perspectives on popular culture, such as feminist critique, critical theory, cultural studies, and historical frameworks. I conclude by considering how digital media have altered how we think of popular culture, such that our previously held assumptions about sociality and politics, distance and proximity, and virtuality and reality are now altered.
- What Is Popular Culture?
- Scholarly Perspectives on Popular Culture
- Popular Culture as a Lens for Studying Other Sociocultural Processes
For most of us, popular culture is a source of entertainment. It encapsulates media (such as film, television, print media, and digital (‘new’) media), and includes sports events, advertisements, street fairs, and tourism. We engage with popular culture because we get pleasure from it; at the same time, we are also informed by it. We usually associate information with news rather than with entertainment. But other forms of popular culture that we often associate with for ‘mere entertainment’ – for instance, tourist practices, popular music, films, sports, and television programs – also inform us in profound ways. For example, a romance novel might instill in us expectations about intimacy, gender and sexuality. Popular culture plays an important role in shaping our personal and collective identities. It also provides us with an analytic lens to understand sociohistorical processes such as class, gender and sexuality, nationalism, and transnationalism.
Changes in popular cultural texts often articulate in wider social and cultural changes. Consider the contrast between the harmonious, heteronormative nuclear family portrayed in the Cosby Show in the 1980s, and the family we see in the U.S. sitcom The Modern Family which depicts the lives of members of three interrelated families. The Modern Family is multiracial and includes a gay couple and an adopted Vietnamese child. The past few years have also witnessed an efflorescence of digital media that have been immensely powerful in altering the cultural landscape of many societies: a range of relationships are now forged on Facebook, flash mobs converge through Twitter, and the internet has become a vital source of connectivity in many parts of the world. In recent years, digital media have also played an important role in politics, whether through online political fund raising or by galvanizing rebellion in societies where other media may be censored.
What Is Popular Culture?
In the modern world, popular culture is available to what we may call ‘the public’ or ‘masses’ of people. For this to happen, there have to be established means of production, distribution, and reception. For example, for a soap opera to exist there have to be a crew of script writers, actors, a director, a producer – in other words, a crew of people who work behind the scenes and in front of the camera. There also has to be a means to finance this production: in capitalist societies, soap operas are financed by sponsors who pay for the production and telecast of a soap opera in exchange for being able to advertise on it. This is how the term ‘soap opera’ originated: soap operas were sponsored originally by manufacturers of detergents. Even today, the manufacturers of detergents and other household goods like washing machines, kitchen appliances, and cleaning agents are key advertisers on soap operas. There also needs to be an infrastructure for its distribution. This is where television networks come in. Very often, television networks are part of larger media conglomerates or groups of companies. Television production is, therefore, part of a larger system of industrial production.
Popular culture presents us with a vantage point on the world: it is a domain that shapes our sense of self or our identity. Not only is it generally available to a large number of people, it also responds to and creates points of identification among large groups within a community or nation. Popular culture plays an important role in constituting and representing the public to itself. It is public in two senses: not only does it circulate widely and is often associated with public exhibition and display, it also configures ‘the public,’ ‘the nation,’ ‘society,’ ‘culture,’ ‘family,’ and other collectivities. In the contemporary world, transnational media play a primary role in the circulation of popular cultural texts. From a sociological viewpoint, popular culture is probably the most important influence on the lives of millions. However, it is important to recognize that viewers are not just unthinking targets of popular culture. Rather, in order to understand the cultural significance of popular culture, we need to examine how its consumers respond to, reinterpret, and employ its messages.
Popular culture is a site of struggle between dominant discourses and forces of resistance. It contains ‘points of resistance’ as well as ‘ moments of supersession’; it forms a ‘battlefield where no once-for-all victories are obtained but where there are always strategic positions to be won and lost’ (Hall, 1981, p. 233). Mass media may open up a ‘zone of debate’ about issues current in a given community (Gupta, 1995). For instance, in the 1990s, television shows like the U.S. sitcom Ellen enabled the rearticulation of debates around homosexuality. Popular culture, then, does not simply ‘reflect’ the lives and worlds of audiences; nor does it ‘impact’ these worlds or lives in a simple way. Instead, popular cultural texts are social formations in and of themselves.
In addition, we need to attend to three other dimensions of popular culture in the contemporary world. One, we need to examine popular culture in terms of its transnational dimensions. Transnational media have played a critical role in connecting viewers/readers/consumers in different parts of the world. Satellite television allows us to keep up with the news, weather updates, and entertainment programs in different parts of the world: thus, for instance, viewers living in London are able to watch television soap operas at the same time as their relatives in the United States. The internet has changed previous conceptions of ‘breaking news’ by enabling us to engage with events even as they unfold in different parts of the world.
Second, the proliferation of media has altered how we engage the world of information and entertainment: we do not just listen to music, we watch music videos; we stream movies on our computers; we listen to ringtones on our cell phones; and so on. As a result, rather than focusing on a single medium, scholars of media prefer to trace the different media that form a media-saturated landscape or media ecology.
Finally, we need to conceive of popular culture as a node for the generation and circulation of not just ideologies but, equally importantly, of affects. Media scholars now recognize that in addition to being ideologically interpellated by media, media also work on us through the affective regimes they generate and circulate. These regimes of affect blur the line between feeling and thought, the corporeal and the cognitive, and the individual and the collective: the regimes of affect circulated through media are transitive, yet have a profound effect on how we position ourselves in the world. For instance, media played a critical role in the generation and circulation of the affects of fear and suspicion in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. These affects of fear and suspicion were transnational in their provenance and enabled some people in the Western world to feel a strong sense of identification with the victims of these terrorist attacks: for instance, the French newspaper Le Monde ran a front page headline stating: “We are all Americans.” Equally important, the affects of fear and suspicion that circulated after 11 September 2001 had the effect of demonizing racial and religious Others as potential terrorists: in many Western nations, this resulted in hate-based violence against those who ‘appeared to be’ terrorists and to their imprisonment and deportation.
Popular culture, then, is socially and politically consequential. Our subjectivities are constituted in the process of making sense of the world around us and in our interaction with others and, in many cases, making sense of the world entails engaging with it not just cognitively but, also, through affect. In capitalist and postcapitalist societies, these processes are refracted by media. Film, television, popular music, and mass market fiction constitute and represent the public realm in cognitive, moral, and affective terms. But these representations do not impact us as if we are blank screens – instead, ‘they occupy and rework the interior contradictions of feeling and perception . they do find or clear a space of recognition in those who respond to them’ (Hall, 1981, p. 232). Thus, although representations are neither all-powerful nor all-inclusive, they have material effects on how people see themselves and lead their lives.
Scholarly Perspectives on Popular Culture
Definitions of popular culture have shifted according to the disciplinary emphases of its students. Historians of early modern Europe (e.g., Peter Burke (1978) and Robert Darnton (1984)) stress how members of different classes created and participated in popular culture and, simultaneously, were shaped and constrained by it. These historians analyze the factors influencing the popular cultures of early modern Europe, chiefly, the rise of cities and the advent of printing. They supplement thematic analyses of books with information about audiences and, thus, aim at providing the context for the meaning and uses of books.
One of the foundational works on the relationship between capitalism and mass media is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944). Horkheimer and Adorno focused on how culture and the individual are ‘produced’ by the culture industry. They claimed that the culture industry’s power lies in its ability to disseminate ideas and beliefs on a mass scale. They were concerned about how the management and control of leisure time and the socialization of the ego by the culture industry leads to a ‘mass’ culture that undermines the private realm.
The relationship between modern forms of popular culture and the growth of capitalism is also examined by some cultural studies scholars. Some of the most influential work in this area was produced (and has been influenced by) the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. These scholars are concerned with how media shape dominant ideologies and discourses. Their central project is to examine the relationship between the production and consumption of popular culture and social axes of inequality, such as class, race, and gender.
Although cultural studies’ earliest borrowings were from literary criticism, chiefly the work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, recently its primary focus has been on the practices of everyday life. The greatest debts of this genre of cultural studies are to Marxist theories of culture. Its basic premise is that cultural production often takes the form of commodities. Other important propositions are as follows: (1) popular culture is inextricably tied up with social relations; (2) popular culture can both enable social groups to define and realize their needs and reproduce asymmetries; and (3) popular culture is a terrain where social differences and struggles are articulated. These concerns reflect the influence of Gramsci on the ideological and popular struggles involved in the construction of common sense. In addition, some cultural studies scholars influenced by Lacanian analyses of film and television reconceptualize ideology in terms of how texts construct subject positions. Others have rethought the role of ideology in popular culture in terms of Foucault’s analyses of discursive practices. Breaking with Horkheimer and Adorno’s assumption of the audience as a passive and undifferentiated mass of receivers, these cultural studies scholars conceive of audiences or consumers who actively ‘decode’ and interpret popular culture texts.
In addition to studying everyday practices, some cultural studies scholars also use semiotic methods of textual analysis. They treat cultural products as ‘texts’ to be ‘read’ according to interpretive strategies, including the literary analysis of narrative, semiology, and deconstruction. These analytical strategies reveal that literary conventions and forms have greater social and cultural significance than we might first suspect. For example, feminists have pointed to the place of fictional representations of romantic love in cultural constructions of femininity. Far from being ‘mere’ literary constructions, these representations play a crucial role in the constitution of dominant practices of gender and sexuality.
Anthropologists bring important theoretical and methodological insights to the study of popular culture because of their commitment to ethnographically analyzing the relationship between popular culture and other social institutions. Initially, mass media were neglected by anthropologists (exceptions include Bateson, 1943; Powdermaker, 1950) because they were deemed ‘too redolent of western modernity and cultural imperialism for a field identified with tradition, the nonwestern and the vitality of the local’(Ginsburg, 1999, p. 297). Some anthropologists have insisted on foregrounding the social practice of media (Abu-Lughod, Ginsburg, and Larkin, eds.) and examine the cultural implications of popular culture through an ethnographic attention to the everyday practices and lives of producers and/or consumers of media.
Anthropological perspectives underscore that popular culture cannot be generalized across different historical and cultural contexts simply on the basis of the media apparatuses. Producers and consumers of media are, fundamentally, social and historical subjects and media are, primarily, cultural institutions that need to be studied in their concrete particularity. Hence, we cannot conceptualize relationships between popular culture and the social actors who engage its myriad texts in the abstract: neither can be studied outside their location in specific sociohistorical contexts. Several anthropologists have engaged in analyses of popular culture. These scholars, together with those who study the reception of media, carefully situate popular culture in the discursive and historical contexts in which it is produced and consumed. These studies undermine unilinear models of ‘communication flows,’ and foreground the importance of examining the specific conditions in which popular culture circulates.
Other scholars have examined how media have shaped our sense of the public. Drawing on and critiquing notions of the public sphere first articulated by Jurgen Habermas, these scholars have examined subaltern counterpublics and multiple publics, or have proposed notions of public culture as an alternative to those of the public sphere. Others have pointed to how gender and conceptions of intimacy play a critical role in how we think of the public. Many scholars foreground the role of transnational media in the formation of multiple publics. Far from proposing a dichotomous relationship between the public and the private, all these scholars assert that media blur the line between the two.
Popular Culture as a Lens for Studying Other Sociocultural Processes
Popular culture is a terrain where identities are articulated, negotiated, and consolidated. For example, class position might provide individuals with ‘cultural constraints’ and a common ‘outer frame of meaning’ (Darnton, 1984, pp. 6–7). A mutually influencing relationship exists between elite culture and popular culture. Popular culture also provides a site for the negotiation and articulation of class identities and other hegemonic discourses. Thus, in nineteenth-century India, Bengali elites took upon themselves the task of ‘purifying’ popular culture produced by working-class women: while their objective was ostensibly to ‘emancipate’ women of their class, their efforts resulted in the consolidation of their own middle- and upper-class identities through the marginalization of working-class popular culture (Bannerjee, 1989). At the same time that these interventions influenced (and were influenced by) hegemonic discourses of class and gender, they also became foundational to discourses of culture that were fundamentally nationalist.
The role of popular culture in mediating discourses of gender and sexuality has long been acknowledged. Two pioneering works in this regard are Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984). Laura Mulvey examined how the cinematic forms and narratives of classic Hollywood film ‘suture’ viewers into ‘spectatorial positions’ that reinscribe dominant ideas about gender and sexuality. Mulvey’s work provided feminist critics of popular culture with a paradigm for examining the role of mass media in the constitution of discourses of gender and sexuality. Janice Radway’s work laid the foundation for studying the role of a specific genre of texts, romance fiction, in the constitution of discourses of gender and sexuality. Radway situated women’s reading practices in their social relationships and everyday lives, and studied their interpretations of different romances in order to analyze what the books mean to their readers.
Since the publication of these works by Mulvey and Radway, the relationship of popular culture to gender and sexuality has been analyzed by scholars too numerous to cite. Some of the most noteworthy studies in this regard, however, come from scholars, chiefly anthropologists, who have examined media in non-Western contexts. These include the analysis of the relationship between popular culture, gender and sexuality in Japan (Allison, 1996), and television and notions of modern womanhood in Egypt and India (Abu-Lughod, 1993; Mankekar, 1999 respectively). The significance of these studies lies in their decentering of Eurocentric perspectives dominant in cultural studies, media studies, and feminist studies.
Some scholars have argued that the conceptualization of popular culture was itself engendered by the emergence of nationalism (Burke, 1978). Building on Benedict Anderson’s insights about the role of print capitalism in the construction of nations as imagined communities (1983), several scholars have examined the role of popular culture in the formation of national identity. For instance, diverse forms of popular culture, including tourism, exhibitions, and material culture and consumption, have enabled the constitution of the national imaginary in China (Anagnost, 1997). In some parts of the developing world, television has been consciously deployed to construct a ‘national community’: in Mexico and Venezuela, indigenous soap operas called telenovelas have combined entertainment with ‘social messages’ about development. In India, state-owned television was harnessed to the explicitly nationalist goals of development and national integration (Mankekar, 1999) and, furthermore, participated in the consolidation of an exclusionary and strident Hindu nationalism (Rajagopal, 2000).
Yet, at the same time that popular culture enables the constitution of local and national communities, some of its forms are inherently transnational. Thus, the telenovelas described above circulated not only within but across national borders in Latin America and were adopted as models for the television programs in India. In addition, the transnational circulation of popular culture has resulted in the creation of new forms of diasporic identities. The transnational circulation of newspapers, film, television programs relayed via satellite, advertisements, and mass market fiction have created, what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has termed, ‘mediascapes’ (1996). Mediascapes ‘refer both to the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information . now available to a growing number of private and public interests throughout the world, and to the images of the world created by these media’ (1996, p. 35). The boundaries of cultures and nations have thus proved to be permeable to globalized and transnational forms of popular culture. However, as scholars have argued for several years, globalization has not resulted in a homogenization of culture. At different historical moments, globalization has resulted in a recasting of ‘tradition’ and processes of creolization (Hannerz, 1996, pp. 67–77). Transnational popular culture thus forces us to revisit previously held notions of culture as bounded and systemic (Appadurai, 1996; Gupta and Ferguson, 1997).
In recent years, digital media have been critical to the further expansion of our sense of transnational popular culture. Digital media or ‘new media’ may alter previous conceptions of spatiality and temporality by muddling our sense of distance and proximity, the virtual and the actual. Scholars have now gone beyond either valorizing new media as liberatory and empowering or condemning it as divisive and oppressive. We have learned how the internet provides sites for arranging marriages; it is also a locus for the formation of hate-based collective identities. Online communities may offer a sense of solidarity to victims of child abuse; at the same time, the internet has also provided opportunities for child pornography and hate-based bullying leading, in some cases, to tragic consequences. Digital technologies may shift power dynamics to provide marginalized groups with access to representation. But, here again, we are also reminded that ‘new media,’ as much as ‘old media’ like television, radio, and film, are imbricated in existing power relations (Wilson and Peterson, 2002).
It is important to note that popular cultures generated by new media coexist with other media like film, television, and radio. Nevertheless, recent developments in new media studies also underscore that we may need to rethink previous assumptions about the relationship between humans and machines, the social and the technological, and organic and inorganic forms of life. Thus, for instance, digitization has compelled us to rethink migration and labor (as in the ‘virtual migration’ of call center workers whose labor travels even as their bodies remain in place (Aneesh, 2006)); electronic surveillance technologies and cyberwarfare have transformed how we think of national security; digital archives have changed how we think of privacy; and webcams and Ipods now seem to have extended our senses of sight and hearing (Balsalmo, A., 2008; Berry et al., 2003; Constable, 2013; Escobar, 1994; Ito et al., 2010; Kolko et al., 2000; Kroker and Kroker, 2008; Morse, 1998; Nakamura and Chow-White, 2011; Stratton, 2008; Tsatsou, 2009; Turkle, 2005, 2012). Furthermore, it is important to remember that even as the digital moves at the speed of light in the form of code, it is refracted by race, class, sex, and gender; conversely, domains of popular culture cohering around digital media compel us to revisit our assumptions about race, class, sex, and gender. Ultimately, digital popular cultures, like popular cultures of print or electronic media, are constituted through sociality even as they transform our sense of the social.
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