An Aesthetic Discourse About Alternative Cultures

Alex de Borba

Alex de Borba

The word “culture” derives from the Latin “colere,” a verb to describe tending and developing agriculture. With the advent of capitalism’s division of labour, culture came both to embody instrumentalism and to abjure it, via the industrialisation of farming, on the one hand, and the cultivation of individual taste, on the other.

Eighteenth-century German, French, and Spanish dictionaries bear witness to a metaphorical shift from agricultural cultivation to “spiritual elevation.” As the spread of literacy and printing saw customs and laws passed on, governed, and adjudicated through the written word, cultural texts supplemented and supplanted physical force as guarantors of authority. With the Industrial Revolution, populations urbanised, food was imported, and textual forms were exchanged. An emergent consumer society produced such events as horse racing, opera, art exhibits, and balls. The impact of this shift was indexed in cultural labour: poligrafi in fifteenth-century Venice — the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region — and hacks in eighteenth-century London, United Kingdom, wrote successful and influential conduct books. These works of instruction on an everyday life marked the textualisation of custom and the development of new occupations.

In today’s humanities, theatre, film, television, radio, art, craft, writing, music, dance, and electronic gaming are judged by criteria of representativeness and quality, as framed by practices of cultural criticism and history. For their part, the social sciences focus on the languages, religions, customs, times, spaces, and exchanges of different groups, as explored ethnographically or statistically. So whereas the humanities articulate differences within populations, through symbolic norms (for example, providing some of us with the cultural capital to appreciate high culture) the social sciences articulate such differences through social standards (for example, legitimising inequality through doctrines of human capital).

An aesthetic discourse about culture sees it elevating people above ordinary life, transcending the body, time, and place. Conversely, a folkloric dialogue about culture expects it to settle us into society through the wellsprings of community, as part of daily existence. Moreover, a lecture about pop idealises entertainment, offering secular transcendence through joy.

The connection of market entertainment to social identities has led to many varied reactions. Theorists from both right and left argue that newly literate publics are vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. Bourgeois economics assumes that rational consumers determine what is popular culture, but concerns that unscrupulously fluent ones can bamboozle people have recurred throughout the modern period. Marxism has often viewed popular culture as a route to false consciousness that diverts the working class from recognising its economic oppression; feminist approaches have moved between condemning the popular as a similar distraction from gendered knowledge and celebrating it as a distinctive part of women’s culture.

Cultural studies have been a productive, progressive response to the phenomenon. Historical and contemporary analyses of witchcraft, occultism, spiritualism, gothicism, folklore, myths, and indigenous, tribalistic forms have utilised archival, ethnographic, and statistical methods to emphasise day-to-day non-compliance with authority, via practices of popular-cultural consumption that frequently turn into practices of magic. Regarding alternative cultures, for example, the United Kingdom research has lit upon Teddy Boys, Mods, bikers, skinheads, punks, school students, teenagers, Rastas, truants, drop-outs, and magazine readers as its magical agents of history — social groups who deviated from the norms of schooling and the transition to work by generating moral panics. Scholar-activists examine the structural underpinnings to everyday style, investigating how bricolage subverts the achievement-oriented, materialistic values and appearance of the middle class. The working assumption has often been that subordinate groups adopt and adapt signs and objects from the dominant culture, reorganising them to manufacture new meanings. The oppressed become producers of new fashions, inscribing alienation, difference, and powerlessness on their bodies.

As a consequence, the canons of aesthetic judgment and social distinction that once separated humanities and social science approaches to the popular, distinguishing aesthetic tropes, economic needs, and social norms, are collapsing in on each other. The media are more than textual signs or everyday practices. Popular culture offers essential resources to markets and nations — reactions to the crisis of belonging and economic necessity occasioned by capitalist globalisation. It is crucial to advanced and developing economies alike and can provide the legitimising ground on which particular groups (for example; African Americans, lesbians, the hearing-impaired, or evangelical Protestants) claim resources and seek inclusion in national and international narratives.

There remains a paradox and possibly a contradiction in cultural studies’ engagement with the popular because commodified fashion and convention learnt to respond almost gratefully to subcultures. For instance, even as the media and politicians announced that punks were folkish devils and set in train various moral panics about their effect on society, the fashion and music industries were sending out spies to watch and listen to them as part of a restless search for new trends to market. Whenever the politics of spectacle is used efficiently by social movements, advertising agencies watchon and parrot what they see. Capitalism appropriates its appropriators.

The need for an awareness of this double-edged investment in commodities, as objects of resistance whose very appropriation can then be re-commodified, makes socioeconomic analysis via critical political economy a useful ally of representational analysis via close reading. A certain tendency on both sides has maintained that the two approaches are mutually exclusive: one is concerned with structures of the economy, the other with structures of meaning. However, this need not be the case. Historically, the best critical political economy and the best close reading have worked through the imbrication of power and subjectivity at all points on the cultural continuum.

At a moment when the Global North uses culture as a selling point for deindustrialized societies, and the Global South does so for never-industrialized ones, we should focus on a nimble, hybrid approach that is governed not by the humanities or the social sciences, but by a critical agenda that inquires cui bono — who benefits and loses from such governmental and corporate maneuvers, who complains about the fact, and how can we learn from them?

Cultural studies’ commitment to social justice, as well as academic theorisation and research, has proven magnetic to many subordinate groups entering academia for the first time over the last fifty years. Hence the appeal of studying popular culture not only at the conventional scholarly metropoles in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, but in Colombia, Brazil, Turkey, India, and other relevant sites that are all too accustomed to being theorized and analysed; and entirely too unfamiliar with being regarded as the sources of ideas, not merely places for their application.

‘An Aesthetic Discourse About Alternative Cultures’ is thus a proper title because it captures not only the desire of the publisher and editors to engage in the newest ways of sharing knowledge but also matches cultural studies’ own project, besides the fact that we are especially delighted to be able to assist authors whose first language is not English and are under pressure from their universities and governments to publish in this increasingly hegemonic academic form.

Personally speaking, I want this medium to bring together the questions of subjectivity and power that animate our field, and to grapple with the problematic intellectual and esoteric issues of our present and past time as well as others. As populism rises in many parts of the world; as cosmopolitanism struggles with resurgent ethnonationalism; as new military and immigrant crisis emerge; and as a massive, modern middle-class forms even while inequality spreads, understanding how we live together — and struggle together — can enlighten us all.

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