Contrary to what the name might suggest, Cultural Studies in is not interested in studying forms and practices that have been commonsensically associated with culture, as in ‘classical’ dance, music, or literature. In fact, it questions accepted definitions and normative descriptions of culture, and is interested in analysing those activities that shape the everyday of the majority of the people around us: films, everyday ‘politics’—from strikes, bundhs organised by people to protest against beauty contests to more organised protests and struggles by various groups asking for their rights as citizens—communities, and institutional sites such as law and education.
Such an approach would necessarily require us to understand how cultural practices have gained their meanings, shaped as they are by a number of elements including the economic and political contexts within which they operate.
Culture as a Field of Inquiry Students and teachers of literature, anthropology, sociology, history and economics are familiar with the concept of ‘culture’.
Each disciplinary context provides its own specific understanding of ‘culture’. For example, many students who study English Literature in are familiar with the work of critics like Mathew Arnold, T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis, for all of whom culture provides the rationale—in various degrees—for reading, discussing and discerning which books belong to the great tradition.
This has given rise to the understanding that culture is also a matter of taste, which can be cultivated by reading and appreciating great works of art. This interest of the earlier writers of culture in things like values, refinement and tradition, is not necessarily shared by other scholars who came after them.
For example, Raymond Williams, the well-known English ‘culture-critic’ introduces the idea of culture as ‘ordinary’. He speaks of the cultural practices of the working class, of the new media such as television, and shows how such distinctions as ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’ hide the difficult power relations that govern the recognition of certain practices as culturally refined and push certain others to the margins of a society.
In his Keywords, Williams names ‘culture’ as one of the most complex words in English and traces the various meanings that it has acquired over a period of time.
It is only in the 19th century that both the romantic notion of culture as ideas, as literature, art and personal refinement and the anthropological notion of a way of life, shared meanings and common rituals and practices, gain significance.
This moment coincides with the expansion of colonial power, and also with an acceptance of the worldview that upholds reason, individualism and progress. For the colonial powers, western culture became the touchstone for evaluating and categorizing the culture of the ‘other’. (You will learn more about ‘the other’ in the modules of this course). As Williams points out, the term ‘culture’ traverses centuries before it acquires its current usage, from being a simple word that referred to ‘cultivation’ (a usage that can still be found in biochemistry and microbiology—as in ‘tissue culture’) to a concept that plays an important role in shaping both the Humanities and Social Sciences. This quick survey of the use of the word ‘culture’ within the context of Western academics also suggests that we have inherited much of this usage through our education system and other institutional sites.
Yet, in our own world, another understanding of culture is also simultaneously operative. Culture in is commonly associated with its language, food, heritage sites, temples, religion, caste, women, traditional dance and music. In order to find out why we often automatically associate Indian culture with temples, great architecture, great music and dance, with mysticism, with women clad in saris, with snakes and sadhus, we have to go back to the time when colonial officers, missionaries, Western travellers, ethnographers and other writers depicted India through photographs, paintings, lithographs, diaries, novels, and other genres of writing. We have to go back to the period when western scholars translated Sanskrit texts and depicted ’s golden past, framing ’s present as the decadent ruin of a great civilisation that needed to be revived.
In doing this they also circumscribed within a static timelessness that stood in stark contrast to Europe’s dynamic progress. We need to understand how images, narratives, and other forms of discourse, represent our ways of life, practices and people. You will learn more about this in the module on Orientalism. Thus the first step in making ‘culture’ a field of inquiry requires us to be sceptical of the available notions about culture in India.
It involves looking systematically at various meanings associated with culture in our own context. These meanings suggest continuity between 19th century attempts to understand Indian society and culture and the frameworks used by academic disciplines within the humanities and the social sciences at present. Our understanding of secularism, our policies, legal structures, systems of governance and education are, to a large extent, shaped by our colonial past. Added to this, globalisation and the liberalisation of the market have changed the topography of our cities and towns and have imbued our fantasies with images that we encounter everywhere and everyday. (You will read more about this in the last module on The Country and the City).
There are more contests today over democratic rights by groups that often foreground a specific identity and search for the strategies needed to attain such rights. (This is something you will study in greater detail in a later module on The Identity Question).
Mass rallies, protest marches and hunger strikes from groups espousing a wide range of political interests, the greater visibility attained by women’s groups, dalit groups and sexual minority groups, the increased presence of groups supporting religious fundamentalism, and the sudden eruption of violent communal conflict suggest that we need to re-describe the ‘public’ and the ‘political’ in our own context.
It is often felt that the subjects that students study at schools and colleges do not fully equip them to make sense of the complexities of their own time. This demands that we come up with alternative explanations and theories of our everyday. In order to do this we need a different framework of thinking that will help us differentiate between the range of activities and cultural practices that we see around us. Such a conceptual framework can be arrived at if we try to theorise culture both by looking critically at our colonial legacies and exploring new ways of analysing our experience of culture in everyday contexts.