People and the Popular, Culture and the Cultural

From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)

Paola Pugliatti, University of Florence

Introducing his essay‘Notes on Deconstructing “the Popular” ’, Stuart Hall says: ‘… I want to tell you some of the difficulties I have with the term “popular”. I have almost as many problems with “popular” as I have with “culture”. When you put the two terms together, the difficulties can be pretty horrendous’ (1981, 227). Yet, what Hall means by ‘popular’ in connection with ‘culture’ is soon clear. Popular culture, he says, ‘looks, in any particular period, at those forms and activities which have their roots in the social and material conditions of particular classes; which have been embodied in popular traditions and practices’ (234–235). He sees the field of such forms and activities as permanently oscillating between containment and resistance, because they are permanently involved in ‘a continuous and necessarily uneven and unequal struggle, by the dominant culture, constantly to disorganise and reorganise popular culture; to enclose and confine its definitions and forms within a more inclusive range of dominant forms’ (233). But Hall also tackles the issue of periodization, and chooses as the period to be examined in the study of popular culture the years which go from the 1880s to the 1920s because that period, he says, ‘is one of the real test cases for the revived interest in popular culture’, but mainly because of the expression, in those decades, of the relationship of the dominated class ‘to a major restructuring of capital’, that is, ‘to a changing set of material relations and conditions’ (230, 229–230).

Thus, the object of study is defined by confining it to the emergence of industrialization and the urbanization of an industrial working class, that is, not earlier than the late eighteenth century. Hall, however, goes farther than exposing and motivating his preference for the decades which go from the 1880s to the 1920s; he also expresses reservations about the study of earlier phenomena and forms:

Without in any way casting aspersions on the important historical work which has been done and remains to do on earlier periods, I do believe that many of the real difficulties (theoretical as well as empirical) will only be confronted when we begin to examine closely popular culture in a period which begins to resemble our own, which poses the same kind of interpretive problems as our own, and which is informed by our own sense of contemporary questions. (231)

In an essay which I will discuss later, L.W. Levine (1992) seems to have no doubts about the object of study of what goes under the name of ‘popular culture’: it is the study of the cultural products which were distributed to ‘the people’ during the Great Depression and after and of the way in which the addressees responded to theseconsumption products. In even more unam-biguous terms, in a more recent essay, John Storey seems to radically exclude the possibility of research in the popular culture of past ages: ‘whatever else popular culture might be’, he says, ‘it is definitely a culture that only emerged following industrialization and urbanization’ (2001, 13).Raymond Williams, in turn, included both ‘culture’ and ‘popular’ among the keywords he explored. His exploration of the word ‘culture’ starts with the assertion that ‘Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’. He, then, adds that ‘This is so partly because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it has now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought’ (1985, 87).Two other passages in his historical and conceptual ex-ploration of the word seem to me to be worth quoting because they illustrate points which I am going to develop in this article. The first is a quotation from Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784–91). Herder, Williams says, wrote of Kultur that ‘nothing is more indeterminatethan this word, and nothing more deceptive than its application to all nations and periods’ (89; my italics); the second is Williams’s own reflection on the different ways in which different disciplines or points of view characterize the contents of the word ‘culture’:

.. in archaeology and in cultural anthropology the reference to culture or a cultureis primarily to material production, while in history and cultural studies the refer-ence is primarily to signifying or symbolic systems. This often confuses but even more often conceals the central question of the relations between ‘material’ and ‘symbolic’ production, which … have always to be related rather than contrasted. (91)


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