What is the ‘Popular’ in Caribbean Popular Culture?

Notes Towards a Response

Authored by: Patricia J. Saunders

The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature

Print publication date:  June  2011
Online publication date:  June  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415485777
eBook ISBN: 9780203830352
Adobe ISBN: 9781136821745


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Popular culture carries that affirmative ring because of the prominence of the word ‘popular.’ And, in one sense, popular culture always has its base in the experiences, the pleasures, the memories, the traditions of the people. It has connections with local hopes and local aspirations, local tragedies, and local scenarios that are the everyday practices and the everyday experiences of ordinary folks. [P]opular culture, commodified and stereotyped as it often is, is not at all, as we sometimes think of it, the arena where we find who we really are, the truth of our experience. It is an arena that is profoundly mythic. It is a theater of popular desires, a theater of popular fantasies. It is where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there who do not get the message, but to ourselves for the first time.

(Stuart Hall, ‘What is this “Black” in Black Popular Culture?’1993: 469, 474)

In Caribbean Studies at the present, the celebration of the literary also seems to be waning as many key theorist and critics look to the popular and oral as the primary sites of cultural invention and resistance (see Scott, Cooper, Gilroy). Others still seem to have reconfigured the Caribbean as a cultural idea rather than an actual region, a dislocated, mobile, hybrid space attractive to the demands of postcolonial theory and its alliances to migrant subjectivities (Boyce Davies, Clifford). This can be read as a response to the fact that the traditional subjects of history, memory and language find bolder and perhaps more seemingly radical articulation in popular cultural forms and that many writers are writing from outside the region.

(Alison Donnell, Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literature 2006: 5)
These two quotations are intended to draw the reader’s attention to two important perspectives in current debates about literature and its relation to ‘popular culture’ inside academic institutions and among cultural workers. Both Hall and Donnell are concerned with how we read, engage, critique and, ultimately, make meaning of our cultural landscapes. The effectiveness, privileging of certain modes of cultural representation, and the political gains and losses that emerge through these representations, are some of the concerns shared by cultural critics, teachers, cultural practitioners and students alike. These concerns are particularly relevant to discussions about what we teach in academic institutions and to what ends, particularly as cultures that have been historically marginalized begin to inform how ‘the center’ not only imagines itself, but also its relationships to the ‘Other’. More importantly, the struggle to control which modes of representation will form ‘authentic’ or authoritative accounts of culture is being even more hotly contested due to the expansive access to technologies that make it possible for so many people to produce their own versions and visions of themselves through art. Traditional conversations about ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are being radically re-imagined and rethought and in so doing, new spaces for negotiating authority, power, representation, visibility and authenticity through popular culture are emerging.

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