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Imagining the popular in contemporary French culture$

Diana Holmes and David Looseley

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780719078163

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719078163.001.0001

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Conclusion

Conclusion

Chapter:
(p.230) Conclusion
Source:
Imagining the popular in contemporary French culture
Author(s):

Diana Holmes

David Looseley

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719078163.003.0008

Abstract and Keywords

Whereas domestic and external accounts of French culture have spontaneously identified it with elite culture, this chapter argues that any rigorous analysis of it must integrate and engage with majority cultural practices. Popular culture itself and the discourses that have constructed and fought over it have been vital elements in the process of making and re-making national, as well as social and personal, identities. Popular culture has meant highbrow culture disseminated to the people, or lowbrow culture sold to the people. A third meaning, discernible at particular moments in both state and oppositional discourses, has been that of a culture arising authentically from the people. This chapter concludes that the study of popular culture needs to be central to any understanding of contemporary French society, and thus to French Studies as an ongoing academic project.

Keywords:   popular culture, French culture, highbrow culture, lowbrow culture, French Studies

The ambition of this study has been to explore the diversity of ways in which the popular has been conceptualised and materialised in France. Whereas domestic and external accounts of French culture have spontaneously identified it with élite culture, we have argued that any rigorous analysis of it must integrate and engage with majority cultural practices. The relationship between state, national institutions and cultural production takes very particular forms in France, closely enmeshed as this relationship has been with a specific political history, and with the exceptionally strong presence of linguistic and literary tradition as a prized element of national identity. Popular culture itself and the discourses that have constructed and fought over it have been vital elements in the process of making and re-making national, as well as social and personal, identities. We have attempted to show that, despite transnational migrations and globalisation, a national specificity remains a given in any fully located view of French culture: to universalise or to generalise on the basis of an anglophone model (as anglophone Cultural Studies has sometimes done) is to ignore the particular, the material and the ideological realities of difference. And yet we would also claim that analysis of the French case is productive for a broader discussion of the meanings of popular culture in industrial and post-industrial Western democracies. France represents a particularly revealing case-study that delineates with exceptional sharpness the contradictions, tensions and ideals that attach to the concept of popular culture.

At the heart of the book are the especially contentious, shifting meanings of the word ‘popular’ when applied to culture in the French context. Perhaps, as we suggested in the Introduction, ‘belonging to the people’ is the only definition bland enough for all parties to agree on, but both key words in this formulation are, of course, open to multiple interpretations. Who are ‘the people’? And in what sense do particular forms of culture (p.231) ‘belong’ to them? All of our chapters have in fact shown in differing ways that in France such questions are broadly but intensely political – most conspicuously, perhaps, in the cases of television and language – but also ideological, as with the complex semantics of chanson. In Republican France, built on the twin yet sometimes contradictory principles of republican democracy and state dirigisme, popular culture has at one level meant a culture taken to the working class, a democratisation of high or élite culture with the aim of creating a politically and civically desirable common culture to enrich the lives of all. Educational and cultural policies, and significant portions of political and intellectual opinion on both Right and Left, have consistently attempted to foster a generalised national culture characterised by intellectual and linguistic rigour, knowledge of a shared cultural history and aspiration to aesthetic excellence. The corollary of this ‘ideology of the standard’, as Armstrong calls it in the context of language, has been a marked disdain for much of the quotidian culture consumed by the people, designated in France, even today to an extent, as ‘mass’ culture but corresponding to the primary meaning of ‘popular’ in English. Popular culture in this sense means music, novels, films, television that audiences (another version of the ‘people’) find pleasurably entertaining, and so choose to consume in large numbers. We have seen that the dominant French evaluation of such cultural forms has been pejorative: from the mid-nineteenth century quarrel over the roman feuilleton to early twenty-first-century debates over reality TV and banlieue speech, ‘mass’ popular culture has been characterised on the whole, by politicians, religious leaders, intellectuals and ‘legitimate’ artists, as an exploitative culture foisted on the people by market forces and consumed by them largely due to their failure to know any better.

Popular culture, then, has meant highbrow culture disseminated to the people, or lowbrow culture sold to the people. A third meaning, discernible at particular moments in both state and oppositional discourses, has been that of a culture arising authentically from the people. Definitions of what constitutes the people's authentic voice are, of course, as ideologically determined as definitions of the popular itself. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the new ruling class preferred to confer authentic popular status on folk music, safely rooted in a rural past, than on the more irreverent, potentially oppositional tones of the urban chanson. Left-wing populist movements, particularly in the 1930s, sought to define novels set among the working class, in some cases written by proletarian authors, as authentically popular texts produced in some rather loose sense by a collective voice. In terms of consumption, however, the populist novel (p.232) never came close to challenging the mass appeal of more commercial, less committed forms of fiction. For a time, the Leftists of 1968 dreamed that, once liberated from the shackles of capitalist mystification, a truly popular culture would emerge, with revolutionary potential. But neither the popular reception of experimental, iconoclastic art nor the reality of popular taste in the 1970s and 1980s lent much support to this view.

Nonetheless, the ideal of a national popular culture that would support and legitimate the spontaneous voices and tastes of the majority has not gone away. Indeed, it has re-emerged, for example with Jack Lang's recognition of lowbrow forms and practices, or with some of the more imaginative TV programming such as the highly successful series Plus belle la vie (A Better Life). Attempts to broaden the very concept of culture have been more effective in the visual and musical spheres than in the literary, perhaps because of that sense of a uniquely serious and splendid literary tradition that is so central to French national identity. Even here, though, the gradual incorporation of French-language writers from beyond metropolitan France into definitions of French literature, and the call to acknowledge and respect most readers’ desire for the pleasures of a good story – both of these most clearly articulated by the Littérature-monde movement – pursue the ideal of an inclusive and ‘bottom-up’ definition of popular culture.

As we have examined definitions of ‘popular culture’ within the fields of politics, music, literature, cinema, television and language, have we in fact arrived at a working model of what these two words ultimately mean? A de facto definition has necessarily underpinned the selection of a corpus in five of the six chapters: this has been largely quantitative for, imperfect as the evidence often is, the best clues we have as to what most people like in cultural terms are to be found in sales or audience figures or, in the field of language, in quantitative empirical research carried out by linguisticians. But our book does not merely observe what constitutes majority cultural taste in France: it also invites conclusions as to the enduring characteristics of the popular. Popular culture is made up of practices, texts and artefacts that articulate shared meanings, collective senses of what matters, of what is most feared or pleasurable. More than ‘high’ culture, it deploys repetition, the use of familiar forms, techniques, devices, to facilitate consumption and provide some degree of guaranteed, tried and tested pleasure. If repeated techniques are to maintain their pleasure-giving power, however, they require endless variation on the original model. The popular draws at once on deep, slow-moving currents of the human imagination, and on the immediately topical: (p.233) many of the most successful song forms, films, novels, TV programmes combine an appeal to fundamental myths (romantic love; triumphant human solidarity; transcendence of mortality) with an evocation, idealised or otherwise, of the most situated and contingent of realities. Another vital conclusion that emerges from our analysis is that audiences do not so much ‘receive’ popular culture as interact with it in a complex process vital to the construction of both personal and social identities. By articulating and giving form to emotions, ideas, apprehensions of the self and of others, popular culture shapes, inflects, cathartically relieves or, conversely, strengthens social perceptions and (in Raymond Williams's famous phrase) structures of feeling. We conclude that consumers of popular culture are no more passive recipients of what they read, watch, listen to or (particularly in the case of language) reproduce than are the consumers of any other cultural form, but that they bring to the encounter their own polyvalent subjectivities, and engage with rather than merely absorb the stimulus of the text.1

As we have seen, this more positive model of popular culture is not one that has been widely accepted in France itself. Despite the increased porosity of national cultural borders, we have observed the obduracy of the French tendency, across the political spectrum (whereas in anglophone countries it is associated with a right-wing stance), to deplore a falling-away from the high cultural standards that did and should characterise the nation, and to lump together a diverse set of contemporary cultural practices plebiscited by the majority as simply debased. Yet it is also true that the twenty-first century has seen a growing convergence of high and low towards what we can term ‘middlebrow’ culture, widely consumed and enjoyed, displaying many attributes of the popular, yet legitimated to some extent by academic, intellectual and political authorities. This is particularly visible in, for example, the evolution of distinctively French conceptualisations of la chanson française or crime fiction, or in the reworkings of romance by ‘literary’ women authors, and perhaps in Gadet's suggestion (Chapter 6, p. 222) of ‘a gradual undermining of the prestige of the written language’. And even in television, that mass entertainment par excellence, we can locate accommodations, or at least negotiations, between highbrow and lowbrow in particular programmes and, most notably perhaps, in the existence of an entire channel describing itself as ‘cultural’, the Franco-German ARTE.

A dedicated Bourdieusian might certainly challenge any resolutely positive take on this evolution, seeing it as no more than the assimilation (with all the postcolonial negativity that word implies) of once opposi- (p.234) tional popular forms into a safe canon of respectability, as with the art discourse that is now commonly brought to bear on chanson and crime fiction, not least by academics. But what we can conclude is that these signs of a new middlebrow need to be understood in the wider context of a seismic transformation of France's cultural identity at the deepest level. French culture, acutely self-aware and self-assured for centuries, now seems to be undergoing an inexorable shapeshift: from a culture of the word to a polyvalent culture of the visual, the sonic and the digital: it is a culture no longer characterised solely by institutional legitimation and magisterial transmission but, increasingly, by interactive cultural democracy.

A shapeshift of this kind has of course been occurring throughout Europe and the West generally. But we have attempted to demonstrate that in France particularly it has been experienced as an identity crisis so fundamental and disruptive that it is still being diagnosed decades after it began; and the prognosis remains uncertain. Perhaps, then, the distinctive evolution of a French middlebrow – what we called in the Introduction a ‘high popular’ – may ultimately be read as a kind of therapeutic compromise. At any event, given that interactive democracy remains an evolving, elusive and contested condition in twenty-first-century France, the study of popular culture needs to be central to any understanding of contemporary French society, and thus to French Studies as an ongoing academic project.

Note

Notes:

(1) The model of the active consumer holds true for language (Chapter 6) in the sense that the individual practitioner inflects and selects rather than simply reproducing language patterns.