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Interventionist Tendencies in Popular Culture

Vibodh Parthasarathi

What is evident to any traveller in India is that the 'democratic' State, the 'free' Market and the 'nationalist' Hindu Right are today the dominant fulcrums of cultural production. In doing so, they have drawn on elements of popular culture -- be they cultural practices predating the modern mass media, or those created and shaped by the latter. Moreover, they have harnessed the most significant techno-organisational elements of contemporary media industry towards proliferating the production and circulation of their culture-ware.

Prevailing Fulcrums of Culture

What is, however, not evident is that all three are involved in a rigorous exercice of codifying elements of popular culture. While looking at instances of these, it is important to take note of how each has drawn from the experience of the other. In general, corporate advertising often creates a series of messages from self-referential popular 'text'. The ad campaign on TV of the global giant Coke employs a range of decontextualised images of what is apparently "cricket culture," towards positioning its brand in India. Together with sponsoring key events, Coke's imagery seeks a fundamental change in perception -- from it being a drink to a symbol associated with cricket all over the country. Interestingly, in terms of representation, both its narrative and ideology, this series of TV advertisement by Coke echoes the "mera bharat mahaun" series initiated by Doordarshan a few years ago. To construct a harmonious "national culture," it uses snippets of music and dance from various parts of the country, thereby reaffirming the discourse of unity-in-diversity. Ostensibly rivalling such dominant Videshi (metropolitan) and Swadeshi (indigenous) modes of national culture, stands the Hindu Right, whose culture-ware is today as equally visible as that of the State and the Market. Through posters, graffiti, pictures or stickers of Vishwa Hindu Parishad's saffron flag along with (proposed) temple at Faizabad, it has given traditional icons a contemporary political context and ideological direction, ensuring that a single message is read from such individual texts (Basu et al. 1993:61). Very much like corporate brand promotion, images of Om have been usurped by Hindutva's symbology and projected in public (such as on car-stickers) as an assertive indication of the 'new' Hindu identity. Detailed analysis have revealed that structures of dominance are reproduced as much through media representation as within the mode of communication associated with the Hindu Right (Babb & Wadley 1997).

Very much the way Rajiv Gandhi was 'made' by State Television, Rithambara was 'made' by audio tapes 'marketed' through non-State media. A close look at the 1980s indicates that the Hindu-Right's use of the audio-visual medium is neither sporadic nor at a larger level unprecedental. In harnessing the audio-visual media the Hindu Right reaped what MGR, NTR and Rajiv Gandhi had sowed with the help of popular cinema, mobilevideo vans and television respectively. However, the forces of Hindutva have demonstrated the unique, and rather discomforting, synergy between a reactionary 'Church' and the modern Electronic Church. At the same time, its use of media-forms predating the mass media (puppetry, theatre, music et al ) has striking parallels with the way in which they were adopted by the State to promote the discourse of Green Revolution in the 1960s and the ideology of Family Planning in the 1970s.

Not surprisingly, in a decade old trend fundamentalist forces (the Political Right) have transformed, re-contextualised objects of worship and mythological tales rooted in popular culture into symbols of political conflict and sociological documents respectively. I say "Not surprisingly" because the media-culture industry (the Economic Right) has always drawn on elements of popular culture, projecting them as decontextualised ond depoliticising 'culture-ware' -- be they are brandnames, in television soaps, in advertisements.

Quite obviously, promoting popular culture was never the primary objective in all three instances. What these forces sought was to employ expressions from "the popular" towards attaining their underlying ideological and material objectives. In other words, in each case hegemony has been to a large extent achieved through an instrumental use of popular culture in their media campaigns and political discourse. Thus, what we have witnessed is that the three most dominant forces in the country are instrumentally employing elements of "the popular," redefining their meaning and re-locating their contexts to suit their own discursive practices. While some of these may represent popular aspirations and others merely populism, commonality lies in each of them projecting a history and a worldview. In their articulations of popular culture, these three forces may either find themselves in conflict, or symbiotically overlapping, or operating in distinct social terrains.

Nevertheless, all three have integrated various means of communications and cultural practices towards furthering their political agenda. Their mode of communication is characterised by purely instrumental use of the media; their encouragement of decontextualised presentation of image, sound and text; their disregard for critique from within; their monopoly over cultural production; the homogenising and universalizing essence of their specific cultural products; and, an active reproduction of structures of dominance, as much through their media practice as within their own mode of communication. The modes of organisation of such dominant cultural processes provide the institutional base for the creation of a 'new' individual and a collective self in accordance with the respective logic of the State, the Market and the Hindu Right. At the same time, their cultural production sets the political context within which other cultural practices are taking shape.

Does the context sketched-out above provide space for initiatives to foster a critical cultural practice?

Culture: Between Dominance & Resistance

Contemporary economic organisation has institutionalised communication processes and cultural practices along industrial lines, giving birth to the Culture Industry. Leading the universalising zeal of the culture industry is the Mass Media: the epitome of Dominant Communication today. While a few continue to believe that 'mass' signifies a large diverse audience whose members are physically separated from each other (Trenholm 1995:276), it is more likely that the term indicates the economic organisation and institutionalised structure of cultural practice. [2] The mass media is increasingly becoming a zero sum game in which Media Moghuls seem to be consolidating, while the rest get eroded. The social relations regulating the contemporary mode of dominant communication have led to the isolation of individual in two ways: through inequities within the production and distribution of culture, and through the fragmented nature of information (images, text, music) churned out by it. Although the mass media is increasingly influencing conflict and status quo, as also the formation and erosion of identity at different levels, such influences are more towards strengthening prevailing discourses.

However, unlike the Media-Culture Industry, the State is able to perform a dual role in the processes of producing Culture -- be it as meaning or explicitly as ideology. Firstly, the State acts as an active participant in directly producing and/or patronising 'Culture' through say, the media schools, commissioning varied 'culture-ware', sponsoring events, financing regional centres of folk-culture (some of which Market and the Hindu Right also do); and secondly, that of regulating or selectively promoting cultural practices through jural and administrative means viz, Film Censor Board, Script Board, structures of taxation and patterns of subsidies, awarding industry status to a cultural form et al. Thus, the State is in a better position to monopolise 'culture-ware' -- monopolise both its production and representation. However, this is increasingly being challenged by competing forces from the Market (representing both transnational and indigenous capital) and from Society (fundamentalist and secessionist groups). As a result, on the one hand the beginning of private broadcasting and cable transmission in the early 1990s represented an end to State monopoly in television production and distribution. On the other hand, the emergence of Hindutva as a competing force in defining "national culture" marked the biggest challenge to the legtimacy of the State as the central and sole interpreter of Brahminical-Hindu symbolism.

Emphasis on the Market and the State should not blur the fact that there have persisted throughout history communication processes outside such dominant spheres. These have been articulations of the marginalised or the underdog, whose expressions have been relegated to the background of our social landscape. Often, their means of communication have been either peripheralised or enveloped by the glut of Dominant Communication; consequently, it is alleged, they 'failed' to attain universal appeal. Such institutions and practices of what can be called "Non-Dominant Communication" are viewed by the Culture Industry as 'remnants' of history and by the modern State as cultural fossile needing 'preservation'.

The term "Popular Culture" has been used to refer to a wide variety of practices arising from either the over-arching web of Mass (produced) Culture, or from the contesting ideologies of National Culture or from the analytical category of Non-Dominant Communication. Popular Culture can be addressed from a range of perspectives -- some limiting others testing; some static others more dynamic. The term was initially used by European social historians to indicate the history of the 'inarticulate'. However, in the last decade the term has gone through various redefinitions, been the subject of critique and has benefited by conceptual clarity and expansion. To begin with, there is wide consensus around the fact that Popular Culture is a political activity -- directly and indirectly, consciously or otherwise. The study of Popular Culture, now undertaken by sociologists, media theorists, political scientists in addition to historians, is increasingly being linked to debates on the public sphere and those of transformatory politics. In India, additionally, the study of Popular Culture has been linked with those of decolonization, subaltern consciousness and most recently, modernity. Accordingly, it is alleged that we have arrived at a situation where either Popular Culture is thriving within the Culture Industry, or its very existence is threatened by homogenity inherent to the Culture Industry.

Instead of arguing from such extremes, it would be more fruitful to approach cultural practices in general through the dialectics between processes of Dominance and Resistance. Equally, what is required is to approach cultural processes in a differentiated manner -- a difference arising from their varied modes of production, relative prevalence and social base. The need to shape such a perspective, I may add, is motivated as much by a critique of existing structures of Communication and Culture, as by an understanding the drawbacks of past efforts to do so.

The media and their culture have been with us since the beginning of time. Recognising that cultural practice today is being constantly produced and/or re-located by the mass producing zeal of the Media-Culture Industry as also by the cultural matrix constructed by the State, does not exclude the existence of cultural processes outside/independent of such dominant fulcrums. The latter have emerged and continue to exist as an expression, more importantly as a documentation, of 'another' view of events unfolding. One may add that, depending upon the political processes it is associated with, could cultural practice articulating 'another' view be pronounced as revivalist or interventionist.

Each epoch has thrown up a variety of cultural practices reflecting or questioning the problems and achievements of that particular society. At the same time, it is has been through a certain political tendency that cultural practice have been able to articulate a critique of the historical present. The plethora of social interventions in the sphere of communication which draw on and build-upon elements of "the popular," is an instance of such cultural practice. Can one identify common undercurrents linking what appear to be diverse and often scattered cultural practices? In conducting such an investigation, one must move away from merely describing either the social application of communication technology or the role of various cultural practice; rather, one must focus on the social processes and political conflicts communication processes engages in.

Focussing on a spectrum of antisystemic political processes (Arrighi et al. 1989) will bring to light not only how "the popular" becomes interventionist, but also whether their aggregate hint at a communication process whose trajectory is different from that of Dominant Communication. The following pages put together fragmentary notes on those structures and processes of "the popular" which are associated with projects of redefining and broadening the scope of "the political." By problematising "Alternative Communcation," itself arising out of anti-systemic politics, I will analytically demonstrate how this praxis facilitates certain cultural practice in challenging the productive and symbolic basis of dominant institutions of communication.

Alternative Communication as Cultural Practice

The term 'Alternative', taken conceptually rather than literally, seems to have been first employed in the body of work now known as "Development Studies." There seems to be as yet no precise understanding, let alone even a broadly accepted definition, of 'Alternative'. As a result, its connotations vary with themes, context, practitioners and writers. Despite a theoretical incoherence and conceptual variance, this notion has (been) travelled to many spheres of social sciences, finding its way only recently in writings on culture and communication. Striking is the way in which other concepts whose genesis can be traced to Development Studies (such as 'Participatory' and 'Grassroot'), have been related with 'Communication'.

Contemporary Latin American and European efforts in the sphere of culture and communication has been largely responsible for conceptualising and emphasising such a perspective in our agenda. What one had infered is that their understanding of 'Alternative' suggests a hybrid between a present-day derivative of Gramsci's 'subaltern' and Brecht's notion of "the popular"; both essentially symptomatic of an oppositional tendency towards what the former called "the official world that has emerged historically" (Gramsci 1977). This rich genealogy aside, the term 'Alternative' remains and will remain elusive as long as it fails to clarify:

whether it is suggestive of a rupture from historical processes of communication, or is it part of a continuum of conflicting articulations concerning the production and interpretation of social reality?
how it defines established processes and structures of Communication it seeks to contend or transform?
does it exclusively concern initiatives by progressive coalitions or does it include cultural innovations by Fundamentalist and Neo-Conservative forces as well?
One needs to, consequently, sieve through history as much to (re)view the genealogy of Non-Dominant Communication, as to understand political tendencies in Popular Culture to refine the notion of 'Alternative' in the present context.

Understanding Communication as a process is to understand the production of ideas and articulation of social relations. Historically, the presence of Non-Dominant communication is indicative firstly, of an ideological assertion of subjugated knowledge-systems; secondly, of articulations which either "the System" cannot assimilate (i.e. asystemic) or are confrontationist to its needs (i.e. anti-systemic); and thirdly, of specific processes which have been peripheralised by the politico-economic organisation of the Media-Culture industry. On its part, Non-Dominant Communication is often said to consist of those practices whose endogenous yet assimilative development have not conformed to the aesthetic values and thematic criteria of Euromodernism; importantly, they are largely sustained through an intrinsic local essence in addressing social issues of the moment. This is evident in those articulatons of "the popular" which are invariably clubbed under the umbrella term of "Folk Culture."

However, equating "the Non-Dominant" with the totality of "the Popular" is as much a methodological error, as viewing "the Non-Dominant" to intrinsically fuel "the Alternative," is an ideological one. For one, there are instances where "the Popular" is so harnessed that it in fact (re)asserts elements of dominance. In the first real boost to Hindutva's mass mobilization in the late 1980s, one may recall, newspapers, radio and television did not contribute significantly. Rather, it was achieved by appropriating the traditional form of Yatra -- beginning from the Ram Janaki Yatra in 1984 to the infamous Rath Yatra of 1989. In a de-feudalizing society, political processes pivoted around and projected through such decontextualised idioms of popular culture proved 'successful'. For a significant period, the degree and nature of this 'success' even overtook the consensus-building potential of the electronic media, itself harnessed later by Hindutva in its use of Video-vans. These mobile churches evoked "public opinion" by screening films and other audio-visual products, heralding the birth of a new, albeit reactionary, politicization of culture in India.

Similarly, there exist communication processes which although are peripheral to the established norms of the Culture Industry, are in their modes of social organisation surprisingly conformist. Take the case of "Participatory Video," an exercice in Development Communication which hitherto has been largely for the non-dominant and not by them. In most case, this exercice is typified either by a top-down approach of participation and/or is guided by the notion of "target groups" -- the phrase itself being blindly borrowed from the advertising industry. [3] Consequently, media interventions at the periphery despite being (relatively) innovative in themselves cannot be ipso facto termed 'Alternative', as in their instrumental use of the media and conventional social organisation of communication they divers from the ideological basis of 'another' politics.

Keeping these in mind, how can our insights on history and reflections on the present help in sharpening perspectives on "Alternative Communication"?

At a rudimentary level, Alternative Communication concerns social articulations which, in devising new practices in the media and organically linked to processes redefining and broadening "the political," challenge the monopoly of established modes of communication (Stangelaar 1995). My inquiries reveal that what is being referred to as Alternative Communication represents firstly, media interventions associated with anti- and a-systemic processes concerning the politics of recognition and redistribution; and secondly, ideologically revenant cultural innovations within the mass media oriented towards affirmative or transformatory advocacy (Parthasarathi 1997). On the face of it, these appear as two distinct processes. While this is true in some instances, what is crucial to understand is that both arise from varied degrees of opposition to the material and symbolic basis of the systemic universals -- be it the State or the Culture Industry. Since the Culture Industry essentially projects a particular mode of producing and reproducing social life, the praxis of Alternative Communication seeks to challenge this dominant mode of producing life. In other words, Alternative Communication occupies itself, directly and indirectly, with questioning the character of current economic activity and related political structures, i.e. questioning the "discourse of Development" (Escobar 1984).

In this context, the entry of the underclass into processes of Communication has signified not merely a change in social agents. It has, more importantly, transformed their status from being consumers of mass culture to the producers of a radical/competing popular culture; from being the source of 'information' for the Culture Industry to proactive subjects of counter-cultural words and images. Quite obviously, thus, the present thrust of Alternative Communication also seeks to transform the social organisation of various institutions of culture and communication from being a minority political monopoly to majority social representation (Somavia 1982). This demands that articulations therein be free to express themselves in a non-standard 'language' inasmuch as they are an attempt at cultural decolonization.

It is from such a perspective that one needs to view interventionist tendencies in contemporary cultural practice. Only by analysing its social basis and the political processes it is associated with, would one be able to determine whether its existence -- as being simply innovative or holistically counter-cultural -- resonates the praxis of Alternative Communication. Before going further, however, two factors need to be kept in mind.

Historically, communication processes independent of the dominant sphere has been prevalent in different. Moreover, such processes have varied with Identity such as class, gender and ethnicity as also with Space viz. rural, metropolitan and now cyberspace. It is the technological wonders of our present "information age" that have (once again) enabled the production of outside the dominant sphere possible, even if it is to the limited extent as existing today. Thus, at one level, alternative communication reflects a mixture of pre-industrial and industrial modes of communication.

Secondly, realising that Alternative Communication involves strengthening a distinct ideological sphere should not blur the fact that such an augmentation has been largely facilitated by adopting, and adapting, the prevailing communication technology. Thus, at the analytical level, most current practices in the alternative communication are essentially superstructural innovations by cultural activists. However, neither should one pessimistically infer that these efforts at Alternative Communication are too benign vis-a-vis the all-pervasive mass media, nor jump to the conclusion that the coming into being of a coherent politics of "alternative communication."

In the immediate context, the notion of Alternative Communication enables me to conceptualise the multi-dimensional links between the politics of resistance and the emancipatory dimensions of the arts, the media and cultural practice in general. An agenda for emancipation drawing on the gamut of existing counter-cultural articulations can be said to have three components: demystifying existing structures and mechanisms of the Culture Industry; unifying cultural practices sharing common ideological undercurrents; and submitting a constructive critique of the modes of representation in such cultural practices.

Dominance and Cultural Practice

The ruling knowledge-system is most typified by Television, as the electronic church has come to be the dominant mode of producing the governing culture. The evolution of Television technology and its economic organisation reflects a structuring of choices (Williams 1974). During such structuring, priorities were fixed and a hierarchy was created concerning the way in which society uses its collective resources for individuals. Operating on the aesthetics of spectacle and dictated by the economics of advertising, the television industry has increasingly come to condition, if not explicitly regulate, the day-to-day life of individuals -- individuals who are simultaneously consumers and citizens. We live in a period when an event is said to have 'occurred' only when 'reported' on Television (Parthasarathi 1991); the 'credibility' of a political perspective depends upon the media 'exposure' it gets. For me, media representation, especially that of conflict, essentially draws on the politics of the remembered, the imagined and the contracted. In a consumer society the imagery of "the popular" has been created by the dominant media; and since this latter is invariably associated either with the State or the Market, representation of "the popular" thus constructed has been a depoliticised or apoliticised one. Such representation needs to be consciously scrutinised and incessantly challenged. Since the praxis of Alternative Communication is politically benign without critique, endeavours at portraying conflict in Popular Culture are incomplete without building a critical perspective.

That upmarket issues such as Deep Ecology find prominence in the Mass Media, and consequently impact pop music, art and televison documentary, substantiates my belief that in the 'packaging' of conflict lies the key to the politics of representation. Take the case of gender politics. Rejecting its earlier view of women's movements being a reflection of western ideology, the mass media in India has come round to providing space for collective efforts against the oppression of women. Yet in bringing such "women's issues" under its umbrella, the mass media shies away from questioning patriarchy, the supremacy of the monogamous family and sexual preference. What we see, thus, is the dominant media instrumentally employing "women's struggle" to project an apparent ideological pluralism and political liberalism.

On the other hand, despite the peripheralisation of subordinate modes of communication is taking place this very moment, Popular Culture associated with the underclass is vibrant in India. However, in instances where such traditions of culture and communication continue to be associated with a technology and social organisation of its very specific milieu, such practices are portrayed as being a remnant of the past. A historical analysis of the peripheralization of such institutions of Popular Culture reveals otherwise. That the processes and structures of such media run contrary to dominant values, ideological propositions and organisational norms of the Culture Industry, is what makes them appear 'backward' or 'anti-modern'. In other words, since technology interacts in different ways with society as also with pre-dating modes of communication, it is the techno-industrial base of the mass media that have defined its pre-eminence relative to other (pre-dating and contemporary) institutions of culture and communication. This explains why local cultural practices, overshadowed as they are by the Mass Media, appear archaic and lacking in dynamism.

Popular Culture, especially that whose social base lies in the agrarian underclass, over a period of time gets meshed with the dynamics of the mass media market. Typically, such local practices get absorbed firstly into the national and thereafter into the global Culture Industry -- it is another matter that once absorbed, they get redefined in terms of a dominant style by the Culture Industry. Of course, on searching hard one does find instances where social actors associated with Popular Culture choose to remain peripheral to the Culture Industry, as they realise their essence being in addressing local aspirations in situ. Of mention here is the case of Bhangra which has over the years been transformed from being a local cultural form to being the darling of metropolitan Punjabi popular music. No coincidence that it was a cultural form originally associated with a community richest expatriate or migrant Indians. The complete marginalisation of local institutions of culture and communication (the Phad-assisted ballade in Marwar) or alternatively their transformation from being local institutions to being monopoly industrial activities (such as Bhangra pop/cattle-market based religious faire), is essentially the challenge beckoning popular culture in India.

The glut of folk-pop in Indian and abroad together with the related birth of "World Music" in recent years may seem to indicate a wider number of people having access to, and being producers of, popular music. For me, this perfectly illustrates the biggest paradox concerning media technology in our times. On the one hand, we are in era where we have the technology to democratise communication in a manner unimaginable a century ago. On the other hand, the biggest hurdle to the democratic social organisation of communication, and therefore strengthening "the Popular," is the corporate control of communication technology and over media production. Hence, the belief that the technological possibilities demonstrated within the Mass Media make it the privileged and most dynamic terrain of Popular Culture, hides more than it reveals.

A more holistic perspective on communication technology brings to light its three principal facets. Communication technology is firstly Economics, in it being a product in itself as well as the raw material for the creation of cultural products; secondly it is Knowledge, in itself as also being an instrument for the further generation of knowledge either as ideology or as culture; and finally it is Social Structure, as its production and utilisation is defined by class, gender and race. [4]

One corollary is that dominant ideas governing communication technology in their drive to universalize themselves, effectively marginalize subordinate institutions of communication. For instance, when optimists rejoice at TV reaching the villages and articulate it as "the democratization of technology," they fail to mention that the success of the Culture Industry is at the cost of a vibrant Popular Culture -- back to the zero-sum game mentioned in the beginning. Moreover, far from being neutral, Communication technology responds to the dominant tendencies of societies and thus, mediate relations between individuals and groups in a society. What satellite-TV has brought to the villages in the subcontinent in the 1990s is a Mass Culture produced and governed by a national, increasingly transnational, industrial minority. Such a critical conceptualisation concerning television's inroads into society, thus, uncovers the ideological packaging of what media-optimists choose to label "the democratization of technology." In fact, even the proto-history of communication in the previous century indicates that the very trajectory of technological innovation was determined either by its business application (Laing 1991), or by the need to maintain a social structure (Ghose 1995). [5]

Attention has often been drawn to innovative applications of communication technology in a Participatory manner, which it is alleged runs contrary to the media industry. A case in point is the social application of video technology towards the varied practices clubbed under Development Communication. At the face of it, video technology has been employed towards the self-expression of the voiceless and marginalised. In celebrating the alleged contribution of such Participatory Video what is often pointed out is the degree of innovation and novelty in the social application of dominant technology. However, to begin with, an innovative application of technology does not in itself reflect emancipatory tendencies in cultural interventions. What is crucial is that besides portraying 'alternative' imagery, video activism involves questioning the legitimacy of dominant representation as also exposing the institutional process delivering this dominant imagery (d'Agostnio & Tafler 1995:xvii). Efforts in Participatory Video have invariably come round to being exercices for the underclass and not by the underclass, as mentioned before. Moreover, the notion of Participation itself is being harnessed by Industry (in office-managment and labour relations) (Waterman 1988) and by the State (such as Panchayat Raj). Consequently, not only is a radical epistemological shift required in the notion of participation, but, if and when it is achieved, such participation would constitute but one aspect of democratising communication processes.

Moreover, the three aforesaid facets of technology impart every means of communication a content, an ideological content, which is a function of its primary social objective. This substantially lays down the range of priorities concerning the utilisation of communication technology. In other words, what needs to be realised is that the socio-economic origin of communication technology substantially defines its principal application (Hamelink 1986).

Having said this, are we to infer that these origins are so 'loaded' that they outweigh any significant alternative, i.e. un/non-intended, social application of communication technology?

Resistance and Cultural Practice

To begin with, one needs to begin by moving away from simply elucidating either the applications of communication technology in general or, the character of Non-Dominant media in particular. In recognising that communication technology under certain circumstances may contribute to a movement away from dominant norms of representation and established modes of organisation, one realises that the means and mode of communication provide a framework of possibilities and parameters within which political processes operate. Thus, perspectives on Alternative Communication must focus equally on the political and economic arenas which contextualise Non-Dominant Communication, i.e. the related functions to which they are applied, the modes of representation its enables and the manner in which these are socially organised.

In their efforts at challenging the material and symbolic basis of institutionalised systems of dominance, contemporary Social Movements are said to be redefining and widening the nature and scope of political processes. [6] These changes in their articulation of "the political" reflect in their mode of communication: practices consisting of a selection, modification and/or opposition to Dominant Communication. Communication processes associated with social movements in India have moved away from relying entirely on the dominant (mass) media; in the process they have often succeeded in creating distinct ways in which communication processes are socially organised, going well beyond traditions of the agitprop (Sanghvai 1997). Since social movements take place at the "intersection of culture, practice (both collective and everyday) and politics," they equally reflect efforts at creating alternative frameworks of meaning (Escobar 1992:396). In many ways, therefore, at the heart of anti-systemic movements in general is the issue of representation which directly relates to information, communication and cultural practice. This explains cultural innovations in movements concerning folk songs, painting and puppetry in their campaigns, as also trace unions building further on their ricin history of street-theatre. [7] One may add that the evolution of such alternative modes of communication and representation is not only endogenous to a Movement, but is equally realised between various modes of organisation, be they Autonomous Groups, Coalition-groups, and Unions, towards common strategic orientations.

Like the varied processes which constitute anti-systemic politics in general, instances of critical media interventions can be found in the 'cracks' within, or on the margins of, the Culture Industry. Illustrative of this are the handful of news agencies, journals and publishing houses operating within the dominant sphere, and despite the economic constraints, of the media industry (Butalia 1993). To strike a balance between the need for affirmative voices from within the mass media to strengthen the politics of recognition and the importance of independent articulations to foster the politics of redistribution, has been indeed difficult. For, firstly, some such initiatives have a tense relationship with the larger Media-Culture Industry. Nevertheless, despite the presence of cooptive universals, there is every reason and need to harness available space within the conservative democracies of today. Secondly, it has been observed that initiatives rooted in furthering citizens politics, itself beset with internal contradictions, are often unable to contribute towards the creation of an alternative culture of discourse (Sethi 1997). For me, only when critique is realised as a state of consciousness, that the production of 'culture' (be it as image, text or sound) could be able to contribute towards a larger conscientization. Finally, before celebrating cultural interventions by anti-systemic movements and complementary innovations outside their fold as a definitive process of Alternative Communication, one would like to recall that most such 'interventions' have been, and largely remain, at the superstructural level. Nevertheless, in oppossing the foundations of Dominant Communication they represent a varying degrees of challenge to systemic norms. What is significantly, however, is that some such processes have sought to prevent the reproduction of structures of dominance -- equally, through their modes of representation as through their social organisation of communication.

It has been difficult for me to discern why the 'modern', especially when Euro-American in origin, is considered instrinsically superior and therefore desirable. At the other end, are propositions to revive social institutions, and therefore cultural practices, in the name of preserving tradition. Being well aware of the contradiction between living heritage and social transformation, which more often than otherwise emerges as an apology for the status quo, one is far from soliciting the preservation of certain streams of cultural practice, either as tradition per se or as exotica for display. For me, if any medium of communication is unable to retain its capacity to reflect changing social aspirations, the vitality of the medium undoubtedly ceases to prevail. Instead of a short-sighted preservation of, say, Folk Culture as a space for articulations by those forgotten in the electronic era, my emphasis on "the Popular" is oriented towards a critical rejuvination of subordinate knowledge systems.

A deeper analysis reveals that the influence of institutions of culture and communication is essentially a product of competing knowledge systems, and only thereafter of competing technology. That televison appears to have influenced the adoption of fertilizers by farmers is indicative first and foremost of the success of the discourse of Modernization (agriculture dependent on canal irrigation, on HW seeds and of course chemical fertilizers), and only therafter of broadcast technology and programmes on agriculture through it. (Krishi Darshan). After all farmers have taken to fertilizers in regions where television is still inaccessible to them! Resultantly, a perspective on Popular Culture rooted in Alternative Communication must highlight political processes concerning a critical rejuvenation of subordinate and/or dormant knowledge-systems. Thus, only those interventions in Popular Culture which either pivot around a critical rejuvenation of subordinate knowledge systems towards facilitating the assertion of peoples rights, can be regarded as initiatives in Alternative Communication.

The right to inform and be informed implies that the vertical dispensation of knowledge to consumers by those who have access and means to produce it should give way to a beneficial exchange through horizontal, dialogical interaction -- each individual or community being at the same time a provider and receiver of experiences. Those who discharge specialised functions should become aware of this political requirement and their own learning process should reflect this need. Although processes of Alternative Communication involve practices in different media as also across a variety of social subjects, they are invariably directed at the creation of a Public Sphere: a socio-cultural common which stands distinctly from the institutions and norms of the State and the Market.

Throughout history the village square, chai-shops, grain- mandis and street corners, have been the space for debating political happennings and societal gossip. From an aggregate of many such encounters developed what some call "public opinion," which was oriented variously towards consensus-building or reaffirming dominant norms. In other words, the historical public sphere provided a milieu in which politics and social values came to be framed. Of course, at different times in history this public sphere excluded different individuals and communities based on class, caste and gender; it neither provided for a dialogue based on equity, nor did it shape all aspects of social life. What is equally important to realise important, however, is that such public spheres did indeed contribute their share of dissent and criticism against dominant social articulations.

With the proliferation of radio, television and satellite broadcasting, the social role and political importance of such public spaces has changed drastically. They have either been peripheralised to various extents or have ceased to be the primary locus of political debate and cultural production. While both the State and citizens alike are still getting attuned to what is essentially a market-driven publicness (such as in broadcasting), the latest avatar of publicness (the Internet) is already being promoted as one that will not only broaden the terrain of popular culture but also redefine the scope of democratic processes in the next century.

What needs to be recognised is that the nature of cultural practice within the electronic and virtual public spaces have their own logic, own ways of forming public opinion and distinct ways of constructing social relations, as compared to the historical, pre-mass media, public spaces. It has been observed that new sites of publicness such as television, due to their intrinsic techno-cultural form and techno-economic organisation, have contributed more towards isolating individuals rather than bringing them together (Corner 1995:12-15). Moreover, the social organisation of communication shaping the electronic public sphere have led to a wider terrain and covert forms of mediation. The caste/class divide, the biggest hinderance to interaction in the pre-industrial public sphere, has been compounded by institutions of broadcasting and Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC). This has not only created another caste/class divide based on limited access and participation but has superimposed such divides on the apex of prevailing socio-political stratification. In influencing the production and representation of 'culture', these factors set limits to the emancipatory character and interventionist potential of the public sphere in the evolving digital era.

Although they break with traditional forms of social articulation, this break is primarily at the level of technology (the means of communication) and not necessarily with prevailing modes of representation and of social organisation of communication. Therefore, the social context and economic parameters within which 'new', dominant public spaces are operating, share with predating communication technologies (printing and broadcasting) stratification based on access, participation and 'language'. If the electronic church of the day, i.e. television, has become the hallmark of dominance, how sure can we be for a church in the making, i.e. the Internet, especially when the latter is fragmenting on the one hand, and stratifying on the other!

Nevertheless, one should recognise that technologies such as DTH transmission and CMC are something new, and their effects on anti-systemic politics do not have historical precedents. Moreover, their specific social applications have demonstrated that they could be employed as a means to question the State (through counter-information campaigns) as also challenge private property (by redistributing organised knowledge). Recognising ways in which political discourse has been mediated in the electronic era, and we need to act on the possibilities this 'new' publicness might provide in terms of decentralisation and dialogue -- all through keeping in mind that they continue to be largely guided by access to 'technology', viewed here in terms of both a machinery and a language.

Consequently, we must examine changes in technology, their economic organisation and related cultural practice, together with the character of the public sphere they create, without either a euphoria for the 'new' or a nostalgia for the 'traditional'. Only a thorough understanding of communication processes unfolding in an aggregate of 'traditional' and 'new' publicness in general, will facilitate critical and collective interventions being integrated with larger anti-systemic forces.

We have arrived at a situation where institutions of culture and communication are being absorbed by the techno-organisational complex of a consumerist Culture Industry, which reproduces them in a homogenous and homogenising manner. Simultaneously, cultural practice is being relocated by the State seeking to construct and impose a fabric akin to a National Culture. Towards attaining their respective forms of conformism, both the State and the Market tend to subvert diversity and dissent which has been an intrinsic character of cultural practice.

If cultural practices associated with larger anti-systemic processes is envisaged within the terrain of the Public Sphere, then the praxis of Alternative Communication would constitute the 'playing-field' of this terrain. However, it is through a certain political tendency that cultural practice in general is able to articulate a critique of the historical present. As long as the alternative communicaton as a political praxis is able to retain its capacity to reflect the urges and aspirations of antisystemic processes, it will maintain its political dynamism. In the quest for coherently realising the elusive 'Alternative', the plethora of communication processes and cultural practices are an experience to be acted upon -- both, critically and constructively, as in practice in theory.


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[2] about "symbolic content," see (Thompson 1995:23-24); about "mass medium," see (Corner 1995:14-15)

[3] For contrasting approaches to the use of video, see (White & Patel 1994; Sarkar & Agarwal 1997).

[4] Ekocrantz [$check name] (1986) adds that technology is 'politics', i.e. a power structure and a bureaucracy system, as well. For me, this is an extension of the above three.

[5] For observations on the inter-relationship between political control and knowledge-systems concerning the telegraph in the same period, see (Choudhury 1999).

[6] One of the earliest writings on such political process is (Kothari 1984). Subsequently, a variety of scholars, commenting on different regions, have commented upon such 'new' politics from varying theoretical perspectives. For a conceptual framework on contemporary social movements, see (Fuentes & Frank 1989). For an overview of social movements in the South, see (Wignaraja 1993). Specifically on the Indian scenario, see (Omvedt 1994).

[7] For critical self-reflections by a theater activist, see (Deshpande 1997).

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