Popular Culture: Aesthetics & Politics

Pop culture? Students often seem surprised when we introduce them to the focus of popular culture and global society in the third year course on contemporary cultural issues. They are not alone in this. Until recently scholars have been ambivalent about popular culture as a serious topic in the social sciences. Some doubted that conducting research on popular culture, performance and media would come up with relevant research findings. Don’t we face serious problems in a society like South Africa’s? Recently, however, popular culture studies have become an increasingly significant interest of contemporary interdisciplinary research in the humanities in Africa, and particularly so in Anthropology.

So what are we interested in? Popular culture is key for what social scientists call the “politics of difference”. This has been the focus of projects in our Department over the past few years, sponsored by the UWC research funds, the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF) and the South Africa-Netherlands Programme for Alternatives in Development (SANPAD). We, along with other local and international anthropologists have employed popular cultural expressions as a lens into the revival of cultural and religious identities in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. Research by staff and postgraduate students in the Department has investigated various religious and cultural repertoires and new technologies, which have been observed to mediate identities and categories of social, cultural, gender, and generational difference. One of our earlier case studies focused on Nollywood movies and their audiences in South Africa and Namibia. Some of us have been researching Rap and Hip-hop, and other genres of music. Others have focused on theatre and performance. Postgraduate students completed fascinating studies of Muslim fashion, or the Cape Town carnival.

More recently, our research has begun to investigate the aesthetics and politics of popular culture in movements of popular protest. Popular cultural expressions have played an important role in recent social movements and protests by students and youth especially, such as the #FeesMustFall movements in South Africa. Current research looks into the aesthetics, evocative signs, and participatory, embodied performance of the twenty-first century protest movements. The articulation of images, songs, poetry, humor, satire, and dramatic performances is characteristic for recent movements. Together with the digital social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the popular cultural forms and aesthetics through which the movements express their views are critical for understanding transformative political processes of mobilization. An application for a broader project on popular culture, digital social media and popular protest movements is currently being prepared.

 

Contact Person: Heike Becker (hbecker@uwc.ac.za)