The ‘Backstage’ Route to Modernity: Popular Culture as Hegemony in Modernus

The ‘Backstage’ Route to Modernity: Popular Culture as Hegemony in
Eighteenth-Century England
Modernus, modo (‘recent’, ‘now’), modernitas (‘modern times’) and moderns (‘men
of today’) are terms used since the 10th century to define a new Weltanschauung
opposed to the other (i.e. bourgeois) sense of Modernity which, Matei Călinescu
contends, lost any metaphysical or rigorous ethics after the decline of religion.
The great disenchantment generated by the awareness of the subjective time
and self in eighteenth-century England highlighted, if not strengthened, the idea of
relativism, of fluid boundaries between the bourgeoisie and the vulgar. Always seen
from the perspective of the ‘Quality’, the other dark side of modernitas, or ‘us’, as
Richard Hoggart argues, manifested itself as a counterpoised producer and consumer
of cultural goods and public events.
The unsacred time witnessed by the capitalist civilization was made up for by
an underground tradition at war with the cultural and social prerequisites of the high
class. The strong and rapid industrialisation, the urbanisation of England at the
beginning of the eighteenth century developed the idea of luxury and hypocrisy
among the elected and the division of labour and mundane pleasures among the
vulgus. Thus capitalism gave birth, now more than ever, to a strong movement against
the mainstream, which is the advent of the culture of the people. Tautologically
speaking, the plebeians were the moderns of the present day who contributed to
changing and challenging public authority and resisting to it by means of popular
discursive practices.
The backstage route to modernity, the very thesis I aim to consider in this
paper, acquires a two-forked meaning, implying, on the one hand, the notion of
‘compulsion’, i.e. the strong, and, on the other, the popular strategies of the weak
understood as adaptation (Fiske 35).
The notion of ‘backstage’ will be related to what I call popular hegemony,
namely the circulation of popular symbolic forms, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms like
diversion, entertainment and plebeian means of cultural production. Furthermore, I
shall endeavour to conjoin this concept with the status of the bourgeoisie who began
to acknowledge the pastimes and leisure of the low class in the latter half of the
eighteenth century. The result is their mingling or, to put it differently, the circulation
of social energy1 between the élite and ordinary people metonymycally labelled as
Mr. and Mrs. Average or Stupidity.
In my paper I shall briefly delve into the modus vivendi of the ‘disadvantaged’
and talk about a balance between the two social categories or, better say, about the
exchange of habits, customs and traditions and their negotiations, despite the sheer
criticism and violent attacks against the uncultivated.
The texts I shall consider are all seen from a high-low position. Designed to be
satires or pamphlets, genres typical of the Enlightenment literary conventions, they
actually prove to be everyday notes or fragments about everyday people recorded by
rich flâneurs driven by the pleasure of discovering the popular: the city of London
with its debauched taverns and amphibious Houses of Entertainment, the delight taken
in taking part in the Bartholomew fair, auxiliary or non-scientific means of religious
faith best illustrated by astrology, heralded and praised by almanacs and blended with
I borrow Stephen Greenblatt’s syntagm from Shakespearean Negotiations (Los Angeles: Berkeley,
1988) to underscore the idea of energeia whereby we come to grasp the collective physical and mental
experiences, given the capacity of certain verbal and visual traces to produce and shape them. (italics
the 1752 reform of the calendar that shook up the entire system of holidays and
customs and, last but not least, the commodification of the Other as a simulated
instance of British colonialism.
Selective Bibliography:
Backscheider, R. Paula, Spectacular Politics. Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in
Early Modern England (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1993).
Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. by
Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).
Călinescu, Matei, Five Faces of Modernity (Duke University Press, 1987).
Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) (Berkeley, Los Angeles &
London: University of California Press, 1988).
Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Connecticut,
Fiske, John, Understanding Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1989).
Hoggart, Richard, The Uses of Literacy (London: Penguin Books, 1957).
Jűrgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere - An Inquiry
into the Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. by Thomas Burger
(Massachusetts: Cambridge, the MIT Press, 1989).
Langford, Paul, A Polite and Commercial People. England 1727-1783 (Oxford and
New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Mullan, John and Cristopher Reid, Eighteenth-Century Popular Culture. A Selection,
(Oxford University Press, 2000).
BIO: Alexandru Dragoş IVANA is a junior lecturer in the English Department of the
University of Bucharest. His main research interests include Enlightenment and
Victorian literature, cultural and literary theory, comparative literature, history of
ideas and city studies. He is now completing his PhD dissertation on Quixotism as
political discourse in eighteenth-century English novel. Dragoş Ivana is treasurer of
the Romanian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and a founding member of the
Centre of Excellence for the Study of Cultural Identity, University of Bucharest. In
2010 he has been honoured as ‘Bologna Professor’ by the Romanian National
Association of the Student Organisations.