Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Consumption and identity:
Imagining ‘Everyday Life’ Through Popular Visual Culture

Sandria B. Freitag

Introduction:  The ‘everyday’ in image and imagination, as well as lived life
The everyday:  it seems to tell us so much about how people lived in the past, from the terms of their lives to the activities they pursued.  Certainly, as both analytical concept and sphere of activity for study, ‘the everyday’ has enabled historians to move away from elite sources and concerns to those that involved much larger sweeps of a society. Supporting these concerns, the 'visual turn'
in history, moreover, has enticed analysts to turn to visual evidence, especially materials produced for popular consumption, and thus enabled us to ask new questions and establish new focal points. Not until the advent of the large and diverse Priya Paul collection of popular visual-culture artifacts, however, have those who study the Indian subcontinent gained a real sense of the full range of formats, themes, and changes over time afforded by this kind of evidence from the past.  This diversity and range are immensely important when dealing with images and objects whose production resists the usual analysis based on ‘provenance’ and knowledge of what constituted an entire universe of evidence.

A measure of the value of the Priya Paul collection comes from our ability, now, to think in new ways about the everyday:  just what is represented about this everyday world, and how should we understand the ways these images were viewed and deployed?  Rethinking the everyday enables us to bring together two very different approaches.  The first emerged from scrutiny of material life in the modern world, which Braudel defined as “the sphere of routine” (in contrast to economic life, “the sphere of change”).  Building on this and related work, German social historians focused on “the history of the everyday” to define themselves against the scholars working on more abstracted histories of social structures.

The material emphasis of this movement, and especially its characterization of “routine” in a concrete and literal sense as lying at the heart of the concept of the ‘everyday’, provides one useful base on which to build.2   For our purposes, however, this base works best when combined with other, more recent work growing out of cultural studies, which focuses its theorizing on identity-formation, cultural consumption, and their connections to everyday life.3   As we will see later in this image essay, the intersection of what otherwise would be two diametrically opposed approaches, grows out of ‘reading’ the acts of those who view or consume the images we will examine:  that is, we examine the materiality of the interactions of consumer and artifact to understand the meanings provided by imagined aspects of the everyday.

The theorizing we want to keep in mind here includes contributions from at least three different theorists, who emphasize that (1) consumption is “‘made message’ communication” through choices that convey messages about one’s self-identity;4  (2) that identity should be understood “as production” (in which identities are always a “narrative of the self becoming”;5  and (3) that the “active, producing cultural worker [is one] who fashions narratives, stories, objects, and practices from myriad bits and pieces”:  this calls our attention to the “new object of analysis… the endlessly shifting, ever-evolving kaleidoscope of daily life.”6   Finally, following in the steps of John Story’s overview, we should underscore the connection between the real and the imaginary, in the sense that “we live our relationship to the real conditions of existence at the level of representations (myths, concepts, ideas, images, discourses):  that is, there are real conditions and there are the ways we represent these conditions to ourselves and to others.”7


Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, then, we turn to our first example, an early textile label produced for use with British textiles (mostly produced in Manchester) intended for sale in India. (Figure 01)  This label represents one of a number of occupations the British pictured; it usefully introduces our topic as it documents a visible 'hinge' function performed by Indian entrepreneurs in connecting the East India Company with South Asian markets: these hinge functionaries were an early focus for historians when developing the story of British imperialism.

1 Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, (London:  Collins, 1981); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley:  U Calif Press, 1984); the German group was led by Hans Medick and Alf Ludtke, then resident at the Max Planck Institut Fur Geschichte in Gottingen.  Ludtke’s introduction to the essay collection, The History of Everyday Life (Princeton:  Princeton Univ Press, 1995) is probably the definitive piece from this perspective.  
2 As Ludtke himself has noted, the challenge is to show the linkages between this microhistory and macro-historical patterns, an observation made to a group of scholars from the U.S. and Germany who have extended the work of the Germ
an school in interesting and complex ways.  See the report of a recent symposium in Ludtke’s honor at Michigan, from the GHI (German Historical Institute) Bulletin No. 42 (Spring 2008) for more recent directions http://www.ghi-dc.org/files/publications/bulletin/bu042/144.pdf
3 See especially the introductory reader designed for this purpose, Cultural Consumption and Everyday Life by John Storey (NY:  Oxford U Press, 1999); and David Gilmartin, “Living the Tensions of the State, the Nation and Everyday Life” in Beyond Crisis:  re-evaluating Pakistan, Naveeda Khan (ed), (London: Routledge, 2010).  Somewhat problematic is the extent to which Story assumes “everyday life” has an agreed-upon definition that can simply stand without exposition.
4 See John Storey’s presentation (48) of Paul Willis’ argument from Common Culture (1990).
5 Story presenting (135)  Hall’s “Introduction: Who Needs Identity?” from  S. Hall & P. duGay (eds) Questions of Cultural Identity (1996). 
6 Story (124-5) citing Janice Radway, “Reception Study”, Cultural Studies (1988) 2.3:359-67.
7 Story (129) here is drawing on Althusser.

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