Back to the Garden

What is vernacular culture and do we really want it?

Some 30-plus years ago, the filmmaker (now Queen’s University professor) Clarke Mackey began a six-year stint as a preschool instructor. It made a deep impression on him. It convinced him that children exist in a fleeting state of grace when it comes to unfettered creativity, and it put him on the path—a long but determined one—to the eventual writing of Random Acts of Culture: Reclaiming Art and Community in the 21st Century.

“During that time when I was doing art, music, drama, and storytelling with children daily,” Mackey writes, “my commonplace assumptions about art and culture were severely shaken.”

For Mackey, the form of boundlessly inventive make-believe that is children’s play signified something not only lost by adulthood but lost to “the dominant cultural order.” He began to wonder if there wasn’t something in the way that kids messed around that could not be recovered as a strategy for challenging that order, and it led him to track the history of childlike cultural activities that he defines as “vernacular culture.”

He finds traces of this handmade playroom magic over generations, through history and around the world: in Toronto parks and kids’ centres, in the Kalahari, in the performance style of Pete Seeger, in the writings of Father Jean de Brébeuf, the Watts Towers of Los Angeles, the filmmaking practice of Peter Watkins, in the environmental music events of R. Murray Schafer. For Mackey, this vernacular is more than just a conspicuously persistent expression of human creativity; it might just save our sorry excuse for a civilized society.

He is specific throughout the book, especially in his terms: “I propose to use the word ‘vernacular’ to describe a set of imaginative activities that go back to the beginnings of human life and are still active today, but are seldom included in discussions of modern culture.”

This exclusion is not surprising, considering that the activities themselves, insofar as Mackey is interested in them, defy the very assumptions upon which so much modern culture is constructed: “I insist that a third category [after popular and high forms of culture] is necessary to describe creative activities that take place outside of the consumer marketplace and the world of trained professionals. I call this third category ‘vernacular culture.’”

You will forgive me for starting to hear a CBC Radio Ideas program taking shape in my head at this juncture in Mackey’s book. I had a feeling that the endorsement of vernacular culture was going to come at the expense of anything too tainted by mass popularity or corporate influence, and that playtime was going to be restricted to activities that conformed to the author’s presumption that the best forms of fun were by definition redemptive. I was not wrong. If I had any doubts that Mackey’s book was going to be every bit as prescriptive as descriptive, they were extinguished by this sentence: “We live in an apocalyptic time.”

And so it would seem, especially if you see the end of days in the predominant forces of our modern era: capitalism, urbanization, globalization and, naturally, popular as opposed to vernacular culture. If the former is what people passively consume to dull the edges of their existential despair, the latter is its opposite: active, affirmative, organic and unplugged.

But has it not always seemed so? For someone somewhere the end is always nigh, the decline is forever evident and the only way to save our skins is by finding our way back to the forest and drumming up a storm. Near the end of the book, Mackey insists that his beef with modern life is not a rejection of change. For him change is not so much something that happens as something that is willed. In truth it is probably both, but the sheer persistence of doomsday bell ringing over the ages seems to suggest that perhaps the world is not always deteriorating but always changing, just not the way the bell ringers would will it to.

We are therefore confronted with a definition of worthwhile cultural activity as a high-fibre, good-for-you, planet-saving enterprise, and only in the most generous sense much fun. Ideally, Mackey would have us turn off our TVs and video games, turn our back on Hollywood movies, fling off our digital chains and generally reject most things people do these days to amuse themselves.

As for what we ought to be doing instead, here is one description, of the final performance of the activist performance group called Welfare State International. The production took place in a circus tent in England’s Lake District, and dramatized the history of a rock through the passing millennia, the long prelude to the current apocalypse: “A number of puppet characters witnessed the changes of time and progress along with the rock: Jack, a fisherman; Gladys, the dreamer; and the ghosts of Sam, an immigrant slave from the West Indies, and the Blue Orphan girl—so named because she was covered in blue dye from a Victorian factory, where she laboured making laundry soap.”

This rock’s life is not without its drama: “As the story progressed the rock was swallowed up by rising levels of sea and sand caused by climate change. The other characters were subdued by the war-making institutions of contemporary life. In the end, as all celebratory pageants must, the evils were dramatically vanquished and the humble characters triumphed—in this case, the rock was transformed into a space ship.”

The spaceship image is an interesting one, especially because it reoccurs just a few pages later when Mackey remembers, as a boy, “playing spaceship behind the farmhouse.”

If the image of the spaceship resonates equally in both play and vernacular culture it is because of its ubiquity in pop culture, and particularly so at the time—the late 1950s—Mackey would have been playing behind the farmhouse. To older boomers, the spaceship was a staple of comic books, pulp fiction, toys, TV shows and movies, and inevitably wound up imaginatively appropriated by kids at play. This is what kids do: plunder constantly from the cultural environment around them, customizing as necessary to suit the omnivorous requirements of play.

I remember taking my daughter, now 23 and an aspiring artist, to an especially shameless instance of Hollywood brand marketing for kids called Space Jam. As dire and cynical as it was—sort of Bugs Bunny meets Nike meets the NBA—it inspired at least two weeks of schoolyard play in which the kids adopted the roles of the characters and made their own “vernacular” role-playing game of it. This is play at its most impressive, encouraging and subversive: the remaking of something packaged, slick and unimaginative into its opposite. As Mackey himself writes: “Children, all children, as far as I can tell, want to move, sing, paint, speak in rhymes, tell tall tales, imagine themselves as someone else, and fashion three-dimensional objects with magical powers. At its most basic this activity is what art is; and, like walking and talking, art comes naturally to human beings.”

Yes, it does, and it very often comes from the vast smorgasbord of mediated images that surround us. One of my favourite ways to play was to impersonate TV, movie and comic book characters that enthralled me, and Mackey himself became a filmmaker because movies rocked his teenage world: “With movies I could indulge in my passion for images, stories, imaginative worlds, sounds and music, and performance.”

But here’s the thing: when Mackey and I were growing up, all major media was a one-way transmission experience: you sat and watched a movie in the dark, and it unspooled whether or not you wanted it to or were even there to watch. TV beamed its one-to-many broadcast content to young, couch-anchored boomers an average of four hours a day and radio picked the songs it thought you wanted to hear. Still, despite the fact our entertainment invited no creative participation, we managed not only to play but also to be inspired. We made spaceships from whatever junk was available.

Today much of this is done digitally. The tools have changed but the impulse remains and, based on the tidal onslaught of user-generated culture on the web, thrives. But what does Mackey make of the fact that digital culture has made possible a degree of feedback, participation and creative interactivity unprecedented in the history of electronic media? That the industries of television, movies, radio, music and news media have been virtually upended by the storming of involved consumers over the firewalls? That more people now make culture, remake culture and talk back to the “dominant order” than ever before?

He does not think much. He says digital culture, because it is made possible by corporate technology and encourages consumption of corporate goods, is by definition corrupted, compromised and incapable of offering substantial challenge or expression. Besides, it is hastening the apocalypse in the form of all that toxic e-waste it produces. Certainly part of this would seem to be true. But to virtually dismiss the most profound change in social discourse since the invention of the printing press strikes me as a little misguided. Must vernacular culture be unplugged—dressed in a clown suit leading a moonlit singalong—to be viably vernacular?

Apparently so: “for all these reasons, the networked digital world should never be seen as a sustainable tool for remaking vernacular cultures.”

But wait a second. Not even if the networked digital world can find a way to make itself sustainably green? Notwithstanding the fact that the digital realm permits more people to make movies, create music, get published, obtain information and engage in social discourse than ever before? Not even bearing in mind that the sheer potential for information exchange on the web might potentially prevent the apocalypse instead of accelerating it?

Apparently not, at least for the time being. Meanwhile, send in the clowns.

We can probably expect to see and hear more arguments of this kind as the world becomes increasingly wired: namely, that we have got to get back to the garden or we are cooked. (Is it not likely there is a 21st-century 1960s in the offing?) It is an argument as old as technology itself, and in itself compelling evidence of the endurance of human resistance. But it backfires if it insists our best hope lies in shutting out so much reality. That is a prescription for retreat, not a strategy for survival.

Although the “random acts of culture” celebrated by Mackey tend to be organic, inclusive and spontaneous, the end they are put to here is exclusive. It is them or the apocalypse. In the end—of the book, that is, not the world—what you are left with is a curiously pessimistic view of the human potential for imagining alternative ways of living, seeing and creating. The book’s penultimate chapter is titled “The Retribalization of the World.” In the best sense, this would seem to mean a return to community-based, “authentic” forms of cultural expression. In the worst, it suggests a world made of tiny, isolated villages.