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Volume 5, No 4, Winter 1995 [back]


Levent Bastürk

This article is a section of my ongoing study on religion, politics, and society in Turkey. It is still in the form of a draft which needs contributions and criticism by all those concerned with the subject.


During the reign of the Motherland Party (M. P., ANAP in its Turkish initials) governments (1983-1991) in Turkey, the hegemony of the state-favored private capital began to erode with the rise of new entrepreneurs who have small or middle town origin and religious outlook. This process has led to important economic and social changes and differentiation within religious segments. As a result, Islamic oriented middle class has realized an important capital accumulation. In this process, tarikats and cemaats played important roles by channeling the communal solidarity and consciousness into economic activities in the form of favor and support to the entrepreneurs associated with the tarikat and cemaat. Reciprocal relationships between government circles and the tarikat and cemaats facilitated the integration of these socio-religious institutions into modern economic activities. Nevertheless, together with the capital accumulation of Islamic oriented segments, consumption habits of religious masses began to transform into bourgeoisie consumption patterns. Especially the leverage and power which the tarikat and cemaat circles attained in the media (also in general the media power of all religious segments) became a key factor in being assimilated into the modern consumption culture. [1]

This assimilation into consumption culture should not be taken only as the consumption of the exchange value of commodities or purchase of commodities sold in the market. In a larger context, we are talking about a popular culture whose raw materials are the products of commercial activity, practices of mass-produced culture, and what the society makes out of these products and practices. Such a conceptualization of consumer/popular culture differs from the view of French philosopher Baudrillard, who describes the masses as a black hole which absorbs all messages with equal indifference, because it does not reduce the audience of popular culture to the mass of consumers who passively consume the commercialized culture. Nevertheless, refutation of the very negative view of the culture of consumption and popular culture should not bring about a populist celebration of consumer experiences (constituted by desire, pleasure, and the emotional and aesthetic satisfaction) because consumer experiences are practiced within the established parameters of a social order without a concern toward social transformation (although they may include elements of resistance against the social order) [2] or dominant culture.

Indeed, as Steven Best and Douglas Kellner argue, at present, we lack a social theory which can be helpful to analyse the new aspects of social life that came into existence as a result of transformations within the last quarter of the 20th century with its global implications, some aspects of which have been inadequately pointed out by postmodern theories. Popular culture is one of those subjects whose analysis requires a new perspective which can point out linkages between new developments (such as increasing integration of the world through new technologies of communication and infrastructure, increasing commodification of every aspect of daily life, culture and information, consumerism, political and cultural diversity with the emphasis on micropolitics and new social movements, etc.) and persisting features of contemporary society (such as the supremacy of capitalism). [3]

Therefore, when we talk about popular culture, we do not particularly favor any perspective prevailing in cultural studies since each perspective, in a reductionist way, derives its assumptions from one aspect of popular culture and generalizes them for the entire heterogeneous and diversified realm of the subject at the expense of excluding the other perspectives. Nevertheless, here, rather than offering a new theoretical perspective, we will outline our points of reference in our use of the concepts of consumer society and popular culture.

In this respect the first factor which we have to point out is the interpermeability of the realms of culture/ideology and economy because cultural artifacts, images, signs, messages, representations and even feelings and psychic structures have been a part of commercial and economic activity through the process of reproduction and re-duplication with the help of the media. With the implosion created by the media, the sign no longer represents the reality and the distinction between image and reality disappears. Baudrillard conceptualizes this cultural phenomenon as the culture of the "simulacrum" because the distinction between original and the copy has been destroyed by the way the sign and image are presented to be consumed. This is the condition of hyperreality whereby model replaces the real and the real is produced in accordance with a model. With the advent of hyperreality, simulations begin to constitute reality itself, including the realm of religion to the extent that it becomes difficult to distinguish simulations from reality.

Thus, the culture of consumer society bears some characteristics of the folk culture or tradition of the society prior to the integration into modern relations of production and consumption, because these characteristics have been assimilated into consumer culture through the process of gradual colonization, commodification and the market system. In this process, religious concepts and historical events become a subject of reinterpretation with the reproduced images and signs. Furthermore, the direction of religious activities begins to be oriented toward the market economy and religious needs are transformed into consumption commodities to meet private needs. The logic of market becomes the driving motive behind the development of strategies by some religious-oriented organizations in order to make decisions about what should be served to meet the people's needs. Reproduced religious discourse can be incorporated into consumer culture and become an aspect of popular culture to the point where any sense of critical distance may disappear. Indeed, other cultural and historical moments are incorporated into consumption culture (as popular culture) by random cannibalization.

On the other hand, the commodities bear a stylized feature or characteristic. This characteristic of commodities influences the stylization of daily life and individual attitudes. In other words, commodities have a symbolic power which enables the individual to communicate with his environment.

However, the way in which images and commodities are consumed varies for each individual, group and/or social segment of the society. Therefore, pluralism and diversity is one of the most important aspects of popular culture. The mind set, socio-cultural environment, socio-economic factors, and the language of signs and images all contribute to the consumption culture at various degrees. Although consumption is an active and creative process concerned with pleasure, identity, and the production of meaning, there are many other factors intervening to the process of consumption on which individuals have limited control.

Since popular culture is marked by a process of articulation and disarticulation, the concept of articulation appears as a key element in the analysis of popular culture. A text is made up of a contradictory mix of different cultural forces. How these elements are articulated will depend on the social circumstances, historical conditions of production and reception, and the subjectivity (or discourse) of reader (or consumer). Analyzing this process is inevitably related to the examination of the power relations (the structure of domination or hegemony). [4]

In this sense, an important character of popular culture in the context of this study is that it is an area of exchange between the dominant and the subordinate forces in society because it is articulated as a structured terrain of cultural exchange and negotiation between the forces of incorporation and resistance. To a certain extent, a commercialized culture is presented to the masses for consumption through images and signs. Nevertheless, commercialized culture is redefined, reshaped, and redirected through productive acts of reading and articulation. In the end, popular culture appears as contradictory mix of competing interests and values although the interests of the dominant prevail over those of the subordinate. This means that the conflict is contained and channeled into ideologically safe harbors despite its potential presence. If an analyst follows a Gramscian perspective, she/he can consider this as the continuity of hegemony of the dominant groups by making concessions to subordinate classes or groups. On the other side, subordinate groups appear to actively support and subscribe to values, ideals, and objectives, cultural meanings, which bind them to and incorporate them into the prevailing power structure.

In this context, what the postmodern theorists declare as the collapse of distinctions between high culture (center) and low culture (periphery), and the challenge of the periphery toward cultural centers with new agendas and new identities (such as ethnic, regional, or religious) is nothing more than the revising of new relations of domination because there are some changes in the combination of the forces that constitute the center. New social groups marching toward the center establish alliance relations with forces of periphery so that new forms of power relations come into existence.

Under the light of the abstract statements above, analysis of the assimilation of religious oriented masses into the consumer culture and the emergence of Islam as an aspect of popular culture in Turkey require the analyst to pay attention to these factors: i) reproduction and duplication of the images belonging to Islamic-cultural environment; ii) "Islamization" of modern needs and images belonging to modern life; iii) transformation of religious needs and the goods used by religious masses into modern consumption commodities throughout changes in style (re-stylization) and re-symbolization; iv) selective adoption of prevailing stylistic features of consumption culture; and v) implications of consumption of reproduced and reduplicated Islamic images for the power structure both in terms of new alliances and the form of center-periphery relations.

These are crucial factors in the analysis of the transformation of the religious life into a consumer choice in Turkey as a consequence of the process which had transformed everything (including meaning, truth, and knowledge) into a consumer item during the 1980s and the early 1990s. Religion is becoming neatly a packaged consumer item taking its place among other commodities that can be bought and bypassed in accordance with one's consumption whims. Although Kemalist modernist center has refused Islam as an element of modern life, it is emerging as a postmodern way of living in an environment in which everything is packaged and presented for consumption.

tesettür as a Commodity

In terms of the interpenetration between Islam and the consumption culture, Islamic code of woman's dress (tesettür) constitutes an interesting case. The image of tesettür had been reproduced as a consumer item, and presented to the consumption of religious segments. Rather than meeting the need of certain segments of society who want to dress in an Islamic manner, tesettür has been transformed into a modern consumption commodity.

As an Islamic obligation, tesettür aims at not only hiding woman's sexuality, but also being humble as part of a religious practice, or being a devoted Muslim. Nevertheless, when tesettür becomes a consumer item and subject of fashion shows (like modern ways of dressing), the femininity continues to be exhibited although the body is covered, in addition tesettür emerges as a sign of status exhibited at fashion shows. In other words, the form of a concept or phenomenon is maintained, but the context is radically changed during the process of commodification of a religious need.

The new stylization of tesettür is, in essence, modern because it presents itself as a new consumption object which aims at meeting the need of modern dressing within "Islamic boundaries." The re-stylized tesettür indeed tries to attract the attention on the feminine in full scale with its varieties and changing models every year and provide the religious woman with an appearance in her involvement into public. Besides, with her new look, the religious woman tries to get rid of her timidity (or hesitant manner) in their interaction with the segments that ridiculed former religious way of dressing. "Re-stylized tesettür" exhibited in fashion shows helps this search of status in modern life with its modern design and style which provide ostentation and luxury.

The manufacturers of tesettür manipulate the mass psychology in their presentation of new models. In this respect, they pay attention to two factors: i) they will meet/create demand for modern but "Islamic" way of dressing; ii) they will try to find Islamic justifications to convince customers into the "Islamicness" of the process of the commodification of tesettür. For these reasons, first, they try to satisfy the customer's search for status with what they consume (this is especially a common feature of consumer tendencies among upper income religious families). Second, they do not neglect to get a fatwa (religious decree) from famous religious authorities to prove that tesettür fashion shows are permissible in Islam. In reality, this fatwa is another case of a reproduced image. The fatwa is issued based upon the rule that dressing in accordance with tesettür has to cover all body except hands and face. But, the issuers of the fatwa do not pay attention to the social context and relations of production and consumption in which these are taking place. With its reductionist reasoning, the fatwas given by religious authorities served not only to legitimate the profit maximizing goal of the producers but also approved the modernization of tesettür, its transformation into a commodity for production and consumption. These fatwas have been consumed by both producers and consumers to get pleasure out of "Islamic fashion and fashion shows." [5]

To be continued in the next issue...

Ergun Yildirim, "ModernlesmeyIe Yasanan Dönüsüm," Yeni Zemin, No. 12, December 1993, pp. 37-39. Here, we have to remind that the phenomenon of tarikat in Turkey shows great diversity. Therefore. our explanation in this section should not be generalized for all tarikat activism in Turkey.
In this sense, l am not agreeing with Paul Willis' insistence on consumption as a symbolic act of creativity. According to Willis "messages" are not so much "sent" or "received" as made in the reception. "Sent message" communication is replaced by "made message" communication. Therefore, cultural communication ceases to be a process of listening to the voices of others. See Paul Willis, Common Culture, Buckingham: Open University Press, 1990. Although Willis' argument makes sense in order not to see the consumers as passive receivers, it idealizes the position of the consumer in making the message because he ignores other factors (such as socio-economic context, the individual's stance vis-a-vis society and his/her environment, etc.) involved in the process of making the message. Even the sent message contributes to the process of construction of the "made" message. Although he is right in his conclusion that meaning is undecidable in popular culture, he cannot see the fact that undecidable structure of meaning in popular culture makes it the subject of continuous manipulation.
John Stroy talks about paradigm crisis in cultural studies which enables students of popular culture to have clear cut explanations. While he agrees with the calls made for an extension of Gramcian cultural analysis, which considers popular culture as an area of exchange between dominant and subordinate forces in society, he does not want to ignore the fact that we are living in a commercial culture in which signs and images have crucial importance. Moreover, he emphasizes the diverse and pluralist feature of popular culture and considers each as active participants in culture. See John Storey, An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993. Best and Kellner advocate the construction of a non-reductive and dialectical multidimensional and muItiperspectivaI critical theory which conceptualizes the connections between economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions of society and refuses to reduce social phenomena to any one dimension. See Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, New York: The Guildord Press, 1991.
For this reason, any approach which highly values popular culture should be considered as the concealment of prevailing relations of domination.
I. Faruk Özcan, "tesettür Modasi ve Ulema," Hak Söz, No. 39, June 1994, pp. 56-57. See also Saribay, Postmodernite, Sivil Toplum ve Islam, pp. 100; Metin Sever, "Elhamdüllilah Tüketiyorlar," Nokta, No. 12:1, 1-7 May 1994, pp. 34-38. Like Özcan's article, the emergence of "Islamic" fashion is criticized intensively in Islamic press; see B. Saraçgil, "Islami Giyimde Moda ve Tüketim," Yeni Zemin, No. 8, 1993, pp. 74; and Kenan Alpay, "Islami Mesajli Tüketim Kültürü mü? veya Islamci Beymen Status" 'Elif Kadin'," Hak Söz, No. 40, June 1994, pp. 55-56.

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