Modern life is fraught with paradoxes that can be soul-draining. We’re surrounded by labour-saving devices, but none of us has any time. Cultural artifacts present themselves on every screen, small or large, while time-honoured cultural traditions continue to vanish. Every social gain, it seems, exacts a cost to our humanity. What gets most eroded, according to Clarke Mackey, is “vernacular culture”: singalongs, storytelling, dancing in the streets, folk art – any creative or artistic endeavour that is as undirected and spontaneous as child’s play.
In Random Acts of Culture, Mackey outlines how endangered vernacular culture has become, and why. Drawing on disciplines as diverse as economics, anthropology, psychology, and (of course) cultural studies, he calls for a more human-centred world to replace the present one. The way to effect this change, according to Mackey, is to escape “the prison of the individual self.” Vernacular culture depends on interconnection. “It is the form and context of artistic works that must change, even more than their content. Radical times require radical forms and radical contexts. This is precisely where ideas about vernacular culture begin to take purchase,” writes Mackey.
A former filmmaker, Mackey has been a keen observer of both random and directed cultural activities for decades. He notes that when commerce enters the arena of vernacular culture, an activity or event becomes subservient to rules and costs. People who don’t want to play by the rules or can’t afford to pay are either excluded or made to feel their ideas are no longer welcome.
Sometimes, of course, rules exist for the greater good. Mackey fails to address the chaos that can result from too much freedom of expression. There are benefits in using good grammar or good manners (e.g., not walking onto the stage during a play, as used to be common), and keeping to a script.
This slight imbalance aside, Mackey writes lucidly and makes a solid argument for avoiding a world where every act of expression comes with an owner’s manual or an entrance fee.