samedi 16 août 2008

The End of Culture? Pop edition.

For a long time, I've been dubious about culture. You know that. But now I mean what most media (think television and blogs) define as culture: pop culture.

That's right. It started at the beginning of the twentieth century with such external artifacts as jingles and jazz and comic books. It essentially meant what normal people were interested in if they weren't academics, the rich, or criminals--although there is some looseness to those rules. Later, specifically after World War II and most strongly in the mid fifties, pop culture began to take on the qualities that we know and love today.

The dialectic of counterculture. First there was rock and roll which was overtaken by late sixties psychadelia, then punk came and was thought to be the end of established culture. Then there was glam, post punk, and heavy metal. Then hip hop. Then grunge. Then hipsters. Could this be an example of ruin value in culture, becoming more beautiful as it becomes more fragmented?

Nope. And I would like to link to a few things and then continue my point. The first is an article about hipsters calling it the end of western civilization, undoubtedly ironically. The second is not a rebuttal so much as an eloquent "Who cares?" by my friend Catherine Lacey. And what CL says is true: Hipsterism, especially that group defined by fashion and obscure music, is insignificant. But to stretch this further, so were all of the other "movements."

Hear me out on this. I know you are thinking, but punk, those people were really trying to do something. Or you can't say the children of the sixties were insignificant, look at the protests, etc. And I'll even concede that some of those movements did have more of the traits of a culture than the movements do now.

But curiously, none of these subcultures have really passed on to the second generation. They only exist within the context of their times. Whereas culture, in terms of external signs of the qualities of a specific group of people, such as Black New Orleans or Cajun or whatever, tend to last. These cultures are taught to children who then embody those traits or suppress them and still embody them subconsciously.

This can be explained away fairly easily when you look at what these counterculture movements really are: they are just the placeholders for an archetype that must be repeated each cycle of years. They can be an agent of change, but for the most part, only change in a superficial sense--that of pop media. There will always be decisions made by established authority that must be rebelled against. Punks, hippie protesters, grungy people in the nineties were all protesting specific acts either by the government or society. Their music and fashion were contingent upon those attitudes. Did their behaviors rock society to its foundations by overturning established norms? Not a chance. Prod society into greasing its huge clogs in order to move inevitably in the direction it moves? Perhaps. But the importance we place upon these cultural events is mostly a product of a consumer society. Which is to say, they are not very important at all, at least in terms of lasting cultural significance in and of themselves.

We seem to forget also that this behavior is not a product of post WWII attitudes. Consider the Dolcinians of the 14th century who were a counterculture within the church which advocated the abolition of private property and protested by burning down church property. They undoubtedly had a certain style, certain artforms to entertain themselvees--but it would be weird to consider the followers of Fra Dolcino a culture. Incidentally, they were all killed as heretics, so I can't say as to whether their "culture" could have survived a generation or not.

I would think that culture is the set of signs and attitudes that allows one to live comfortably with ample entertainment within his or her group of people. If we use that definition, then these countercultures are merely signs within the real culture of American society. That is to say, the culture of America includes being obsessed with media entertainment and the unfolding of the pop culture dialectic. The difference between pop culture one hundred years ago to now is that cultural artifacts are now demassified and so pop culture is more defined by the ability to find a niche in fashion or entertainment than any unifying piece of art or media. This is our culture: finding something to consume.