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.

7 commentaires:

Eric Shonkwiler a dit…

These little comment boxes aren't good for long scholarly replies, but I'd like to chime in on a few things.

Pop culture taking on the role of an archetype--I think that's key, but I also think it's a way to sweep certain movements under the rug. I don't think the 60s and 70s are given quite enough credit. Civil rights, Vietnam...Bob Dylan, say, an icon who is still striking cords with young folk today--out-shouting Dylan himself when singing "Like a Rolling Stone." There's a malaise that came from the 60s/70s, slept, perhaps, through the 80s, and woke up again in the 90s with grunge. Lacey talks about the grunge kids putting away their flannel, but if you look at late 90s culture, Fight Club, The Matrix, there was still that desire to escape, to change things. And I think that desire, whether acted upon or not, in vain or not, is deserving of credit itself.

Present day, I'd say we're culturally asleep again. Comatose, even. Too early to say for sure.

Really enjoyed this, even if I didn't agree with it all.

christopher lirette a dit…

The situation of the counterculture as archetype is a way to sweep these movements under the rug. I am claiming that these demographics are more a sign of a larger culture than cultures in and of themselves. Civil rights and war protesting were certainly important, but they were also trends and attitudes of an era rather than of a culture.

But the larger "problem" I see is the overemphasis on these so-called golden eras wherein pop culture things were "important." I frankly don't think Bob Dylan is that important outside of music. The rock star phenomenon is just a resurrection of the cult of charisma, and yes, many people could relate to whatever it is rock personae stood for, but that doesn't mean that those situations were particularly unique or influential in the over-dramatic way magazines, VH1, and rock connoisseurs would have you believe. Of course Dylan et al had an effect, but it was on something more present and temporal than culture--attitudes and also an identification by people who already believed his message.

The desire to escape also is neither unique to the 90s, the 70s or anything else. It's always been around. Fight Club was only as unique to the nineties as L'etranger was to the fifties. We twentysomethings are doing nothing different except for discovering these ideas for the first time as all twentysomethings always have. It's the illusion that we are unique in our escapism, angst, innovation, rebellion, anything. It allows us to identify with our generation and past "ideal" generations, but to say that these quirks of different decades are culture is not looking at the big picture and to say that we are culturally dead is only the same thing that every generation has always claimed about its time.

The most important thing, however, is to not to allow our perceptions and misperceptions of our "culture," pop culture, or really any social phenomena get in the way of the intrinsically alive and human nature of the cultural value of anyone's experience. I can no more claim that culture is dead or asleep than I can say that a Jewish boy's bar mitzah in Manhattan is culturally void. Than I can say the ritual of a six year old on the west coast watching mass produced and artistically "invalid" cartoons is culturally void. Than I can say anything, even the nostalgia for times we've never lived, which I experience and you experience and which characterizes American culture, is culturally void.

Eric Shonkwiler a dit…

Where do you draw the line between era and culture? Certainly there are prevailing cultural winds, just like those traits which mark the beginning and end of an era.

Dismissing the cult of charisma, the rock star, the MTV effect, is searching for a more pure culture than what is really there. You mentioned that gossip and pop stars are part of it, in fact. I think calling them or devaluing them as "part" of culture rather than culture itself is nit-picking. But my mentioning that is nit-picking too.

I mentioned Fight Club for it's postmodern aspects. There's a look back, an appraisal of past generations, and a self-reflection that sees the current generation as victims of culture, in a way. I'd also argue that the baby boomers would not agree that they felt their generation was worthless--culturally I imagine they'd call themselves the Greatest Generation.

Delillo's White Noise deals with this topic. Culture run amok. Dissertations written about cereal boxes. It works at, through inundation, the conclusion you come to at the end of your comment, that you can't and shouldn't denounce someone's cultural experience, and I agree. But I have a hard time not ridiculing someone who derives deep pleasure from reality TV.

I'm curious as to what you'd consider, if nameable, parts of this larger and truer culture. You mentioned a few specifics; Black New Orleans, Cajun. But what of those cultures is culture?

christopher lirette a dit…

I don't think that distinguishing between part of a culture and the culture as sum of phenomena is nitpicking. I feel it is necessary or we fall into the trap of identifying the signs as more important than their sum. Such that rock fandom or reality tv trends become more important to people than the society that bred these traits. And this goes into my argument about era as well. If we look just at the sixties, we ignore the Western culture that gave rise to the sixties and that ended the sixties. The events and attitudes that happened then happened because American culture already existed, not the other way around. Jim Morrison, for instance, did not come out of nowhere and change American culture, he was a part of it and expressed his perception of it. That it was shared with thousands of people is not surprising. You mention White Noise (which I agree is a great novel and superior to Underworld), but it was written 25 years ago. Has much changed? Has post punk and grunge "subculture" done much to usurp anything that that book described? Nope. It could have been written yesterday. Or anytime after the demassification of the media and the genesis of consumer culture. Literature is actually the best example of how cultures are separate but that those cultures change relatively little over time other than superficial changes in fads.

To say all baby boomers would say they were the greatest generation is untrue. Most would. I made an error in saying all twentysomethings. People like you and me say that our culture basically sucks. Artists, intellectuals. Sorry Eric, but we are elitists. Talk to mainstream average Americans about this. People who enlist in the Marines voluntarily. People who get jobs in the stock market. They would say that we have problems, but I doubt seriously that you would have that many who truly idealize other generations. Not to bring politics to far into this, but 50 percent of people essentially affiliate with the idea that everything is alright the way it is. And the other fifty percent aren't really that far towards the progressive side of the line.

Furthermore, by critiquing our generation, a certain confidence in ourselves is implied. We think that we could do better because we see the faults of society. And maybe we can. Our position afterall is the same as the fascists that drove modernism (and of the fascists that then condemned the modernists). To basically paraphrase Ezra Pound and the rest of the modernists (who were paraphrasing Chinese dicta from the middle ages) Current art production is decadent, we must supersede it by remembering past golden eras and transform those ideals by "making it new." The base of my argument is that nothing is actually different except the insertion of our individual personalities (souls, consciousness, whatever) into the mix.

As for the final thing about culture. I would say that definable things about culture are things like the way people interact with one another on a daily basis. The difference between living in rural Louisiana to moving to New Orleans is huge in day to day interpersonal communication. But having lived in the US, Canada, and France, I can say that these regional differences are nothing compared to differences between cultures that cross a linguistic barrier. It's hard to say, because it is not something nameable so much as perceptible. But there are other things too. How people react to tragedy. To triumph. Love politics. Certain aesthetics. Globalization makes this more and more difficult though. For Cajuns, the culture was a branch of French culture living in Eastern Canada which experienced a diaspora, which basically killed half the population and deposited the largest group of the survivors in Louisiana. Each of these major changes changed the culture. Then isolation from mainstream American or French culture for another hundred years solidified the culture. In the twentieth century, however, American influence has subsumed Cajun culture as one of its legion. It remains apart yet within the mainstream. I feel that cultures are more of Venn diagrams anyway. And that one can be in several groups at once. Jews are a great example. For thousands of years, Jews still maintain identifiable cultural traits (ways of dealing with insiders and outsiders, obsessions, aesthetics) that transcend international boundaries, yet Jews may still watch reality tv or think themselves young artistic revolutionaries--two things I identify as traits of American culture.

By the way, I am not rereading all of that bullshit that I just wrote, so if it makes little sense, is rambling, or incriminates me, please forgive me. It's late, I tend to ramble, and I just finished watching the Undertaker defeat Edge in a Hell in the Cell match at Summerslam, which is part of one of my favorite "low brow" (although the opposite of reality tv, it is at least as derided) entertainment forms.

Eric Shonkwiler a dit…

If I were to try and pick you apart I think you'd eat me. I've been out of school too long. Good way to explain wrestling, too. The opposite of reality TV.

The more we talk the more I think we're on the same side of the fence but throwing rocks anyway. You mentioned in your post that we pick up these little cultural things, rock stars, TV, the niches, as ways to digest culture, right? I think we differ in that I don't think picking them apart is a bad thing. Feeding the parts is the same as feeding the whole. And the whole, inevitably, has parts that we won't agree with, so we pick and choose.

For instance, if I were to wallow in all that is American culture, I'd get sick of the pop media, the Republicans, the nitwits in control. But simultaneously I have, thanks to my upbringing, largely embraced facets of those very things. Culture is so huge, I think, that it's hard to take it all in and acknowledge it as a single entity.

I've thought about this before, wondering what sort of culture a middle-class white boy attaches himself to. I don't even lay claim to my part-Irish heritage. So where do I draw my archetypes, my touchstones?

christopher lirette a dit…

I wasn't necessarily under the impression that we were at odds on the subject as a whole. And don't worry, I don't think you are incoherent or unlearned, so don't undercut your points.

If you mean analyze by picking apart, then we certainly don't differ on that point. Pop songs, shows, political turmoil, anything is free game for analysis. I am definitely onto the continentalist notion that everything is a text. Neither do I find having a niche a problem. I think the hallmark of today's American culture is the conglomeration of niches. It's sort of funny that we can all list our interest attributes to make stereotypes of ourselves. It keeps us from being melodramatic with our personalities. Or allows us to be, I'm not sure. For instance, I'm a modernist Cajun poet with Catholic who likes Nine Inch Nails and Professional Wrestling. I lived a terribly cliched late adolescence of boozing and womanizing, but got married at an earlier than average age. I'm in an MFA program and have those stereotypes waiting for me when school starts in a few weeks (if you are considering grad school, which I believe I read on your blog, talk to me later about that because I am interested in selling the programs I like. I'll even put you up if you want to visit Cornell). In any case, I feel that I have an easily identifiable public identity. But the great thing I feel is that I can be those things, but there is of course so much more. Just like the reality addicts. Or even dare I say it the hipsters.

There are things that piss me off, that I hate about American culture--or at least current manifestations of American culture. But I try to remember that people are still people. And I'm the most sentimental person you'll ever come across. It's a great big curse.

You already have your archetypes. The way you deal with people, the way your family interacts--those are cultural things that are regional in the US, even if those regionalisms are subtle. Not only that but you have the whole aesthetic canon of Western civilization to pick things that still a part of your culture. My campaign right now, at least in this discussion, is to say, yeah I have my Cajun stuff to fall back on as my culture and it makes me seem more culturally "blessed," but the truth of the matter is that you have culture regardless of whether or not you know it and you take it with you wherever you go. The midwest is richer than most people think in culture (I believe that no one can help the cultural richness). Your proximity to it may blind you to its existence.

Maybe this is a good definition: culture is (at least partly) the things you miss when you move to a place that is foreign to you. I had a friend who is otherwise a movie/music/lit snob who moved to Thailand and watched nothing but shitty horror and action movies from the US (he's from Baltimore). That may be a bad example, but those things are touchstones in his culture (and mine too!). Even when I was living in Paris, one of the most strong feelings of missing something was of food from home: Cajun food, fast food, and sushi. There was obviously not much Cajun food there, but when Linda and I felt really homesick, we went to McDonald's and the KFC in Place d'Italie. Maybe I'm not refined enough, but it did the trick.

Eric Shonkwiler a dit…

I think that's the best definition I've ever heard.

Sell away, by the way. I'm compiling lists of schools now.