Popular Culture

I take Eric Gans’ distinction between popular and high culture as axiomatic:  in popular culture, the audience identifies with the lynch mob, while in high culture they identify with the victim.  It seems to me, further, that this distinction manifests itself as one between two modes of reading, or “appropriation” or “consumption” of cultural materials:  in engaging high culture, one is enjoined to preserve the text or artifact as a whole—this means examining the parts and the text/artifact as a whole “in context,” with an eye towards its unity and purposefulness, as well as the accumulated historical labor expended on its production.  This also implies a hierarchy of interpreters and commentators and the institutionalization of the materials (museums, literature departments, etc.).  With popular texts and artifacts, meanwhile, elements of the cultural product can freely be iterated in contexts chosen by the user, without regard to the “intentions” of the producer.  We have no compunction about repeating catch phrases from a sitcom or movie in ways that show no respect at all to the way that phrase functioned in its “original” context.


Now, of course high cultural texts get treated in this way as well, but this just testifies to the dominance of popular culture in the contemporary world—that is, we are talking about ways of treating texts and artifacts as much as (or more than?—that’s part of the issue) about the texts and artifacts themselves; and, of course, putting it that way further testifies to the decline of high culture and the ascendancy of the popular.  We can also take as given the convergence of popular culture with the rise of the victimary:  the high cultural texts are themselves viewed as oppressors, and by “appropriating” them “violently” we take our justified revenge upon them for their presumption of centrality.  And we can also stipulate that the mass market and the “age of mechanical reproduction” have been central to this process. So far, nothing I have said takes us much beyond discussions of postmodernism going back to the 70s and 80s, which also highlighted the collapse of the high/popular boundary as well as the intensified “citationality” and “cannibalistic” nature of contemporary culture. 


But we can go quite a bit beyond those discussions, I believe, in particular in trying to figure out the consequences of these developments.  Left cultural theorists have tied themselves up in knots trying to convince themselves of the potentially “progressive” character of the rise of the popular, with results that have been brilliantly lampooned in a couple of essays on cultural studies by John O’Carroll and Chris Fleming.  Somewhat more serious, or at least earnest, approaches, like that of Gerald Graff, try another, in my view, equally flawed attempt to find something hopeful in our students’ attraction to popular culture.  For Graff, instead of trying to get students to engage thoughtfully with the products of high culture that we professors value, in order to develop and put to work their interpretive faculties, their ability to see things from different points of view and in “depth,” etc., we should recognize that students are really doing all these things already when they argue about their favorite sports teams, or the movie they saw last night, or the latest music video by their favorite artist.  Get students speaking about what they already know, already interpret, already canonize, already debate in more sophisticated ways then outsiders realize, and they will come to realize that they are already something like “scholars” or “academics” (or “critical thinkers,” or “interpretive agents,” or whatever you like).  What happens then seems to me less clear—if they are already engaged in serious discussions over esthetic and moral values, why do they need our high cultural texts, or the means of interpretation that have evolved in the history of responses to them?  On the other hand, if those discussions are not genuinely about such values, and the means of interpretation at work in them not comparable to institutionalized ones, then, in fact, they are not really doing what “academics” supposedly (or hopefully) do.  Nor do we have any reason to assume that having them attend to what they already do will get them one step closer to that goal. 


Defining popular culture as the free iteration of bits of models helps us to account for why these attempts to “redeem” popular culture can’t accomplish what the redeemers would like.  High culture is intrinsically totalizing, centralistic or holistic, whether it be the Marxist theory of history or the New Critical sacralization of the literary text—the idea from the start is to resist the fragmentation so celebrated by apologists for the popular.  The assumption is that some transcendent reality, embodied, albeit partially, in the most accomplished products of culture, is what militates against the scapegoating of those figures who stand out against ritual, tribal culture, figures utimately modeled on Socrates or Jesus.  No coherent political ethic can emerge from immersion in soap operas, Madonna videos or comic books; nor can any consistent and arguable esthetic stance be elaborated out of one’s baseball card collection, pornography addiction, or experimentation with shocked hair and body rings, because the entire notion of coherent and consistent ethics and stances derive from a different set of assumptions and practices.  At the same time, though, I don’t think there is any way of returning to the notion of high culture that presided up until, say the Second World War—not only has that notion of transcendence been displaced irrevocably, but it was flawed in important ways from the beginning, however great its service to the advance of humanity and however many the staggering accomplishments we owe it.    In that case, the problem with the cultural studies people (of whom Graff is one, of course, even if one of the moderate political center), is that they aren’t radical enough.


After all, the originary hypothesis confirms the central claim made by avatars of the 20th century’s “linguistic turn”:  human reality, at the very least, is indeed constituted by the way signs reveal relations between us through the things we move to appropriate, and not by the referential relation between language and a higher reality.  This must also mean that when we account for the human condition, we must do so in language and are therefore always further and newly constituting it—this “Heisenbergian” reflection irremediably undercuts any pretensions to knowledge of a permanent “human nature.”  Mimetic desire, rivalry and crisis will always be with us, and the bet made on traditional high culture is that that permanence renders different modes of deferral  secondary, so many “epiphenomena,” if you will—but if we reverse that claim, as I believe we must do as we become more conscious that we ourselves, everyday, are responsible for inventing such modes of deferral, then even those enduring traits of human reality are relativized by ever changing sign systems which not only resolve them in limited ways but shape their terms of emergence as well. 


And yet the paragraph I just wrote was, or so I would like to believe, composed on the terms of high culture—I am certainly aiming for the kind of “density” or “depth” in my discussion here that would mark this argument as one that would interrupt the prevailing modes of scapegoating.  And, of course, the theoretical and esthetic rebellions that have provided a vocabulary for the privileging of the free iteration of bits of models took place completely within high culture as well.  Indeed, notions of “depth,” “density,” “textual autonomy” and so on refer to our willingness, or our felt compulsion, to take the object on “its own terms,” to assume, as Leo Strauss put it, that its author knew more than us and was providing us with knowledge or an experience that was both valuable and one we couldn’t have procured or even thought to pursue on our own.  If we approach cultural objects with such an attitude, they become inexhaustible, but we will only do so as long as we believe the inexhaustibility lies in the object, not in our attitude towards it—once we assume there is no “text in this class,” to refer to Stanley Fish’s famous phrase, the sheer proliferation and ingenuity of interpretative strategies that have been accumulated over the past couple of millennia will not be able to sustain our interest for long.  The initial burst of enthusiasm deriving from the sudden sense that “hey, we’re really the ones who ‘made’ these texts!” will quickly dwindle into a deflated “you mean, it was just us all along?” 


The initial result of “unregulated iteration,” in both popular and high culture, was the creation of the celebrity—from the modernist writers and painters in the 1920s to the postmodern theorists of the 70s and 80s in the world of high culture, and from newly famed athletes, singers, actors, along with seemingly randomly elevated members of the idle rich, the scandalous, etc., also starting in the 20s, through the movie stars and rocks stars, also into the 1980s.  Perhaps this age in retrospect, if the title of Eric Gans’ recent Chronicle on Michael Jackson is correct, will be known as the “Age of Celebrity” as we move on to something else.  Maybe “celebrity” filled the space of sacrality previously filled by the Platonism of both the guardians of culture and the people, and now vacated, most immediately due to the historical catastrophe of the First World War; maybe it also fit an early stage in technological reproduction and the market, where such processes were far more centralized and monopolized then they are likely to be from here on in.  It seems to me that the precipitous decline in the power of celebrity which we are witnessing (and is perhaps best testified to by the openly staged, publicly “participatory,” “auditioning” for celebrity in shows like “American Idol”—the aura essential to celebrity cannot survive the public’s freedom to elect and depose celebrities at will, and with such naked explicitness) is more in accord with the logic of unregulated iteration, as well as healthier.  (It is noteworthy that while there may very well be something cultic in the devotion millions of people express towards political leaders like Obama and Palin, the nomination of these figures as “celebrities” was premature, as celebrity cannot survive the harsh criticism on inevitably divisive matters of public substance any political figure must endure—if an author touted by Oprah turns out to be a fraud, she apologizes publicly and has him come on the show and do the same; there is no analogous mode of “redemption” if, say, Obama’s leftist agenda crashes or Palin runs for President in 2012 and is thrashed in the Republican primaries.)  At any rate, though, one could imitate Babe Ruth’s swing or swagger in the playground, or Jordan’s moves in the gym; one could sing a Beatles tune or mimic some of Michael Jackson’s moves without having to have a “reading” of the “text as a whole”—while the celebrity of these figures, one might say, helped guarantee a unity and hierarchy of focus that could be shared nationally and sometimes globally, sustaining the type of community previously preserved through more transcendent means.  If celebrity is on its way out, we will have overlapping and often mutually uninterested, even repellent communities, sometimes aggregating into something larger but not in any predictable way.


If the generation of models in a period that is both post-transcendent and post-celebrity does not require a focus on “complete,” or “fleshed out” figures (about whom a story could be told, through whom a meaningful sacrifice performed), if they don’t have to conform to existing narratives so precisely (in part because the media, or means of establishing celebrity, are themselves increasingly decentralized and evanescent), it may be that the eccentric and idiosyncratic will come to the fore—not just any idiosyncrasy or eccentricity (and not necessarily the depraved or cartoonish) but, I would hypothesize, those that the make the figure in question just as plausible a figure of ridicule as of emulation.  Those who organize a space around a particular figure would do so with an awareness of this two-sidedness, which would in turn provide a basis for dialogue, friendly and hostile, with other groups—that is, “we” would organize ourselves around emulating a particular somebody and therefore knowingly organize ourselves against those dedicated to his ridicule; and vice versa.  (It seems to me that something like this is already happening with Sarah Palin who, despite what I said before, could, if she avoids putting herself in situations where her power of presence must be directly repudiated or ratified, might become an example of this new kind of…well, what would it be?)  What looks to one group like an accomplishment looks to the other like a botched job, what looks to one beautiful is grotesque to the other, a pathetic mistake to one is an innovation to another and so on—and, in the best of cases, each side will be able to see what the other is seeing.


In this case (to continue hypothesizing), popular culture will be performing what high culture might become increasingly interested in—that boundary between error and innovation, where rules get followed in ways that create “exceptions,” where the strictest literalism produces the wildest metaphors, where models get both emulated and mocked and it can be hard to tell which is which, where we find ourselves in the position of figuring and trying out ways of seeing others and objects as beautiful or repulsive, instead of simply being “struck” one way or another, where no one has proprietary rights in the line between “mainstream” and “extreme,” etc., but where one still has to come down on one side or another, at least at a particular moment.  High culture, whether carried out in the theoretical or artistic realms, would increasingly become so many branches of semiotic anthropology, interested the way in which avatars of the “human” keep coming to bifurcating paths (do nothing but keep coming before such bifurcations), going one direction or another for reasons we could guess at but with consequences we can identify and judge according to their irenic effects.  It’s not too difficult to imagine texts and performances being composed with this problem in mind, and critical and appreciative canons emerging to meet those texts and performances.  (Just think of the intellectual challenges imposed by the determination to write a text in which every phrase is a “taking” [an iteration or appropriation] as well as a “mistaking”—and think of how revelatory such an effort might be regarding idiomatic usage.)  (I suspect one could already construct a “genealogy” of such texts that have been classified as “modernist” or “postmodernist” while nevertheless sticking out as an anomaly.) I think high and popular culture would thereby become less hostile to each other, and both might become less sacrificial.

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