Pop Culture: an essay

[Originally published in ASH Magazine, volume 3 number three Summer 1996.]

First, a definition. You will notice that the phrase is made from separable units: popular, and culture. Popular, I think, expresses the essential character of a high-tech, media-dominated age. Hence, by popular culture, I do not mean a culture everyone “likes” — as common usage would have it (“she’s the most popular gal in grade nine!”). If the media are correct, this is emphatically not the character of popular culture. No: pop culture is a “popular” one because it addresses itself to and thereby captivates the attention of The People. Every day each person is addressed by cultural institutions — television for instance — which assume as their audience nothing short of the Collective Man. It is the nature of popular culture to get into one’s daily life, whether discussions, chat, entertainment, or sex. And it does not matter who one is, popular culture makes few rhetorical distinctions, for we are all “of the people.” Innovations in technology guarantee that this will be the case not only in North America, but increasingly also in (for examples) Tokyo, Paris, and Beijing, each of which is becoming increasingly “Americanised.” Another way of saying this: the world is increasingly adopting the trappings of mass-produced popular culture, a culture “of the people.” And we are all of us of the people.

By Culture I intend those instituted actions and objects expressing that which is held in high esteem. For the public articulation of personal beliefs is never free from institutional mediation, such as when a newspaper reporter elicits our private opinion of the Conservative Harris agenda, using carefully-worded questions. Culture does not issue from a vacuum, and not even from the sincere, spontaneous expression of an individual. Culture is the institutionally-determined expression of “values”: admirable actions, appropriate behaviours, moral codes of conduct, aesthetic tastes, religious orthodoxies. And let us not forget perversions and heresies as well; for a culture, if it is to be vibrant, must somehow appropriate to itself that which issues a threatening challenge or a deplored variation. The language in which we express “that which is held in high esteem” will be necessarily variegated; not the Queen’s English certainly, but a jostling Creole, what Mikhail Bakhtin called “heteroglossia,” or “differing tongues.” Culture is a grab-bag of contending but mostly peacefully coexisting perceptions and representations of the world and of our place within it. The strength of a culture is therefore to be judged by the ability (or relative inability) of its institutions to respect diversity while representing to its constituents a public: that is, a collective self-image, construed more-or-less as a people. Aristocracies accomplish this by appealing to the metaphor of the body politic, of which the King serves as head, and we ordinary folk presumably as toes, elbows, and the like. Our tastes however, inclining as they do toward democratic models, are supposedly gratified not by distinctions, but by uniformity. Hence, pop institutions labour toward the illusion that, whatever our superficial peculiarities, we are all of us of a mass, sharing certain fundamental values.

There is one further point I wish to advance before I move on. In an industrialised capitalist nation, the expression of that “which is held in high esteem,” the present definition of culture, is inextricable from the logic and ends of capitalism. That is why capitalist differ from non-capitalist societies, tribal or socialist for examples, which nonetheless also conceive of themselves as a “people.” Capitalist societies express values with dollars and cents. And I know it might sound extreme, but I suggest that everything about persons subject to capitalist social organization, including (as I’ve earlier suggested) their sex lives, is in some manner related to capitalism. (If you doubt this, call me on the 14TH of February). Popular culture is mass-produced by corporations for profit: monetary profit of course, but political and personal profit as well. And most of the time, most people are quite comfortable with this. The relations of culture, values and capitalism — and ultimately one’s personal pathway through them —  are ongoing negotiations between the agenda of the individual and the agenda of her culture’s institutions.

Last year’s attack on Time Warner, issued by American Senate leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, was an ostensible defence of the values of the people against those of popular culture. Given my argument thus far, this would appear absurd. How does one defend the values of the people against the culture of the people? Dole’s manoeuvre is a familiar one: he accused Time Warner of representing, not the people, but the “elitist” interests of capital. Whether Dole was right to accuse Time Warner of disregarding the values of the people in their quest for profit I won’t here explore (if I did, I would have to answer a disturbing question: from whence did the profit come?), but the fact that a Republican could even articulate such a critique, for indubitable political gain, is itself telling. Dole’s views are not peculiar; his comments were greeted sympathetically by Liberals and Conservatives alike, amply demonstrating that “popular” culture is widely judged not very popular in either sense of the term: for critics contend it can today claim neither to have achieved uniform popularity (in the vulgar sense) nor an acceptable representation of a public — that is, of a People. Of course, the common wisdom, promulgated with great (self-) interest by the media, is that institutions are under the attack of the people also for their “elitism.” I suggest that such propositions however are hopelessly abstract, even if most individuals are in fact at odds with institutions (and it is not clear to me that they are, for I don’t know “most” individuals).

You might have concluded that Dole’s attack on popular culture represents, or even constitutes, a tear in the national fabric,  but I myself doubt this. The popular culture industry feeds on attack, and is indeed founded upon it. The music industry, for one, has been richly rewarded for its appropriation of rebellion and critique, whether it was the 60s youth culture or 90s Gangsta Rap. Establishment record companies promptly soak up the disposable income of anti-establishment teens, to the apparent satisfaction of all involved. This is precisely the genius of capitalism, which swiftly commodifies fringe lunatics, malcontents, and would-be subversives, the latter learning to express their politics in terms compatible with the interests of capital (and being rewarded for it), or else losing their public voice if they don’t. Capitalism thrives because it can sell even anti-capitalism.

What do we learn from all of this? Perhaps that Dole’s attack was germane not because it posed a genuine threat to a cynical elite (it did not), but because it asserted two fundamental truths of capitalist democracy: that pop culture institutions — and the market forces which guide them — play an active role in civic life, and are no less capable of moral neutrality than we are. I do think Dole is correct when he suggests that our media are fundamentally anti-democratic, and that he is in agreement on this point with Noam Chomsky only supports this conclusion. But attacks on “elitism” help little, and might even distract us from more fruitful investigations.

Why an issue of ASH on popular culture? First, we might be instructed if we reflect on the very idea of a popular culture. Inherent in the notion is the belief that people (and not only kings, or some other elite) are competent to imagine, assemble, express and debate visions of their collectivity. Popular culture issues from an implicitly constructive, democratic and hopeful assessment of the human lot. Thus, if constructivism, equity, and hope are not frequent features of public discourse, or “culture,” we might well find this odd, and question why it is so. We will be suspicious of the artist’s mantra that “I am only showing what I see,” which you’ll notice discloses a passive formulation of creativity indeed. Second, considered as a historical development, popular culture is profoundly progressive, anti-elitist, and anti-authoritarian. And yet popular culture too often glamourises ill-gotten wealth, sexism, invidious class and race stereotypes, petty atrocities, and brutal excess. What has become of the notion that all women and men are worthy of justice, respect and dignity? Dole’s attack, for all its hypocrisy (he praised Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican booster), raises important questions about the character of popular culture and its relationship to democracy. Dole’s jeremiad inspired the media to ask the question, What judgement have the people passed on popular culture? But I have been waiting for someone to consider another question: What judgement has popular culture passed on the people?

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