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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(Big) Business As Usual

[Originally published in ASH Magaine, Volume Four Number Three, Summer 1997.]

Now and then I find myself in a philosophical mood, pondering the evolution of this creature called ASH. I think it’s a healthy activity, the more so since I’m inclined these days not to take the magazine too seriously. I’d like to leave behind me a respectable corpus when I at long last turn my attention elsewhere, but I know also that ASH is likely never to attain a status beyond the obscurity common to small publications.

I confess this disappoints me — and not merely for its humbling effect on the ego. You see, I had a conversation once with a business-minded fellow, who maintained that the market should decide the outcome in all matters. He noted the widespread reliance of Canadian magazines on government funding (ASH is an exception) and wondered aloud: Why sustain a magazine read by so few that it needs taxpayers’ money just to survive? Indeed. I must say the logic, bolstered by economic concepts such as “utility maximization,” seemed to me to be solid. But when I drew out its implications and followed them to their conclusions, I was left with a rather troubling picture.

The image I had in my mind was of a culture that could never have enough movie celebrities, rock stars, elite athletes, arms traders, investment bankers, futures speculators, and corporate lawyers: for their market value is, it appears, without limit. As for, say, motherhood (that sacred job which is praised to the skies at appropriate occasions by businessmen and politicians), well, it has no market value whatsoever; and nearly the same is true of all the so-called “caring” professions and the many wage-labour jobs which have long sustained our privileged standard of living. Think about it: much that we might reasonably claim dignifies and enriches life, much which makes this world more than merely bearable, is practically valueless, economically speaking. Remember Mike Harris’s contempt, oft-expressed in the 1995 Ontario election campaign, for welfare mothers, who don’t do anything? Such contempt is one of the free market’s proud accomplishments, and a remarkable accomplishment it is.

I suspect my business-minded acquaintance is now pleased. His vision of an efficient, competitive, rational, growth-centred world has triumphed, and we shall live for many years to come its social and ecological consequences. The New World Order has its bureaucracy (the economists, policy experts, and investment gurus who now make regular appearances on the evening news and the bestseller lists), its constitution (the General Agreement on Trade and Tarrifs), and its Bill of Rights (the Multilateral Agreement on Investment). The message for the masses is also vaguely familiar: believe, submit, and you’ll be rewarded in a future life.

Perhaps the market knows best in some matters — magazines, for instance. In any case, I’m inclined these days to keep ASH going, if only that it might be a voice crying in the market wilderness. It’s an obscure voice, as I’ve already acknowledged, and so there’s little hope ASH might counter effectively the fallacious claims of the economic experts who dominate the landscape. The very attempt risks the pomposity and the intolerable self-righteousness that usually attend those who are convinced they’re on a mission from God. So much, you might then say, for not taking ASH too seriously.

Self-righteousness isn’t the only temptation to which the dissenters are susceptible, as the global economic empire discloses what appears to many to be a heartless agenda. Have you noticed the abundance of books in the last few years with the phrase “The End Of” in their titles? All about us, the horsemen are assuming the saddle in gleeful anticipation of the apocalypse. Unfortunately for them, there’s no end in sight. It’s (big) business as usual.

Not long ago I read George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, a book that makes me wonder why Orwell is represented in the school curricula by Animal Farm and 1984. Wigan Pier is really two books in one: the first half describes in horrific detail the lives of U.K. miners during the 1930s, and the second half is a scathing look at the people who propose to improve matters by adopting socialism. Orwell of course considered himself a socialist, but his temperament was such that he could never settle into a dogmatic understanding of human affairs. The possessor of a keen, sceptical mind, Orwell had the habit of bringing into his work troubling details — such as his observation that many a would-be “bourgeois Socialist” of his day was at heart an “old Etonian”:

Perhaps once, out of sheer bravado, he has smoked a cigar with the band on, but it would be almost physically impossible for him to put pieces of cheese into his mouth on the point of his knife, or to sit indoors with his cap on, or even to drink his tea out of the saucer. … It can only be because in his heart he feels that proletarian manners are disgusting.

Wigan Pier is full of such scandal, much of it delivered at the author’s expense. Orwell could be, and often was, indignant in the face of injustice, but I’ve yet to catch him indulging in self-righteous cant or doom-saying. It’s this balanced cast of mind that strikes me as Orwell’s greatest contribution to the dissenters’ canon, a contribution well worth recalling.

As it has turned out, Orwell’s works have thus far escaped obscurity. It would be silly to hope for the same outcome in the case of ASH, but that isn’t the point. In the here and now, there’s plenty of Orwellian work to be done — and after all, I’ve only said I’d like to leave a respectable corpus.

An Interview with Heather Menzies

[The following was first published in ASH Magazine Volume 4 Number 1, Winter 1996.]

Your argument, in the book Whose Brave New World?, is that a corporate agenda is “colonizing” the institutions and services upon which we depend in this country. Would you comment on the choice of this word?

In a colonization model, what we are talking about is empire rather than democracy —the empire of technique, but also the new corporate empires imposing their centralised authority, which is what empire is all about, over more and more of the territories of our lives. Colonization has to do with the fact that there is a cultural component, and related to that an ideological component. We’re shifting from an ethic of public service to an ethic that treats services as commodities and service transactions. In the health care field this is very dramatic, and therefore something very important to watch. This is coming out of the United States, where health care is an industry, where sickness is the raw material for a profit-making industry —their bias is built into that— and these are completely taking us away from prevention of debility, prevention of disease, and taking us toward simply the treatment model, where people can make money off a continuing dependence on medicines and treatments and so on. So the colonization aspect gets at the cultural component and the shift toward this more commoditized approach to life, generally, and then within that, service being transformed from an engaged and empathetic human interaction, to a service transaction —which is a business.

There is also colonization in the sense of an existing knowledge base being pushed to the side and treated as completely unimportant while this new knowledge base, and the new sets of technological skills being imposed by the colonizers —by the new technological agents— are being treated as the only ones that count. It’s the same kind of way in which you had the imposition of the pricing system and the commodity form that displaced barter, exchange, and the subsistence basis of an economy based on the commons of the land here.

Neil Postman has stated, in Technopoly, that a technology will “play out its hand” when introduced —that is, it will do what it’s designed to do, regardless of our efforts to control it. But you seem to believe we have a good degree of control.

I’m neither for nor against technology: I’m for a particular use of technology, one that extends what people do, rather than replaces people and replaces what they do. And so, at a fundamental level I understand and I work with the definition of technology as a social construction. Now, there’s a point at which it begins to become deterministic. It’s a bit like what Ursula Franklin said, that once values are incorporated into the design of a technology, they cannot be negotiated. That speaks to the fact that, for instance, once software monitors people and has taken over more and more of the knowledge required to do a job effectively —taken that knowledge away from people and de-skilled them — once that system is put into place, you can’t negotiate around it. There is a time when one has to negotiate. That is in the initial stages of design, and the initial stages of organizing work and the place of technology. There is scope for intervention at that point. I am somewhat sanguine about the possibility of people gaining control. People still have the capacity to negotiate. People are endlessly inventive.

What do you say to the people —and some of them aren’t necessarily pro-business— who find your critique of corporations “conspiratorial,” or at least so dark that it’s hard to accept? I have to admit I find it hard to believe that business has gotten so mean-spirited that it can enrich itself on human misery.

I think that people who subscribe to conspiracy theories are capitulating to the mystique of all-powerfulness associated with many of the institutions of power, which get all the press and are held up as being the only institutions of power. The corollary of that is that these people are betraying and not sufficiently having confidence in the power that in fact people out in the community still do have, to think for themselves, to speak for themselves, and to act. Where I think I come down is that those people who are in institutions of power do have, usually, access to faster means of communication, and they are therefore able to more quickly apprise the situation and seize an opportunity to exploit it. History is much more chaotic, much more fraught with possibilities than the conspiracy theorists would have us believe. And also it’s peopled on the other side with an awfully lot more stupidity and laziness than conspiracy theorists would have us believe [laughter]

There is another enormous advantage for those who have power, and that’s the ability to define the public interest. Until a public interest is defined, it’s impossible to get any sort of program underway.

And again, that comes back to this moral voice issue. I was giving a speech Friday, in which I stressed the importance of scale —the scale of the voices that are saying “This is in fact what the public interest is all about.” I proceeded to lay out what’s happening —the social devastations that globalization and restructuring are causing, with the downsizing and deficit being part of that larger agenda —and having done so, I was talking about the need for media paying attention to networking amongst all those voices, so that you can get the kind of sustained moral tone that is going to in fact communicate this different definition of the public interest: that the public interest is not deficit cutting, is not global competitiveness; the public interest is in fact defined by meeting people’s needs and positioning all these other agendas within the caring capacity of the larger social environment.

I find myself using the language of “community” when I speak of the public interest. But I suspect this is a buzzword — I mean, community is clearly important, but it’s hard not to be self-conscious. Do I really live in a community? And what’s the relation of business, on any scale, to the interests of community? — particularly given the erosion of traditional ties of business to employees, towns, and even democracy itself?

Too much of this gets discussed in the abstract. And abstractions can be so used by anybody. Community is a perfect case in point. You’ve got various ways in which “community” is being used. It’s being used by business to talk about corporate alliances —now they’re being called communities. Communities are also being defined around ownership of consumer goods, such as cars. And communities are being defined around lifestyles. These are all a redefinition of community into consumer roles and property relations. And that’s a complete betrayal of the historical origins of community. People don’t tend to pay attention to the hard work that communities involve. There’s this tendency to reach into the past and pull out this golden, hazy image of community where everybody gets along with their neighbours. But in fact there is no such community. Community-building is hard work. It’s the art of listening to the other person, putting up with their halitosis [laughter] —one of my ways of describing it— but it’s also the daily practice of dialogue, and dialogue doesn’t just involve speaking for yourself, and your family, and your locale, and the particularities of your group identity. It also involves listening. Listening, to be able to respect, so that freedom can be combined with responsibility, in the microcosm, and you can actually work out differences —you know, negotiate differences. That’s my sense of a real community. We need that kind of practice to avoid the idealisms: the golden age of community, which didn’t exist, and also to avoid the new commoditized images of community. The public interest isn’t an abstraction; it’s the people going to the food bank around the corner from where I live, or the Daily Bread food bank in Toronto, or the one where you live.

The current buzzwords do express an abstracted way of looking at the world which has not very much to do with people and a lot to do with processes and technologies.

One of the major shifts going on right now is we’re moving toward the equivalence of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda —they’re really one and the same. Democracy and democratic values are being subsumed by corporate values. Human rights are being subsumed, or eclipsed, by property rights. “Whoever has the most power wins” seems to be emerging as the ethic of the new era. It’s really important to name that for what it is, and then also know what you have to do if you want to turn that around. You don’t do it, I think, with abstractions about human rights. I think we can regain our perspectives by grounding ourselves, positioning ourselves in solidarity with the people who have been marginalized —who are being displaced. We’re not doing them a favour; we’re doing ourselves a favour. Because we can redefine the public interest with people at the centre.

The economist Paul Krugman has stated [in Mother Jones], “it will take another [Roosevelt], and perhaps the moral equivalent of another war” to bring back the decent society Americans had a generation ago. What do you think it will take here?

What I was also saying about “the empire versus a democracy” is that you get something imposed, versus something negotiated. The whole public discussion of this has almost shut out the notion, the idea, that this kind of thing should be negotiated. In other words, that there should be a debate, a negotiation, between an ethic of social justice and an ethic of business efficiency and corporate profit. And instead what we’re getting is the imposition of this one ethic, the business agenda. Negotiation is reduced to quibbling over the adjustment mechanisms. To be able to reassert that this is in fact an ethical discussion, and that there are moral choices to be made, requires leadership in a very engaged form. And I think there are already in Canada a number of voices that do represent the kind of moral equivalent of, let’s say, the Roosevelt era —people like Ursula Franklin, various people also in communities. We need to pay attention to the fact that the macrocosm is also composed of a bunch of microcosms.

You’ve written a half-dozen or so books about computers, and one about cheese [By the Labour of Their Hands]. Obviously, there’s more to Heather Menzies than technology.

[laughter] The Menzies were farmers in rural Ontario, so this is sort of my personal roots book. I was also as a child taken to the cheese factories. I got a sense of fascination with technology as part of the landscape. I think I gained a sense that machines had characters and were part of our story. And having written that book, it gave me a lovely perspective, because I jumped into 18th and 19th century technology. I learned a lot about technology in the process of writing [By the Labour of Their Hands], although it isn’t at all a technology book. It’s very much a book of the rural culture in Ontario, which has hardly been written on at all. The other thing is I’m a writer first; I hate being described as an expert on computer technology. Now I’m able to pose, at least for myself if not for others, some of the deeper questions about our society and the philosophies at work in it. It’s been an interesting journey.

Heather Menzies is the author of 7 books, including Whose Brave New World?: The Information Highway and the New Economy. (Between The Lines, 1996). She spoke to ASH from Ottawa, Ontario.