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Does pop culture unify or fragment us culturally? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Pop Culture.
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On another forum, I’ve been having a brief discussion with some cyber-acquaintances about whether or not pop culture is a barrier between generations. I was arguing that most pop culture references are time specific and therefore generation markers, not unifiers. Of course it’s complex and my friends pointed out that technology has made older pop cultural forms available again today and another friend pointed out that pop culture unifies us as we move from region to region, all of which I agree with. But I think the way pop culture works is more nuanced than that.

I’d love to hear what other people think about this. I’m really interested in the affect that consumer culture writ large has on democracy, which requires a minimum of social cohesion to function well; I think that we’ve replaced true freedom with the mirage of consumer freedom. This discussion is a small corner of my thinking on that wider issue.

1) “pop” in front of “culture” is only a denigration when uttered with a sneer by an urban hipster or a old-skool blue-haired opera goer. In social sciences it denotes a particular mode of producing and consuming culture (a subset of mass culture) as distinguished from pre-industrial cultural production and from local culture, and does not denote a de facto denigration. No one in my field at least doesn’t begin with the assumption that pop culture *is* culture; it is however significantly different in the way it’s produced and the way it’s consumed, necessitating a categorical distinction.

2) as in all things in a huge post-fordist society, pop culture and the technology that distributes it creates multiple contradictory effects, one of which has been the *availability* of pop cultural forms from history, so that younger people have direct access to the pop culture of yore. (all of which is relatively new, historically speaking). That means that you might meet young people with exposure the pop culture you consumed in your youth.

3) However, the mere availability of older forms does not make someone fluent in a cultural milieu, in fact, different segments consume pop cultural differently, ascribing it different meanings. That is one of the characteristics of mass produced culture: In order to sell it to as many consumers as possible (production of pop culture is big business), it has to be accessible by multiple cultural standpoints and open enough semiotically to have whatever meanings ascribed to it a given community wants to (there are, obviously, limits to the plasticity of the meanings that *can* be ascribed, but they are extremely wide in pop/mass culture). This is one of the reasons I study pop culture: It is an incredibly fluid and versatile mode of meaning formation that forms the raw materials out of which Americans seem to form their identities and group affiliations.

4) Since I spend my entire working life with 20 year olds, my anecdotal experience is that while they have often heard of things (usually through retro-campy-nostalgia shows like “I love the 70s” on VH1), they don’t have an actual cultural grasp, just a passing knowledge of pop culture past.

5) That one can find people who bond on common pop culture consumption is evidence of the way mass culture works, not that it works across generations. Namely, starting in the post-WWII era, consumer capitalism developed by an ever increasing segmentation of the cultural market, first by marketing cultural products specifically to “youth”, then to “children” then to “women” then by race and ethnicity by the mid-1960s. (Marketing for different classes began in the auto industry in the late 1920s, and got more complex and integrated in the 1950s-60s). If your experience is typical of an American, you work and associate with people who are of a similar or overlapping market segment that you grew up in, thus when you meet new people, you are able to “bond” over a shared cultural experience of the pop culture you consume(d) in your lifetime. The further outside your particular segment that you cross, the more evident it becomes that you do not share pop cultural commonalities.

Also, consumers tend to be unpredictable (another fun thing about pop culture studies) so unintended consumers will latch onto and consume products intended for entirely different segments and make them their own (think: urban white teenagers consuming black R&B in the early 1950s). The meaning of pop culture ultimately cannot be controlled by its producers, neither the corporations that fund the production nor the artists that create it.

6) That said, there are some huge pop culture phenoms that span across market segments, such as “Star Wars” that can be society-wide cultural unifiers. But most often they are usually, again, generationally inflected and the way you use a piece of pop culture serves to identify your class, race, gender, ethnicity and age.


On Pretension 18 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Culture, Philosophy & Social Theory, Pop Culture.
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A brief comment during a long stream-of-consciousness conversation with my good friend Oakland Chloë (who comments here frequently) combined with a comment from Wry Catcher in my Xmas post below have provoked in me a brief fuming rant, which follows:

Wry, I’ve become über-aware of pretension lately, and saying “Silver and Gold” as your xmas colors doesn’t even come close. I live in the city of pretension (San Francisco), although here it’s less about normal elitist/ruling-class pretension than about Bay Area hipper-than-thou, liberal-er-than-thou, critical-er-than-thou or tasteful-er-than-thou (in a SoMa/Haight/Mission kinda way).

I find most culture at the present to be mere pretentious window dressing and slight of hand, used to avoid real connection, communication, affect, and vulnerability. Everything feels fake to me, from ethnic “identities” to politics to “art”. I’m weary of everything having to be “ironic” in order to be acceptable. I mean, god forbid anything should be sincere or any human being should actually have a pulse and an emotional connection to anything. God forbid that someone should actually find meaning in something that anyone “in the know” knows is just stupid/tasteless/immature/common or, worst of all, “bourgeois” or “provincial” or “middle-class”. Most irritating of all is the that the people saying this shit are all, themselves, middle-class professional educated-in-the-humanities pretentious fucks.

I had a friend over the other day who looked at my Christmas decorations and said, “At least they’re ironic.” WhiskyTangoFoxtrot**? They are tacky, drawing fully and unapologetically from my white-trash upbringing. But they are not in the least ironic. I love the Winter Holidays, and I put them up as sincere celebration.

Let’s talk about pretention: You’re stupid/conservative/retrograde if you in anyway take anything seriously or derive pleasure from in anyway any thing that does not pass postmodern muster.

Fuck that shit. I’ll take good old class-warfare, WASPy ruling class elitist pretension any day over this bullshit.

**I’m stealing this witicism from Bard, a cyber-acquaintance who cracks my shit up; mother of multiple small humans and “non-traditional” undergraduate majoring in Econ at some school in Michigan, land of snow, race riots, shaky auto manufacturers (although no actual manufacturing actually occurs there anymore), and crumbing cities. (more…)

The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green (Review), Gay Cinema (Choke), and What’s Film Criticism For (Anyway)? 8 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Cinema, Culture, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Pop Culture, Reviews.
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Ugh. After reading a couple positive reviews in the gay press, followed by the interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle, I was all ready for a light, funny, gay romantic comedy. Instead I got “The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green.” (By the way, this is the second horrible film I’ve seen from Here! productions in the past month; the first was the painful lesbian dramedy April’s Shower, which was so bad I couldn’t bear to review it.)

I know, I know. It’s based on a comic strip (a rather funny one, at that) by Eric Orner, which incidentally is a key piece of gay history since he first began drawing it in 1989. The San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum included Orner’s strip in its 2006 special show on gay and lesbian cartoons. I’m not saying a comic strip can’t be translated into film, or that this couldn’t have been done well; but it did feel like the gags just didn’t translate somehow. When you see Ethan Green in a comic strip, his flaws and stupidity seem funny. But when you watch a warm-blooded human being making the same bad choices it is god-damned painful.

02_film_ethan_26_lg.jpgBasically, Ethan is highly judgmental of every man he dates and ends up breaking up with every one because they aren’t good enough–a relatively common and relatively serious problem among humans in general in our consumer-cum-dating culture. This is mixed with a series of stereotypical gay inside jokes. Again, these play funny in print, but come off as ham-handed on screen. From recently out athletes, to log cabin republicans, to middle-aged gay aunties, to teenaged oversexed newbies, this is a veritable dramatis personae of gay male stereotypes. Comedies made from within minority communities can make great use of such images, both as gentle prodding to get us to see what’s there inside of our own lives and communities and as ways to simply see ourselves represented and laugh. So although I laugh when I read Ethan Green in comic strip form, I cringed and felt self-hating when watching the film.

Top this all off with bad pacing (sometimes it drags in the middle of hijinx…hello, editing? direction?) and bad acting (watching a straight guy act gay, like, look at me ma, I’m acting!), and you have an evening of disappointment. No matter how cute the lead is or how hot the sex scenes.

We use the arts (from high-brow to low), as people, to express our ideas of ourselves and to explore our experiences in the lives that we lead. Cinema (and television) probably have more power to accomplish this end than other forms of art, because we can see real human beings moving, acting and reacting within situations we may find ourselves in; cinema allows identification in a way that is fundamentally different from other art forms. And for that reason, its power to represent and produce meaning, I believe, outstrips other forms. For subordinated communities, where the meaning of their lives is always in opposition to (or in competition with) the meanings ascribed to them by the dominant culture, the representations in film and television can be devastating. Whole shelves in libraries are devoted to the research done on representations of subordinate peoples and the effects these representations have on bolstering systems of oppression and producing dominated personalities in the minorities. For gay men and women, the production of representations by, for, and of ourselves has been key to our ability to emerge from the homophobic and heterosexist norms of American society and create full lives for ourselves despite the dominant culture.

This is difficult to talk about, because I hate the whole dynamic where minority artists have to “represent” their people (as if that were possible); yet, the continued production of meaningful art that you can at least sit through without throwing empty popcorn buckets at the screen is of utmost importance at this turning point in gay history. We are on the verge of having de facto ‘acceptance’ into America. But that will not eliminate our need as a group to continue to have discussions about what our lives and loves and communities should mean. And we will need to do better than this film.

Having said that, I’m not a film snob by any stretch (really, I’m not!). In fact, I’m a bit of a social outcast in San Francisco, where cultural posing is de rigeur, from local hip-hop among the kids, to only the right electronia among the clubbers, to only the right restaurant for the bourgeois; and everyone in the city seems to be a movie snob. Now I like movies ranging from blockbuster action, to teen dramas, to historical epics, to impressionist films from Siberia. I like film for the masses and cinema for the elite. In short, I like film. I’ve never studied film history or film making, so mostly my reviews are just my viceral response to them (although sometimes my cultural-sociologist brain will kick in and I’ll have a fit analyzing the cultural production and circulation of meanings in particular contexts. See above.).

After talking extensively with my good friend Matt about movies, I finally admitted to him that I actually like Roger Ebert. Most people know him only from the television review program, which is of a necessity abbreviated and simplistic (thumbs up or down? please). But when you read his published film criticism, you get to understand not only how much he loves cinema, but how much he gets it. Often, the role of critics is poo-poo’ed in our anti-intellectual American culture, our own backwards form of cultural populism. But critics can serve a vital role of interpreting works of art and engaging us in the meaningful conversations that they evoke. Camille Paglia’s recent collection of poetry explication/criticism, Break, Blow, Burn, demonstrates the role of critic beautifully, showing us that criticism at its best makes us stop and reconsider, moves forward our understanding, contextualizes pieces, and finally may actually inspire us. I have discovered the Ebert is one of those cultural critics.

In the introduction to his 2002 collection of essays about 100 of his favorite movies, The Greatest Movies, Ebert says this of film:

Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people. Noot many of them are very good, however. Yes, there are the passable Friday night specials, measured by critics including myself in terms of their value in entertaining us for two hours. We buy our tickets and hope for a diversion, and usually we get it, but we so rarely get anything more.

I suppose that I just want something more from Gay Cinema.

Random Food for Thought at 1 a.m. 7 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Political Commentary, Pop Culture, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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sam_harris.jpgFrom today’s Salon.com interview with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith:

It may sound paradoxical but it’s not. I’m advocating a kind of conversational intolerance. It’s really the same intolerance we express everywhere in our society when someone claims that Elvis is still alive, or that aliens are abducting ranchers and molesting them. These are beliefs that many people have. But these beliefs systematically exclude them from holding positions of responsibility. The person who’s sure that Elvis is still alive and expresses this belief candidly does not wind up in the Oval Office or in our nation’s boardrooms. And that’s a very good thing. But when the conversation changes to Jesus being born of a virgin or Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, then these beliefs not only do not exclude you from holding power in society; you could not possibly hold power, in a political sense, without endorsing this kind of thinking.

It should be terrifying to us because many of these beliefs are not just quaint and curious, like beliefs in Elvis. These are beliefs about the end of history, about the utility of trying to create a sustainable civilization for ourselves — specifically, beliefs in eschatology. These are maladaptive. For instance, if a mushroom cloud replaced the city of New York tomorrow morning, something like half the American people would see a silver lining in that cloud because it would presage to them that the end of days are upon us.

headshotbwpoint-80x120.jpgAnd from Mark Morford, columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle:

It is like some sort of virus. It is like some sort of weird and painful rash on your face that makes you embarrassed to walk out the door and so you sit there day after day, waiting for it to go away, slathering on ointment and Bactine and scotch. And yet still it lingers.

Some days the pain is so searing and hot you want to cut off your own head with a nail file. Other days it is numb and pain-free and seemingly OK, to the point where you think it might finally be all gone and you allow yourself a hint of a whisper of a positive feeling, right up until you look in the mirror, and scream.

George W. Bush is just like that.

Can you tell I’m having trouble sleeping? Thank god for reading and blogging.