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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.