October 12, 2004

They Call Me Dr. Pangloss

I just started working my way through the Emma Peel megaset of The Avengers, one of the indulgences from my 40th birthday. Emma Peel beats a sports car anyday.

I was looking at my Amazon DVD purchases in the last six months or so. The Avengers. Invader Zim. The Battle of Algiers. The fourth season of The Simpsons. Hellboy. A collection of old Felix the Cat shorts. Volume 1 of the Batman animated series. Casablanca. Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The complete series of Firefly. Season 1 and 2 of Ren & Stimpy is on its way.

A bit narrow, but that’s the difference between movies I want to own and movies I’ll rent—they tend to be things I’m interested in playing again and again (or that other members of my family might), or things I’m worried might not be available indefinitely, like Invader Zim.

My book orders are much more diverse—I think Amazon’s recommendations system is beginning to find me profoundly confusing. I try to keep up with my books but my to-be-read shelf has grown to about twenty volumes.

Last night, I surfed the Web and played some City of Heroes, after making some risotto for my family and enjoying two glasses of a decent red wine. I channel-surfed a bit before going to bed, hoping to catch another episode of Celebrity Poker Showdown.

I don’t really spend much on clothes (it shows, I’m sure) or durables, but my wife and I are both pretty profligate when it comes to popular culture and books. I’m happy with that. Let someone else worry about beautiful furniture and elegant clothing. That’s cool too.

I don’t need to be reminded of how overwhelmingly privileged a life I lead. I know it very well, and it is my deepest wish that my comfort and prosperity spread to all corners of the Earth as soon as possible.

I also know that some people would look at my cultural consumption and think not so much that I am unfairly privileged but that I am degenerate, an example of an over-saturated, over-busy, perverse age. Cartoons and computer games! The Web! Television! Movies and shows about superheroes and secret agents! O tempora! O mores!

I went through a phase rather common to scholars who get drawn into popular culture where I associated that censoriousness with several traditions of the left—some strains of Western Marxism and postmodernist thought and some more muscular kinds of old-left activism. I still recognize that lineage in people like Juliet Schor, Neil Postman or Thomas Frank, but it’s become clear to me that left and right are not very good markers for sorting out those who generally embrace the cultural present and those who turn away from it in disgust. There’s a more fundamental schism here, between traditionalists who hate the world they live in and wish they lived in another, usually imaginary, past moment, and those of us who embrace the dizzy, glorious excesses of the current cultural dispensation, warts and all.

I look at my DVDs, my television shows, my books, my comics, my computer games, at something like The Avengers and I think to myself, “This is not the best world that ever could be, but it’s a damn sight better than any other historical world that humans have inhabited so far”. Some despair at the size of it all, some despair at its variety, some despair at what they see as the lack of variety. Some bemoan the ironic nostalgia or pastiche of popular culture, others complain at its superficiality, and still others of its immorality or vacuity.

Not what I see. What I see is the unlocking of human imagination, the democratization of creativity, an explosion of meaning and interpretation and possibility. Of course the cultural world is beyond any of us now, too big to know or see or understand. So are all the stars in the sky, but that doesn’t lead anyone to call for a permanent shroud of clouds to blot out that hateful infinity. I love the profligacy of modern popular culture, I’m delighted by the thousands of clever and interesting texts, songs, web pages, comic books, films, television shows, performances, artworks that appear every day, even knowing that I’ll never see or know about most of them.

Embracing the whole doesn’t require you to embrace every part of that whole. You can still hate a particular book, a particular film, or a particular system of cultural production. You can still shake your head at the short-sightedness of the Hollywood system, complain of the glut of dully imitative Top 40 songs, or bitch about massively-multiplayer computer games. It’s just that no act of critique calls into question the phenomenon of the cultural moment itself, the architecture of modern global culture.

I’m very concerned at the danger of a modern enclosures movement, where the quiet eddies and subcultural nooks of global popular culture get dragged inside giant corporate conglomerates and intellectual property law is used to sterilize rather than liberate the work of cultural creation. It’s a real danger we face, a reason for vigilance. The twin dangers of regulatory zeal and monopoly ownership could kill the beautiful profligacy of global popular culture at the cusp of its greatest achievements.

I’m less willing to credit complaints about cultural imperialism, because I don’t see in the outpouring of global popular culture the monolithic, unvarying homogeneity that most of the chief complaints about cultural imperialism attribute to modernity. I don’t see expressive culture as a zero-sum game. But it’s true that those forms of expressive practice which are fundamentally antagonistic to a cultural marketplace—the equivalent of usufruct ownership of land, the kinds of cultural practices that are unowned and unownable, collective and communal, and that require a protected relation to power, are threatened by the explosive force of market-driven popular culture. My feeling about that is the same feeling I have about gemeinschaft in general: good riddance. There is a thermodynamics to hermeneutics: almost no meaning, no idea, is ever truly lost or destroyed forever. The solids which seemingly melt into air are still there, and any sudden cooling of the atmosphere crystallizes them anew, often in surprising or unexpected places and forms. All that is lost are the forms of social power that reserved particular cultural forms as the source of social distinction or hierarchy, all that is lost are the old instrumentalities of texts, performances, rituals. The achievement of liberty loses nothing save the small privileges of intimate tyrannies. Culture, even in the premodern world, is ceaselessly in motion and yet also steady as a rock. In getting more and more of it for more and more people, we lose little along the way. The existence of South Park does not kill opera or gamelan.

Injustice and inequity exist widely in the world we have inherited. They matter, enormously, and we all bear responsibility for their existence, some of us more than others. The luxuriousness of my life against the poverty of many other lives matter. I have no easy answers for this, but I know we must answer to it.

But against the traditionalists, the censors, the snobs, the moralists, the monochromatic, those who want less not just for themselves but all the world, who want only their own vision of what is refined and elegant to propagate, who so fear the authentic popularity of global popular culture that they imagine its successes to be impossible save by conspiracy, subversion and subjugation—against them, I have an answer, from whatever ideological point of origin they hail. The answer is no.