Monday, February 25, 2013

The Omnipresence of Pop Culture

The Oscars have come and gone (I'm glad Argo won Best Picture), which gives me an opportunity for some pompous pontificating on the subject of pop culture.

I think that pop culture is a subject that should provoke us to much lamentation and hand-wringing, even if there is nothing much we can do about it at the moment. Just remaining aware of the wrongness of a state of affairs is, in itself, desirable.

I write this despite being an avid cinema-goer, and I see no reason to apologize for that, or to equate it with pop culture. To me, pop culture is not really the enjoyment of entertainments like cinema or TV, or even the entertainments themselves. To me, pop culture is a particular mental and cultural environment that swarms with celebrities, famous ("iconic") moments from TV and cinema and music, internet "memes", famous snatches of dialogue, an awareness of what is "cool" and what isn't cool, and a preoccupation with fashions and trends and sensations.

I've noticed that, even though I go to the cinema more than almost anybody I know, I seem to know less about the actors and actresses than people who hardly ever go to the cinema. I always congratulate myself on this, which I accept is unbearably smug. I prize the fact that I don't know who the Kardashians are, although I lament the fact that I know I don't know.

I'll try to give a concrete example of what I mean. Not long ago, in the university where I work, there was a poster up for a "zombie weekend" which mimicked the famous Reservoir Dogs poster, a movie poster that depicts five or six men in sunglasses and suits walking with a certain swagger. However, in this version, they had been changed into zombies, with arms stretched out and disfigured faces.

What I found depressing was the combination of two pop cultural elements; the Reservoir Dogs poster and the presence of zombies (which are a contemporary pop-cultural favourite, as I'm sure you know). I found it depressing that the designer of the poster could assume that the viewer would recognize both elements, and I found it depressing that I did indeed recognize them. I also find it depressing that merely making a pop cultural allusion (or a "reference") is accepted as a substitute for wit or inspiration.

The problem with pop culture is that it is increasingly a way of life, a lingua franca, an element in which we live and move and have our being.

Some people know about literature and some people know about philosophy and some people know about politics, but the one thing that you can assume almost everybody knows about is pop culture. This is depressing and shameful.

If a lecturer or a teacher wants to connect with his students, he will almost certainly use a pop cultural reference. (For this purpose, I think professional sport counts as pop culture.) If, say, a writer of popular philosophy books wants to reach the masses, he will come up with some embarrassing title like "The Philosophy of The Matrix", or "The Simpsons and the Meaning of Life".

Even people who are steeped in some serious subject, like economics or ancient Greece or cosmology, are highly likely to devote their recreational moments to pop culture. In fact, I think it is the case that, the more specialised and professionalised and arcane knowledge becomes, the more people are inclined to take their mental holidays in the undemanding world of pop culture.

Why do I think this is such a sad state of affairs?

Because I think the general atmosphere of pop culture is unwholesome and rubbishy. This does not mean that pop culture itself is necessarily rubbishy. There are a lot of wonderful and artistic and life-affirming movies, television shows and popular songs.

But what rises to the top-- what lives in the collective mind-- tends to be the flotsam and jetsam. Not stories and melodies and themes, but images, and lines of dialogue, and posture and dress and hairstyle. I mean things like that stupid scene of Marilyn Monroe's skirt being blown up by the air from a grating. What is funny about that? What is clever? What is significant? Is it an image to put on a par with Prometheus bound or Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone or St. Francis surrounded by birds?

The elements of pop culture that seep into the collective mind tend to be picked for their appeal to our lower nature. They rely on the most juvenile attitude to sex, on swagger, on insouciance, on conspicuous consumption (throwing televisions out hotel rooms or driving Rolls Royes into swimming pools), on violence and menace, on pugnacity and pomposity, on arrogance and transgression. I challenge the reader to think of any "iconic" pop cultural image, or moment, or line of dialogue, or song lyric, that expresses humility or charity or reverence. There may be some, but they are surely very rare.

If we have this kind of junk floating around our mental and cultural bloodstream, how can it have anything but an unhealthy effect?

I think societies have always needed reference points and role models, heroes and heroines, proverbs and parables. They have always needed a pool of images and narratives and sayings to serve as a kind of shared imaginative vocabulary. In pre-literate societies, these were supplied by mythology and ballads and proverbs and other folklore. In literate societies (or literate circles), the folklore remained but was supplemented (and to a great extent superseded) by poetry, novels, paintings, and drama. In an increasingly post-literate society like our own, the folklore and high art remain, but are increasingly overladen with pop culture. (I first encountered a lot of Greek mythology through a Japanese space cartoon called Ulysses 2000.)

Of course, the values in folklore and mythology and high culture were not always so admirable themselves. Many ballads are shockingly grisly and gruesome. Victorian three-volume novels sometimes seem to reflect a world where money and status and marrying well are the be-all and end-all. But there is a callowness, a throw-away character, to pop culture that is (I think) not typical of folklore or literary culture, which at least required either time (in the case of folklore) or some imaginative effort (in the case of literary culture) to create and to enjoy.

I have deliberately avoided mentioning, until now, one alternative to pop culture; and that is religion. Even a cursory knowledge of human history tells us that it is only in very recent times that religion has been ghettoized to a corner of human life called "spirituality". I imagine that, for most of human history, religion simply was man's entertainment, festival, social life, culture, folklore, learning and imaginative world. (In Western Europe, of course, the Reformation put paid to a lot of that.) Even today, religious people are much more likely to have a supplement to pop culture, not just as an individual interest of a clique interest, but as a whole social and family atmosphere. Their mental world is more likely to abound in Biblical stories and verses and quotations, in snatches of hymns, and in stories from the lives of the saints. Even their language and patterns of thought are likely to contain echoes from liturgy and prayer.

This is how Peter Hitchens describes the change that has come over England in recent history (he was writing about a new television adaptation of Great Expectations):

Something very subtle has also happened to our voices and our faces. In 1946, we all had great grandfathers who had lived in villages and spoke the accent of the place. We all had great grandfathers who had been hungry, who had been cold, who hated and feared debt as a fiendish enemy, who had been chastised by parents or teachers, and who had experienced at first or second hand one form of cruelty or another in an England of harsh laws, mantraps and enclosure. And we all had great grandmothers who had been regular churchgoers, who knew the Bible, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and ‘Fox’s Book of Martyrs’. Their heads were full of songs we have forgotten.

Enemies of religion often challenge believers as to its benefits. Are religious believers morally superior to unbelievers? Of course, it's not as simple as that. The social benefits of religion cannot be narrowed down to a simple matter of ethics. I think a religious society (especially a Christian society) is better than a secular society for a hundred reasons; and one of the lesser reasons is that a religious culture provides a kind of buffer against pop culture. Surely we are better off humming "Abide with Me" than "Billie Jean", better off putting up a picture of Padre Pio than a poster of Jaws, better off quoting the words of St. Augustine than the lyrics of Michael Stipe?

Of course, post-Christian and pop-culture-saturated society is not going to swap celebrities for saints any time soon; but we can strive to make the change in our own lives. We can strive to avoid the entertainment industry gossip and the forwarded Youtube clips of embarrassing chat show interviews, and seek to nourish our imagination with sacred things instead.

And one day we may reach the blessed condition of that English judge, apocryphal or not, who supposedly demanded-- at the height of Beatlemania-- "Who are the Beatles?".


  1. Wonderful post, save for your approval of Argo winning. I'm so disappointed in you ... j/k.

    "Who are the Beatles?" Now I will no doubt get chastised for this, but I never 'really cared' for the Beatles. I do have some of their more popular singles on my iTunes, but that's as far as my admiration goes (for now). I know, I know. Let that sink in for a few minutes as you shake your head silently.

    What I've found very soothing, and no doubt people will find this bizarre, to 'counter' the ever present pop culture is to revert to old ways of communication and consumption. Consider these as suggestions. I invested in a typewriter and I'm planning on writing hand written notes. I also found purchasing and listening to vinyl helps me space myself apart from the trends. If I ever get the space, I may garden. Talk radio also helps me counter all that is popular. And of course, visiting the library helps (free books and movies!), but you already know that.

    Have you tried camping? I am not sure if camping is popular in Ireland (probably not due to the weather being inclined to rain). I find that very much a worthwhile experience - you gain confidence and independence, not to mention new skills (knotting, compass usage, fire building etc.).

    In saying of all that, I do enjoy myself current Top 40 songs and the occasional blockbuster. Like you said, there are gems in the midst of the clatter and fame.

    A couple of questions, if you don't mind:
    1)Are you familiar with Antonio "Fats" Domino? If not, here's a start -

    2)A silly one, but how present is American pop culture in Ireland (tv, film)?

    While American pop culture does an amazing job in marketing the country world wide (my cousins abroad would jump at an NYC screened baseball cap or a SoCal turquoise graphic t-shirt) it does much disservice to those who aren't "hip" and to those that do not live on the coasts ie LA, San Fran, Seattle, NYC, DC or even Boston.

    I do not like what pop culture has smeared on the faces of those who aren't, in the cultures eyes, 'progressive.' Pop culture holds those who live in middle America with much contempt, and no doubt does such an attitude and mentality translate to easily impressionable young minds abroad.

  2. Thanks for that!

    I'm not familiar with Fats Domino, unfortunately I have given up music for Lent but I will listen to that come Easter!

    American pop culture is very popular in Ireland, as all over the world. And I don't object to its being American in the slightest. In fact, I find it ironic that people attack "Hollywood" for all the wrong reasons-- they attack it for happy endings, for sentimentality, for a belief in redemption, and all the things that are ADMIRABLE about it! I do believe that the cinema is usually a pretty uplifting experience.

    I guess I think that sitting down and enjoying a TV show or a movie is perfectly fine, talking about it for hours is perfectly fine, joining a fan-club is perfectly fine, any amount of enthusiasm for the THING ITSELF is perfectly fine....but I think it's unwholesome how the iconography and vocabulary of pop culture leeches into the rest of life, how it becomes so all-pervasive that it isn't so much an element of our lives anymore as the whole background noise of our existence. It does depress me.

    Never been camping! I think it's pretty popular in Ireland. I constantly get lost even in the heart of civilization, so I don't think I'd last a minute in the mountains.