Friday, January 07, 2005

More boredom

In mulling over boredom some more -- perhaps I've been bored, and making the meta-move is the grad-school thinking strategy I absorbed for coping with things -- I've started to wonder about the plannned obsolescence built into popular culture. This feature is what distinguishes it as popular culture, its obvious disposability and the low threshold of commitment it takes to consume it, or just as important, to be seen consuming it. This is what makes it popular -- there are no educational boundaries to one's being able to enjoy it, no cultural capital you need to bring to it. And its effervescence means you stake none of your identity, none of your social capital on it. You don't build an identity on it, unless you are a pop-culture obsessive, and then your identity is really founded on a methodology, on the archivist's taxomizing approach to culture -- such people are not defined by fandom of some specific piece of pop culture but by one's all-encompassing passion for all of it and one's ability to use that amassed knowledge to make analytical (if not discriminatory) distinctions.

Anyway, popular culture becomes popular because it's accessible to a maximum amount of people for a minimal amount of time. Being aware of its brief window of time, its short moment of relevance, may increase the bandwagon effect, may encourage more people to buy into a fad. The point is that popular culture's shallowness is not an unfortunate effect, it's not something that could be fixed with better artists making it (this fallacy is often implicit in would-be culture-critic fulminations -- especially my own). It's made that way on purpose, and it takes great skill, armies of talented editors and producrers, to make it that way. Editors are not out to keep you perpetually fascinated by any one thing they've crafted -- this would make them quickly extinct. Editors are actually out to teach you to be quickly bored, to expect bursts of fascination that quickly burn out your attention. The writing style of Village Voice critics seems to me an especially apt example of this -- every review has some stunning metaphorical fireworks, something that just amazes me with the writer's ingenuity and makes me think, wow, what a turn of phrase, and yet as eagerly as I devour that sort of writing, I forget it instantly. (This was my gripe with Kipnis's style in Against Love-- she was taking these ideas I find memorable, integral, and putting them into the intentionally vapid style of magazines, which is intended to make ideas fascinating and then forgettable. So perhaps serious thought must be boring? A defense for acadmic writing?)

So an editor's unique trailblaziing skill may be that she is more quickly bored than the average person whose leading light she hopes to be. She probably has the best intentions for this, and certainly culture teaches her that this is the proper operation of taste, recognizing what can grab attention amid the myriad things fighting for it. This is the debasement of discriminatory taste that is brought on by capitalist culture, or at the very least, the imperatives of the publishing marketplace, which of course celebrates disposable books much more than good (i.e. lasting and rereadable) ones. This is equally true of music and the music industry, which explains why the Grammy winners are almost always universally awful. The industry rewards what is disposable and sellable, not what is enduringly and transcendently great.

Editors can't presume attention in their readers. They have to presume a kind of indifference; so that the ideal reader that their work is shaping, the one that ends up being posited by the text, is one who is without much enthusiasm, one who is tepid, uninterested, easily bored, shallow. In reading this material, which is omnipresent in America -- reading in ads, in clothing, in radio and TV as well as in newspapers and magazines -- we are becoming this shallow person, and we are happy to, because this shallow person is everywhere being validated by the culture created for him, he is the one who everyone (ad culture especially) wants to pay attention to.

Nostalgia may just be the impulse to resist this built-in disposability, to elevate junk culture to art and reclaim the moments you end up spending on it for some larger significance. You want to define yourself through culture, but you don't want to be a junk person, so you craft arguments to make the culture available to you into something other than the non-user-specific, disposable junk it's made to be. The nostalgist insists that what seemed like kitsch crap was in fact significant, important. He sees plentitude where the culture wants you to immediately detect emptiness (after a brief blast of excitement). This theme underlies the "positive" approaches to consumption and consumerism, which configure the consumer as not a passive sponge but an active re-producer, someone who subverts the society's intention to make us content with small moments of shallow pleasure consumed with spiralling rapidity by making disposable cultural items into deep, rich artifacts with lasting personal significance. Think of the mixtape (or mix CD, I guess, now), for instance -- this takes silly pop songs and combines them in a constellation that defines a moment in your life, or communicates a personal, intricate message to someone else. (This makes those portals where you pay to make your own mix CDs at Starbucks sort of sinister -- they are trying to squeeze profit out of that recombinatory, resucing, impulse; trying to make a profit from that time and energy you spend trying to personalize generic, disposable culture).

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