28 March 2008

not buying it anymore

It seems everyone I've talked to recently, we've gotten in a spat about culture and politics, media and "artifice."

Warning -- reckless use of "scare quotes" ahead.

Amongst us -- progressives, aspiring intellectuals, whatever inappropriate label you want to tag to people who spend most of their days either walking through the halls of leftie universities or reading books, thinking themselves quite "deep" -- there seems to be an idealization of a utopian past, where where "people bought books" and "searched for the real thing" (whatever that means). We invoke Chomsky, telling each other – if we just went back to the small cafes and salons and bookstores where people were real, man; where they talked about ideas and "serious" things – if we just had that kind of public sphere today -- then we'd all be "enlightened," and wouldn't "buy into" the bullshit media feed us.

This is a lie. There was no utopian past; cafes and salons and bookstores were male spaces; and public discourse proceeded through the systematic silencing of women, youth, and minorities. I'm not buying it anymore.

Now, I am without doubt under the influence of CMS in general, and Henry Jenkins in particular -- but I feel like everything I've been reading lately articulates my usually formless, incoherent babble ("but, but, NO! I can't explain why that's wrong, but NO!") so perfectly. Instead of idealizing a past that never was, or deploring a present that really isn't, why don't we try to understand what's going on around us? You might think American Idol is bullshit, but it speaks to an unbelievable number of people, many of them smart, discerning individuals. Why is that? Do you seriously think it's because they've all been brainwashed – that everyone is really that stupid (except the people who talk about "serious" things, of course) – or is something else going on?

Who gets to decide what's "culture" and what's "artifice"?

At a colloquium last semester, a Brandeis alum spoke about his recent project, the Harry Potter Alliance, a fan group that mobilizes HP readers and film-goers to fight global poverty. Their main focus right now is Darfur -- they've managed to raise quite a bit of awareness amongst those poor, stupid brainwashed HP fans that actually accept, to quote a dear friend of mine who I disagree with, "what's served up on television and pop radio as 'culture'."

Now, in contrast, I just finished Don Delillo's White Noise. Lefty intellectuals will tell you this is high culture with "serious ideas" (in opposition to HP, which is "sugar-coated pop culture," or whatever – though I doubt many of those who pooh-pooh it have read it!); but this book is shit. Delillo criticizes media without understanding it, then stupidly ignores his own medium of transmission. I'd have gotten more out of watching "The Office," or cozying up with Flavor Flav.

The culture war is old news, and quite frankly I'm sick of it. I'm sick of Bill O'Reilly telling me what to think, and I'm sick of more "enlightened" intellectuals telling me what to do. People are not thoroughly stupid, and they don't always engage in meaningless activities. There is more interesting and creative activism/art being put on MySpace, YouTube and VH1 than I've read in a book in a loooooong time.

Yet us artsy-fartsy progressives remain stuck in the past, surrounded by things we don't understand, and therefore feel free to shit all over. It's no wonder we can't get fresh blood in the peace movement – no one wants to be lectured to about how he/she's a mindless dupe for enjoying TV, or listening to pop music. We should be trying to understand this, and use it to our advantage, instead of invoking non-existent utopian pasts.

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