Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Workers, Potters (Part I)

A familiar cultural script, perennially contested by two "wings" of the 21st century NYTimes-style hegemon.  Exhibit A: Joel Stein's less-than-thoughtful defense of Adult Culture, contra Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, Pixar, etc., etc., a few weeks ago.  Exhibit B, following script: Julian Sanchez in a more thoughtful response to Stein, nevertheless bringing out a tired, tiresome trope: "It’s hard to resist poking fun at the pretentious undergrad lugging some William Gaddis doorstop to the local café so everyone can see what they’re reading."  You see, because when people read things that are difficult, they do so primarily for reasons of social climbing. 

(But in a world where the proverbial everyone reads and secretly prefers stuff like The Hunger Games, who is the pretentious undergrad actually likely to impress?  Poor hypothetical fellow.)

The ease of this trope stems from the fact that cultural discourse in or around The New York Times tends to assume at least a faint familiarity with the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, a major theorist of taste whose many, many pages of work tend to get reduced to the principle that people's economic privilege determines or at least conditions their cultural tastes.  Bourdieu comes to stand in as a shorthand argument stored in the backs of everybody's minds who has the cultural capital to have at least a general sense of what Bourdieu argued when it came to having cultural capital.  (You see a circular, or at least spiraling, structure forming here?)  Thus, the mere invocation of Bourdieu - even when he's not actually named, but stands phantasmatic over "his" argument - is a ready weapon for when the cultural conservators attack, muggle-like, the fortresses of YA lit, cartoons, etc.  Another way of tracing through Script B: enjoying Harry Potter (for example) is a function of its ease and its fun, and who are you to insist we read serious literature when the dirty secret is that we only like it in small doses - or not at all?  (And people who like the really serious literature are clearly pompous, full of youthful hubris ready to be deflated - "the pretentious undergrad lugging some William Gaddis" for everyone to see.)

The problems I have with these scripts are somewhat oblique to the back-and-forth shape they take on in such venues as the Times or popular literary blogs.  One reservation I'll venture is with the idea that these low and/or youthful forms are always compulsively easy to digest because they're just so enjoyable.  For everyone.  Neutrally and equally. 

I'm not so sure.  Though the prose may go fast, "keeping up" with one of these mega-franchises often requires a significant investment of time, money, and mental energy (both cognitive and emotional).  And if one really keeps up with the gossip, the behind-the-scenes production of film adaptations, the peripheral merchandising, etc., this actually involves a great deal of effort.  It is work that may be enjoyable, but it is still work.  And if one doesn't like Harry Potter to begin with, having to read through all of Rowling's titles would absolutely be equivalent to, errr, what Dan Kois unfortunately discussed as "cultural vegetables."  This "good for you" logic can work in multiple directions though; it needn't refer only to Gaddis or Jafar Panahi.  Easy, leisurely cultural objects - if indeed they are leisure - should not require effort unless that effort is fun for people.  Yet a real coup for the makers of Harry Potter, Lost, Hunger Games, comic book movie franchises, and so on, is to capture that labor of looking amongst a willing audience.  The scholarly field of fan studies, especially when it is industry-centric, might celebrate this win-win synergy but I think a healthy infusion of Marxist political economy is always called for when considering the overdetermined cultural life of such objects.

Think, very quickly, about dancing (popular, folk, or street forms of dancing).  This is a leisure activity that also requires a substantial measure of effort and time.  In some circumstances, it can be highly politicized.  But it can also be commodified, or not commodofied.  I'll be seeing Step Up: Revolution when it comes out - a dance film harnessing a "protest" message which, however sincere or sophisticated it might even turn out be, nevertheless also serves to sell tickets to mass youth audiences in order to make money for companies that would otherwise be occupied.  (Adorno's rolling over in his grave...)

What I would want to add to this scripted, recurrent debate is a reconsideration of the merits of the low, the mass, or the popular.  The script on both sides presumes that serious or adult culture entails work and that the low, the mass, or the popular doesn't.  The Joel Steins of the NYTimes-world presume this work to be ultimately beneficial, while the Dan Koises undermine such self-improvement framings to celebrate the pleasures of unstressed, unforced leisure.  A capitalist work ethic underlies this entire conceptualization.  The Stein approach wants to build cultural capital (and a path of self-improvement) which tends to rely upon a foundation of economic privilege - leisure produces not things but the minds and practices that could be devoted to higher ideals.  This, Aristotle saw as a goal to which to aspire, and which the likes of Marx and Gramsci pointed out was the material basis for ruling class ideology before communism was to overthrow it.  The Kois approach inverts this logic, however, snickering a bit like Paul Lafargue about the right to be lazy, maybe even arguing (like Steven Johnson) that it's counter-intuitively "good for us," and yet also (often mindlessly) volunteering labor for the attention economy - so that one doesn't think about Harry Potter as "cultural vegetables" (its social utility designated mainly as fodder for chit-chat), and yet one's spectatorial investment in Harry Potter, etc., produces a great deal of profit for the companies that put out these "leisure" products.  We're toiling in the fields and factories of the attention economy.

Seen this way, might you not agree with me about the distinct lack of appeal these options present?  Official culture fails us.  In the next part of this post - coming in the near future - I'll try to talk about genre and sentiment, among other things, and see what useful through-lines we can find when it comes to talking about the high and the low, the serious and the frivolous, in culture ...


Christopher Small said...

You do this kind of thing so well, Zach.

I recently caught up with The Corporation ('03) on DVD, and there's this bit at the end where Michael Moore makes clear the hypocrisy inherent in the production of his films: Though often fiery anti-establishment, anti-corporate or anti-Bush polemics they are inevitably produced and distributed by the big media conglomerates (like Universal), and, in the end, make money off of the backs of specific mass youth audiences and/or privileged, "politically savvy" middle-age consumers. Moore then goes on to insinuate that this strange paradox allows him to be somewhat subversive in his attacks: "capital will sell you the rope to hang it with if it thinks it can make a quick buck. I'm that rope"

It doesn't take very much to see the lack of veracity of this sort of statement. Less than a "bite the hand that feeds you" attitude, what I think is more self-evident and dismaying about Moore's position is that, as you said, his particular style of "revolution" or "liberalism" have themselves been packaged, branded and commodified for mass consumption. The documentary work that Moore does, however extensive or well-researched his critiques of capitalism are, will always be putting money directly back into the corporate machine that he's supposedly trying to topple. Like the gambler who wins $200 on the slots only to spend it all on drinks and smokes at the casino-lounge.

- Chris

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks Chris - Michael moore is a good case to consider here (and I mention him briefly in part II) and I think it illustrates that the best way to think "against the grain" of the culture industry is not to beat it at its own game (i.e., voting with your dollars to legitimize a particular message) but instead to work obliquely, or negatively ...

Greg said...

Regarding Michael Moore, I have read/heard comments from him that are similar to mine, in that the best economic systems tend to be capitalist/socialist hybrids with democratically elected governments. So, his movies making money while being distributed through conglomerates is not completely hypocritical/contradictory.

Zach Campbell said...

Greg, I agree that Moore may not be hypocritical, exactly - though I do think it's legitimate to point out how his ostensibly oppositional stance gets spun.