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How to replace popular culture with something worthwhile

The Archdruid, as usual, has a great post:

Business executives, you may be interested to know, read very little other than mystery novels and pop business books. I don’t know that anybody’s done a survey on what politicians read, but I doubt it’s anything more edifying. It’s really a closed loop; from the top to the bottom of the social pyramid, one or another form of mass-market popular culture makes up most of the mental input of Americans, and I trust most of my readers know the meaning of the acronym GIGO. ... [T]he solution? It’s got two steps, which are as follows.

1. Pull the plug on current popular culture in your own life. Cutting back a little doesn’t count, and no, you don’t get any points for feeling guilty about wallowing in the muck. Face it, your television will do you more good at the bottom of a dumpster than it will sitting in your living room, and the latest pirate zombie romantic mystery, with or without Jane Austen, is better off gathering cobwebs in a warehouse; you don’t need any of it, and it may well be wrecking your capacity to think clearly [given that the teebee can implant false memories through advertising, that's doubtless true].

2. Replace it with something worth reading, watching, hearing, or doing. You may well have your own ideas about what goes in this category, but in case you don’t, I have a suggetion: go looking among things that are older than you are. [We used to call this "the humanities" before the deans and the corporations ruined the university systems.]

Yes, I’m quite serious, and for more than one reason. First, one of the advantages of time is that the most forgettable things get forgotten; there was a huge amount of vapid popular culture in the 19th century, for example, but only the most erudite specialists know much about it now. Your chances of finding something worth reading or watching or hearing or doing goes up as time has more of a chance to run its filter on the results. Second, even if what you find is pablum, it’s the pablum of a different time, and will clash with mental habits tuned to the pablum of this time, with useful results. When the visual conventions of a Humphrey Bogart movie strike you as staged and hokey, stop and ask yourself how current popular culture will look fifty years from now—if anybody’s looking at them at all, that is.

That, of course, is the third reason, the one I hinted at a few paragraphs back: current popular culture, like so much else of contemporary American society, is almost uniquely vulnerable to the multiple impacts of an industrial civilization in decline. Fifty years from now, the way things are going just now, the chances that anybody will be able to watch a Care Bears video are pretty close to nil; most of today’s media don’t age well, and all of them depend directly and indirectly on energy inputs that our society can scarcely maintain now and almost certainly won’t be able to maintain for most Americans for more than a decade or two longer. Beyond that, you’re going to need something more durable, and a great deal of what was in circulation before the era of mass culture will still be viable after that era is over once and for all.

Yep. Exactly like clothes. I can buy an excellent old shirt at the thrift shop for a dollar; it's actually well made. The new shirt I buy for more than twenty bucks at the mall is poorly made with cheap thread and fits badly. And so it goes.


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Submitted by gob on

Almost any random walk for long enough through YouTube will prove that people just naturally make art - good, bad, strange, mediocre, sublime - out of whatever is around.

The Shakers didn't confine themselves to singing "Gift to Be Simple" -- they left hundreds of songs made by ordinary people who didn't know or perhaps didn't care that music is supposed to be made by musicians. Some of them are amazing.

Make your own art. You will be surprised. You'll appreciate the art of others more. You may move someone deeply. That person might be yourself.

techno's picture
Submitted by techno on

Back in the 1980s, I was looking for something to help explain the economics of Reagan and came across the the writings of Thorstein Veblen. Written between 1899 and 1921, Veblen's works are especially difficult because he uses many words from an already archaic vocabulary. I was looking up words about ten times a page in the beginning.

But oh the rewards! I am convinced that I gained more understanding about the human condition from reading the first page of The Theory of the Leisure Class than from all the books I had read up until that moment. And after awhile, it gets easier. Eventually, I decided to read all ten of Veblen's books in the order they were published. Took about three months and was easily the most profound intellectual experience of my life.

And yes, reading Veblen pretty much cured me of any desire to consume pop culture

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

Cutting back a little doesn’t count, and no, you don’t get any points for feeling guilty about wallowing in the muck.

But then I don't feel guilty about wallowing in the muck. Give up Terry Pratchett? Never!!!

It's a good idea to engage with the unfamiliar, as in reading books from different cultures and different times. It's also a good idea to see how other people deal with the situation that you're in.

One rather narrow timebound opinion is that genre literature like the mystery is inherently inferior to art novels. Which holds up better, The End of the Affair or Brighton Rock? Herman Wouk or Dashiell Hammett?

Valhalla's picture
Submitted by Valhalla on

and the fact that business execs also read them means nothing to me. (actually, I find it surprising that they read fiction at all, and my guess is they're not reading the same stuff I am). But I don't feel guilty about it at all -- nor about reading a lot of SF, nor about reading books that are younger than me. Nor about watching TV.

Participation in pop culture doesn't have to be all or nothing. Just because I enjoyed Battlestar doesn't mean I'm also subsuming myself in Care Bears. People have been telling and listening to stories for millennia. TV is just another media for that. Some stories, and some great storytellers, write for TV. So that's where I go, sometimes, for stories. I also read more than anyone else I know (in real life, anyway).

People have discretion over their own activities. Participating in pop culture at all doesn't have to be some gateway drug to total, mind-numbing immersion.

Submitted by lambert on

... for marketing purposes, I think that it needs to be treated, and discussion of it framed, as a public health hazard (see the link at Salon above; this is not foil).

I read mysteries, too. But at least as far as TV, radio, and most of the press, I'm clean.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

I'm convinced that it contributes to depression -- all those twenty second peak experiences, not to mention its propaganda for anti-social values. Given the techniques used, anyone who claims that it doesn't affect them is claiming not to be a normal human being. On the individual level, it's just basic self-defense to use a recording device to skip the commercials.

At a minimum, socially we should demand that advertising and public relations not be classified as a deductible business expense. Businesses should have to pay corporate income tax on their entire advertising budgets, no loopholes, no deductions.

Valhalla's picture
Submitted by Valhalla on

that's why I have dvr. And a dvd player. And various other mechanisms that insulate me from commercial appeals. While we've (the collective world) have probably never been as inundated with advertising as we are today (although not quite at the level of Neal Stephenson's mediatronic chopsticks, yet), it's also never been easier to avoid, either.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

I have finally been able to catch up on Mad Men(OMG!), and its absolutely fascinating to see how this all started in a way.

And also thanks to the joys of Netflix, you can see them without ads.

Even Hulu only makes you watch one ad every commercial break.

So it's not that there isn't worthwhile stuff out there, even though you have to sift through the garbage to find it. I've been reading for pleasure my whole life, and I can't ever think of when it's been so easy to find feminist* fiction.

And while there's a lot of dreck on the TV, there's also a lot of absolutely incredible stuff, like Mad Men, Spartacus(it's like Buffy and Xena had this sensationally sexy, yet thought-provoking love-child).

Sarah Michelle Gellar, who's returning to TV this fall, said in a recent interview that there are so many better roles for women on TV than movies, that all the scripts she got for movies were all to be the wife or the girlfriend of the main character, which is true. You may have movies like Salt, or Columbiana, and soon Haywire, breaking the mold with women action stars and protagonists, but it's still a novelty these days, and roles where a woman doesn't play some plighted love interest are still scarce to come by.

*Feminist, in that they are written by women, with women protagonists and antagonists, and where topics like the patriarchy are examined, and sexual assualt is dealt with in a realistic manner, with some perspective from a survivor standpoint. I'm reading two series right now where the heroines suffer, and persevere, after an assault with PTSD, and I can't think where I would have read anything like that even 10 years ago.

jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

Bachelor of Arts in Great Texts of the Western Tradition from Baylor University. I've read Homer and Graham Greene and a big chunk of everything in-between.

I've had a terrible time finding a good job, but I wouldn't trade my degree for anything. It's made me a more complete human being.

Submitted by lambert on

Me too, on both counts (although no degree; family background).

jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

College is also when I began the long trek across the political spectrum, moving from conservative to moderate, culminating in where I am today. I like to think studying the great books helped in that.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

i won't get on the soapbox; i'm taking a break from Seriousness today. but still. it makes me weep for the future, to contemplate the "culture" that will be forced down most throats.