Culture and transformation


I spent the day working on an introduction to my new book Transformation.  This book argues that there’s a new cultural regime, one that is, I believe, changing how we define the individual, the self, our culture and our economy.  Yeah, I know. It’s shamelessly overweening.  But, hey.  (That’s my defense for arrogance and intellectual presumption.  But, hey.)

Anyhow, I had occasion to reflect why Transformation is being written by me in 2006 instead of by someone else in, say, the 1980s.  I mean, you coulda.  Much of the evidence was there.  The theory is not hard to fashion.  (You could have built it out of spare parts and duct tape in, say, 1987.)  All you had to do was to believe the evidence of your senses and build an analytic device that make sense of this evidence. 

Someone coulda wrote this book and no one did.  The question is why.  I think it’s because popular culture was still under the intellectual embargo created by the academic community in the postwar period. 

Here’s a short list, by no means an exhaustive one:

Packard, Vance. 1957. The Hidden Persuaders. :
Macdonald, Dwight. 1963. Against the American Grain. London: : Gollancz.
Ewen, Stuart. 1976. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New  York: McGraw Hill
Trow, George W. S. 1981. Within the context of no context. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.
Fussell, Paul. 1991. Bad, or the dumbing of America.  New York:  Summit Books.  .
Barber, Benjamin. 1995. Jihad Vs. McWorld. New York: Random House.
Washburn, Katharine and Thornton, John F. 1996. Dumbing down : essays on the strip mining of American culture. New York: W.W. Norton.

Shor, Juliet. 2004. Born to Buy : The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner. 

The academics and the essayists insisted that popular culture was a corruption, that the consumer was a dupe, that something had gone terribly wrong now that capital and commerce had been allowed to interfere with culture.  It was crap as an argument even in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but the intellectuals made it their badge of difference, their  cri de coeur, their enduring accusation to the friends of capitalism, their warning to the rest of us. 

Oh, damn,  They were dead wrong.  Popular culture got steadily better.  We did not dumb down and out.  TV improved.  (How do I know this?  I am watching House as I write this.  It’s the episode about the girl from New Orleans.  The script writers have just found a way to work a reference, unmistakeable but inoffensive, to oral sex into the script   This is more than the I Love Lucy writers could ever dream of this.)  Movies ran in two directions: up hill to the blockbuster, the last properties that could talk to everyone in a splintering society, and down hill to the long tail, a million little movies you and I will never see.  But hey presto, the blockbusters got better and so did the little movies.  The parts of culture not touched by commerce, well, many of them descended into self absorption and incoherence.  As Tyler Cowen pointed out, commerce is actually good for culture.  Go figure.  Shakespeare did. 

Anyhow here’s a paragraph from the introduction.  (You saw it here first!)

The transformational turn is driven by rising sophistication in the entertainment industry and in the fan. Sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century, popular culture began to use itself as a creative resource. Self repudiation gave way to self discovery. Shows like The Simpsons, Buffy, and the X-files began unashamedly to draw upon pop culture. A virtuous cycle was set in train. The more self referential pop culture became the richer it got, the richer it got, the better it got, the better it got, the easier it was to recruit more talented writers and producers, the more talented the writers and producers, the richer pop culture became.  {Rinse well and repeat]  By 2005, Stephen Johnson felt it possible to write a book called Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. It is worth pointing out that this improvement of popular culture ran entirely against expectation. The intellectuals and the academics insisted that pop culture was “dumbing itself down,” that it would become ever more stupid, ever more craven.  I believe recantations are in order.

I am going to regret that last line.  I just know I am.  It’s peevish and self righteous.  But it is precisely the way I feel.  The intellectual embargo brigade were smug and very powerful.  They controlled presses, journals, hiring committees and the minds of the undergraduate, and they used this power without remorse.  Worst of all, they created and controlled the "popular imaginary," the shared understandings that Americans had of themselves.  They created self loathing in the producers and the consumers of popular culture.  And, to add injury to insult, they did all of this at public expense.  We gave them tenure to protect them from political orthodoxy and they thanked us by creating a nuclear winter of ideological conformity that stifled real inquiry for close to 50 years.  They did all of his under the banner of what Trilling called the "adversary intention."  Intellectuals revealed what we ordinary folk were too simple to see or say.  Oh, what a load of shit.  While intellectuals persisted in the embargo, the rest of us went about the business of making more popular culture more interesting.  And somehow, don’t tell me how, we did it without the benefit of tenure or ideological purity.  Go figure.   

12 thoughts on “Culture and transformation

  1. Peter

    “Sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century, popular culture began to use itself as a creative resource.”

    Grant, I would put the date that this happened before 1975. Episodes of “I Love Lucy” used to feature special guest stars, usually Hollywood actors who played themselves. In one episode, the special guest star is . . . Lucille Ball! She meets with her own character, “Lucy”. After such recursion, what forgiveness?

    I was about to write that the self-referential nature of TV came from vaudeville and music hall, but as I wrote this, I remembered Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s self-references and cross-references, eg, in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, the character Hamlet stages a play containing the story of the play “Hamlet”.

  2. Brian Moore

    “I believe recantations are in order.”

    Amen. But if the people who made the original claims had enough intellectual integrity to recant, they wouldn’t have slandered the rest of us as philistine clods in the first place.

    Thank you.

  3. Grant

    Peter, brilliant, now we have a date and a cultural artifact. That Lucy! Best, Grant

    Brian, exactly so, very well said. Best, Grant

  4. Stéphane

    I attended a conference earlier today and a speaker from Mastercard argued that their ‘priceless’ campaign became “pop culture”. According to the amount of spoofs seen on the web, I think she is right. Mastercard even planned a ‘customer-generated content’ website on which you can share your personal version of the priceless campaign.

    After all the ‘What’s up’ kind of campaigns and popular quotes from friends, mastercard didn’t revolutionize anything. The interessing point about that specific case comes form Japan : Previously to the mass campaign there was no word in Japanese that correctly encapsulated the notion of ‘priceless’. Mastercard decided (like many US-based brands that communicate in Japan) to use the original english ‘priceless’. Since then, according to the speaker, ‘priceless’ became a common Japanese word, used in regular conversation, and reshapping their relationship to money and to ‘stuff that you can’t buy’…

    Food for thought


  5. auto

    grant, are you among those academics who need one of the red guards to oversee their recanting or were you always one of the enlightened?

  6. Brad Berens

    Hey Grant,
    At the moment, I don’t have where YOU were during the 1980s at my finger’s ends, but I spend 1986 to 1990 at Brown University and then 1990 to 1997 at Berkeley. At both institutions — this is in the English Departments, by the bye — the pop-culture vs. classic culture wars were already in full swing. Puh-LENTY of people were fighting the traditional canon from many different directions. Identity politics were in full swing (I got pasted as a conservative just b/c I’m a white guy; which amused and aggravated me); semiotics and structuralism were taking everything as a text; new historicism was trying to overthrow the tyranny of new criticism, and I had colleagues teaching TV Guide while I taught Batman: The Dark Knight Returns next door. This sort of thing wasn’t just happening at Brown and Berkeley. Lots of people were writing books about this during the time you mention.
    The anti-pop-culture attitudes that you’re talking about were more characteristic of the 1950s than the 1980s… just think about Henry Jenkins’s work. Dinesh D’Souza, E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom were reacting against SOMETHING… weren’t they?
    More generally, if, as you argue, “there’s a new cultural regime, one that is, I believe, changing how we define the individual, the self, our culture and our economy” then I think that has a lot more to do with the changes in technologies underpinning media than with any academic orthodoxies.
    I think, buried under some of the rhetoric of your intro draft, there’s a slightly more temperate but much more credible set of assertions, and I’m eager to read them.
    All best,
    Brad Berens

  7. greg claxton

    >Ritzer, George. 2000. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

    I don’t know about the rest, but The McDonaldization of Society isn’t primarily about pop culture or even really the cultural aspects of McDonalds at all. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it; there’s probably a little bit about the use of advertising, but it’s not the main point of the book, which is more about how McDonalds is a paradigm of how late-20th century capitalism achieves efficiency, and what some of the consequences of that are. Although it’s possible that Ritzer’s moved more in the direction you’re declaring against in his later consumer society stuff, which I haven’t read.

    Also, since I’m posting, I want to take issue with something you’ve tossed off a couple of times in past posts: Starbucks didn’t “invent” third places. Third places have been around for forever. That’s a what a bar is. Starbucks isn’t even a very good third place, largely because, sort of in the mode of Ritzer, it exchanges character and local uniqueness for consistency across space. In fact, my own personal first encounter with the whole idea of third places was in an article arguing this point. I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t function that way regardless, just that it’s not anywhere near something they invented.

    Whew. That’s been stewing for a while.

  8. Grant

    Stephane, filling too, thanks, great examples all, I guess there is a distinction to be drawn between people make their artifacts with our ads vs. people making our brand with our ads, but this is a guibble merely. Thanks, Grant

    Auto, yes, I spent my time, I got my ticket, but I like to think I left because I was enlightened not the other way round. Best, Grant

    Brad, I couldnt disagree more. People may have taken up the topic of popular culture, but rarely did they dignify this topic with serious point of view. Which is to say lots of this was appropriated the text as something that then belonged to the academy and its theories. Almost never did the pointed heads take seriously the people who created and consumed these titles. Indeed, they took the precaution of never talking to these people. EVER. It was very much “ok, you just step aside, we will know tell you what these texts mean.” From an anthropological point of view this is an abomination. And by the by, Henry Jenkins is actually the hero of the piece because he dared actually to talk to fans and to take them seriously. Thanks, Grant

    Greg, thanks for this clarification, I stand corrected and I have removed the title. Thanks! And I agree with you that Starbucks didnt invent the third space. But they did invent a third space, and they did so in the face of an acute discomfort with public life. Anyone not clearly engaged in gainful activity was supposed to be kook. Thanks, Grant

  9. art

    The high-low / love-hate or commerce-anything else binary is always part of American culture, since Matthew Arnold et al. It most certainly isnt just the 1980s. On the contrary, there are great examples from each decade, and the 80s if anything raised the stakes with so many programs that were drawn from and gave back to the fabric of consumer-pop culture.

    I havent read your book, but there seems to be evolutionary claims being made, things are always improving. I don’t know if that is the best way to proceed when talking about culture and society, where there were and will always be incredible examples of a range of “greats”. While you are making of “proof” of some sort in the tv reference, lets face it, there are some significant, significantly changed fights along new lines of divisions between high and low – it starts from the Presidency and works its way through Fox vs other news sources, and then so on down the line, a chain…to the “street” and a whole new reach and range of an industry built on following and reproducing the drivel of idiots – really, that is the best term – idiots. And with these figures returns something that dispels the “classless” American society, of class-attributes given (Britney is white trash, Paris is “rich” trash, and Lindsay is… well, whatever trash, and the Simpsons, god need I go on…).

    In other words, the space of that has changd radically, pardigmatically – also why we read blogs like yours – it is “reality” in quotes that has been this decades coopted space. It is managed by the usual culture fights, but they sound inadequate to describe the situation. From President and War Christians to rich/poor trash getting lots of money etc.. to Scientologists having so much press coverage through their Hollywood connections, it isnt the scripts or the plot details of a few programs that relate to “commerce” versus “culture”, but the real economy of rich (think: Gulf War Oil Barons; Hiltons; Trump; “celebrity” scientologists with so much money to be feared; etc.) versus everyone else who should accept the way things are in “their” culture.

  10. Rob Kleine

    Grant – Another possible turning point: The moment LP sales — yes, those black round disks of which I have many languishing in the attic — were systematically tracked for the first time. This advance was made possible thanks to the magic of UPC coding and other complementary technologies. While this event posted-dated ILL (I Love Lucy; which I watched on a B&W TV), it seems a significant tweak in the transition from elitist controlled snob-culture to populist pop-culture. Why? Because prior to this point, album sales were reported by elitists; elitists that reported what they thought was selling. Reported rock album sales soared because, ‘everyone’ knew that rock dominated the cultural scene. The revelation? That country artists and albums were outselling rock artists by a landslide.

    So, as noted by a commenter above, are you getting at shift in cultural process? Or, are the fundamental cultural process intact, but changes in enabling “knowing” technologies have had the effect of shifting the locus of cultural convention away from the elite culture defining classes to the people?

    Why do I feel as though I’m channeling Lloyd Warner at the moment? Speaking of which, elements in Warner’s “The Living and the Dead” make me wonder if the elitist’s grip (strangulation) of pop culture wasn’t an abborition made possible by the nature of mass media to provid a soap box for a relatively few chattering elitist voices.

    So, I wonder, are changes in information technologies enablers of this pop culture ascention?

  11. adamsj

    TV improved. (How do I know this? I am watching House as I write this. It’s the episode about the girl from New Orleans. The script writers have just found a way to work a reference, unmistakeable but inoffensive, to oral sex into the script This is more than the I Love Lucy writers could ever dream of this.)

    Is this a serious argument: “TV improved because it talks about oral sex”?

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