Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Gurus of Pop

Hollywood blockbusters, top-forty radio, printed pulp at the supermarket, kitsch, camp, corn, schlock, idiocy and worse bombard us from every angle. What to do?

Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s the water we swim in. Pop amusements compose a milieu that well-adjusted people relate to as, well . . . culture.

But look closely at the slew, the slop, the mess of mass media, instead of staggering through it, and you'll back away, then turn and run. What is culture, anyway?

I’m thinking not so much about the targets of high-brow derision—pro wrestling, movies with explosions, Readers’ Digest, and that sort of thing—but the refined filth, the sludge that the highbrows regard highly. I’m thinking about the content that fills the free time of people with college degrees and who fancy themselves connoisseurs of culture. That is, we should not imagine that PBS nor NPR nor other “public” outlets edify. They don’t elevate anyone. They are pop for the high-brow herd, selling an illusion of superiority, membership in a fake elite. Culture, per se, is a distraction that occupies and disarms the mind.

Remember the Avant Garde? One chunk of that cultural quirk had “composer” John Cage, working with a collaborator, put out a recording called HPSCHD, a “musical” composition, the LP of which came with a printed sheet of bass and treble settings. The listener was to participate in the playing of the piece by, with the help of a timer, adjusting the stereo’s bass and treble levels at regular intervals.

Auditory navel gazing.

Similar examples of cultural gunk oozed and ooze their way into modern and postmodern painting, dance, letters and the rest of it in a pervasive coarsening and dumbing down of culture and all who imbibe it.

Mass-manufactured music, movies, magazines and online digital info lock down the mind, which then sprouts flab. Every time that mp3 file plays it’s the same sequence of sounds. Every time you watch that Harry Potter movie it’s the same sequence of sounds and images. The stuff on TV is called programming for good reason. Such critiques of recorded media go back to Plato, who warned against cultural forms that cannot be engaged in dialog.

But culture can’t be all bad. It includes, after all, the classics.

But if it’s tied to the patronage of a client, or created on commission, or offered by the benevolent for the edification of the masses, then it’s  propaganda. A culture is what you have when the simpler forms of life enjoy a comfortable, accommodating environment—like in a suburban development or a petri dish or wherever life has become enculturated.

We cultured plebes live under the patronage of patricians who for the most part remain unseen. And culture is the roof over us and the walls around us—a container built by elites to tame and contain thoughts and feelings so that pesky proles stay in line. Culture keeps us sleepwalking (a highly motivated state, as Marshall McLuhan observed.)

The misanthropes at the top know how to concoct an addictive time suck. Mass media content lures into its maw eyeballs, ears, and wallets, because that’s what it’s engineered so skillfully to do. Meanwhile, the culture engineers fabricate new episodes of media content, attaching to them bows of cool detachment, and releasing them into the flow of fads.

But pay attention, and mass media will reveal their true nature as phenomena to monitor and dissect, not consume. A mentally healthy person in this environment will ween him- or herself from the cult of mass media. One less episode this week, one less download next week, and let the deprogramming begin. A few steps along this path, and the sojourner will notice free time on his or her hands that media otherwise would consume.

The prospect of being troubled to figure out what to do with free time should not deter anyone from seeking more free time. It’s an opportunity to turn culture on its head. As McLuhan pointed out, media content is the juicy steak held out by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. But who, in this metaphor, is the burglar? The privileged inbreeders who husband the rest of the population?

Don’t cast yourself as the lead in The Truman Show. There are other options. The container called culture has a hole in it, a loophole. The little remarked solution to the seeming dilemma of mental containment is simply to ignore the cage of culture. Most of it can be ignored with little effort. Most of it should be ignored.

The task is to redefine oneself, to redirect one’s time and talents from consuming to creating culture.

But you won’t have Steven Spielberg’s budget. You’re not a pop guru, yet.

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