[some slightly muddled late night thoughts that will be expanded in coming weeks]
Nicholas Carr issues one of his familiar missives railing against the almost automatic discarding of the old [books] in praise of ‘new media’ and ‘interactive fiction/writing’.
[A friend] describes a visit to an internet company where he watched a demo of a new web service that allows people to create mashups of movies, combining scenes from various films. “Until now,” his host blathers, “watching a movie has been an entirely passive experience.” Gomes comments: “Watching a good movie is ‘passive’ in the same way that looking at a great painting is ‘passive’ – which is, not very; you’re quite actively lost in thought. For my friend, though, the only activity that seemed ‘active,’ and thus worthwhile, was when a person sitting at a PC engaged in digital busy work of some kind.”
Gomes hits on one of the more annoying characteristics of the web philistine-utopians: they’re need to create false dichotomies about the products of creative work. In this case, the false dichotomy is between “passive” and “active.” If you’re not “actively” fiddling around with something, you’re being “passive,” and passive is, of course, bad. But as Gomes points out, there’s nothing passive about reading a good book or watching a good movie or sitting down with a good newspaper. If someone feels that watching a good movie is a passive experience, that says more about his shortcomings than the work’s.
The other popular false dichotomy is between “static” and “dynamic.” A completed work of art or craft – a book, a painting, a movie, an encyclopedia entry – is “static,” and static, like passive, is bad. A work is only “dynamic” if it’s some kind of open-ended group production – art by committee. Again, though, these terms are fake. A good book is anything but static – it gives to the active reader a wealth of meanings and connections. It’s the mashed-up products of committee culture that tend to feel static. The more a mob messes with something, the flatter, more one-dimensional it becomes. When it comes to creative work, the individual mind is more interesting – more dynamic – than the mob mind.
What’s particularly sad, and dangerous, is that these false dichotomies are infecting mainstream thought and discourse. They’re becoming an accepted way of looking at culture. A recent Library Journal featured an interview with Ben Vershbow, a fellow of the Institute for the Future of the Book, which is connected to the Annenberg Center for Communication and is funded in part by the MacArthur and Mellon foundations. Vershbow sees books as being static, and the reading of them as passive. He believes that the promise of books will only be fulfilled when they come to have “social lives.” “Soon,” he says, “books will literally have discussions inside of them, both live chats and asynchronous exchanges through comments and social annotation. You will be able to see who else out there is reading that book and be able to open up a dialog with them.” The model is Wikipedia, which, Vershbow says, “is never static, always growing.” [emphasis mine]
Carr’s points echo a lot of what I have been considering in relation to music criticism. Simon Reynolds, in discussing the race-to-the-bottom struggle in music journalism and blog circles between rockism and popism addresses the problems with the kind of cultural relatvism that has rendered critics unable to criticise – which seems pertinent in looking at Web 2.0/digital natives/wisdom of crowds type thinking.
As the original title of Frith’s book makes clear, Cultural Studies came out of sociology, and a large aspect of the discipline was the pursuit of value-free understanding of popular leisure—a human science, its research aimed to increase the sum of human knowledge. But, distorting the value-free element significantly, Cultural Studies also came out of socialism—all of the CCCS theorists were left-wing and many were Marxists. Gramsci, mediated by Stuart Hall, was a particularly strong influence. The working class youth subcultures were understood to be unconscious expressions of anti-hegemonic resistance through rituals, attempts to escape class destiny through the symbolic victory of style. As cult-studs broadened its scope, it soon began scanning the entirety of popular culture for buried or encrypted expressions of resistance or utopianism—hence the much-ridiculed micro-discipline of Madonna-ology, the studies of Trekkies, the TV semiologist Fisk who thought that MTV was an explosion of jouissance and carnivalesque energy, a form of anti-repressive desublimation, etc etc.
This approach was based in a left-wing populism that wanted to believe that anything popular must have something good about it—because “the people”, in their heart of hearts, are good. Left wing populists have to believe that the People are (or would be if only they’d listen to “us”) progressive/anti-authoritarian/tolerant/etc. Well, I’d like to believe that as well, but when you look at the world there’s a lot of evidence that people do/like/believe in/behave in all sorts of pernicious things/ways . . . One of the things to acknowledge is that popular culture is where a lot of this non-virtuousness manifests itself—and that, confusing things immeasurably, a lot of what makes pop culture work, makes it good (aesthetically), comes out of nasty stuff, the stuff that is ruining the world—aggression, ego, vanity, status, competitiveness, extravagance, not thinking about tomorrow. Rap and metal are two genres that can’t be properly understood without registering the roles of appetite-for-destruction and destructive appetites. And it goes beyond music of course: porn, junk food, and almost anything that can be described as “junk __” or “the new porn” etc etc. The cultural studies belief that there must be something good about anything that’s popular seems naïve and sentimental. A lot of popular things are reprehensible, or just lame.
The major legacy of cultural studies (which chunters on in academe with a well-past-its-day wan feel about it) as it filtered into rock/pop writing, is the critical sensibility of populist generalism. And one of tics of this sensibility is a squeamishness about the idea of aesthetic vanguardism, which is felt to be elitist, and an accompanying reluctance to describe anything as trash or middlebrow. The pervasiveness of this attitude is pretty unique to pop criticism—you might get a glint of slumming/inverted snobbery/populism idea here and there in film reviewing or literary criticism, but it’s pretty rare, and in other arts it’s non-existent. Outside arts & entertainment, it’s less than non-existent. Few people in our little world would have a problem with the idea that in politics certain ideas/values/policies are more progressive or enlightened than others.
… [snip] …
Obviously these are real evils with stark implications, whereas “bad” culture is not pernicious in any easily proved way or obviously direct way. An example that lies somewhere in between the two extremes and may be slightly illuminating: food. Few with any firsthand experience of school meals in the UK or America would disagree that they are shit, nutritionally and in terms of taste. Yet kids love that shit. I’ve got a six year old, if left to his own devices Kieran would eat nothing but chicken nuggets and fizzy soda. And you can see why the stuff appeals to unsophisticated palates: they’re salty and fatty and tasty in a very narrow sense, the sugary sodas give a “loud”, effective rush. And yet this kind of food is really bad for kids both in the short term (mega-constipative–some kids go two weeks without a shit; affects ability to concentrate in school, moodswings) and long-term (early death). When Jamie Oliver during the series based on his School Lunch project showed the kids what nuggets and Turkey Twizzlers (if you don’t know, you don’t want to know–oh go on then, take a peek) are made from-–a pink gloop of mechanically evacuated meat-mush, chicken lips and turkey perineum—they were uniformly turned off; knowledge made them more discriminating about what they put in their bellies. And having the crap struck off the menu in the school cafeteria forced them to educate their dulled palates and they soon learned to tolerate, then actively prefer, Jamie’s fare.
Now none of this necessarily means I (or Reynolds, or indeed Carr) is advocating a return to some kind of class system of knowledge – hierarchies of access with only a few doing production/writing for the many.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in his seminal work on cultural taste, social hierachies and class, Distinction, is misread if one simply uses him to neutralise any difference between fine wine and cheap wine, fine dining and fast food (yes, these are in part socially constructed judgements of taste) and render impossible any criticism of either. Bourdieu, instead, needs to be understood as revealing the social construction of aesthetic and cultural value – so as to be better able to critique.
Thus it may be better to conceive of Web/Media 2.0, Wikipedia, prod-users and the like as expanding the concept of ‘the few’ – the few who we know were in positions of power/control because of structural inequalities. And ‘the many’ splintering into a long tail of niche readers/listeners/viewers, who themselves may be producers in the same or another niche.
This allows us to simultaneously critique reality TV, acknowledge some of the problems of Wikipedia, take issue with the business model of MySpace, and bemoan some video games, student films and over the top pop music – but at the same time examine the real social benefits of social production, audience co-creation and the like as described by people like Yochai Benkler without needing to, as some commentators do, totalise it to some sense of the future ‘of media’ or ‘of education’.