The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

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Is Pop Culture Bad?
David M. Whalen - 03/09/09
pop art

The following lecture was delivered at Hillsdale College at the invitation of The Lyceum. Published here by permission from the author.

Of course it’s bad. It’s deplorable, an oppressive bore, and the very Lazarus of culture for, like Lazarus, it “stinketh.”

In fact, the question about pop culture derives its intrigue precisely because pop culture is so self-evidently awful. But like so many such questions, the answers to which seem self-evident, there is something not a little absurd about it, too. “Is knee surgery fun? Do white sharks make good pets? Should professors give public speeches?” No matter the answer, knees will blow out, sharks will fascinate, and professors will speechify. Yes, pop culture is a lamentable blight and leprous sore but it is also inevitable, here to stay, and so insuperably dominant that we might as well get used to the fact that we will all pass long before this cultural kidney stone does. While we need not cry “Doff thy Beethoven and don this Beyonce,” we’d better not sit around waiting for a tenth symphony, either. (It ain’t happening, baby.)

But back to the question. Queries like this tempt academics—or at least, tempt this academic—to make use of one of several ploys.

Ploy number one: Problematize the question. In this ploy, one attempts to dissolve the question until it makes no sense to ask it anymore. I may seem to be doing this now, but the standard procedure is to scrutinize the question to the point that it is effectively evacuated of meaning and then pronounce “Voila!” over the vanished issue like a stage magician waving a hand over a suddenly disappeared rabbit.

This can also be done with a bonus. First, again, one empties out the question, say—-“To predicate ‘bad’ of a culture is to elide over so many methodological boundaries and distinctions as to render the predication effectively meaningless.” Or, “Culture is finally insusceptible of delineation and thus the question is finally impossible to assess”—-and once emptied of meaning, the question is replaced with an intriguingly open-ended, suggestive “perhaps”—-“The inaccessibility of a sufficiently coherent concept for ‘pop culture,’ while prohibiting the application of any cavalier, putatively rational analysis, nevertheless, by its very inaccessibility, suggests perhaps a subversive role for pop culture as a parodic caricature of destabilized normativity.”

Ploy number two: Dispatch the question through definition and division. (This is the favored ploy of dyspeptic Aristotelians.) In this ploy one defines the terms in such a way as to determine the answer to the question as a matter of logical entailment. Thus: “’Bad’ can refer only to matters moral, aesthetic, or as an index of desirability. With regard to the first, morals, there is no culture of any sort in hell, thus in itself pop culture cannot be evil; and in reference to pop culture’s moral influence on people, well, this is too dependent upon the subjective condition of the moral agent to admit of an answer to the question. With respect to aesthetic qualities, the absence of a dispositive aesthetic criterion applicable across different categories of cultural production—music, visual images, and even the phenomenon of celebrity itself—renders an answer impossible. So, by elimination we are left with only the category of desirability, and pop culture is, in very name, popular. “Argal,” as Shakespeare’s clown says, pop culture must be good as it is so obviously and widely desired.”

The last temptation is to postpone the question and engage instead in a thoughtful excursus whereby considerations preliminary to the question are sagely taken up and ruminated upon with all the wisdom of 20/20 foresight. In such cases one ensures that certain criteria or elements of an issue do not get lost in the discussion of the question, or ensures that the ground is cleared of antecedent problems, ambiguities, or equivocations. Thus, for example, before considering whether pop culture is bad, we need to determine the extent to which economic considerations enter into the assessment, or make sure that matters of ethnic and racial impact receive due consideration. In another form of this, one could even modestly assert that, because one’s expertise limits what one can reasonably say, the question will be slightly altered to a consideration of the influence of pop culture on high culture . . . and thus here comes a lecture on T.S. Eliot.

As I say, all of these ploys are academically tempting, all of them fun, but instead I will step with jolly bombast into the grey fog between the question’s self evidence and its absurdity. Yes, of course pop culture is bad. But for now it is bad not primarily because it is obsessed with Angelina Jolie’s lips, Salma Hayek’s sub-Saharan adventures in breast feeding, or “Oh my gosh, like, Britney Spears’ official ‘Circus’ remix is now available!” No, instead I will say it is bad because its means of production, distribution, and marketing have the unintended but inevitable consequence of suppressing—nearly annihilating—a more humane, local or folk culture.

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