Saturday, December 16, 2006

Eight months ago...

Stumbled across this the other day, as I was feeling depressed about the decline of my writing post-college. This didn't necessarily help, but I do feel it is a nice iteration of what I've liked so much about this blogging project. To contextualize briefly: it was written for the Bates Student as a farewell piece for the Arts Section. I reference some of the columns I wrote, but not to a degree where it is necessary to offer further explanation of them. Anyhow, to lengthily quote myself (is this this apex of egomania?):

"As the academic year comes to a close, it seems appropriate for us all to reflect upon my articles over the past months. Brilliant at times, exceptionally so at others, my pieces for this paper cautioned against the baleful currents of traditionalism and na├»ve historical longing that obfuscate the potential of our generation, that stigmatize us as divergent or deviant and as complicit participants in a systemic apostasy of “culture.”

In short, my pieces attempted to satirize this antediluvian way of thinking, imagining popular culture, that much maligned discursive nexus of society, as an object of traditional nostalgia. I intended this representational juxtaposition to reveal the relationship between an engrained elitism and the divisions and judgments by which the value and quality of art and culture are determined.

Despite the frequent verbosity of my sentences and the impossibly ridiculous choice of subjects, I am deeply invested in the intellectual exercises my pieces exemplify. Reading a Cameron Diaz film as a rigorous deconstruction of metaphysical gender politics in American culture, or Kelly Clarkson’s music as a potential locus of post-industrial dialectical radicalism is not merely an attempt at humor but the concerted effort to reveal the narrowness within which contemporary political and academic disciplines seem to operate and the social potential that arises from an increased willingness to engage popular or mainstream culture seriously and powerfully.

Too often corporate or capitalist culture is fallaciously counterposed against the academy or against a properly liberal political culture, a counterpositioning promulgated and justified primarily by members of these institutions, members who use supposedly radical academic jargon and theory to legitimate an ideological stance fundamentally rooted in classism or, at the very least, significant disdain for and distrust of the so-called “masses.”

This includes the relatively arcane, (Marxist professors who vilify an entire cultural epoch by narrowly and tenuously relating something as vague as “postmodernism” to “consumer culture” and the evaporation of idealism), and its reoccurrence as the relatively commonplace, (the disappointing installment of personal attacks and wearisome jokes as the primary forms of political critique emanating from much of the left.)

The articulation of these differences or relationships between academic culture and popular culture is not necessarily problematic, but when difference becomes oppositionality or polarity, conflict ceases, democracy stagnates, and the gap between self-demarcated groups widens threateningly. My emphasis on conflict stems from a specific conception of democracy as fundamentally plural.

The contemporary equation of plurality with provincialism marks a divergence from a more properly Nietzschean conception of pluralism as fundamentally conflictual. It is not enough for a nation to contain differences within itself and maintain these differences as distinct—these differences necessarily undergo constant negotiation and revision. To foster a culture of hermeticism and fragmentation ignores the complexity of institutional and personal relationships within society while ignoring and effacing the dynamic histories out of which contemporary institutions emerged. Furthermore, it fuels the processes of alienation by increasing the disconnect between public systems of representation and private experiences.

Sealing off academia or “high-culture” from popular culture fails and erodes American democracy. It obstructs dialectic processes within society and participates in a tragic ahistoricism, an ahistoricism that denies existence in favor of essence, to employ a famous existential dyad.

This ahistoricism becomes apparent in an anti-corporatism that critiques contemporary capitalism without ever wondering why these mechanisms persist at all, or a liberalism that attacks conservative values without wondering why these values are able to accumulate power and influence, or, in an example from my own writing, a hipster sentiment that maligns popular culture without ever examining or explaining the reason why popular culture is just that.

What I am suggesting is not a laissez-faire way of being in the world in which anything that exists is ok because it exists. Instead I am proposing a movement beyond criticism and a rebirth of truly democratic dialogue in which difference is not taken as fixed and unchanging, but instead as a site of potential, and a place for re-articulating the way in which we present our beliefs to the world.

That is, criticism must begin to be comprehended only in coordination with its positive obverses: invention, creation, writing, construction. Without this “will to power” the political system falters and is replaced by an economic system that attempts to engage popular culture by catering to those tepid, “neutral” commonalities that exist between all citizens.

To end what has been, in the end, a lengthy digression from my frequent rage over the way in which my (our) generation is discussed by those in power, I return to this initial point and propose a powerful reversal of this stigma in which, if any link can be drawn between our generation and its fervent embrace of popular culture, this strong relationship edifies popular culture as a sort of meeting hall of the post-industrial state, a commonality that, if manipulated properly, allows for the insertion of radical new discourses and narratives into these networks of near-universal vested interest and participation.

The cultural convergence presented by mass culture very formally represents a new beginning and the re-emergence of a conflictual and dynamic democracy. In effect, the cultural homogeny bred by capitalist mechanisms prophesies and determines its own end: the very idea of homogeny always teeters precariously on the brink of fragmentation, co-option, and plurality. But to push it over the edge we have to stop hating it at least enough to work through it. Make Kelly Clarkson a symbol of the revolution in a way that people believe, and mass culture becomes yours to imagine and determine."


Gael Gazpacho said...

Mr. Atchley,

Have no fear of any supposed decline in your powers of the written word. Your disposition and flair for verbal masturbation appear to be as strong as ever.

although I respect the difference of your writing style and philosophy, I feel a counterpoint is necessary to keep this blog fair and balanced.

I an effort to add more gravitas to my side I shall refrain from commenting further and let quotations do the talking.

"Anything that can be said can be said simply"

Ludwig Wittgenstein

And the classic, from Strunk & White:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

un Saludo

Le Capeur said...

Disregarding the style, I find myself in complete disagreement with the gist.

The problem with "pop culture," and the reason it shouldn't be engaged from anything approaching a democratic perspective, is that it's completely driven by the market. Someone like Kelly Clarkson is nothing but a product of advertising, focus groups, etc. You could argue that all these elements have their basis in "the people," and are therefore inherently democratic, but that position ignores the significant arm-twisting from above. In the end, when that sort of art is ubiquitous, we're not choosing what to like, we're simply acquiescing to one of the limited choices presented by the commercial institution.

The only revolution comes from rejecting mass-art and embracing the busker types who made their way up from basement recordings and club shows, attracing a merit-based following on the way. There's something really perverse about suggesting that Kelly Clarkson can be approached in that same alternate light. In fact, I'd call it the opposite of dissent; she's advertised by others, molded by others, her material is written by others, etc etc. Any kind of validation, however cleverly worded, is validation of that system, and smacks of laziness on the part of the writer. Just because it's so commonplace doesn't mean we need to wrack our brains in search of a cute way of embracing the essential homogeny.

You touch on the commercial aspects, John, but nowhere did I see sufficient reason to look past that crucial and prohibitive element.

Here's a quote from Rick Moody:

"My rule of thumb is if there seems to be a credibility problem, there probably is. For example, I can't help feeling that Britney Spears doesn't sing that well, can't dance and can't write her own material. I suspect other people feel this way too and just like the cultural garishness of Britney, and that's where I get confused. I get ill-tempered when there's a reactionary thrill about liking stuff that's corporate and overly format-conscious just because there's so much of this stuff around, we might as well start liking it, because what else do we have? Through the same tortured logic, we start talking about how great American beer is, or which is the better 99-cent store."