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Consumption display; or, against sharing

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Sunday, Jul 12, 2009

Matt Yglesias makes a point about cultural display in response to this James Wolcott essay, which explores the ways in which it is threatened by technology. Wolcott believes that rather than show our personality through the culture we consume, we’ll indulge instead an ethical poseurdom—“I suspect that once this downturn plateaus and shrinks in the rearview mirror, we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics—our progressive virtues.” (Like I was arguing yesterday, consuming conservation.)


But Yglesias is obviously right that cultural display is not simply going to disappear.


I note that one thing a lot of people, myself included, sometimes do is use the Adium feature that automatically sets your IM chat status to the title and artist of the song currently playing on your iTunes. One way to think about that is as a substitute for the old game of visually displaying the physical records or CDs you own in your house. It’s a way to turn your music consumption into something quasi-public. Perhaps reading books in groups and writing blogs about what you’re reading will be the new way to share your cultural consumption with the world.


As much as I joyously do the last thing he mentions—blog about what I read and listen to, try to solve what interested me about it in public—I can’t imagine doing the other, that is, deliberately show off what I’m listening to with no analytical value added by me, as though to advertise the degree to which I am reliant on the symbolic power of the cultural product to define myself. I wonder if my distinguishing between those two sorts of behavior is a generational difference, a residue from having been a music listener in a pre-digital time. Perhaps I’m too old to appreciate how “showing off” has now become “sharing.” If I made an effort to let people know what I was listening to, I would only be able to see what I was doing as trying to score points, trying to beat out whoever was paying attention by one-upping them with something cooler than what they were listening to. Maybe that kind of competition is a contemporary potlatch, but to me it just seems weird. It seems to supplant the pleasures of me in my apartment listening to the music, which should theoretically be enough, with a different and more uncertain pleasure of showing others up—I mean, sharing with them my superlative tastes. But pop culture consumption ultimately has little to do with sensual qualities and more to do with signaling, with participating in a zeitgeist, with nailing down one’s social identity for a particular moment in time. Wolcott suggests that new media forms are undermining that signaling function—but it’s instead forcing us to think of consumption display differently. It seems more likely that technology will make an even larger part of our consumption into signaling (‘sharing”) rather than extracting whatever utility is in the work itself.


It would be a delightful consequence as far as I am concerned if the changes in media-consumption technology end up requiring us to have to add something from ourselves—our reaction, our interpretation, our pleasure, something—before we can carry out a signaling gesture with some piece of culture. You can’t just carry a copy of The Rainbow around on the subway and have people think you are in touch with the elemental, passionate human soul as captured by D.H. Lawrence. You would not be able to wear a book like it’s a T-shirt and get away with it. In other words, it would be great if everyone came to understand “sharing” as adding something significant and interesting to the public conversation about the things we are doing (though “doing” typically means “consuming”), instead of merely preening. With all tthe information readily available to us, it’s easier than ever to make that attempt.


But unfortunately, I think we are far more likely to see add-ons to the new media forms, along the lines of Adium, to allow for pure signaling displays that require no input from the one making the display. It’s part of the imperative to share, of which Facebook and Twitter are the current cultural harbingers. I don’t believe our culture would allow for a technological development that makes being a poseur harder rather than more convenient. Poseurdom is too seductive and useful an opportunity; it lets us deploy cultural capital without risk. I can carry around The Rainbow without losing points for having no clue what the hell Lawrence is talking about 95 percent of the time.

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