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Cultural consumption at the margins

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Thursday, Jan 3, 2008

Because the manner in which media is distributed these days has so changed the way I experience it and even conceive desires about it, I wanted to refresh my memory on Marxist literary theory, which strongly emphasizes the network of social relations within which a work exists. (You can already see this has done wonders for my prose style.) It seems that, for example, the amount of music available for free (if you are willing to take it) makes it impossible to listen to it in the same way. This reminded me of Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism where he attributes to Marx the idea that “capitalist society, with its predominance of quantity over quality, its conversion of all social products to market commodities, its philistine soullessness, is inimical to art.” One pessimistic way of applying this idea: Accustomed as we are to attach a price to cultural product, the fact that it’s suddenly (for all intents and purposes) free encourages a massive and rapid accumulation, which serves to reinforce the status of the art as product rather than experience. We become buried under the surfeit, doomed to process the material rather than enjoy it—forced to focus on consuming our way through it rather than actually listening to it, watching it, reading it, whatever the case may be.

In other words, we may be so ideologically conditioned to regard culture as a priced product that we can’t understand it or value it outside of that context, even as technological change is reducing the relevance of price to cultural experience. The underpinning assumption is that the social context that produces cultural objects also produces at the same time (or dialectically, if you prefer, with each altering the development of the other) the subjects fit for such objects—mass culture, for instance, is presumed to yield a certain sort of person fit to be one of the masses, with lowest-common-denominator tastes and untroubled by disposability. So we experience “free” with a kind of panic, either the culture is becoming worthless or we are in the midst of such a bargain that we need to consume as much as we can to behave rationally within that market. But the outcome—collections of music, for example, that run into the thousands of albums—is anything but rational. Spending hours devouring clips on YouTube of commercials you remember from childhood is not especially rational either. Trying to read 17 newspapers a day, because you can, because they all shed a slightly different light, is not entirely rational despite being technically feasible with no extra financial costs at the margin.

It’s hard to escape the pressure that marginal thinking puts on cultural consumption—the idea that if you can download one song for free and 1,000 songs for free at the same expense, you may as well get the thousand, quality concerns be damned—precisely because capitalism has weaned us to view culture as something to consume. Eagleton, assaying the Marxist position on artists’ commitment to progressive or revolutionary attitudes, offers this bleak comment. Comparing postwar art to that inspired by the fascist crisis, he writes:

There are less “extreme” phases of bourgeois society in which art relegates itself to minor status, becomes trivial and emasculated, because the sterile ideologies it springs from yield no nourishment—are unable to make significant connections or offer adequate discourses. In such an era, the need for explicitly revolutionary art again becomes pressing. It is a question to be seriously considered whether we are not ourselves living in such a time.

The ideology by which we see art as commodity (which has innumerable facets—reflected not just in the digital files vended online, but in the breathless coverage of Christie’s and Sotheby’s art auctions, the manufacture of promotional materials and solicitation of reviews, the reporting of sales figures and the equivalence of profit with popularity and popularity with quality, and so on) seems to be one of those sterilizing ideologies that yield no nourishment, but optimists might argue that the wide, cheap distribution and interactive nature of the internet are reshaping that ideology by revolutionizing forms and media themselves, which inevitably reshapes the consumers of such forms and media. This view verges on “crude technologism”—the idea that technology automatically (and undialectically) produces new social conditions. But if such a revolution is happening, it leaves a certain generation (mine) especially strung between ideological configurations—open to new developments but conditioned by old practices. And it’s not clear that this shift won’t yield art (and art appreciators) that’s even more philistine—leading to more quantity over quality, not just for ideological stragglers and strandees but for those fully formed within the internet era. The interactivity and superfluity of culture encourages us not to grapple with it as it is but to alter it to suit our prejudices and convenience. We can, say, only engage with culture at the level of relaxation—listen to smooth jazz and watch TV shows that spoon-feed us the feelings we’re supposed to have. Or we can only pay attention to culture to the degree that it seems to be paying attention to us—read only the comments people leave for us or that are about us on social networks.

But those tendencies will be mixed with a kind of indifference to regarding culture economically, as protected property. This indifference to prices, ownership, copyrights, etc., will inevitably rise to a new way of experiencing culture. A utopian prognosis would be something that builds in part on the premise of individuals mashing up digital content and sharing it to amuse friends and in part on the inconsequentiality of what’s already made—everything may come to be seen as raw material for some further production and consumption itself will seem boring. The lack of cultural scarcity will render a coveting, consumerist approach pointless. But another alternative would be the sort of thing Brave New World suggests, where the ocean of interconnected cultural material becomes a network of control.

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