Top down culture

by Rob Horning

30 November 2007


Consumerism tends to drive us to want more and more culture (more is always better) and thus it requires an apparatus that foists new options on us and strenuously tries to encourage these new and improved options will give us more than what we’ve already got, and probably haven’t exhausted—can one ever really exhaust works of art, after all? The nature of that appartus is changing, though, as the old monolithic culture industry—empowered by economies of scale, driven by profit-seeking, and hewing to the lowest common denominator among the large audiences it hoped to muster and hold together—is falling apart under the stress of new ad hoc distributional networks made possible by digitization of works and the internet hooking together consumers who love to share. Part of this sharing is sheer generosity, part of it is an aggrieved feeling that the really good stuff needs to be heard by more people and that filesharing is a way to strike a blow against the industry that has made its money stifling or neutering independent voices.

The temptation to tell people what they should like is always strong. And people often like to be told—that’s why there are so many services supplying cultural criticism. I remember how seriously I took the album reviews I read in Rolling Stone or even in the local newspaper—now, having had some exposure to what such reviewers are actually like, I can’t even believe that I ever paid any attention to what they thought. Consequently I’m driven even further toward the unfortunate egomaniacal position that I probably know more than many of the people writing these things; then there’s the problem also that I’m starting to have decades more experience listening to music on many of them, leaving me in a position where I have nothing to learn from them that’s not wrong or superseded by something that I already learned about years ago. And then there’s the fact that so much highly recommended new music is rehashed old music that is best appreciated when you don’t know the antecedents. It makes me feel very old, as though I have outgrown the opportunity to enjoy contemporary culture, and have become instead one of those relics, living in the past and arguing how everything was so much better before. This still seems preferable to being one of those old guys trying desperately to stay young and “relevant,” as if what teenagers determine that relevance for anyone other than marketers looking to tap a lucrative demographic segment.

Those advocating legislating taste in various ways, whether through censorship or some form of sumptuary laws, typically believe that when individuals are left to their own devices, they are too easily influenced by advertising or by other parties who are in bad faith in making their suggestions. Those who oppose top-down culture believe that individuals should be free to choose to enjoy whatever they want, and that their authentic wishes supersede any attempts at influencing or shaping their choices. Of course, everyone likes freedom in the abstract, and everyone likes to believe that they know their own mind and know what they like without having to be told. But in practice, people tend to seek out opinions, because they may enjoy the suggestion of human company in opinions more than the works of art in themselves. People look to culture to invest them with a sense of belonging, and sharing opinions or liking something that is liked in general is a way of simulating that feeling of inclusion. So a work’s reception can be more significant than the work itself, which makes the dogma about individuals following their own tastes and a work’s popularity reflecting its intrinsic quality suspect.

If people aren’t really following their own hearts in choosing what culture to consume, the question becomes, who should they follow? People want to follow the tastes of people they like and want to count themselves among, absent that, they’ll go along with who seems to be liking the same sorts of things—an impression that can be created either by advertising or by the opinion-making media or by both in conjunction. The alternative would be to mandate popular culture through state-funded educational systems—this would provide a much more uniform harmony of tastes, but would discourage variety. It would restore much of the meaning to the currently meaningless terms independent and alternative, however.

But there isn’t really enough at stake to warrant state intervention, unless you believe that culture is primarily didactic, teaching people how to behave and interact with one another. Those who want censorship usually invoke this argument, that the loose morals on display in commercial culture—the sexual objectification of anything beautiful to turn it into a lure, the promotion of giving in to temptation always (how else to keep consumerism rolling in the face of economic crisis?) —warrants a clampdown. Snobs, on the other hand, claim that commercial culture is vulgar, playing to the tastes of the most ignorant, and encouraging everyone else to become stupid too, as in Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy. But snobs are in bad faith when they argue that culture should be subjected to top-down control (presumably by wise people like themselves) because their sense of esteem comes from the superiority they feel to common tastes, which would vanish if their wish for power over culture was granted.

This is meandering a bit, but the reason I started thinking about this was because of the questions I was trying to get at in the previous entry, about what will be lost if commercial culture truly gives way to some new form of cultural participation enabled by technology. The culture industry, that Frankfort school boogeyman, was one way of controlling culture in the name of a popular taste gauging and tested by functionaries and agents and middlemen who just wanted to make money off other people’s talents. In some ways, this is a pure, paradoxically selfless motive—they weren’t trying to foist their own talents on the world or skew what culture was produced with their own idiosyncratic vision. They just worked as conduits, trying to find the easiest way to please people. Sometimes that meant trying to brainwash them and feed them shit that was already on hand, sometimes that meant responding to an unexpected turn, a sea change in demography or popular expectation. Absent a culture industry, these people are out of jobs, but they may be replaced by strict opinion makers, who filter the mass of what artists make available directly to audiences to pick out stuff worthy of attention. A&R men will work after the fact rather than before, and will deal directly with the public. They will perhaps be like stock pickers, marketing their track record. But in order for this to happen, they will need to set their opinions off from the mass of freely offered (and easily aggregated) opinion that’s already available on the internet. Opinions would have to become scarce in order to have any value, and that seems unlikely. What is scarce is people who put money behind their opinions, who have “skin in the game”. Perhaps what is needed is a futures market in culture to replace the signal investments made by the culture industry.

So instead, tastes will perhaps be formed by aggregators, who collect data on what different groups are actually doing—so you can tailor your choices to who you want to fit in with. You can have a Muzak like service supply culture for Brand You the same way they do for retail stores. More likely, the data about what stuff individuals should be getting into to belong to a specific set will be aggregated within social networks on social networking sites. It is up to clever marketers to figure out how to infiltrate these networks or co-opt the opinion leaders within these networks, the sort of people Malcolm Gladwell profiles in The Tipping Point. Social networking sites should make these people easier to track down, and will yield them opportunities to reap rewards for their natural proselytizing talents. So these folks will have the opportunity to become the new A&R people. And groups of friends will come to be organized as mini-culture industry firms.

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