[18 October 1999]
Reading a magazine called PopMatters, you would probably expect to find out why Pop matters? What is the purpose of Pop? Is there a difference between Pop and popular when we talk about culture? Is popular culture study a convenient excuse for wasting intellectual resources, or is it the most vital issue in contemporary society? If you read a magazine called PopMatters without asking those kind of questions, you’re missing out on the point.
Popular culture is all around us, everyday. We have many names for it: Information Society, Junk Culture, Mass Media, and Crap are some of the most common. Each of those labels applies to a specific aspect of the synergistic process of popular culture, but none of those can really come close to appreciating the totality of the idea. Popular culture is itself a system, not a fixed and located place where a communication exchange occurs. What we experience as the fluctuating waves of an ocean of data, sensory input and intellectual rationality is the influence of popular culture in our lives.
Fine, fine, fine. But what use is it to debate the feminist angle of the Dinah Shore Show, or whether Martin Scorsese is a more important director than Spike Lee, or whether Marilyn Manson and the Backstreet Boys have more in common with each other than either does with the Beatles? The answer lies not in the analysis, but in the reason for analysis. Popular culture is the culture of communication, not the data that it transfers from one computer to another, one brain to another. The data is the cellular matter of the living organism, but it is only in the communication process that it lives. How we interpret the data, the values and meanings we assign, the signs and signifiers, these are the “places” that popular culture happens.
Cultural anthropology in the academic tradition has long been wrapped up in the confines of comparing the workings of a dead culture to our own in an attempt to learn from the past what is happening in the present. This is all well and good, for it supplies us with the understanding of our origins and the evolution of society, which we need, but it does little to delve into the present. Because we exist in a living culture, it is assumed that we all experience that culture in relatively equal ways. However, the communications bridges built throughout the twentieth century allowed us to experience the world as en emergent global society. Yet, as the world grows smaller in the scale of reach, it grows larger in the scope of culture. Alexander Graham Bell could be attributed with the Western discovery of Taiwanese cuisine as well as he could the telephone. As technology developed, so did our ability to communicate with cultures outside of our own, and as that happened our cultural knowledge expanded exponentially.
Today, we, the world at large, are living in a society that allows American children to become obsessive fanatics over a Japanese cartoon show turned trading card phenomenon (which is itself a chaotic system’s reiteration of the earlier influence of American baseball and baseball cards on Japan). When we put forth a cultural product in today’s society, we are faced with the possibility of it becoming iconographic, representing a popular archetype, or fizzling into obscurity, but not before being transported to the rest of the world, to influence culture on a global scale. Aborigines in Australia wear Lee jeans. This is how popular culture has become its own system.
So studying it becomes vitally important. We need to understand our living system if we are to understand our own lives. The culture that surrounds us allows for our own self-definitions, and in that act it becomes personal. Popular culture study is self-reflection. We don’t need to learn about tribal customs among native Amazonians to figure out why we do these crazy things. We need to open our minds to the hidden eddies and currents of the culture around us. The popular in the phrase “popular culture” is meant to indicate that it is the culture of our mass society, not the culture of secluded groups. When we study popular culture, we study the myths, ideas, and information that we communicate to one another, the things that influence our daily lives and color our outlooks on life.
One of the things that makes magazines like PopMatters and other like it crucial to the continued exploration of our popular cultural space is that we are only now, in the last quarter century, beginning to realize that our daily lives are worth some serious attention. We are also fast approaching the end of a century of deconstruction, an attempt of science and theory to take everything apart until the basic units of our lives until we are at the essence of who we are and what we believe. This deconstruction has left us with many methods of analysis, but not many answers. At the extreme of the deconstruction spectrum is the idea that the combination of object and observer creates the only reality we can be sure of. It is this assignment of meaning that magazines like this one attempt to explore.
Pop matters because it is a part of us, the essential element of our communication and expression in a postmodern world. This little essay cannot answer the questions I posited at the beginning of my rant, but magazines like PopMatters can. They are essentially the basis of the new ontology, and an explanation in 2,000 words or less would paint a picture of our contemporary society as fairly simple and two-dimensional, but just by looking around we can see that it’s anything but. Magazines that explore popular culture, through examinations and theories and reviews, help all of us come to a fuller appreciation for the 3-D, 4-D, or 5-D worlds we inhabit. In that, we interpret our surroundings, our humanity, and ourselves. That is why pop matters. That is why PopMatters.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/991018-schabe/