Hype

[14 December 2005]

By Rob Horning

Everybody hates hype, yet hype constitutes a greater and greater portion of our public discourse. Why? Hype may naturallly spiral, since in a climate of hype, new hype needs to be that more outlandish and hyperbolic. But what instigates people to create hype in the first place? At what point in our technological advancement as a society did word-of-mouth enthusiasm degenerate into the rote manufacture of hype for new products?

Hype serves a fundamental culture-industry need of generating demand for unwanted new products, permitting growth where none is necessary. No one needs a new rock band or a new film star, but the industry must expand the pantheon to establish new profitable product lines. Hence PR firms are hired to assiduously and relentless try to generate buzz for their clients. They saturate anyone with any kind of media reach with hype, trying desperately to create the illusion of significance for whatever they are hyping. This hype, obviously paid for and obviously indiscriminate and patently desperate, is easy for most people to dismiss. But it succeeds nevertheless, in a more indirect way, simply by polluting the atmosphere with its tropes. PR establishes the grammar for more legitimate forms of hype that are harder to dismiss, the “authentic” enthusiasm of “disinterested” tastemakers—in indie music these consist of online journals, MP3 blogs, MySpace communities, etc., often written and produced by the original direct recipients of much of the PR hype. The bombast these folks reject becomes the standard for how they try to express their own actual enthusiasm for something. As any good dialectician will tell you, their reaction aganst hype absorbs into it the very values of that hype. The counterhype becomes simply a more evolved kind of hype, formulated along a priori principles provided by the very hype it seeks to obliterate.

A less abstruse explanation for ubiquitous hype can be found in the pressure to remain relevant. Let’s say you’re Pitchfork, and you’ve gained all sorts of notoriety for propelling the Arcade Fire to profitability. The taste of the power to move markets may not reveal itself as explicitly economic and capitalistic, it may reveal itself as a warm feeling of goodness, or even a satisfied sense of moral rightosness for having brought better culture to a wider audience, seemingly for the sake of the culture and not money. Writers at sites like this one and Pitchfork are in it for the love and undoubtedly have the best intentions of elevating the cultural dialogue, of bringing exposure to more interesting culture.

But in order to sustain relevance, in order to remain in that benevolent glow of having moved culture forward, a site like Pitchfork needs to repeat its success, nominate a new Arcade Fire. In other words, it needs to function like a record company and discover and hype the next big thing to keep people reading, to maintain its sense of power and significance. Here the “independent media,” the trusted source for music information, and the evil profit-hungry record company have their best interests converge. And what once made independent media readable, the fact that it seemed like disinterested enthusiasts espousing unvetted opinions, becomes yet another distant arm of the culture-industry hype machine, the technostructure (to borrow Galbraith’s term for the web of management types and their apologists that propels massive and complex corporations toward their profits without any individual ever confronting the larger implications of what he or she is doing) that decides for in advance what culture will be mass-produced and promulgated. Pitchfork’s success allows it to become absorbed into the machine of hype generation; it doesn’t protect the site from it. Success in our culture ultimately means collaboration with the technostructure; it means high-profile profitability. An independent voice cannot be preserved once success is attained, since success in our cutlure, by its very nature, means integration into this technostructure that guides the direction of the economy and the zeitgeist. Once your voice is taken seriously, it is part of the machine: it no longer “speaks truth to power” because it is power. Perhaps another way of saying this is that mass exposure transforms honest appraisals into hype regardless of the original intentions. The indiscriminate affirmative nature of a consumer culture inevitably invalidates all enthusiasm; at a certain remove all expressions of joy become hype, because our public space preserves no space for joy that is not at once profitable; no happiness without money is the inevitable ruling principle to public life under capitalism, the overriding shared value.

All word-of-mouth enthusaism now aspires to become part of the technostructure, whether it knows it or not. The Internet is a massive tool for assimilating the opinions of so many different voices, and then rendering it into a group-think decision worthy of moving capital and dictating investment decisions. On the level of culture this means that when you blog your opinions, you are volunteering them for this assimilation into the hype machine. When you post to Amazon, you are asking to have your opinion be a sales tool. Technology has it made it such that an individual need not rest content influencing a few friends, but should seek a larger sphere of influence, to touch and affect total strangers. And the pervasive sense of the availability of this access, the constant harping on the blogosphere makes it such that everyone feels obliged to seek this power—and the essence of this power, the language it speaks, is hype. Hype is the only way to speak in a public manner, the only way to be sure you are addressed a public sphere, the only way to aspire to general significance in a culture that has replaced civics with shopping.

What technology has done is subvert the intentions of word-of-mouth, making it a competition—whose MP3 blog gets the most hits? It has integrated this interpersonal communication into a larger system, destroying its personal nature, and making such personal contacts suspect (why are they telling me this? whose hype are they repeating?). Pop-culture critics by their nature are generally content to be taste-makers and market researchers for the industry that fascinates them, whose levers they seek to pull. Reviewers have no reason to be negative or critical, because no one needs to waste their time reading or hearing about something that sucks. So the pressure to be heard amounts to a pressure to effuse about everything, to sweep everyone up in a cotton-candy fluff of phony positivity.

For those who don’t want to participate in the hype of the now, there is the escape into nostalgia, the rehashing of old pop culture and its significance to hypes of years past. But the more enthusiastic one becomes about these things of the past that need rediscovery, the more one begins to spout hype all over again.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/hype/