[19 November 1999]
It’s difficult to know how to introduce a column in a magazine no matter what the target audience is. When you’ve identified your target audience as an intellectual base, interested in cultural studies, social theory, and a fair smattering of Pop, you start to feel like a writer for ALF. I decided to start writing Popping Off after my own set of cultural convictions was being put to the test on a daily basis.
You see, I love popular culture. Though this may come to haunt whatever academic career I may have, I’ll go ahead and say I LOVE popular culture. Every nuance and text has the ability to spark interpretation, debate, camp, and consumption. From the professional acting that is politics to Pokemon, I think that life in this great postmodern era (whatever that is) rules! Meanings are ripped apart and smashed together at will, and yet the human race goes on, barely at the first mile of the marathon.
But there is a problem. A big problem. There is so much to love, and so many talking monkeys to interpret their surroundings, that I become overwhelmed. Not some paralyzing aphasia either, but a bitter, sarcastic, ironic stupification. It’s a sensation that breeds strong, reactionary commentary. It’s almost…(shudder )...anti-pop.
And I’m not alone. I have found that with every sham of advertising I defraud, every SUV driver I scorn, and every subculture I call poseur, I am entrenching myself into a subculture of its own: the intellectual hipster. Suddenly it becomes a question of what we consider valid and authentic. And to put the rainbow-chip icing on the cake, staying relevant means maintaining a balancing act on a tightrope where on one side you slip into academic, canonical elitism, and on the other you fall into ignorant, self-satisfied consumption.
It’s this circus act that binds readers of magazines like this one together, and isolates each of us into individual egos, battling for our rights of self-hood. No matter where you look, gentle reader, you will find a mind that is one book better educated, one wit sharper, and you will fall prey to the sinking feeling that you have become the object of derision. There will always be someone more hip than me, and even though I’ve spent my life asserting my individuality while trying to fit into the cultural schemata of society, I’ll never be enough of anything. And neither will you. None of us will.
There is such a wide array of cultural lenses available to each and every one of us that no one will ever be the last word in anything. We can constantly redefine the “other” to exclude more and more people from ourselves, but it seems impossible to ever include everyone in a system where there is no “other.” We can, however, victimize ourselves, and each other, in an endless quest for the superior high ground.
Problems persist, however, and the fact of the matter is, our culture is diverse enough that somewhere, somehow, someone sometime is going to piss you off. It might be a bold statement that clashes directly with your value system, or it might be an over-all attitude that speaks to you of the bottom of the Bell curve. The problem is not that the world isn’t always perfect, the problem is that we have not, and may never, overcome the ethnocentric inflation of our culture over everyone else’s. It is more or less obvious today that I can’t rightfully say that my mid-western American culture is superior to that of the Kurds in Iran. But it is a commonplace event for me to feel like my white, middle-class, student/intellectual culture is “better” than Bobby Joe’s 4x4 driving, stock car racing, John Deere cap culture. Generally, we stereotype more within our own society than we do when looking at other societies. For me, the real rub is not that I hate the tatooed James Dean rockabillies, or the bass-bumpin’ white suburban “gangstas,” it’s that they hate me. Our ever fashion conscious society makes me their “other.” No matter how wide open my heart is for these people, they are going to treat me like a third-rate human, just because I don’t subscribe to their cultural value system. Is it subculture clash, or just isolationist superiority? I don’t know. But I do know this: if you don’t have “the look,” you’d better stay on your side of the tracks.
These are the artifacts that we attach to inform our sense of selves. In doing so, they isolate us from the artifacts we do not attach to, especially those we assign negative value to. We “read” other people by their chosen lifestyle symbols. Why? Because more often than not, we find those symbols indicate an average assumption that holds true. It’s not racism, but it is bigotry. Hell, I can probably think of more white males (the minority I belong to) that I think are wastes of carbon than I can any other ethnic/gender combination.
The point is, I have no business judging other people this way. There is nothing about my individual culture that is more worthwhile than another. While “multiculturalism” might be thrown about like a National Geographic in a doctor’s office until it’s dog-eared, the basic ideas of the theory are sound. Unfortunately, there are extremely few people who ever live up to the standards of actual multiculturalism, even among its proponents. For too many years, the concept of the “other” has dominated our thinking. Once the Pandora’s Box of manifest destiny was opened, it could never be closed. However, we have outlets like this magazine, and the occasional brave college course, and a few good documentary cable programs to teach us that we have a limited, subjective picture of the world. Slowly we are beginning to realize that cultural soap-boxing isn’t going to cut it in a global society.
Will it stop us from making value judgements against each other based on our outward symbol choices? Will it keep me from being pissed-off by wiggers and rockabillies? Will it prevent an intellectual snob with the perfect clothes, the perfect education, and the perfect record collection from making you feel like an ignorant outsider in your own society? Will it make the intricate network of subcultures that forms popular culture any less beautiful? Not any time soon.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/schabe991118/