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More on the promotional culture

Little did I know that when I referred to the emerging "promotional culture" in my post the other day that there was already a book called The Promotional Culture, which was mention in this recent Toronto Star piece by Ryan Bigge about the "mass underground" (via Rob Walker). The premise is that the internet has eroded the former foundations of subcultures -- the obscure information and insider cultural goods that are now immediately accessible for those who are search savvy. I still forget sometimes that nothing in the realm of pop culture is really rare anymore, and that anything I might have wondered about before but never thought I would find is now probably out there: weird albums I'd read about, SCTV sketches I remembered dimly, Situationist experiments in redubbing movies with Marxist dialogue. This stuff was once currency in subcultural circles; I'm not sure if merely knowing about such things and linking to them has any real value for one's underground credibility at this point. Is that a good thing? Or will subcultures disappear without their basis in a certain kind of material scarcity?

Bigge cites Dick Hebdige, author of Subculture: The Meaning of Style, who argues that subcultures allow people to acquire social recognition without securing it at the expense of conformity and subordination. According to Hebdige, "it translates the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched. It is a hiding in the light." Of course, nonconformity itself has been a mainstream value since the 1960s, so that muddles things some; since aggressive individuality is a pervasive value, we are all encouraged to become subcultures of one, to play a double game with ourselves in which we forget the mass-market origins of the things we acquire to project our "unique" identities while relishing in the comfort of partaking of brands and trends that are much, much larger than ourselves.

This same logic plays through things that were formerly underground and exempt. They once supplied a refuge from the pressure of popularity. But if the underground is mass, then subcultures will no longer be content to be sub-anything, and they are subject to same impetus to achieve recognition on a much broader scale and permit participation in something much bigger.

The mass underground distorts the equilibrium suggested by Hebdige's hiding in the light. Because built into the technology and logic of the mass underground is the possibility of blowing up huge. As the title of an October 2006 New Yorker article about YouTube fame suggests, "It Should Happen to You."
The same would seem to apply to social networks, which implicitly pressure users to expand their base and sacrifice quality to quantity. This is the essence of the promotional culture -- the possibility of a large audience (and of measuring one's own success in reaching it through site meters and such) becomes a requirement to pursue it.
For Andrew Wernick, a professor at Trent University, the problem is that our desire for attention and fame is leeching into the creative groundwater. As he writes in his 1991 book Promotional Culture: "When a piece of music, or a newspaper article, or even an academically written book about promotional culture, is fashioned with an eye to how it will promote itself – and, indeed, how it will promote its author and distributor, together with all the other producers these named agencies may be identified with – such goods are affected by this circumstance in every detail of their production."

The internet obviates barriers imposed by natural limits in the world, by where we can be in time and space. Without those barriers, we are likely to overwhelm ourselves and fail to recognize the aggregate harm of something that seems positive in incremental doses. Our ability to pay attention suffers as the amount of attention we have to pay fails to meet even a fraction of the things demanding it. We fail to engage with any one thing because the awareness of all the other things crying out for attention is always so palpable. Inevitably, people will begin to impose on themselves arbitrary limits for how many friends they'll have on Facebook or how many gigs of music they'll have, or they will choose services that impose limits for them: a social network that lets you have only 10 friends. The craving for artificial limits is probably what gives Twitter its devotees.

Could there be an arbitrary limiting system that could restore the potency of formerly underground cultural goods? Could a samizdat system of cultural exchange emerge in the absence of necessity? Bigge argues that "the next subculture or underground movement will not be discovered behind the door of a secret handshake speakeasy somewhere in East Berlin, but in the center of Alexanderplatz; hiding in plain sight, everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously." Perhaps. It's optimistic to think anonymity can trump anomie. But I find myself reminded of the empty promise of the silent rave. I'm afraid that all activities in the public sphere will tend toward technologically enabled narcissism and people will be too preoccupied with their own potential fame to want to sustain close-knit connections of a subculture, weaving together with a select few others so tightly as to block out the isolating glare of the spotlight. Subcultures were a line of defense against a corrosive mainstream culture and ideology that seemed to trivialize things we wanted to care about; now it seems as though few people find the mainstream culture sufficiently dangerous, because it presents itself as fragmented and user-driven. Or perhaps we've succeeded in convincing ourselves that there is nothing at stake in resisting the mainstream except one's own ego, which can be gratified much more comfortably through collaboration.

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