Surreptitious Selling Out

The Arvidsson article (pdf) I mentioned in yesterday's post about jobs pinpoints precisely what is so troubling about being engaged with pop culture in our particular cultural moment. The economic engine of consumer capitalism is increasingly fueled by the good intentions of people who want to be engaged and critical and oppositional. But by assimilating their critique, consumer capitalism invalidates it at a higher level, negating the idea that there can be any other set of social relations within which we could experience culture at this point.

Arvidsson writes about the advertising industry's need to make distinctive messages capable of standing out in the ceaseless hum of informational noise that the spread of formula-reliant, capital-intensive mass media has brought on.

In an informational culture marked by almost infinite reproducibility, media culture thus tends to loose its grip over meaning. It is no longer able to command anything but the partial attention of its audience, much less provide it with a meaningful and coherent worldview. Instead it recedes into the background, losing its control over the practices in which meaning and affect are constructed. Media culture thus becomes a sort of white noise, a noisy environment for the more or less autonomous production of a common social world of common affective intensities.

Media industries have generally lost their power of imposing meaning on its products, imposing how they will be received and used, so they have shifted strategies. Because the mass meaning they once created for us no longer adheres, that means we are all out there producing meanings of our own -- Arvidsson calls this a "flowering productive externality" to the culture industry's ordinary bailiwick of designing and circulating products. With the advent of interactive media, those meanings circulate much more broadly and rapidly, becoming a source of value to industry beyond what money they manage to collect for their products originally. Our spontaneous conversation about culture adds value. Our self-made meanings, from our own point of view, establish our uniqueness, our identity, our particular point of view on culture. But from industry's point of view, they have the potential to reinvigorate their business.

Precisely because this externality has autonomy in relation to capital, it provides a tempting source of innovation, rejuvenation and creativity for the system, the very standardizing logic of which tends to eliminate such results a priori. In the most advanced factions of immaterial production users are indeed in charge (to use the motto of the present Web 2.0 movement), their agency creates the kinds of products that have the greatest use-value for the capitalist system.

Since these meanings are made outside advertising and culture industry auspices, they can be credibly touted by those industries as "authentic" or "genuine" rather than merely contrived to dupe us. Our own agency -- our autonomy, our reflexive self-identity, our affect, our motivation to do something or create something, whatever you want to emphasize about it -- becomes both an input and an output of marketing and entertainment. Those businesses threaten to become perpetual-motion machines, subsuming culture altogether.

That probably sounds a little bombastic. But it helps me understand why I sometimes dread my own "agency" -- why I become particularly ambivalent about trying to write theoretically informed commentary about pop culture. No matter how Adornoesque one thunders about the reifying effects of the culture industry and the curtailment of autonomous creative thought and so on, one is still left feeling that nothing has been accomplished but the further validation of the phenomena one meant to denounce and discourage.

It's not just that the culture industry absorbs critique and rechannels its energy into its own reinvention -- it's not merely that ceaseless flow of amateur criticism powers the mighty fashion wheel. Maybe I am alone in this, but I find that I experience my efforts to be objective about culture simultaneously as efforts to sustain some sort of "cool" subjectivity. And that unwanted synthesis is incredibly frustrating. I don't have any "authentic" experience, I often realize. It seems as the space for it doesn't exist amid all the cultural participation I put myself in for.

I find I inhabit the subject position of pop culture itself to write about it, if that makes any sense -- as though I am parasitically sucking the zeitgeist from it, becoming of the moment myself, culturally "relevant" as Carles likes to say. I become conscious of my immanence in a way that's unbearable; my inescapable existence within culture suddenly produces cognitive dissonance for me, driving me to further reflexive gyrations of opinion-making.

I think that to be at home in consumer culture, it helps to either (a) not engage too far or too self-consciously with pop culture, a sort of fatal strategy of willed ignorance or silence; or (b) sell out completely and openly, and recast the cynicism as pragmatic realism like the former underground folk Arvidsson describes who turn entrepreneurial and get into self-branding, or ironicized futurism along the lines of Takashi Murakami. I find that I fall somewhere in the middle, and I feel like I have no home.

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