Lipsitz: Popular culture

As a great many great persons have said, reading the news will not inform you about what goes on in the world. Indeed, you become more informed by the world by not reading the news. Not because the news do not inform about recent happenings and goings on, but because the news in and of themselves do not contain the keys needed to decode the significance encoded within the news. It is a paradoxical but true thing: by turning away from the news and engaging with the world, the news suddenly become that more significant.

Careful readers will note the use of the word “read”, rather than “watch”. Reading the news and watching the news are two radically different things, especially these days. But they both contain the same element of internal incomprehensibility – no matter how much you read or watch, the tools for comprehending what is going on must be brought in from somewhere else. To be an efficient consumer of news, you must first consume books and other pieces of media. If content is king, context is emperor.

Careful watchers will note that this is something of a fractal pattern. Popular culture (of which the news are ever more becoming a part) in and of itself does not contain the keys and tools needed to decipher the significance in and of popular culture. Taken on its own terms, popular culture is an autonomous, isolated sphere of knowledge whose capacity to engage and encourage emotional responses is just that – emotional responses. Unless outside knowledge is brought to bear, a splatter movie is just a splatter movie.

Lipsitz describes this dialectic between popular culture and external knowledge an endemic background noise of modernity. On the one hand, most people only ever encounter important topics of history through popular culture. On the other hand, popular culture is only ever meaningful (outside the thrill of special effects) through the application of external knowledge. The relevant question is not whether the one or the other is better or more important – the relevant question is what to make of this dialectic.

The fact that popular culture is consumed means we have to look at the one doing the consuming – the consumer. The context of consumer culture and the capitalist systems that make consumers possible, is also the context we find ourselves in. In a truly fractal fashion, we find ourselves yet again looking at the same dynamic. Albeit with the additional question of just who the “we” is in this context.

A consumer approaches popular culture the same way a cinema goer approaches a movie. Alone, in the darkness, in possession of a ticket that allows entrance to a particular viewing, perhaps also with the added place-bought popcorn and soda. The conditions for entry are determined by economic circumstances, and barring subversive acts of access, only paying customers are allowed in.

Conversely, popular culture is also produced with the paying audience in mind. Made to appeal to the lone consumer subject looking from the anonymous darkness of the cinema salon, popular culture talks to individuals, one at a time. The fact that these individuals are part of target demographics does not automatically lead they also talk to each other or share an understanding of what they consume. Shared appreciation is not also a shared frame of reference. Individual consumption is always just that – individual.

The challenge and possibility inherent in this state of things is the formulation of a common “we”. A subject position able to impose the needed external knowledge to bring life and meaning to popular culture – and, indeed, to the news of the day. Whether it be in the form of fandoms (a very distinct approach to popular culture), social movements (black lives do indeed matter) or academic disciplines, there is space aplenty for creating and organizing the bodies of knowledge required to make sense of things.

Lipsitz warns us of the temptation to treat popular culture as a distraction. The title – this ain’t no sideshow – indicates what is at stake. While it is tempting to scoff at popular culture and its commercial, flawed shallowness (especially those aspects that are watched rather than read), it is also the only pool of shared symbols that can reliably be drawn upon. When speaking to those close to you, you can draw upon some pre-existing shared body of knowledge in your discussions and deliberations. When speaking to those you do not know, some common ground must be sought out. This common ground, despite being produced for a mass market of individual consumers, is more often than not popular culture.

Again, the relevant question is to what to make of the dialectic between actually existing popular culture and any given body of external knowledge. Making sure that you as an individual are acting on the basis of the best possible knowledge is a good place to start. Making efforts to share this knowledge with others in an interesting and pedagogic way is a good way to continue. But the efforts of an individual can only accomplish so much; there comes a time for organizing into something greater. Individuals are fragile things, who can disappear faster than they ought to, but points of view have staying power across generations.

Watching the news will not further your understanding of what happens in the world. Engorging yourself in popular culture will only take you so far in improving your understanding of the world and your place in it. Hitting the books will be far more efficient in this regard. Returning to the news or the newest movie after having done your homework will reward you by reflecting the insights you already possess. You can only ever reap what your mind is ready to sow, and a well-prepared mind will find itself in perpetual abundance.

The thing to do, then, might be to talk to those who like you watch the same things you do. Impart to them some frame of reference which will enable them to make sense of what you both see, and then discuss your findings afterwards. Transcend individual consumption of ever so commercial culture, and make truth of these radical words of resistance:

You are not alone.

Lipsitz: Popular culture

Hašek: the good soldier Švejk

Any piece of writing about The Good Soldier Švejk is bound to discuss one particular question: is Švejk a sly fox who is able to manipulate social circumstances to his benefit, or is he an utter idiot whose lack of grasp on basic reality causes the powers that be to dysfunction in spectacular ways?

The beauty of Hašeks writing is that it keeps both interpretations open, and never collapses into either one of them. Despite the multitude of situations Švejk stumbles into during his travels, it is never clear whether one interpretation or the other provides a better fit for our protagonist. Or, indeed, if either interpretation can be said to apply to these very situations – neither Švejk nor the institutions of First World War Austro-Hungary are unambiguous on this point.

The fastest way to summarize the storyline of The Good Soldier Švejk is to say that the aforementioned Švejk stumbles from one situation to another, and at every stumble along the way he causes the routine ordinariness of the war effort to collapse upon its own logic. While the war in and of itself was every manner of madness and chaos, the institutions set up to manage its logistics followed certain rules and routines, and the appearance of a certain good soldier threw these institutions out of joint. His very presence caused the wartime routines to misfire, and the only possible response the institutions could muster was to send him along to the next situation.

Every modern institution works by its own routines, logics and expectations. This is not unique to First World War Austro-Hungary, although war puts a certain pressure upon the institutions involved. It follows from the ever more specialized areas of knowledge and expertise that are entrusted to run our institutions. Hospitals have certain ways of doing things, as have prisons, universities, municipal administrations and so on. These ways are, for the most part, contingent upon particular traditions within particular discourses, which means the only way to know them is to be a part of the institutions in question. They do not follow from necessity or reason, but through gradual accumulation of knowledge by repeated actions over time, and the only way to understand them is to have seen them in action. Learning by doing, as it were.

The fact that every modern institution has its own rules, rituals and informal ways to go about things, means that no one particular individual can be reasonably expected to know them all. Just as no one is expected to be a doctor, plumber, constitutional scholar, gourmet chef and rocket engineer all at once. By virtue of the sheer accumulated knowledge in each field, no one can know the internal logics of every field. It takes years of education and dedication to master even a single field, let alone a multitude of them. Knowledge is fragmented, just like the modern world.

However, it is possible to know just enough about the autonomous practices of each particular institution to know which kinds of signals will cause which kind of response. While the underlying logic might be obscure or unknown, the knowledge that certain acts engender certain responses is enough for those who want to communicate with the institutions in question. A trivial example of this can be as simple as knowing that turning in a certain form will cause a certain thing to happen. A more engaged understanding is that the workaday routines of any given institution can be disturbed by engaging in certain kinds of behaviors, which prompt extraordinary responses.

Most modern institutions force their logic upon their subjects. If you go to a hospital and are not literally on fire, you are most likely asked to sit down and fill out a form. Nothing will be done until you have filled out that form, and depending on how you fill it out, you will be treated differently – in both senses of the word. Veterans of the field – i.e. fellow or past patients – will tell you to fill in x rather than y, and the particular logic of the institution is ever so indirectly foisted upon you. There is a shared expectation that you act in certain ways while you attend modern institutions, and these expectations are constructed jointly by the subjects in the know and common subjects like yourself.

Švejk, our hero, manages to throw a wrench into the internal machinations of every institution he visits by not acting in accordance with these expectations. Early on in his adventures, he is thrown into a garrison prison, due to some minor mishap. A field priest holds a fiery sermon about repentance and forgiveness, and Švejk does the least expected thing of all. Rather than taking the sermon as the empty verbiage everyone else (the priest included) understands it to be, he arises and cries with utter conviction at the sentiment expressed. Such honesty had never before been seen within the prison walls, and no one is quite sure what to do about it. Švejk is sent to the priest’s office, and ends up in his employ – and thus escaping.

No indication is ever given as to whether the sincere idiot Švejk was actually genuinely moved by the insincere sermon, or if the sly fox Švejk knew that this was the only thing he could possibly do to escape his confinement. Both interpretations are valid, and during your reading of the books, I would suggest keeping both possibilities in mind as the events unfold. Not least due to the inherent possibility that it does not matter if Švejk is the one or the other, and the possibility that modern institutions respond the same in either case.

I would also suggest that you read the Good Soldier Švejk as a manual in modern resistance and sabotage tactics. You are not limited to simply doing what the authorities tell you to do – you always have the option to comply with the appropriate levels of idiot sincerity or sly insincerity needed to undermine whatever overall ambition the powers that be might have. You, too, can grind modern institutions to a halt by throwing a wrench into their internal workings.

Bring a friend.

Hašek: the good soldier Švejk