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

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