Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pop Culture Will Eat Itself

I haven’t been making much use of this blog lately, and it’s not because I don’t want to—just the opposite. I keep coming up with ever more elaborate and baroque ideas for blog essays, many of them part of a putative in-depth series, but my problem is that I never want to launch into them without getting my ideas organized first. Clearly this is leading to literary paralysis, so I’ve decided to just launch into a post, or series of posts, and let it develop as it comes. All of this is to say, if the following seems somewhat on the vague side, you may understand why.


Being a geek on the internet, I can’t help but notice the contentious tone that’s settled into fandoms of various stripes. (Thank you, doctor obvious.) I choose to stay away from the more sordid corners of the net and cleave to the more intelligent and thoughtful writers on pop culture, but that doesn’t mean I’m more likely to avoid contentiousness. Just the opposite, in fact. Some of the smartest and most insightful bloggers in geekdom, or any subdomain thereof, have (often delightfully) acid tongues. But there’s an interesting attitude that’s been forming for a while now among the nerd literati—the desire to inject some much-needed self-awareness into the culture of geekdom through criticism. There’s no getting around the fact that the more ravening segments of fandom have gotten out of control, feeding a sense of entitlement grown ludicrously bloated (see, for example, the petition or whatever it was to change the ending of Mass Effect 3) and bizarre tribalism centered around serving the finances of huge corporations (here see the decision by many geeks to side with Marvel against the Kirby heirs, or, slightly less toxically, the caterwauling over The Dark Knight’s failure to win Best Picture or beat Titanic at the box office.) And of course, it’s become de rigeur for nerds to reject considered criticism of their Favourite Thing as a mortal insult that cannot be allowed to stand, leading to an unfortunate watering down of serious analytical reviews. In the face of all this, an attitude of contempt and disdain towards geekdom is not only understandable but often laudable.

And yet.

A knee-jerk attitude from an intelligent contrarian standing against mindless groupthink is nevertheless a knee-jerk attitude, and I feel like we’re starting to see some negative blowback. Essentially, there’s an ultra-defensive elitist mindset forming that seems to feel they can take it for granted that [pop culture property X] is a waste of time propagated by the dregs of the net, and that anyone who speaks up in its defense is by default an unwashed, unselfaware nerd. This is the “Oh, now a bunch of NERDS are gonna complain that I dissed Arkham Asylum” response, and it seems to tilt perilously close to shutting down debate just as the rabid hordes of fanboyism do. If you post your thoughts on the internet, you’re likely to find people disagreeing with you; that’s sort of the point of the internet.

But I didn’t really want to talk about the Great Nerd Wars in particular, I wanted to investigate a particular aspect of this attitude: namely, the way some pop culture properties are elevated above others, both in the short term and the long term.

Here is a list of things:

--Lord of the Rings.
--Mass Effect.
--Marvel Comics.
--DC Comics.
--Scott Pilgrim.
--Game of Thrones.
--The Wire.
--Star Trek.
--Doctor Who.
--Star Wars.
--The Prisoner.
--My Little Pony.
--Rap music.
--They Might Be Giants.
--The Beatles.
--The Coen Brothers.
--David Cronenberg.
--Joss Whedon.
--Rob Zombie.
--The Boston Red Sox.

I’m guessing that you see that as a pretty varied list—I don’t just mean your personal likes and dislikes, I mean that these all seem to occupy wildly different places in the pop cultural sphere. Some of them are “classics”, part of the canon of the 20th or earlier 21st century, and some of them are trash culture or ephemeral entertainments, and some fall somewhere in between. I bet your mind sorted them out to an almost subconscious degree. And yet, all of these are the subject of passionate pop cultural fandoms—what we’ve collectively decided to refer to as “geekdom”. Some of these aren’t thought of as “geeky” per se, and yet the passion they engender seems very much of the same quality. And to a degree, it’s rather surprising that we separate them in this way.

Please understand, I am NOT trying to make an argument that everything’s subjective, as a springboard to excusing my own taste’s or anyone’s. This might seem like the first step down the path towards the argument that Citizen Kane and The Transformers Movie are both equally valid works of art*, and that isn’t my intention. I’m just saying that these properties all have essentially the same qualities, in the scientific sense; they’re all, fundamentally, the same kind of thing. So why are some easily dismissable and require a burden of proof from anyone trying to argue in their favour, while others demand to be taken seriously, even by their detractors?

Look at Lord of the Rings, which is the one thing on this list that could potentially escape this little Pop Culture Ghetto I’ve devised. (And I think “ghetto” is precisely the wrong word for it, but let’s leave it for now.) LOTR was written as a sideline, a hobby of sorts, by a literary professor with a day job. It was his life’s work, and it was produced as an artistic statement rather than an attempt to make money or win an audience**, and it’s had a significant literary impact; it wouldn’t be unreasonable to elevate it to the position of “literature”. But it’s a work of pop culture, too, one whose fanbase and impact are very much in the same mode as all the others on this list, if perhaps more literate and thoughtful than the average Rob Zombie fan.

…And see, there I go—knee, jerking away. The fact that I personally find Tolkien’s work to be more deserving of merit than Mr. Zombie’s oeuvre doesn’t mean that I somehow “outrank” them. Or that LOTR doesn’t occupy the same nerdosphere. I know for a fact there are supremely intelligent horror fans out there who have elegant arguments in favour of The Devil’s Rejects, and I know just as surely that there are some awful dimwits out there who love LOTR and think that that alone makes them discriminating and classy.

“Classy”. That might be a useful word for this discussion.

I actually don’t want to dwell too much on Tolkien, because he’s something I’ve been wanting to blog about in depth and I’ll probably have lots to say in another series of posts, but for now my question is this: If Tolkien had come along a decade or two later, would we be as quick to elevate him above stuff like Star Trek? That’s not a knock on Tolkien so much as it is an elevation of everything else; after all, Star Trek was an intelligent, ambitious show. But it also shares with Tolkien, and the rest of my little canon there, a world of arcane details to which the fans have developed an attachment beyond mere entertainment. They even share made-up languages that have spawned real-world speakers.

Let’s move on to something closer to the other end of the scale, or rather two things: Doctor Who and old Superhero comics. These are two properties to which my exposure was limited as a kid, but in which I began to take an interest as an adult partly because they have so many intelligent defenders, particularly on the web. Neither of them escapes being seen as a “nerdy” pursuit by the mainstream, or as silly or inaccessible to outsiders, and yet, within geekdom, both are taken relatively seriously. There’s an underlying belief that there are fundamentally interesting and intelligent stories to be told by these properties, and the people who blog passionately about them are able to articulate these arguments more than most fandoms. They are, to return to the word, “classy”, in a way that 80s cartoons and video games aren’t. And yet, it’s often hard to argue for the merits of a given Silver Age comic or an early-80s episode of Who, which are not only frequently threadbare or slapdash, they’re often outright nonsensical. Even stupid. And it’s not like the defenders of these two properties will argue otherwise. So what makes these particular pop cultural emanations “classier” than others?

To be continued….

*Well, I’m not going to refuse to entertain such an argument if it’s well-reasoned enough, but that would have to be one hell of an argument. “They both have Orson Welles in them” might not be the place to start.

**Probably a drastic oversimplification, but it’s surely not unfair to say that Tolkien wasn’t really dreaming of tearing up the paperback bestsellers list, right?

1 comment:

  1. I don't know how old you are but you're a great writer anyway. I was just Googling 'pop will eat itself' to find some info on one of my favorite bands and I somehow landed on your webpage.

    If you need an answer to why other people put entity A, say LOTR, above entity B, say Harry Potter you need to appreciete the human mind from a flawed point of view rather than the default human thinking that the human mind is perfect and brilliant, which it also is IMHO BTW!

    Nothing in the universe actually has ANY meaning whatsoever but your brain is determined to convince you otherwise. Your mind is always conjuring up new meanings about things and forming irrational beliefs all the time! It's all in your head and ONLY in YOUR head!

    If you perceive LOTR to be more important than Harry Potter it's because your head wants it that way. And if you can't understand why other people give more importance to things you mind finds trivial its because your brain wants it that way too.

    Listen to some Pink Floyd - they can teach you through music how meaningless life is. But maybe they can't - it's just in MY head! See where I'm coming from.