Friday, March 26, 2010

Here Come the Culture Critics


Michiko Kakutani's New York Times article, "Texts Without Context," attempts to pull together a number of loose strands about contemporary culture and technology. Her basic premise is that culture is feeding on its own tail; without creating anything new, we are depending heavily on the materials of the past, using new technologies to copy, paste, and mash together anything and everything for our creative or intellectual purposes.

She also emphasizes that a culture based on "immediacy and real-time responses" means that people are less interested in reading entire books or articles, and more interested in "cutting to the chase." We want the summary, the anecdote, the biased review that appeals to our emotions but pays little attention to context and nuance. Personalized media feeds you the content that matters to you, but this emphasis on the subjective also contributes to the polarization of political views on the web. Everyone is reading what they want to hear.

Kakutani quotes the scholar Susan Jacoby:
Reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet. What we are engaged in--like birds of prey looking for their next meal--is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.
If readers have become birds of prey, media outlets have become even worse by pandering to the whims of impulse-driven audiences. In an effort to get more clicks, websites dole out mindless cat videos to their millions of viewers, or "gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes." Editors, writers, and artists have the benefit of mass feedback provided by interactive media, polls, and fan bulletin boards, and are therefore more likely to give their audiences what they "want or expect."

Cyberculture has a decidedly adolescent character in Kakutani's view, perpetuating "a Peter Pan fantasy of being an entitled child forever, without the responsibilities of adulthood."

Her main attack, however, deals with what she sees as vapid cultural production in the form of "parodies, homages, variations, pastiches, collages and others forms of appropriation art." The vast majority of this user-created media, according to Kakutani, is lazy, mediocre, and suffering from what Jaron Lanier, author of the book, You Are Not a Gadget, calls "nostalgic malaise."

Lanier writes:
Online culture is dominated by trivial mash-ups of the culture that existed before the onset of mash-ups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action . . . Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.
In essence, the mash-ups, remixes, parodies, and re-appropriations are more valued than the original sources, and so we face a culture of texts without contexts, a sort of floating, pseudo-world, where beliefs are privileged over facts, subjective reactions over objective research, and online collectivisim over measured criticism.

I'm summarizing these viewpoints because I believe they are valid and persuasive. The metrics of the web are the second and the minute, and not the hour and the half hour, as it once was for television. The majority of content on the web, unfortunately, reflects this new metric. The superabundance of content, along with the many non-linear pathways to accessing content, removes the notion of the passive subject in relation to culture. Now we must actively forage for our reading material, design the ways in which we want to receive our content, and even respond to the news that is served. We are all filters to the hundreds of webpages that are put in front of our faces every day.

On the one hand, it may be argued (as Kakutani argues), that the democratization of cultural production leads to a diminishment in quality. The mass section of the web that Kakutani criticizes is much like the majority of television programming: it appeals to the lowest common denominator. This is only to be expected when websites and media outlets are trying to raise advertising dollars by higher and higher numbers.

Similarly, it may be argued, that where more people are creating content, as on the web, a vast amount of that content will naively reflect trends in popular culture, appear superficial or juvenile, and lack critical or artistic merit.

I believe that Lanier and Kakutani are focused on a certain part of the vast topography of the web. If they were immersed in the content production side of the web, they would see it from a different angle entirely. As Clay Shirky notes in his book, Here Comes Everybody, users play different roles in online culture. Some users read blog posts and don't comment on them, some users comment on blogs but don't have blogs themselves, and yet others actively maintain blogs and produce content.

There is not only re-action on the web. In truth, the web is driven by the very opposite. Internet startups, online publishing hubs, and countless websites are all actively architecting the virtual world. Every person who creates a blog and publishes their own content is actively creating something on the web.

In my view, the proliferation of mashups and re-appropriated art is culture's response to superabundance. While it's true that many pop-culture mashups re-use materials from only a decade ago, the bigger picture is that our culture is swimming in the materials of over 2000 years of history.

This is not merely a case of "nostalgic malaise." Digital culture inundates us with what is essentially our past, and not only the past, but many versions of the past, stretching from yesterday's news, to the beginning of time.

Technology also puts us in the paradoxical position of looking forward, anticipating what's next, while we are faced with a flood of what came before. The cultural production that arises from this unique combination is forever at the helm of re-interpretation. All you will find now are "translations," without the original source, or perhaps a slim, watered-down version of the original source.

Self-publishing heralds a culture of active culture-producers. Everyone can produce culture, and that implies that each of us must interpret, and actively understand the world around us. The world is no longer a fixed place, held up by the artificial supports of newspapers and magazines. We are actively cobbling together the world now, from endless fragments, webpages, points of view, and utterances.

In one month, I am exposed to more aspects of culture on the web than I was exposed to in four years of college. The confluence of social networking and exchange, active content production, and research using search engines, makes what I learned in college look parochial.

I'm the editor of an online journal. I'm constantly reading articles that discuss wide-ranging aspects of art and culture, and then I make editorial judgments about the material, and prepare it for a large readership. In short, I'm doing something with the information on the web, and so is nearly everyone else, for the first time in history. We are not just "readers" anymore. We must act, interpret, judge, and discriminate.

Art has always relied on inter-textuality, but in our era we see something else, something more extreme. The individual is primarily relating to texts by showing ownership of them. User-generated media facilitates this process of ownership. By taking images that seem beautiful or funny, passages from books that stimulate the mind, or holding discussions about the issues that matter to a person, each individual is actively working to produce his or her own cultural landscape.

If the result of this kind of cultural production seems to only involve the self as it relates to the world, rather than the other way around, then I see this new culture as a boon, even with all of the drawbacks associated.


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8 comments:

Sulci Collective said...

My personal response to this is to consider the question, 'what role does an artist play in our contemporary world?'

Is there still a role for the individual visionary, the aesthetic interrogator of society, or do we put all our faith in the permutations of the collective consciousness evidenced on the Net spitting out value product?

The Arts have always had an elitist tinge to them, little different from the talents and endowments of say being top of the tree in sports. Not only the innate abilities, but also the patronage first of Royal Courts, then of galleries and collectors. The positive thing is that artists can cut out the middle man and reach out directly to their audience via the Web. The disadvantage is that the true visionaries, those with 'new' perspectives, have to fight it out among the rest of the morass of playful kittens and often get submerged in the white noise.

Instead of patrons and collectors, we have advertisers and hit rates, which are one level removed from the content, unlike the personal reaction of the patron or curator. They want to be associated with a website/blog because of its traffic and kudos. They are not necessarily wanting to be tied into the prose or song currently downloadable on the site.

One positive advantage I do see, is that collaboration between artists is readily available via the Net. Maybe collaborations will replace the individual artist in traditionally individual arts such as writing.

If there is fresh cultural production, my instinct is that it's getting diffused among the mass. And while Art has had to follow the dictates of the market economy since the 1980's, it is getting even more commodified via the web, because the 'audience' is formatted and measured differently. Authors in particularly are hammering out a debate about the balance between giving away free online content and trying to recoup money through sales of actual product. Is there a trend for online consumers to happily devour free product, but baulk at paying to own the product in their tepid little hands? Now we have a whole new tranche of marketeers advising us how to ensure that is not the case and they are outselling fiction authors tenfold. Symbiosis or parasitism?

Artists seriously risk being excised from the social strata because they face not being paid a level making it worth their time and investment in their art.

So again, what value do we place on the artist?

Barbara F. McMillen said...

Lit classes never really included a legitimate 'contemporary lit' component because contemporary as a concept was fleeting. Easier to study previous half decades all the way back. The web is the opposite. Now that Google research allows you to find your own comment made 1 min ago - the ever accumulating present defeats a backward look. But the past is there. What is necessary is a mind educated in the pursuit. And a mind reaching beyond the webbed solipcism. Interesting and thoughtful post.

Todd X. said...

Excellent essay. Kakutani forgets that most cultural production is garbage. Who reads the best sellers from 100 years ago? I think we'll be fine, but the literary/media forms we have to play with and the amount of information we have to sift through will continue to grow. That's probably a good thing.

syrimne said...

Great post, Lethe! A few things I wanted to mention. One, they say for the first time in ages, the readership of young people is going up, not down. The role of the internet in this is unknown, but if I could hazard a guess, it might be that in the course of their internet gymnastics, young people are finding content that they actually want to read...versus having content force-fed to them in school. Like Lethe said, if you spend a lot of time online, you can find more content than you could ever reasonably explore...but not all of that content speaks to us as individuals. I remember being shocked as a teenager when a teacher handed me a book I actually *liked*. Some kids (and adults for that matter) are always going to be curious about who they are, no matter how much crap they're bombarded with...and they'll want to figure it out for themselves. That is a good thing, by the way.

Which brings me to another point. What a lot of these media hysterics about the internet seem to forget is the class and demographic differences on how the internet is used. It becomes one of those "the people who matter" arguments. The writers Lethe references are only talking about the urban, wealthy demographic in the United States. Even just in the USA alone, I read a book recently that referenced the different uses made by the internet between the working/rural classes in this country and those with more money/education (Deer Hunting with Jesus, by Joe Bageant). In Bageant's view, the reason the GOP has done so well with the rural/working class is that they *don't* rely on the internet to reach these folks, but instead go to bars and churches and town hall meetings. Many groups seem to think that they can actually reach everyone via the internet, and let me tell you, having worked in the government and health care sectors for years and been responsible for communication where you have masses of union employees who can barely get their email open, I assure you, this is not the case. You have to actually go and speak to these people in person, or you’re wasting your time. Many in this population use the internet to check sports scores, pass around jokes, look at naked girls and occasionally buy stuff...and that’s it. They don't read books...OR blogs. They watch television and listen to talk radio. I think there's a large contingent of the internet-savvy who completely forget that these people make up more than half of our country. The reality is, these people are watching Fox News and listening to bar gossip and local pundits...not "surfing the net" to find viewpoints they agree with, (they find that on talk radio, easily enough). As a species, we've always been guilty of collective screening to find those who agree with us, I don't see that as a new development at all.

In reference to Suici's point about whether people will make art if there's no money in it...I'm curious, when was this fabled land of plenty where artists (meaning the vast majority of us that write or do art) make a living wage doing it? The average salary for fiction writers is $5000 a year, and from what I can tell, that might be up from previous years. I don't know that there's ever been a large pool of $ for artists...that's not the point. As a species, we like to make shit. It’s nice when we get paid, but not a requirement.

I do have an issue with the people who are essentially parasites and want money or fame from other people's creative endeavors...but parasites are hardly new either. "Gimmick" artists seem to exist in every generation too, meaning those whose talent, beyond marketing themselves, is questionable at best. My point is, it's important to look at how the delivery of art is impacting how we see and how we think...but I think it's equally important not to lose perspective on the humanity behind these forces. Like "the market," "the internet" is essentially a collection of human beings, and all the weirdness that entails.

Lou Freshwater said...

Great essay. I'm finding it more and more necessary to unplug in order to do my creative work, because I do not want to constantly make collages, I want to make something particular to my experience and ways of expression. But it is hard to move away when you have a brain that quickly becomes 'hooked' on the constant stream or "white noise" as Marc calls it.

nickdiamondjr said...

First off, what a wonderful and exciting article! I really enjoyed its breadth and depth. The issues under consideration I've written on on different occasions, but I wasn't acquainted with Michiko Kakutani yet. So many thanks for introducing her to me.

I more or less agree with your point of view, and appreciate the way in which you brought out the good and the bad. I also like the other insightful comments. Leaving me with very little to add ;)

Yet, luckily, there always is something to add. I think the democratization is, as you point out, in the end a sign of enrichment (of culture). Though obviously kitsch, bad taste, nonsense, noise, etc, may drown out the real creative and visionary talents - not to mention our attention. The only thing I like to say, is that the process of democratization could be balanced out by the role of critics like yourself, and the re-establishment of valuable, worthwhile institutions and/or traditions.

The democratization would ensure the constant influx of fresh, new, creative ideas, while institutions and traditions would guard, promote, and elaborate on certain established standards of excellence (new standards we could find agreement on). So we should search out these common grounds to build on, while ensuring the newfound freedom and competition.

To attain this goal, I believe we should re-evaluate certain ideas and theories on culture... a reconsideration of the meaning of the word "culture". I think, the more extreme forms of cultural relativism, found in postmodernism for example, make the re-establishment of valuable, worthwhile institutions and/or traditions impossible. These theories celebrate the mediocre, since there is no possible standard, no beauty etc. Making the task of the critic nearly impossible, a mere futility...

I'll end by refuting the philosophy behind cultural relativism on logical grounds, by simply pointing out its glaring contradictions:

1. Epistemologically, cultural relativism claims OBJECTIVE VALIDITY for itself, when it's advocating the IMPOSSIBILITY of such objectivity (because if its claim is true, it can only be objectively true)

2. Methodologically, cultural relativism steps outside Western culture (which spawned this form of sophistication), in order to claim that one CANNOT step outside a culture.

3. Morally, cultural relativism condemns as IMMORAL the whole "institution of condemnation and praise" (a necessary condition for ANY kind of morality - including that of cultural relativism).

syrimne said...

Just wanted to second/comment on the point by nickdiamondjr - that the real missing component now is the lack of commonly accepted and respected cultural institutions that evaluate artistic expression and political/social opinion. In general, I can't honestly say that the decline of those institutions is solely a result of the internet. In terms of journalism, I would be tempted to say Murdoch and his ilk have more to do with it, by deciding to throw away the time honored tradition of having to tell the truth when you proclaim to be reporting news. Used to be that you would lose your job and be blacklisted in the journalistic community for the kinds of shennanagins that are "business as usual" for many media outlets now.

I think the disillusionment with "the establishment" engendered by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s also have their place in the scheme of that cultural change.

With the arts, I suspect it's more directly tied to the internet and the proliferation of voices calling the art establishment's monoliths of the past into question...or simply competing with them.

I suspect the current situation won't remain static however.

d.edlen said...

The idea that we aren't creating anything new always seems odd to me. It's always new. Every moment. The interpretation and comparison to the past is what mucks it up. If you look at creativity with the innocence of a child discovering their world, then each Warhol print is just as marvelous as the previous, even as the pattern and overall effect combines to marvel as well. What I do, paint portraits of musicians using white acrylic on vinyl recordings of the subject matter inspired by a photograph could be seen as a mashup, a retro nostalgic cheeseball idea that regurgitates pieces of cultural history. It is that. But it's new.

Peace.