Dynamism, Stasis, and Popular Culture


Stripped of its feminist boilerplate, Susan Faludi's new book Stiffed reads like a Buchananite manifesto, a heartfelt plea for a return to the static social and economic roles of the 1940s and '50s. And it is loaded with attacks on popular culture, which Faludi portrays as victimizing and manipulating its consumers.

Our abundant music, our abundant popular culture–and the attacks that abundance inspires–are thus part of a more general pattern: a struggle between dynamism and stasis, between creativity and central control. Dynamists, too, find ourselves in interesting new alliances. A few months ago, the critic Tom Frank attacked cultural studies scholars like Henry Jenkins in an essay in The Baffler. Frank, who is dedicated to the idea that consumers are easily manipulated by evil corporations, suggested that emphasizing audience power is the first step down a slippery ideological slope. Scholars like Henry, he warned, are treating consumers as people who make meaningful choices. They sound like the market-loving editors of Reason magazine! (The next thing you know, they'll be speaking at the same conferences and maybe even eating dinner together.) I can only say that I hope Henry does not find the association too socially embarrassing.

Dynamists celebrate cultural abundance, and the technology that makes it possible. They do not have to like every product to find value in a system that gives people such great abilities to express and create personal meaning. Stasists, by contrast, see disruption and junk–with consumers as dupes in need of guidance and regulation. The culture boom, writes neoconservative critic Hilton Kramer, "impoverishes us by making the possession of worthwhile culture increasingly difficult and increasingly fragile." (Emphasis added.) Worth is in the trained eye of the tastemaker.

The New York Times' Max Frankel frets that the multiplication of TV channels has shattered the "romantic experience of a nation united by a live comedy, a political convention or a Presidential funeral…. The more we have been wired together," he says, "the faster we have been spun apart." Frankel calls the Web "the ultimate slicing machine," which will leave us "equal only in our digital loneliness." The only shared culture Frankel can imagine is mass culture, preferably expressing consensus technocratic politics. He is nostalgic for the cultural equivalent of John Kenneth Galbraith's "technostructure," an oligopolistic industrial state where the future would be carefully planned in advance.

Economic markets haven't worked that way, and neither has popular culture. What upsets critics like Kramer and Frankel is that technology is dispersing the power to define "art" or "culture." It is reducing the number of technological chokepoints to expression–and, hence, breaking up the monopolies that once controlled cultural discourse. It is weakening the power of New York critics. It is allowing individuals to create new markets for self-expression and self-definition. These markets may or may not be profit-driven, but they are based on voluntary exchange between dispersed producers and consumers, not centralized allocation. Popular culture is indeed out of control.

We tend to think of music–or of popular culture more generally–as a product of art rather than commerce or technology. In fact, as the CD player suggests, it depends on all three. Together, these great dynamic systems match individual creativity and individual desire. They thus generate change, variety, and an endless array of critics–all determined that popular culture, like the rest of society, should conform to "one best way."

Dynamic, open systems–cultural, economic, scholarly, scientific, and artistic–erode central control. They rely instead on decentralized innovation, competition, and criticism. They have many characteristics, but today I want to spend the rest of my time exploring just one: the importance of dispersed knowledge.

In my book, I use the metaphor of a tree to explain the dynamist and stasist visions of knowledge in society. To dynamists, knowledge is like a spreading elm tree in full leaf: a broad trunk of shared experience and general facts, splitting into finer and finer limbs, branches, twigs, and leaves. The surface area is enormous, the twigs and leaves often distant from each other. Knowledge is dispersed. It is shared through complex systems of connections. We benefit from much that we ourselves do not know but other people do. For stasists, by contrast, the tree is a royal palm, the sort that line the streets in Los Angeles: one long, spindly trunk topped with a few fronds, a simple, limited structure. Everything that is important to know can be easily grasped by those at the top.

The knowledge problem is where Bellamy went wrong. He imagined that all the necessary information about what people wanted could be easily collected and matched with production through a single centralized bureaucracy. He imagined that those wants would not change very often or very much. His system would eliminate the "waste" of experimentation and competition.

A century ago, this vision was all the rage. Today, few people would apply it to the whole economy–increasingly few apply it even to a single company–but its assumptions linger on, especially in cultural discussions. Among the loudest voices in our cultural debates, very, very few treat culture as a discovery process rather than a single, "worthwhile" and well-understood end state. Most imagine that we already know everything there is to know about cultural value.

In the dynamist vision, however, popular culture is a process of developing and sharing new forms, new aesthetics, and new identities–and of adopting and adapting old ones to fit the needs of the present. We find the particular values and meanings we need through a process that connects us to distant others. Because no one knows what exactly is out there–what ideas or desires are scattered throughout society–dynamic culture is full of surprises. People are always finding new combinations that no one would have expected.

Consider the CD player. This technology and others like it would never have emerged from a centralized system. Technocratic wise men would not have applied the awesome technology of the transistor to something as trivial as a pocket radio. They would not have wasted high technology on mere entertainment. They would not let videogames drive the development of more and more powerful computer chips. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects to me of today's culture wars is Silicon Valley's reluctance to defend the entertainment products on which its chip makers depend.

Those chip makers after all are themselves used to being second-guessed by experts. Back in the late 1980s, industrial policy was all the rage and we were told again and again that America's technology businesses were doomed unless they adopted coordinated plans to beat the Japanese in the memory-chip business. In a famous 1988 Harvard Business Review article, MIT's Charles Ferguson denounced the "fragmented, 'chronically entrepreneurial' industry" of Silicon Valley. He warned that "Most experts believe that without deep changes in both industry behavior and government policy, U.S. microelectronics will be reduced to permanent, decisive inferiority within ten years." His warning went unheeded, and that was more than 11 years ago. Ferguson and his mandarin contacts could not imagine a high-tech sector driven by microprocessors, software, and networks rather than memory-chip manufacturing–just as Max Frankel cannot imagine a meaningful, shared culture emerging without mass media.

As I listened to Henry Jenkins talk yesterday about the way technologies from the photocopier to the Web have allowed people to "archive, annotate, reconfigure, and retransmit" cultural images and ideas, I was reminded of yet another prediction that failed to come true. Back in the 1960s, the influential ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax warned that Western popular music and global media would wipe out indigenous traditions. He predicted a "global grey-out" and the "disappearance of human variety." Instead, you can now get "Musical Healers of Indigenous Cultures" in Best Buy stores throughout America.

More significantly, traditional musicians did not abandon their cultures. But they did, in many cases, reconfigure them–combining elements of the indigenous and the foreign to create entirely new genres. In Jamaica alone, cross-fertilization produced ska, rock-steady, and reggae, which itself became a global phenomenon, adding new elements to the popular cultures of many other countries. Lomax was wrong to predict the extinction of human variety. He was right, however, that cultural dynamism would encourage the world's musicians to depart from "the unified folkways of their forefathers." Cultural creation is a living process. And as technologies and markets allow ideas to spread from one culture to another, people transform those expressions in ways no one would have anticipated. Cultural vitality defies the wisdom of planners.

Cultural expression also depends on knowledge that is inherently difficult to articulate: Why does that song move you? Why do you find that joke funny? What's so great about that painting? Critics do, of course, develop vocabularies and references that help answer such questions. But cultural meaning still remains deeply personal and highly dependent on unarticulated, often tacit, knowledge.

That's one reason cultural hits are so hard to predict and so well rewarded. It's also why risk-friendly upstarts, like new TV networks, are more likely to take chances on experiments. To gain a foothold, they are willing to trust someone's hard-to-justify sense that a new idea can tap a new audience. Fox gave us The Simpsons and the WB backed Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Max Frankel's static, mass-culture ideal, we would have neither of these great shows. (This phenomenon is even clearer when entirely new media emerge.)

The problem of articulation runs throughout our cultural debates. Critics often charge that the creators of commercial culture are "hiding behind the First Amendment" when they decline to justify their work to Congress. By protecting people from having to give a "good reason" for their artistic choices, the First Amendment in fact does allow creators to exercise judgment based on their difficult-to-articulate understanding of audience and storytelling. (What the audience itself does with the stories adds yet another layer of complexity to the knowledge problem.)

Consider Schindler's List . A few years ago, in the previous round of outrage about popular culture, there was a lot of talk about where to draw the line on violence in the media, particularly TV. Different people had different ideas, but the consensus was clear. As one researcher put it, "We should be distinguishing between Schindler's List and Terminator 2." Everyone agreed, over and over again, that banning a serious movie about the Holocaust because it contains violence and nudity was utterly absurd. No legal restrictions should cancel out the widespread sense that Schindler's List is a good, important movie, worthy of being on TV.

Yet the very first show to be broadcast with a TV-M rating–the rating that, once V-chips are installed, would block that show–was none other than Schindler's List. And the next day Congressman Tom Coburn , a Republican from Oklahoma, blasted NBC for the movie's "violence…vile language, full frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity." He said, "It simply should never have been allowed on public television."

The clash between Coburn's assessment and the general public sentiment that broadcasting Schindler's List was not just tolerable but morally good illustrates the significance of local knowledge to popular culture. Tastes and values differ, often profoundly. Some parents worry about sexual innuendo, some about violence, some about political or religious content, some about general mindlessness. No label can ever give enough detail. What's unacceptable sexual innuendo to one person is a mild joke to another. Nor can ratings of any sort evaluate how to trade off "redeeming social value," or just plain good art, against otherwise problematic levels of sex or violence.

Even if everyone did agree that that the V-chip should not keep viewers away from Schindler's List, what about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine , which has often been the week's most violent broadcast show? What about America's Funniest Home Videos? E.R.? The X-Files? What about Terminator 2? Some people treat it as a touchstone example of trash, but I think is a perfectly fine movie, though not as good as the original. The Schindler's List problem is simply inescapable. We cannot impose a single standard, even of labels, without denying the diversity and dynamism of popular culture.

In the end, the debate between dynamism and stasis is a dispute over how civilizations learn, and whether they should. It is a struggle between those who believe they already know "the limit of human felicity," and those who trust the pursuit of happiness to go in many different, and many unexpected, directions. And it is a conflict between those who believe culture is too dangerous to be left alone and those who believe it is too precious to be controlled.