?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Pop, populism, unpop and apoptosis - click opera
February 2010
 
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
 
 
 
 
 
 
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 03:54 pm
Pop, populism, unpop and apoptosis

This time next week -- next Tuesday evening at 6pm, to be precise -- I'm giving a talk at the Architectural Association in London.

Part of the Pop and Populism lecture series, my talk is called The Ideology of the "iconic":

Momus

The Ideology Of The "Iconic"

Architectural Association
36-37 Bedford Sq
London

6pm Tuesday 14th October 2008
Free entry

Blurb: "'Love her or loathe her'" says Kirsty Wark of Madonna, 'you cannot underestimate the impact she has had on music, or her iconic status.'
The word 'iconic' might be the best way into a discussion of where postmodernism's collapse of high and low has led us: to a situation in which opting out of mass market phenomena simply isn't considered to be an option. The 'iconic' as an ideology means that, regardless of taste, we all have to pay attention to -- and analyse, preferably in a sub-Barthesian manner infused with terms like 'guilty pleasures' and 'getting my fix' – a new canon in which commercial status and cultural status are one and the same thing. As a result, even in the academy quantitative terms have swamped qualitative ones, and criticism – co-opted and confounded by the comforting repetitions of celebrity culture and PR – is in crisis. As we approach the end of this postmodern tyranny, Momus signals what he calls Unpop as one possible exit strategy."

Since that blurb was written, though, I've refocussed the talk a bit after reading something Julian Gough wrote about David Foster Wallace (and this also relates to the debate we were having on Whimsy's blog about Nobel Prize judge Horace Engdahl saying American writers were "too sensitive to trends in their own culture" to participate in "the big dialogue of literature").

Anyway, Julian Gough's comment makes it sound as if too much referencing and too much condemning of popular culture are two sides of the same coin:

"In the absence of suffering, in the absence of a subject, American literary novelists again and again waste their power attacking America’s debased, overwhelming, industrial pop-culture. They attack it with the energy appropriate to attacking fascism, or communism, or death. But that pop culture (bad TV, bad movies, ads, bad pop songs) is a snivelling, ingratiating whimpering billion dollar cur. It has to be chosen in order to be consumed: so it flashes its tits and laughs at your jokes and replays your prejudices and smiles smiles smiles. It isn’t worthy of satire, because it cannot use force to oppress. If it has an off-button, it is not oppression. Attacking it is unworthy, empty, meaningless. It is like beating up prostitutes."

Pop might be worth attacking if its populism, for instance, shifted over into the political realm (as it certainly has done in the past, although I think this current political season is likely to be more influenced by pain than pleasure). But Gough's point stands, and as a result I think I'm going to talk more about "unpop" than pop, more about the things I approve of than the things I don't.

I also want to work in apoptosis, the technical word for programmed cell death in multicellular organisms. Unlike necrosis (traumatic cell damage), apoptosis is generally a healthy and benign thing: it shapes the healthy body. So I'll want to argue that one way out of the boring postmodernist obsession with pop culture would be a sort of cultural apoptosis: a weeding-out, from our organisms, of unneccessary pop-cultural forms.

32CommentReplyShare


(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 02:34 pm (UTC)
greetings from WC1

This looks amazing! Let me know if you need a crash space etc, will be great to see you. xx


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 05:13 pm (UTC)

Or you could just say it is a talk about sex and death.


ReplyThread
count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 05:56 pm (UTC)
cork, wax, gum arabic and silt

or sex, death and the bit in between.



ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
Pop, populism, unpop and apoptosis

Kirsty Wark! Roland Barthes! Have you sever seen them in the same room at the same time?

The process of 'weeding out', nice noodling by Greg Ginn.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Process_of_Weeding_Out

Expanded in 'Rock & The Pop Narcotic' by Joe Carducci. Greatest self-referential rant on rock / pop culture ever committed to papier blanc. Simon Reynolds even manages to poke his nose into that one.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_and_the_Pop_Narcotic

Unpop? Jim Goad gives it a good dig.

But in the end, maybe it's because I'm a Londoner that I don't live there & will miss the lecture.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 06:44 pm (UTC)
Iconoclastic Note

Your thesis-in-miniature seems to me spot-on.

I must admit that the compulsive modern media-use of the term 'iconic' (which I can't help but think of as a misuse) infuriates me. It also seems culturally symptomatic in complex and disheartening ways. I'm pretty sure the term started to be deployed in its new (and, to me, still odd and jarring way) circa 2000-2001: at any rate, that's when my antennae picked up on the word in TV and radio broadcasts and recoiled in revulsion. It was like the new word in the playground of the press that every dim person who wanted to sound smart instinctively understood they now had to use (without actually understanding the word's previous applications), and it quickly spread like a contagion through the parlance of populism - not the parlance of the populace, importantly (I think it's only now slowly starting to trickle out of media-speak into the language people use in conversation) but the parallel language-world of cultural commentary. It's as if, some time around the turn of the millennium, the sense of an icon as a representation of a sacred figure - a representation which itself takes on some kind of sacred power for the beholder - was desecrated, so to speak, and set up for indistinct new purposes by a super-breed of Philistines.

(Why the timing? I'm not sure, but perhaps the media's very obsession with defining cultural representativeness at the transition between millennia - The 100 Best films, records, underpants, etc - had something to do with the melting down of the 'icon' and its reapplication in multiple, mutable and mutilated forms...)

Of course, the term didn't shift (or degrade) overnight. But when, in the last century, Elvis Presley, say, was described as an 'icon' (or, of course, that once vaguely cognate term: an 'idol') it was an intelligible extension of the word as commonly understood: some individuals inspire fervour, even adoration, and bedroom shrines are duly constructed for these secular gods. But now, in 2008, a newly constructed, ferociously ugly shopping centre in a shitty little British town is hailed as 'iconic'. If only this were an 'ironic iconic'; if only the use of the term intimated or elicited some wry, tacit understanding that consumerism is kind of (but not really) a displaced form of veneration. ("Take the pilgrimage to Walsingham Retail Park, brethren, and be salved by the therapeutic balm of shopping", etc.) But the term's now in a very weird state of usage: the sense of veneration has disappeared from the actual MEANING of the word yet the ATTACHMENT to the word by those who insist on (mis-)using it bespeaks, however subtly, a form of veneration. Isn't there just a hint of reverence for the term (a reverence that swiftly and disgustingly slides into self-reverence) in the broadcaster's voice every time it's trotted out? It's as if the word 'iconic' has a small (if ever-darkening) halo, that it doesn't just describe cultural representativeness - in a debased, ill-conceived sense - but emanates it, that it breathes a little of its (increasingly noxious) incense on the one who utters it. "I, the journalist, who speaks of the 'iconic', partakes of it in the very act of defining it". That smugness is oozingly abundant in Kirsty Wark, of course, and perhaps what irks me so much when I hear her (but also many others) use the term is the discrepancy between the assuredness with which it is employed ("This is the word we say now, and in saying it I'm saying how things are in culture, and thus insinuating my entitlement to arbitrate within that culture") and the shocking ignorance of the word's historical - that is to say, its cultural - import. The very fact that Wark, when she poured out her pseudo-authoritative platitude, was evidently oblivious to the fact that a 'Madonna' IS an 'icon', as many centuries of artistic and spiritual aspiration attest, is an extreme but salutary illustration of how much sheer ignorance festers within the complacent assertion of cultural certitude every time this devalued verbal token is traded.

Right, I'm glad I've got that off my chest. Sorry I'll miss the talk, Nick. I hope you'll post the text of it here some time...

Jamesy


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Iconoclastic Note

That was a fantastic rant, Jamesy, and I'd love to read it verbatim in my lecture (might need your second name, though)!

I think you're right about the millenial timing and the sense that media users of the term are conferring as well as just describing iconic status. I also want to relate this new use of "iconic" to two things, high-Gini, in which UK society divides increasingly into winners and losers (with celebrities seen as the ultimate winners, and iconic celebrities as the winners-within-the-winners), and also the PR-driven culture in which ever bigger claims have to be made even just to launch a cultural product -- it has to be the biggest, best, most expensive, most iconic, etc etc. The UK has more PR people than journalists now, and so of course the PR-speak gets into journalism. Each new building has to be an instant "icon", has to make the magazine covers, just as every comeback by every over-exposed star has to be a reminder of their "iconic" status.

It's also a part of middlebrow repetition culture: Wark calling something "iconic" means, simply: "You'll have heard of this before, because we told you about it before, repeatedly." The result is things and people famous for being famous, and an eternal deferment of the critical questions: "Is this good? Why? What do I personally think of it?" As the Wark quote above makes clear, if something is "iconic", it doesn't matter what you personally think of it. Love it or loathe it, the iconic is there, de facto, repeated like a classic on Classic FM, or Like a Virgin on Virgin FM, or like gold on Capital Gold. So get used to it!


ReplyThread Parent Expand


(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC)

I have a small quibble to make with Gough's thesis. It seems a rather facile answer to the problem of culture to say that "it has to be chosen in order to be consumed." Oh really? At what point does one choose to consume the culture into which one is born? Presumably culture also needs our endorsement in order to live, and the instant one chooses to opt out of a given tradition, its traces magically disappear from your mind and identity like so much fairy dust, leaving nothing but the bracing chill of critical acuity. I believe that there is no way out of culture but into other cultures, no way to unlearn something than by replacing it with an alternative. We belong to culture, not it to us. And that applies even to cultures as banal as industrial pop-culture, sadly. It is no option to simply ignore something that is surrounding you.

-Jace


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 08:18 pm (UTC)

Not only surrounding you but permeating you. This is probably why American writers obsess over the subject, it's what they have in them to say. This tends to point up the naivete of thinking that simply because something cannot use force to oppress, that doesn't make it useless as a force of oppression. Ok, enough.

-Jace


ReplyThread Parent Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 08:13 pm (UTC)

lol, when I watch Madonna, I see this:



And the same goes for everything else that stupid people find iconic. Provides me with a lot of lolz, though.


ReplyThread
count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, Oct. 9th, 2008 05:03 am (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent
fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)

when i look at ads for the new fall tv shows i'll never watch or even accidentally catch a minute of, i think i may as well be looking at pop stars in a foreign country and then it's less easy to sneer.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 10:42 pm (UTC)

I just had dinner with Tomoko Miyata, and she said two interesting things. I said "Why didn't you choose a rock or pop style when you started doing music?" (she makes waterbowl music) and she said "Because I've always been a rebel". I thought that was interesting, because once upon a time that's why people would have chosen rock music, rather than why they would have avoided it.

The other thing was about Japan versus Paris. In Japan, she said, there's an expectation that you watch TV and know all the stars. But in Paris "nobody I know has a TV".


ReplyThread Parent Expand




(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC)


I think all this 'Pop Cytology' could be well icon(oclast)ic.



CS






ReplyThread
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)

Any discussion of icons and pop culture in general, if not carefully framed, has a tendency to 'miss the point': the point being that there are powerful structures in place which dictate what gets done, by whom, and how often. By only dealing with the end product of all that (a sort of 'cultural studies' content analysis) , you'll just chase your tail and never get to understand how the product came about or why, and whom the existing system benefits.

These issues are arguably more likely to lead to understanding than discussing the merits (or not!) of the end product which the taste-mongers inflict on everyone this week! As you correctly point out, it's the legacy of postmodernism . Through 'uses and gratifications ' type theories, it sees audiences as powerful (since they may not consume the product in the way the producers intended, and instead 'create meanings') whilst ignoring the lack of widespread access to the elitist distribution system by such audiences, and skating over the political economy of the system which dictates what products are available for such audiences to 'use'.

The methodology of contemporary cultural production in a market economy fascinates and shocks me in more or less equal measure. The production of musical culture has ceased to to one of attention to the 'object', the focus is now on presenting and marketing a kind of 'baggage' which those cultural products carry. For example, the distribution system (which on a wide scale legitimises someone as an 'artist') does not seek direct consumption of madonna's songs, it's more about madonna-as- brand, which enables a 'standardised perception'. It's about the loss of subjectivity. Those songs are aimed at target markets. That culture is a vehicle for experience one can buy into but not share. Hence the 'star system': highest value being fame itself, the lifestyle of the famous. Public personality-as-product, onto which the alienated consumer can pour frustrations. And all the time the beneficiaries of the system are the same: multinational record companies/media/electronics conglomerates who take the lion's share of the purchase price of a disc, and a handful of multimillionaire artists who 'made it big'. whether that is a)desirable or beneficial to society at large and b) compatible with worthwhile cultural creation and empowerment of people is up for debate! Hence your emphasis on 'unpop' or alternatives to the above seems like an interesting direction. What you got in mind?


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 11:13 pm (UTC)

Well, since I just wrote a big essay on Unpop for the Yximalloo album of the same title, I'm going to quote that and maybe talk about Yximalloo. Or maybe Tomoko Miyata. Or Oorutaichi. I think "ganbaranai" ("Don't go for it," the slogan of Slow Life) is something they all have in common; they're not trying to compete with commercial artforms at all (therefore they differ from failed commercial artists -- like me, ha!).

They're often also artists who make "Slow Art" -- they don't use the drop-down menu impact tricks I talk about in this Wired article about "the Golden Age of Stupid Impact". Their impact doesn't depend on faster editing and louder noises, or what Susan Sontag called "aggressive normality". Instead, it's often deliberately weak and contemplative, but maybe has other strengths: spiritual strength, soul (Yximalloo is, for me, like a blues man), eccentricity and surprise.

It strikes me that I have an "asymmetrical multiculturalism" attitude to these artists. Some people will surely say "Why do you champion these little obscure artists just because they're little and obscure? Surely the thing to do is to like music irregardless of whether it's popular or unpopular, Pop or Unpop? Open your mind!"

But I believe that you need to make your taste asymmetrical because power is asymmetrical. You need to spurn power, spite it, fight it. That's being a rebel, it's the rebel thing to do. And power is mainstream popular culture, and the populism (in politics and elsewhere) that extends it.

Of course, I wouldn't just support anything because it was unpopular. It has to appeal on some visceral level too.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)
Persil Automatic

Paul Arden, you've discussed before, in his book "Its Not How Good You Are It's How Good You Want To Be" finds it no surprise that Victoria Beckham was the Spice Girl who said she wanted to be 'as famous as Persil Automatic'. By leaving even human aspiration behind, fully capitulating with the need to become a brand, she was the most likely to succeed. (Her lack of talent also helped, if Arden is to be believed.) So where does Madonna get her iconic branding from? The singularity of the name, archetypal of the Mother? Surpassing 'famous for being famous' towards 'big by talking big'? "If you talk obscure you will be obscure" seemed to be a 90s mantra, so talk in assertive and iconic terms - The Church, Feminism, Sex. If societies can't function without religion, or a surrogate, if they transferred their religiosity into consumerism, maybe they're actually too consumer-literate to take their own icons seriously. They become images of images. The only Warhol work I can look at is the least 'iconic'. The portable totem that represents consensus in our society has more proximity now, flows and movements.


ReplyThread
stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Wed, Oct. 8th, 2008 05:27 am (UTC)

isn't acknowledging the problem propagating it


ReplyThread
stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Wed, Oct. 8th, 2008 05:32 am (UTC)

it's object oriented iconification: people calling things iconic, click, read meta-explication


ReplyThread Parent Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

(Anonymous)
Wed, Oct. 8th, 2008 07:49 am (UTC)

What about the work you did with Kahimi Karie - pop or unpop ?


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Oct. 8th, 2008 10:34 am (UTC)

Oh, pop of course!


ReplyThread Parent
qscrisp
qscrisp
Wed, Oct. 8th, 2008 09:26 am (UTC)
The Iowa Writers Workshop Lacks Yuugen, Again, A Song

I am bound to do this:

http://sleeping-butterfly.blogspot.com/2008/10/iowa-writers-workshop-lacks-yuugen-by.html

I certainly hope that qualifies as Unpop.


ReplyThread
qscrisp
qscrisp
Wed, Oct. 8th, 2008 09:54 am (UTC)
Re: The Iowa Writers Workshop Lacks Yuugen, Again, A Song

Or you could take the direct route:

http://www.cycast.co.uk/mp3.php?par=Yj0xMzYyMw==


ReplyThread Parent Expand