October 7th, 2008


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":


The Ideology Of The "Iconic"

Architectural Association
36-37 Bedford Sq

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.