Spring 2001 vol 1.1
Get the Remote
David Lenson
OUR GALLERIES OF CULTURE do not resemble the palaces of Siam, nor the opera houses of Europe done up like wedding cakes with ceramic icing and chocolate corridors. The stone deities of the Parthenon do not sit in them, nor the beaten silver and white gold of the Topkapi. To see our treasures we go, instead, to fluorescent warehouses like Media Play, undivided acres of displays with all the atmospherics of a dental clinic. Unguided and undirected, we wander through the heaping abundance of our civilization, overwhelmed. Instead of reveling in the richness of creation, we feel inadequate and ignorant.

And what an abundance it is. Fifty thousand books a year published in the States alone, innumerable CDs in dozens of genres, tens of thousands of comics and magazines, hundreds of movies on tape and DVD, video games from the vicious to the cerebral, software for every imaginable purpose.... It is a culture beyond the reach of the individual, a vast production of the hive mind buzzing and sleepless, and yet we go to it alone, one consumer at a time, certain that somewhere in its cells and mazes must be just the thing we want this afternoon, something that will touch us and move us. But where the hell could it be, our shiny needle in a haystack?

Customers in the store today are very cool, no one showing a twitch of panic. Are they feeling it under the veneer? Some overcome it by knowing in advance just what they want, and hunting it down in the bedlam. Others just browse, waiting for a transcendental voice to call to them from a rack, saying here I am, I am it, buy me. Others regionalize their quest, restricting it to combat games or meringue or gardening magazines, relieving the pressure by bracketing out millions of choices. Still others seek guidance, not from store personnel who are just as lost as they are, but from mediating powers that spare them the horror of infinite choice.

Who are these powers, these river guides? What do they know about us that we don’t know about ourselves? They are radio stations, reviewers, industry magazines, advertising agencies, Amazons with their deeply personal suggestions (people like you who bought Mariah Carey also bought...). It may be the store itself, that pulls out certain titles for frontal display on top of the rack. We need them to narrow the field, these great suggesters, even though their motivation for doing so is entirely self-serving. Or there is the mechandising equivalent of “poll the audience” on that quiz show, best-seller lists or top-40 racks that tell us what everyone else is buying, appealing to our base instincts as herd animals. Or there is the equivalent of “phone a friend,” a purchasing suggestion that comes by word of mouth. What would we end up with if we had to rely on ourselves?

These mediators, how do they know what they know? How does a reviewer decide what to review? How does a radio station figure what to play? How does a publisher know which books to advertise? Who tells the powers that tell us? Is there another set of powers several layers up, godlike creatures who know all there is to know, all-seeing, all-reading, all-listening, all-playing, all-working supernatural beings?   

If so, then these are collective entities of some kind––corporations, individuals under the law, but comprised like beehives of trillions of fractional creatures. Corporations meaning (etymologically) embodied things, yet things without bodies, bodiless and therefore at least potentially immortal. Great abstract circularities, intricate networks of workers and managers, officers and boardmembers, shareholders and customers, all swirling in a vortex of money and energy. And some of these vortices, in great electrical climaxes like lightningbolts, strew the world with products, and some of these are cultural artifacts.

What is art in all this? The names of musicians are on the jewel case inserts, four, five or seven of them, but then comes everybody else: Executive Producers, Executive Supervisors, Production Coordinators, Artist Management, Art Directors, Designers, Layout people, photographers, illustrators, A&R Administration, Song Publishers, Tech Support, Studio Assistants, Engineers, Mixers and Remixers, Digital Editors, Masterers. So too with film: the credits, screen after screen of them, are still running long after the theater is empty. Yet somewhere deep in this hive a guitar is playing, an actor’s face registers anguish. Like our customer in the store, these individuals are lost and yet indispensible. But if they did not play their parts, an interchangeable part would play them; someone would.

We have in our minds a residual image: the lonely poet working late at night, the last light burning on the street casting its shadow on the new-fallen snow.

                      ...the candle-light

    From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist

    Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince....1

Isn’t this where art is meant to originate, and not from the great hive of commerce? But the notion of an individual creator isn’t ineluctable. Didn’t Tintoretto take an enormous crew to the cathedrals where his frescoes were built to last the ages? The WPA? Isn’t music more often than not a collective art, and cinema always so? What makes us doubt that art can emerge from beehives, and not just from poetic isolation? Why does it amaze us that a brilliant graphic novel or a killer rap can “slip through” the labyrinths to our still-individuated ears? Why do we think the works of mass-art we like are anomalous?

Perhaps it is because we discover them against all odds—in the face of that sheer magnitude of possibilities. It is like love: out of six billion people by some miracle I find you. With one deep kiss the whole teeming honeycomb of the world disappears; one lovely song and the music industry vanishes. Against all odds. Like a winning scratch ticket or like Gnostic grace, out of the deadly machinery of the world an instant of magic transfigures a cynical afternoon. It can happen to anyone at any time, even our baffled consumer.

It is by a thought process like this that most of us make peace with mass culture. Shall we hate the inescapable? Or simply allow ourselves to be amused when we can be, tasting what we like and letting the rest alone? Why fight supernatural powers greater than ourselves? We all have to wear clothes. It would be nice if, like Charles Baudelaire, we could make our own, but lacking time and talent we poke around cavernous warehouses till we find something that fits and doesn’t look bad. So what if it is made by slaves and inmates? Our fine morals will not warm us; at best we can try to be discriminating consumers. And likewise not all of us have time and talent to make art for ourselves. But what if we did? Wouldn’t it be better to weave our own cloth, write our own poems, grow our own pot, think our own thoughts? Would this mean a gruff withdrawal from masscult, a kind of home schooling that rejects that off-the-rack paideuma?

Back in the 1970s, critics used to tag three kinds of culture: High, Mass and Popular.

High culture is the simplest and dullest of the three, “high” only in the sense of “high class” and never in the sense of intoxicated. It is symphony, opera, ballet, art museums, Shakespeare productions, and so on—an unchanging and infinitely extendable history, in which no new works need be produced, since the old ones can be recycled forever. High culture is taxidermy, where safely ancient artworks are stuffed, mounted and admired, even with the fur visibly frayed around the muzzles. Because a stuffed beast cannot bite, NEA, NEH and foundation money flows to “arts organizations,” who are always crying poor even though their budgets run in the millions. But enough of this.

Mass culture, in the old model, is hive-mind corporate art—top-down, visited upon us by conglomerates in New York or Hollywood, distributed to the four corners of the globe whether anyone wants it or not. A suit in a boardroom decrees that we shall have Kenny G, and we get Kenny G.

Popular culture, on the other hand, is art produced for its own sake, art that happens anyway whether its audience is large or small. It results from creative will—the poem you wrote last night, never knowing whether anyone will read it, never mind publish it; the garage band you’ve been rehearsing, the metal sculpture you’ve been welding in your yard. It is art from the bottom up.

Popcult antedates masscult. In Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” a kid playing guitar by the railroad tracks could someday have his name in lights. This “work your way up” model implies an appealing meritocracy of art, where a performer’s commercial fate is directly linked to his or her ability. It took music critics till the 1980s to pronouce this paradigm dead. Simon Frith, in his essay “Video Pop,” presents two diagrams. The first, called “the Rock,” shows a pyramid whose base is labeled “LOCAL LIVE, CLUBOWNERS, LOCAL BUZZ” with the top marked “SUPERSTARS,” and five steps in between. This diagram is succeeded by a donut shape labeled “THE TALENT POOL” where centralized packaging and media corporations establish the band (now merely “product”), and then coordinate every aspect of its career: genres, style, musicians, clubs, indie records, markets, ideas.2 Here the tradition, if that’s the right word, is not Chuck Berry or Elvis rising from obscurity to the top, but The Monkees, put together in Hollywood so that band, TV show and merchandising could be perfectly coordinated.

It’s easy to translate these cultural models into moral paradigms. Popular art is good, a direct expression of people’s best creative impulses, whereas mass culture is bad in so far as it replaces creativity with an off-the-shelf aesthetic, turning active imaginative impulses into the passivity of an audience. Mass culture is predatory, descending like a hawk on a rodent, so the fact that Disney uses a mouse for its symbol is a gesture akin to Indian tribes totemizing the animal they principally eat.

Masscult must suggest there is something wrong on the ground that requires its intervention. Disney family movies always present dysfunctional families: a drake living with three nephews, no indication of what became of their parents; baby dalmatians abducted from Pongo and Perdita; young Simba implicated in the death of King Mufasa; Jasmine driven from the palace by her deluded father, and so on. Please, Mr. Disney, come down to earth and set things right again. We are strangers to each other, we need the communal handwaving of Mariah Carey videos. We are sick, give us ER, ignorant so give us a quiz show, we are hungry for the Food Network, we are fools so give us Forrest Gump. The deus ex machina has to come or we’re doomed.

This god-producing machinery does not come for free. We are in a cultural hole, maybe we can buy our way out of it. So sure, they want our money, Hollywood and Random House, CBS and Sony, but who wouldn’t pay and pay again to be led out of this wilderness? OK, so the entities offering their guidance are the same ones who got us lost in the first place, the ones who grew the wilderness. The dealer who sells you your first envelope of smack would like to help when you need the twenty-seventh. Did you watch the Oscars last month and discover that you hadn’t seen half of the award-winning films? Don’t worry, that’s why the show was produced, to help you find them, buy them, and see them.

Who can concentrate on one artwork at a time? Each one resides in a meshwork of allusions to other artworks. The only way to contend with the enormity of it all is to grow multiple minds, to turn into a cultural hydra with heads undulating in a thousand directions. Even this self-replication, unless it verges on the infinite, can never be enough. No wonder this feels like hunger in the midst of plenty. We are asses starving among a million bales of hay.

If the old model held, we could take refuge in popular culture: boycott EMI and Virgin, go hear local bands. See independent films, read nothing but good old unprofitable poetry, scout down pockets of heresy and madness on the Internet, kill your television (as the bumper sticker recommends). Don’t hear or watch anything that seems to be swooping down on you from above.

If only it were that simple. The relationship between pop and mass culture has never been as cut-and-dried as these old distinctions suggested. Independent popcult record labels were often more exploitative than the majors ever dared to be. Bo Diddley needed decades of lawsuits to collect what Chess Records owed him; he once told me that when his records were in the top ten he would go out touring and arrive back in Chicago to find a bill from the label rather than a royalty check.

Conversely, Elvis may have come up from Sun Records to RCA the way a minor-league ballplayer is acquired by a major-league team, but this would never have happened if the big company wasn’t already circling in the air overhead. Even in Frith’s old “Rock” diagram, corporate intervention is certainly necessary at some point, since no rock band in history has ever possessed the marketing and distribution resources needed to achieve an international audience all by themselves. Defenders of conglomerate art have always said that the company’s only task is to potentiate the success of great artists, and the discovery and promotion of local scenes in Athens, Georgia in the 1970s and in Seattle in the 80s and early 90s seem to support their case.

So universal is masscult that popcult constantly employs its history and images. An unknown club comedian jokes about television and cinema, as things that her audience is almost certain to know in common. A bar band covers top-40 tunes or country hits. The Brady Bunch seeps into the poetry slam. Craftspeople and folkies, in their naive detachment, seem as out of it as birthday party clowns. It is no longer possible to pretend that important art can arise in ignorance of corporate global culture, or in direct defiance of it. Lack of commercial success on anything broader than a regional scale is not in and of itself sufficient to insure superiority. We are stuck. To paraphrase Goethe: Everyone is part of his own time whether he wants to be or not.

Of all the possible responses to this situation, one that I find particularly intriguing is the practice of channel-surfing. Armed with a video remote, the channel surfer watches a program for periods ranging from a split second to a minute before making another selection. The surfer may think she or he is looking for something good to watch, but the speed of movement from one offering to another belies that rationale. This is not “watching television” as in the days of the three networks. Instead it is a nervous collaging, a restless attempt to know the whole by its parts, as if the broken and fleeting images and sounds could, if they went by fast enough, come to stand for everything that’s on, everything there is, the complete picture.

It’s easy to dismiss the surfer as a buffoon, an emblem of the superficiality of the age. MTV’s cartoon Beavis and Butt-head featured two teen-age channel-surfers caught in a television hell where the only programming available on all the cable channels is music video, and antiquated music video at that. Beavis and Butt-head had only two critical categories to work with: a given video either “sucks” or “rocks” (“kicks butt”). This reductive consciousness differs from live channel-surfers in a couple of ways. First of all, Beavis and Butt-head tend to watch each selection a little longer than their real-life counterparts. And more importantly, they try to reconstruct the world from a single television genre, whereas live surfers often peruse a wider variety—network offerings, religious programs, local and cable news, Weather,

      Cartoon, Sci-Fi, Food, History, Court and music channels. But the point that Beavis and Butt-head made is that there is after all a critical capacity at work in the surfer mind. However capricious this may seem by criteria of traditional criticism, which values extended argument and rational judgment, there is none the less an analytical process going on.

The idea that a channel-surfer’s view of television is inferior to an old-fashioned sit-down watcher’s is questionable. A common accusation leveled against television is that it fosters passivity. TV, after all, is a hybrid creation, part medium and part drug, a synthetic state of consciousness engineered to fall about halfway between sleep and waking. It is the first of many electronic drugs that will proliferate throughout the twenty-first century. (Virtual reality is only the second of these, and certainly not the last). As a synthesis of sleep and waking, TV has the ambience of dreams. On the model of sleep-dreams, there is an expectation of passivity: we either endure the dream or force ourselves to wake up (i.e. shut the set off). The viewer who puts on a Sunday night network movie and watches it all has submitted to a passive singularity from which time and time alone (or the advent of real sleep) can bring release. He or she is replacing whatever awareness might have been unfolding during that time with a cartridge of semi-consciousness designed and delivered by someone else—by an entertainment corporation.

The channel-surfer, by contrast, resists the soporific force of the medium by relating to it in an active rather than a passive manner. The surfer intervenes, talks back, becomes her or his own programmer by stitching together a private show out of the bits and pieces. The surfer is the postmodernist par excellence, the artist of the pastiche, the connoisseur of the temporary. In so doing he or she also resists the sense of inundation that comes from having too many things to watch. Besides the remote control, that emblematic tool of the surfer’s trade, there are other instruments to aid in this enterprise—for example VCRs that can tape one program while displaying another on the monitor, and split-screen devices that allow more than one channel to be watched at once. No doubt the new century will augment this arsenal. For the time being, however, the remote is enough.

It can be argued that surfing is inherently limited by the paucity of the materials it works with. What’s available for its collage may well be neither beautiful nor edifying, and even taken as a plurality they represent culture only in its video manifestations. Beginning in the 1970s viewers began to compensate for this stricture by turning off the television sound and playing the stereo to accompany its images. MTV was born out of the industry’s recognition of this practice. In its early days, MTV tried to lure the surfer to stay a little longer by providing a kind of video Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian extravaganza combining images, music, dance and print—in effect doing the postmodern pastiche for you, and thus reimposing passivity. But this did not work entirely. Many people used MTV as a radio playing in the background for which the gaze was merely optional. The advantages previously ascribed to radio—that it leaves the eyes free for other things, like reading and driving —can no longer be so exlusively claimed. If the channel-surfer creates a linear pastiche, the inattentive MTV-watcher made a multi-layered one by superimposing whatever she or he pleased over the supposedly complete music-video program.

But even the enterprising channel-surfer is no more than a water-bug skipping from one point to another on the surface of an enormous river whose precise depth and breadth can never be known. Surfing is only one reaction to the magnitude of cultural artifacts. A more common response is to make no attempt to master that magnitude at all, settling instead for a comfortable habitation within one of the thousands of enclaves that are the result of the fragmentation and balkanization of culture. This begins, perhaps, as renunciation. To reject country music, for example, allows you to skip The Nashville Network, ignore many linear feet of CDs at the record store, and take no interest in fishing or auto racing and their universes of paraphernalia. When enough categorical rejections have been made, the consumer can find a niche as a Deadhead or Headbanger, Hacker or Slacker, Skater or Aryan Nationalist. These ideological positions entail both limitations and expansions. The limitations are obvious enough—the rejection of any culture outside the enclave. The expansions may be less so. They make up for the loss of breadth with a certain depth: a masterable history, an economical pantheon of heroes, a terse creed, a collection of emblems, rituals and sacraments.

The inhabitant of a cultural enclosure has something in common with the channel-surfer. Both create their space at least initially by negation—by expressing a lack of interest in, or even a hostility to, the culture of other enclaves. Each of these negations is a gesture of dialectical affirmation, and protection against the horror of a culture growing too fast, as a cancer grows in the body.

      Even though the channel-surfer and balkanized postmodern sectarian seem like creatures turning their limitations into virtues of default, they have a better chance of creating resistance than nostalgic popculturalists who dream of returning to some Eden of handcrafts and Morris dancing. James Tate says, “I do think poets must be committed to being certain kinds of ‘outlaws.’ They can’t ‘fit in,’ as it were. Supposedly, if you are aware of a social structure you can never again be a natural, interacting part of it.”3 The key phrase in this passage is “if you are aware.” Mass culture generates consent by magnitude more than magnificence, by causing us to doubt our ability to know it, and therefore to doubt ourselves, so that we surrender to it in a state of weakness and exhaustion. I vote that we not give in, that we try to be the kind of aware outlaws that Jim Tate calls for, wide awake and ready.

      There is a country tavern called the Conway Inn near where I live. On either side of the bar are two huge video screens beaming the cable in, just like most bars on earth. But the upcountry people that drink there don’t quiet down in the eerie televisionary glare. They talk back at the news, at the color-commentators, at the glossy sitcoms and hokey nature shows. They talk back in language as strong as their drinks, cursing and mocking the thing on the wall, and talking to each other right over its heavy audio. I suppose they could grab the remote out from behind the speedrack and shut it off, but they never do.

1. William Butler Yeats, “The Phases of the Moon.” Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p. 161.

2. Simon Frith, “Video Pop.” In Picking Up The Pieces (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 111-13.

3. The Route as Briefed (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p. 53.