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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cultural wasteland, or cultural renaissance?

Here's an interesting essay by the always-reliable Leonard Pierce over the The Onion A.V. Club that brings up the question of whether we are living in an era of widespread cultural dross or cultural renewal and excitement. Pierce comes down heavily on the side of "'renewal and excitement," as I tend to as well--if I didn't, I couldn't write reviews for a site like PopMatters. But he has some interesting things to say about nostalgia and its contribution to what he sees as a widespread sneering disaffection for the current cultural milieu. An excerpt:

"First, why—other than the natural laziness that informs most nostalgia—do so many people think that the culture is in decline? Why is the belief that things were better in the mysterious “before” so common that it jumps from generation to generation, like baldness or a bad ticker? While the tendency to be politically conservative knows no particular age, cultural conservatism is as predictable as prostate cancer.

"Part of this, I think, is because of the way people naturally tend, as they get older and gain more responsibilities, to stop paying as much attention to pop culture as they did when they were younger. A 23-year-old with an entry-level job, few expenses, and lots of free time finds it easy to fill that time with immersion in indie films, musical micro-genres, and new developments in videogame technology. Two decades later, when that same person has a wife, kids, and a mortgage, he likely has more to think about than the latest literary trend or hotshot graphic novelist. Once it becomes harder to make grapes part of your regular diet, it’s a lot easier to assume that they’re all sour anyway.

"But beyond that, one factor in why I believe we really are living in a cultural golden age—the way technology has made art of all sorts more available to everyone than at any previous point in human history—also works to fuel this longing for the past. Particularly for the generation that grew up without the Internet, the easy availability of culture doesn’t seem like a boon; instead, by flooding everyone with an astonishing amount of choice, it seems instead to curse them with so much to choose from that it’s easy for their minds to shut down. In the face of media oversaturation—and media decentralization, which contributes to a situation where there are few trusted voices of authority to act as cultural guides—it’s tempting to just write it all off as a bunch of crap you’re better off not knowing about.

"For younger generations, though, or older people who surf the culture and the web with equal ease, the flood-tide poses another problem: We develop a shortened attention span almost out of necessity, in order to avoid being overwhelmed by how much information is out there. As a result, we can focus so much on temporary tendencies in the culture, on micro-movements and what are likely passing phases and crazes, that we start to take them as signs of an overall decay. We forget that cultural tendencies are sporadic, inchoate, and unforeseeable, and begin to think of the trend of the moment as a harbinger of some eternal, irrevocable change. Auto-Tune isn’t just annoying; it’s the end of music as we know it. The music industry’s digital-age difficulties don’t mean the business is changing; they mean it’s ending. In 2007, there were so many good movies, it was one of the greatest years in film history. Now, only three years later, a year of duds signals the death knell of the entire art form."

And the whole essay can be found here:,42451/

Some of the comments are worth reading as well. One early poster mentions how nostaligia is often fueled by college-age students, which I had never thought of. (Faced with the responsibilites of school and jobs and life, they yearn for the good old days--you know, the mid-'90s--when they didn't have to worry so much.) Dunno if it's true but it's an interesting thought in any case.

As ever, I am curious what people think about this. Read the whole article--or don't--and then feel free to drop a line as to whether we're doing all right, in cultural or at least pop-cultural terms. Or were the '60s and '70s (or some other era) really the high-water mark?

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