Popular Culture and Philosophy

A blog for contributors and editors by Series Editor, George A. Reisch

Vanity Fairly Correct

Posted on | December 14, 2011

I feel as if the whole culture is stoned, listening to an LP that’s been skipping for decades, playing the same groove over and over. Nobody has the wit or gumption to stand up and lift the stylus.

Kurt Andersen writes in this month’s Vanity Fair what I’ve described here, and here:  Popular culture in recent decades has tended to recycle itself and avoid the genuinely new, different, alarming, or exhilarating.  Why is this? Andersen thinks it’s “an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out.”

But we’re not “maxed out.” Ambitious young artists or writers are killing themselves to cultivate next wave of style or innovation, both to make a name for themselves and to advance the traditions they adore.  The problem is that what’s new to them is an album at the Goodwill store from an artist they’ve never heard of, or an obscure film, or a the typeface from an old magazine. They’re surrounded by the commercialism of nostalgia (and here their baby-boomer elders are partly to blame) and unable to pry themselves away from the enchanting, but necessarily unoriginal, cultural buffet of thrift shops, youtube, and archive.org.

How to break out of the nostalgic haze? Who knows? It seems that every institution in America, from risk-averse Hollywood to resume-padding university professors, is more interested in retreading its past than moving on. Andersen has his money on ‘a pendulum swing’ back to values that prize innovation and creativity as they did in the 1940s and late 1960s. But he worries that the malaise may instead be a game changer, something like “that moment when all great cultures—Egyptian, Roman, Mayan, Islamic, French, Ottoman, British—slide irrevocably into an enervated late middle age.”

My hope is that the Occupy Movement will come to the rescue.  It just might be that you’d can’t have great popular culture without some kind of resistance and revolt.  No The Graduate or Easy Rider without Hey, Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?  After all, the two circumstances are connected and ripe for mutual inspiration.  One reason we are surrounded by nostalgia in music, clothes, and movies is that it sells; and one reason Wall Street had it coming was that it insists on packaging anything, including American jobs, natural resources, or bundles of questionable mortgages, that can be sold for a profit. So if the Occupiers inspire a generation of artists and tastemakers and voters to pry themselves away from familiarity and nostalgia, pop culture and American political culture might save themselves, together.


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The Philosophy and Pop Culture series at Carus Books brings philosophy to general readers by critically exploring the meanings, concepts, and puzzles within television shows, movies, music and other icons of popular culture.