Stop bragging that you haven't engaged with whatever TV show is popular right now—pop culture snobbery does no-one any favoursby Darran Anderson / April 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
A decade before he vanished, heading off in the direction of the Mexican Revolution at the age of 72, the American writer Ambrose Bierce compiled his satirical book The Devil’s Dictionary. Full of his acerbic humour, the collection attacked all manner of ignorance, hypocrisy and righteousness via alternative definitions for words. For instance: “ABSTAINER, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure. A total abstainer is one who abstains from everything but abstention, and especially from inactivity in the affairs of others.”
Bierce’s dictionary—and that particular definition—came to mind in response to a recent trend on social media that we might call “performative abstinence.” When interest in popular television series like Game of Thrones or movie franchises like The Avengers go viral online, the critical responses vary: inevitably, some sceptical viewers watch and decide that it’s not for them, to varying degrees of apathy or loathing. Culture is subjective, of course, and someone swinging a wrecking ball is at least engaging with the subject—often to the entertainment of bystanders.
Yet other commentators, in increasing number and volume, condemn popular culture by proudly proclaiming, “I have not seen a single minute of…” Of the many dispiriting elements of social media, this is among the most despondent. But it is not without interest—especially given what it might tell us about taste, and particularly about what is left of that ragged and forlorn figure: the public intellectual.
Publicly parading ignorance might once have seemed hubristic—but today it is the sign of good taste. It’s easy to argue that we live in a reductive, infantilised cultural landscape, spoon-fed trash by billion-dollar conglomerates. The CGI reveries offered by HBO and Marvel are escapist and popular—double the reason to deem them unworthy of even a minute of our time.
Culture should be about deeper, weighter things, things such as the intimate private details of Karl Ove Knausgård’s loved ones or Houellebecq’s fantasies about the imaginary forthcoming Islamic Republic of France. Taking our ball home seems a fitting thing to do when faced with an endless parade of dragons and men in spandex punching each other through buildings.
But the escapist popularity of superheroes and fantasy are precisely why we should be interested in them. We’ve seen how an approach of selective exposure plays out on social media already, in the sphere of politics: recall the sheer disbelief that greeted the Brexit result or the Trump election, rupturing the bubble of liberalism that many of us surround ourselves in. Ignoring phenomena outside our bubbles does not make them vanish nor does it render them understandable or challengeable.
We might regard popular culture as simply entertainment, and much less important than political developments, but the objects being boycotted are colossal industries reaching countless people.
This is not to say that discernment doesn’t matter. But while taste is sometimes a guiding principle and a genuine impulse, it can also be a performance, a qualifier of status, a means of condescension. Turning away also has an impact on the quality and depth of the work created by those who performatively abstain.
Take the recent example of Ian McEwan, who came under a barrage of criticism on social media, for an interview in the Guardian where he simultaneously dismissed science fiction while also plundering tropes that have been old-hat in sci-fi since the 1950s.
“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you,” McEwan wrote. “If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”
There has been a long history of literary fiction writers mining conceits that are already well-worn in ‘lesser’ genres (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance). The real irritation comes, however, when they assume the subject is finally being tackled by a “proper” writer.
Those who know how deep sci-fi and fantasy can go—fans of Lem, Le Guin, Delany, Atwood, Gibson etc—can see the delusion involved and how ridiculous it appears. The metaphorical ostrich burying its head in the sand exposes its behind to the world.
Snobbery, too, can have an isolating quality. In the urge to dismiss, important works can be overlooked. So too is the possibility that revelations might be found in the study of supposedly superficial subjects.
One writer we can learn from in this sense was the 16th century philosopher and essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a critical influence on Shakespeare. The French writer seemed to be endlessly inquisitive, writing essays on everything from thumbs to Caesar to cannibals. There was always something worth learning, from the loftiest idea to the supposed lowliest.
Montaigne’s approach offers an antidote to the questionable idea that good taste makes a good person and the puritan disdain directed towards people enjoying themselves. When we examine popular culture today, it’s true that many successes are formulaic—but formulas can be revelatory. We might learn a great deal more from exploring why superhero movies, soap operas or sports are so appealing than by simply dismissing them.
In the recent opening episode of the last season of Game of Thrones, a group of older characters reflect on the function of respect. It is used, they conclude, by the young towards the old in order to keep them at an arm’s length. This is because the old remind the young of the bitter truth that “Nothing lasts.”
Perhaps taste has a similar function: it keeps us at bay from other people and hides the bitter truth that we all have more in common, in our trivialities and mundanities, than we’d like to. Abandoning “taste” means seeing differentiations like “I am a traveller not a tourist” as fictions, but also of ignoring the urge to label things we love as “guilty pleasures.” It means conducting ourselves authentically, rather than according to how we appear to the crowd.
It might be the beginning of finding or creating genuinely satisfying things and engaging with an imperfect world rather than retreating from it. As the Afro-Roman playwright Terence noted “I am human and everything human interests me.” Interest—rather than childish limiting ideas of “good” or “bad,” or how we look rather than how we really are—is the key.