Cultural Half-Life Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-04-04 14:00:00 No comments

A comment I made on a post I thought had a lot of insight about the way the Marvel Movieverse has unfolded:

Fear Of A Checklist Planet (Or Universe) | Fan To Pro

... now that we're getting increasingly stuck in a world where nothing ever goes away or is forgotten, it's important that we start thinking about culture in ecological terms. If what we're producing is going to be condemned to never completely go away, we need to make it something that will be beneficial to all concerned, and not simply turn into an inert substance -- or, worse, a pollutant.

I am tempted to let that speak for itself, but I'll elaborate a bit more.

A while back I mulled over the problem of making culture better by simply making that much less of it. It didn't take two seconds' thought to determine you couldn't do that any more than you could ban fire.¹ Asking artists to create less as a kind of bid to avoid "cultural pollution" only ensures that there will be that much less of anything worth preserving in the first place.

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But the idea of a "cultural ecology" of sorts stuck with me anyway, despite what seemed like vaguely despotic overtones about the whole endeavor. Most people who consume culture, and even quite a few that create it, aren't worried about there being too much of the stuff. Only someone being really finicky about what they see out there -- you know, me -- would care about such matters. It's not that I don't want another installment of The Avengersit's that I don't want everything of ambition in cinema to come to resemble The Avengers.

The whole reason I got wound up about all this in the first place was, I admit, selfish for two reasons. 1) It would be nice to have some way of keeping the work I produce from sinking beneath the waves of so much other self-produced and -marketed competition (which, of course, I feel to be vastly inferior). 2) It would be nice to not have to wade through so much of that crap in the first place when looking for something to read, and not have to resort to corporate focus-group cowardice treadmill product as a way out. (See, I figured owning up as completely as possible to my self-interest in this matter and getting that out of the way would be a good idea.)

Put it that bluntly, and the real problem emerges. It isn't only that I can't stand out from the pack (and what better way to do that than to argue for the elimination of the competition?), but that we have less and less ways -- short of "the market", which is not the filtering system we like to think it is -- to allow things to fall out the bottom and be pruned. Everything hangs around forever, like pesticides that linger for years in groundwater or man-made radioisotopes with half-lives of several million years.

What is good about this is also what is most problematic about it. On the one hand, it means things that might have vanished forever have been saved from the cull. But when every piece of culture, no matter how trivial, can and often is not only preserved but commented on, transformed, and given a place of dignity, everything flattens out. The only thing distinguishing chiliastic inanities from works of genuine insight and wisdom is the fickleness of personal taste. Not that such things didn't begin with taste before, but now they begin and end with it, and every other criterion -- especially those that create hierarchies -- is seen as suspect. It becomes harder to determine what is good taste and what is mere snobbery.

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That tells me the real problem isn't the mere fact of all this reflexive preservation; it's our attitude towards it, and what we want to get out of it. Becoming a hoarder culture, where we preserve for the sake of preservation, is just as bad as thoughtlessly letting history slip through our fingers, as we did with so many silent films that are now irretrievably lost and probably not sitting in anyone's attic, IMDB pleas notwithstanding. Somewhere between the two is a good medium, where the things we save are given the right context and not simply made part of a giant, indifferent mass of stuff to be put on shelves.

Ada Louise Huxtable once wrote, in regard to the destruction of the gorgeous old Penn Station in New York, "We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed." We got rid of old Penn Station, but we're paving the way to allow people to have their lives siphoned up and archived via Google Glass. The latter does not compensate for the former.

¹ Yes, this is a jab at one of the dumber plot developments in one of the dumber fantasy-doorstopper series out there. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which one.

Tags: creativity creators culture