The Tragedy Of The Cultural Engineers

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-08-12 12:00:00 No comments

One of the great tragedies of our time is how those who are most in the position to effect massive and effective social changes through cultural engineering at scale are hidebound from doing so. The very things that make scale possible limit the broad changes that can be made with it. Yes, Marvel, yes, Disney, I'm looking at you.

If nothing else, MarDis is a cultural machine of the highest order. Few people complain about their films not being well-assembled; they're engineered to the millimeter to be entertaining and engaging. They're the apex of the work Michael Tolkin was talking about when he noted how Hollywood has cracked storytelling the way we figured out how to crack crude oil or uranium.

I'm sure an argument can be made that efficiency in storytelling is the first step towards cultural engineering — that if you want to change the world in some way, you want to do it by way of something that people are only too eager to participate in because it's direct and fun. Disney and Marvel are, whether or not they realize it, cultural engineers par excellence, and one of the tragedies of same is how the very fact that they are in such a prime position to be such a thing (because of their scale, their reach, their coffers, etc.) also prevents them from doing anything truly innovative or transformative. When you have a hundred million dollars to spend on a movie, you want everything in it to be as direct and appreciable as possible.

James Cameron said something like this in re Avatar, and I have to admit he was right. What I found perplexing — stunning, really — was how he spent metric gobloads of cash on that film, made literally billions of it back, and yet somehow the end result evaporated without even leaving a film on the kitchen counter of our culture. A lot of people saw it, but nobody cares about it. To me this was the ultimate indictment of that very position: all that work he did to make the movie accessible to a general audience engineered out of it anything that made it truly distinct or interesting.

Thing is, it's not hard to find a copy of Avatar despite its cultural insignificance. It's not going away, because it still makes someone money. I've mentioned before that I don't think I own a single of the Marvel productions on disc, because I have no worries that they will never evaporate from the public consciousness or become rarities. They will always make someone money. There's no pressure to hold them dear, the way I hold dear something like Gojoe or The Taishō Trilogy, which made very little money but have far more importance to me.

But how much of why these things make money is because someone knows how to spend money to get them in front of people? How much of MarDis's ubiquity is its actual quality? I remain in doubt as to whether their work lingers because it is merely well-financed and well-promoted, or because it has actual lasting value. My hedged bet is towards the former, because the track record for massive successes that outlived their moment in time is quite short. Take away the billion-dollar promotion machine, and most anything struggles to find an audience.

What we end up caring about is orthogonal to how ubiquitous it is. That to me is the big lesson these cultural machines have to import. They could be in the business of changing the way we think about our lives, but they know they can't lean into that too heavily, or they might end up out of business. The sweet spot between moneymaking cultural machine and transformative cultural engine is very small indeed.

Tags: cultural engineering entertainment popular culture