Roll Your Own.

May 16, 2009 at 5:06 am (By Amba) (, , )

(Wow!!  You don’t know how I love this feeling of not being able to keep up with “my own” blog.  What a luxury!*!*!*)

Via the Anchoress, John Podhoretz opines that mainstream, mass pop culture is dead.  That sounds right.  He and the Anchoress both speculate on the reasons.  I’d like to throw in mine:

People are now making their culture instead of consuming it. All these new devices and venues have been nothing but empowering, liberating.  We’re our own and one another’s pundits and publishers, storytellers and networks.  The audience has rebelled, risen up, and thrown off its chains of passivity.  The inmates are running the asylum.  And the resultant anarchy is creating a rich, deep layer of life, as fertile and self-organizing as soil.

(oh — it’s me, amba.)


  1. Rod said,

    Is the decline of mass culture also the decline of a common culture? Is a cafeteria culture in which we study a different school curriculum, read exclusively different books and magazines (or blogs, as the the case may be, listen to exclusively different music, watch different broadcasts, and view completely different works of art, a culture at all? Mass culture can be infuriating and stifling, but some degree of common experience leads to common understanding, and some degree of common understanding is necessary for things to work.

  2. amba12 said,

    Well, we’ve already got at least two broad common cultures, which interact with each other solely as antagonists and boogeymen. On the hopeful side, at least those are common cultures. On the hopeless side, they have almost nothing in common with each other, unless as a photographic negative has with a photograph.

    The fragmentation of a common culture or cultures into much smaller niches is partly, I think, a reflection of Too Much Information. This is an embarrassment of riches. It offers both the opportunity to specialize and the necessity of specializing. There are still some commentators who go out there and scan and graze and attempt to weave together a bigger picture out of bits of the many niches.

    It would be interesting to make a list of what’s left of common culture. What does everybody know about? Everybody knows about Rush Limbaugh, love him or hate him. Everybody knows about celebrities: the travails of Brad and Angelina and Jennifer, Farrah with terminal cancer. If you stand in a supermarket line you know about them without even picking a magazine up. The supermarket tabloids may even be the last refuge of a common culture, the legends of our celeb Olympus. (I thought of writing a story in which the wealthy elite of a culture that had mastered genetic engineering for immortality turned out to be the Greek gods, living in a kind of super-gated community and elevating the occasional favored boy- or girl-toy to immortal status.) Everybody knows about sports teams. Everybody knows the images from the Hubble — my mom and I were talking about them last night. That gadget, which almost didn’t fly (almost couldn’t see, to be precise; the mirror was ground wrong, by freak accident, and they actually had to go up and put glasses on it) has brought about a shift of epochal, religious proportions in our common sense of the cosmos.

  3. Donna B. said,

    Knowing about celebrities (Rush, et al) does not mean much to me. As you mention, if you go to the supermarket you can’t quite help knowing they exist and the gist of their problems or views.

    At least that’s true for a few of them. I’m constantly running across comments/blog posts that mention celebrities I’ve never heard of or photos of them that I couldn’t put a name to.

    I simply don’t care, I’m not interested, and I’m not about to invest the time or energy to keep up with them. The last movie I went to a theater for was “The Great Raid” and the last CD I bought was Tchaikovsky. I’ve never downloaded a tune and don’t see any reason to.

    I “tuned out” a long time ago.

    When I was in the 4th grade, I was a huge Beatles fan. As I got older (7th grade) I became a fan of the Rolling Stones. Since then, I grew up and started listening to music that was interesting to me. A lot of it is classical, a lot is classic rock, and I have a love for old timey blues. In all those genres, I tend toward raunchy. I cannot abide the smooth sameness of current hits, popular, country, whatever. My daughters will occasionally play a song for me saying “You might like this” and they are usually right as they know my tastes.

    I wonder if Obama has ever seen an Andy Griffith show… one of the old b&w ones where he’s really skinny…

  4. Rod said,

    Is fragmentation the end stage of a culture in a broader cycle of cultures? It was for Rome, which dissolved into and became a part of diverse subsequent cultures. Although the first post Viking European settlements in North America had a huge thing in common – their distance from Europe – they were really outposts of the cultures that established them – English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and (a little later, without imperial support) German. At what point did those in the future U.S. become an American culture? Is there a separate Canadian culture?

    Does it make sense to speak of Western culture?

    What makes a culture? Is it a shared knowledge of the same history?

  5. amba12 said,

    In all those genres, I tend toward raunchy.

    Why you liked the Stones. You know, back then they used to say, “Beatles or Stones?” I was Stones. (This ties in, somehow, with our shared affection for the SHO.) I *liked* the Beatles, but always felt them to be clever and lightweight. Their center of gravity was too high.

  6. amba12 said,

    At what point did those in the future U.S. become an American culture? Good question. They were a political culture before they were a cultural culture. That may be unusual, and may be why it has worked as long and well as it has, in spite of everything.

    I have a conviction that I can’t explain that this would not be America without the contribution of the Africans who were originally brought here as slaves. They became a vital organ of this culture (musically, of course, but that stands for much more) in a deep, painful and joyous way. Of all the hyphenated contributions to America, that seems to me the other deepest one, the other parent of what we all are, maybe because it was born in suffering, guilt, enforced intimacy, and (again this I can’t explain) commitment, on the part of African Americans, to being American.

  7. Donna B. said,

    The South would certainly not be what it culturally is today without the influence of black Americans and their slave ancestors.

    I suspect many of our southern food traditions have African roots. I should research this, right?

    I also suspect the animosity between lower class whites — non-slave owners — and blacks originated, at the very least stimulated during the Recovery Era. With one exception, all my southern (Alabama and Tennessee) ancestors fought for the Union. When the war was over, they were treated with equal disgust by the carpetbaggers and I think that had a bit to do with their subsequent attitude toward blacks.

    Being born and raised in Colorado and northern New Mexico, where I was sometimes in the racial minority, has influenced my views. Skin color isn’t important to me, but values, a sense of humor, and intelligence are.

    There is definitely and generational difference where African Americans are concerned… and I think pop culture has a lot to do with it. The black women of my age group tend to agree with me that the skank and gang culture is killing their youth and the young black family. Younger black women that are educated are horrified at the lack of marriageable black men. Yet both groups are somewhat unwilling to place blame on the criminal activities of the young black men who populate our prisons.

    I don’t know the answer, but I know that ultimately we all want the same thing — for the next generation to grow up safe and do better than we did. That dream has become less and less realizable for some black communities.

  8. PatHMV said,

    We had a common culture before there was mass communication. There was a time when nobody had ever heard any music except that which was performed by a local band, or a neighbor, or themselves. A time when you read the local newspaper and rarely if ever saw the New York Times.

    The difference was that at that time, your culture was of necessity the local culture, and each of the many thousands of local cultures across the country were pretty much the same. Now, you can live in a sleepy little town, but be part of the Goth culture, or pretty much any culture you want, communicating with like-minded folks across the country and even the world. Your ties with the local community have been loosened, and your ties with your community of choice on-line have been strengthened.

    I’m not too worried, though. In the end, you live where you live, and there’s consequences which flow from that, even today.

    We’ll be alright.

  9. Rod said,

    Pat touched on something I was thinking about when I first posted on this thread. Turn back the clock 100 years and you find in the U.S. a common culture without mass culture. I’m not sure I agree with Pat that the different local cultures were much the same, but you cannot address that question without refining your definition of culture.

    Foods, popular music and art, and ethnic enclaves (with ethno-specific perspectives) were more locally defined, and the differences more pronounced, than today. Many towns or neighborhoods were essentially German or Polish or Irish. The Rhode Island town in which I was born was still somewhat that way in the 1950’s – a French Canadian enclave in which nearly everyone was Roman Catholic and the small part of the Mass not spoken in Latin in those days – the Homily, was spoken in French at most services. However, change was in the air. People under 40 were more likely to speak English as their first language and partake more fully in mass culture.

    All of the particular local cultures, and the differences they made in worldviews, were still part of a larger thing called Western Culture. The French Canadian girl in New England, the fifth generation U.S. Citizen in West Virginia and the great-grandson of Chinese immigrants in California were exposed to a smattering of it in high school and much more if they went on to college. It was there that you were exposed to Plato, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Moliere, Tolstoy, and Botticelli. That was sometimes called “High Culture.”

    My questions are whether Western Culture is in its death throes, and if so, what will replace it. The last time a common culture that dominated the Western World collapsed, it was followed by something called the Dark Ages.

  10. amba said,

    each of the many thousands of local cultures across the country were pretty much the same. That’s the one part of what you said that I might question.

  11. amba said,

    Well, if so (and if the grid survives it), the monasteries preserving knowledge and thought won’t be on islands off the coast of Ireland. They’ll be online. I doubt that there’s any one of the great names of the Western canon you mentioned who doesn’t have one or more obsessive acolytes tending the flame on a website or several.

  12. amba said,

    In fact, that makes me think that, just as Lynne was saying (over at the old place) that blogging has eliminated all the middlemen and gatekeepers between the writer and the reader, it has also liberated scholarship and returned it to the amateur. There are self-taught experts-for-love on almost every subject (in both senses of the word), and the academic scholars now have to play on the amateurs’ field if they want to reach a wider audience. Somewhere out there there’s a Botticelli nerd, you can be sure of it.

  13. Rod said,

    I already have a head start on a “natural” tonsure.

  14. amba said,


  15. Rod said,


    Many years ago I read a pleasant sci-fi novel called “A Canticle for Liebowitz” about a post-nuclear holocaust world in which the monks preserved the type of learning in highest disrepute – science.

  16. PatHMV said,

    Yeah, “pretty much all the same” didn’t come out right. I guess in my mind’s eye, I was picturing all those innumerable future ghost towns in old cowboy westerns. That was the near-universal cultural type I was thinking about and meant to describe.

    But looking at it another way, I’m not sure I was all that wrong, if you look at culture the way Rod discusses. The local cultures you guys describe were indeed pretty different in their details. Their music, their dress were undoubtedly quite diverse. But I also suspect there was still something uniquely American about them, or at least uniquely Western about them. At the level at which they interacted with other communities, there weren’t any huge culture shocks, I don’t think. Culture prejudices, yes, but not culture shocks. As Rod notes, America has always been dominated by Western culture. Except for a few isolated enclaves like Chinatown, even immigrants from the East have assimilated into that larger Western culture.

    It also depends how far back you go in our American history. In the 1930s, were there really that many communities which were predominantly Polish or Irish or Italian or whatever? In the 50s, we were just beginning the mass culture phenomenon with the popularity of TV, but how diverse were the communities scattered about the country at that point, really?

  17. Rod said,

    Pat: Unquestionably there was a common unity among all places in the U.S. in the 1930s and before, in that they were all part of the same larger political system with the same national laws and, to a large extent, a common national history. Also, English was the required language for dealing with the government. I suppose we could look at someone in the U.S. in 1920 as being part of: (1) Western Culture through influences such as the church and language and a political tradition which arose out of a Western Cultural context; (2) a national political and historical culture (the latter inculcated through public schools); and (3) a strong local or regional subculture.

    I think many towns and neighborhoods were strong reflections of ethnic origins in the 1930s. The great wave of immigrants was from about 1890 to 1920, so in the 30s there were still a lot of first generation Americans around.

    I lived in Chicago, which was still a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods in the mid 50s, but things changed when we moved to the suburbs in ’56. I visited the South for the first time in 1962, and it was as exotic to me as a foreign country.

    On the question of when mass culture began in the U.S., I would start with the 1920s, when national radio syndicates began broadcasting and movies begat movie stars. Of course, it accelerated when soldiers were moved around the country for training and blacks moved North for jobs during WW II. Many of the movies during WW II were a conscious attempt at acculturization, with the standard WASP, Italian kid, Jewish kid, and rural southern kid suddenly thrown together and discovering they were a unit. And, it accelerated again with TV in the 50’s. Although generations began having their own music starting in the 20s, it is interesting to note that the first radio stations to play strictly a top 40 format were in the early 50s. The creation of a distinct national youth culture, stronger than parents’ home country traditions, really took off at that point.

  18. amba said,

    I lived in Chicago, which was still a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods in the mid 50s, but things changed when we moved to the suburbs in ’56. I visited the South for the first time in 1962, and it was as exotic to me as a foreign country.

    I was born in Chicago and spent my whole growing-up there, except for living in a small town in Florida for six months in 1958, and attending junior high there. I too felt as displaced and fascinated as Margaret Mead in Samoa. The quaint customs included assemblies where they showed the kids slides of the bloodiest fatal car accidents in the county (Southern drivers’ ed); many of the girls getting pregnant and shotgun-married at 16; and paddling (boys only, on the butt, literally with a wooden paddle, in front of the whole class, humiliation not pain being the intent). On the other hand, we listened to top 40 radio, same songs we liked in Chicago (Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is emblematic), and had sock hops.

  19. amba said,

    Donna: I’ve been meaning to respond but just surfaced from work now. It’s become conventional wisdom that government “help” destroyed the black family, but there were other forces too. What were they? Subsets of things that affected the whole country — drugs, the waning of religion, the relaxing of moral disapproval of unmarried sex and parenthood — hit poorer populations harder. Incentives and consequences: how often is being responsible and upright really its own reward? Surely it is to some extent, but when it doesn’t also pay off in more tangible rewards, then it can be more tempting to chuck standards as they slacken. If there’s no shame in living like the grasshopper and little reward for living like the ant, then only the most inner-directed, well-brought-up people are going to live like the ant just because. If in addition the government comes along and redistributes from the ant to the grasshopper, it’s the kiss of death.

  20. amba said,

    I guess that before the civil rights movement, pervasive racism played a part by depressing the rewards black people could reap by living right. The civil rights movement rightly pointed that out; but then the black power movement amplified the blame-and-reparations side of that, interlocking with government’s Great Society groveling.

  21. Janet said,

    A Canticle for Leibowitz – pleasant? One of the great novels of the 20th century? If you haven’t read it, Annie, do so. You will love it. It touches on themes that are near and dear to your heart. The author was one of the American bombers who destroyed the Monte Cassino monastery (and its famous library) during WWII, and the guilt of it drove him first to Catholicism, later to writing the novel, and finally – probably – to his suicide.

    But what I really came to discuss is this concept of mass culture going far back. I can’t help but think of Germany and Italy where people from neighbouring villages frequently could not understand each other’s dialect. While Western culture did have certain underpinnings, mass culture as you are “mourning” it here, did not really exist before mass communications. It has been fracturing for quite some time under the weight of increased information and individual communications, and that phenomenon goes way back. When my mother was in high school, there was a single uniform, imposed not by the school, but by the fashion world. Girls would turn up wearing virtually identical outfits. By the time I was in high school, we had several choices. My kids had a vast choice. My daughter went rather emo-Goth, but she put a spin on it that made even her Italian grandmother coo with delight. She took one of the many shards of popular culture and further individualized it. (Interestingly enough, they tended to classify their friends by the music they listened to. Make of that what you will.)

    Our society has become like a fractured plate, held together by myriads of filaments. While the Internet facilitates the building of echo chambers of like-minded people, it also facilitates the meeting of unlike people. I have taken some of my various interests and followed those filaments where they led, ending up with a very eclectic group of acquaintances and voices, much vaster than I could ever meet in the flesh.

    It’s an interesting time to be alive, for sure.

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