My New Year’s Resolution “Anti-List”
So, I got this idea (in an effort to ignore those looming paper deadlines) to post a list of the top ten trends which I hope will not continue into 2010 – trends like those “my year in the life of” things in which some previously unknown blogger (someone just like us!) rises to pop culture fame through their willingness to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes, follow all of Oprah’s dicta, or try every position in the karma sutra. I figured I could get in a couple pithy zingers about how, in this stage of late capitalism, the only remaining form of stardom resides in a parasitic appropriation of past images and icons, recycled remnants of a culture which we revive at the very moment of its final evisceration. A.k.a. your usual quasi-Marxist cultural commentary with a splash of snark, a few sly asides, and enough pop references to show that I’m still (despite it all!) culturally au courant.
And then I realized: that to engage in such snarky commentary would be, in fact, to embody the very trend(s) I set out to criticize.
Just as, say, “Julie & Julia” leeches off the cultural caché of a well-established culinary figure in order to grant relevance to its own aesthetic project (without, expressly, doing anything new), so too in writing about “Julie & Julia” I would be doing nothing more than repeating this cultural parasitism at a third degree of separation. That my intent would be to criticize these trends –that my aesthetic appropriation would be essentially ironic– does nothing to alter the parasitic function of such annexation. Which is to say that whether we read the Twilight novels or watch Project Runway straightforwardly or “ironically” makes absolutely zero difference from the perspective of the corporate drones who feed us this drivel; you can wear your spandex pants with whatever “ironic” intent you want – American Apparel is still happy to have your money.
Of course every creative act involves a certain amount of emulation, even plagiarism of its predecessors; Woolf’s first novels read like a modern retelling of Jane Austen, and even a masterpeice like Mrs. Dalloway could not have existed without Pride and Prejudice. But there is a world of difference between Mrs. Dalloway and, say, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
At the risk of sounding trite, that difference has something to do with saying something new. Because, ultimately, all the aforementioned examples have absolutely nothing new to say: “Julie & Julia” is a schmarmy lifestyle piece spun out into 90 minutes of kitsch; the “100 days of my sex life” guy (see link above) is engaged in the most vapid and ultimately untitillating exhibitionism; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a 30-second gag spun out to its tedious, flogging-a-dead horse end (except that it, like the zombies it describes, never truly dies, instead giving birth to an innumerable series of spin-offs more terrifying than any Undead army).
And I’m aware that I’ve ended up writing the exact kind of snarky, parasitic post which I began by saying I would proscribe. With one difference: it’s not meant to be ironic. I’m dead serious.
Because, actually, within this little New Year’s epiphany about the parasitism of cultural commentary hides a serious crisis of faith in my own, broader position as a literary –and hence cultural– critic. The critic, of course, is the ultimate parasite-figure, and throughout my years of literary studies there’s lurked a persistent question -once again reformulated- which might essentially be phrased as “What the fuck am I doing here?”
More eloquently: if, a flea-like parasite, I feed off the host –the body– of past literature, how to do so in a way that does not fall into the various traps described above? How to avoid vapidity, exhibitionism, and -worst- the utterly empty recycling of eviscerated culture (writing about writing about writing)? How to write about literature in a meaningful way?
I have always felt like the first step in the process is -must be- a profession of humility: in contrast to the usual academic bluster and bravado and broad-reaching claims for (revolutionary) relevance, the critic must recognize that s/he’s engaged in a marginal activity with little to no chance of world-shaking significance. At the same time, paradoxically, we must take the work entirely seriously, not in terms of an inflated self-importance but in recognizing that culture matters and, more importantly, our way(s) of approaching culture matters.
Because the real problem with our hipper-than-thou, ironic appropriation of pop culture is that we refuse to grant our cultural consumption any significance. We willingly engage with the culture industry (read, buy, watch) without, as it were, adopting a stance of engagement (in the existentialist sense). Ironic (pop) cultural ‘appreciation’ –even criticism– is an aesthetically negative act; we stand aloof (or seem to) from the naively literal cultural consumers, signalling our superiority, without in any way formulating a real critique and (most importantly) without asserting any real alternate possibilities, without risking our own (potentially naïve) articles of faith, without “saying something new.”
I am not sure what “new things” there are to say, or if there even are any. But my New Year’s resolution (such as it is) is to take these cultural artifacts seriously, and to take my own cultural consumption seriously (in particular, with regards to the question: what do these things, and our consumption of them, say about us?)
…And maybe to get a start on those papers.