REALER THAN REAL
The Simulacrum According to Deleuze and Guattari
Originally published in Copyright no.1, 1987.
There is a seductive image of contemporary culture circulating today. Our world, Jean Baudrillard tells us, has been launched into hyperspace in a kind of postmodern apocalypse. The airless atmosphere has asphyxiated the referent, leaving us satellites in aimless orbit around an empty center. We breathe an ether of floating images that no longer bear a relation to any reality whatsoever.1 That, according to Baudrillard, is simulation: the substitution of signs of the real for the real.2 In hyperreality, signs no longer represent or refer to an external model. They stand for nothing but themselves, and refer only to other signs. They are to some extent distinguishable, in the way the phonemes of language are, by a combinatory of minute binary distinctions.3 But postmodernism stutters. In the absence of any gravitational pull to ground them, images accelerate and tend to run together. They become interchangeable. Any term can be substituted for any other: utter indetermination.4 Faced with this homogeneous surface of syntagmatic slippage, we are left speechless. We can only gape in fascination.5 For the secret of the process is beyond our grasp. Meaning has imploded. There is no longer any external model, but there isan immanent one. To the syntagmatic surface of slippage there corresponds an invisible paradigmatic dimension that creates those minimally differentiated signs only in order for them to blur together in a pleasureless orgy of exchange and circulation. Hidden in the images is a kind of genetic code responsible for their generation.6 Meaning is out of reach and out of sight, but not be cause it has receded into the distance. It is because the code has been miniaturized. Objects are images, images are signs, signs are information, and information fits on a chip. Everything reduces to a molecular binarism. The generalized digitality of the computerized society.7
And so we gape. We cannot be said to be passive exactly, because all polarity, including the active/passive dichotomy, has disappeared. We have no earth to center us, but we ourselves function as a ground–in the electrical sense.8 We do not act, but neither do we merely receive. We absorb through our open eyes and mouths. We neutralize the play of energized images in the mass entropy of the silent majority.
It makes for a fun read. But do we really have no other choice than being a naive realist or being a sponge?
Deleuze and Guattari open a third way. Although it is never developed at length in any one place, a theory of simulation can be extracted from their work that can give us a start in analyzing our cultural condition under late capitalism without landing us back with the dinosaurs or launching us into hypercynicism.
A common definition of the simulacrum is a copy of a copy whose relation to the model has become so attenuated that it can no longer properly be said to be a copy. It stands on its own as a copy without a model. Fredric Jameson cites the example of photorealism. The painting is a copy not of reality, but of a photograph, which is already a copy of the original.9 Deleuze, in his article “Plato and the Simulacrum,” takes a similar definition as his starting point, but emphasizes its inadequacy. For beyond a certain point, the distinction is no longer one of degree. The simulacrum is less a copy twice removed than a phenomenon of a different nature altogether: it undermines the very distinction between copy and model.10 The terms copy and model bind us to the world of representation and objective (re)production. A copy, no matter how many times removed, authentic or fake, is defined by the presence or absence of internal, essential relations of resemblance to a model. The simulacrum, on the other hand, bears only an external and deceptive resemblance to a putative model. The process of its production, its inner dynamism, is entirely different from that of its supposed model; its resemblance to it is merely a surface effect, an illusion.11 The production and function of a photograph has no relation to that of the object photographed; and the photorealist painting in turn envelops an essential difference. It is that masked difference, not the manifest resemblance, that produces the effect of uncanniness so often associated with the simulacrum. A copy is made in order to stand in for its model. A simulacrum has a different agenda, it enters different circuits. Pop Art is the example Deleuze uses for simulacra that have successfully broken out of the copy mold:12the multiplied, stylized images take on a life of their own. The thrust of the process is not to become an equivalent of the “model” but to turn against it and its world in order to open a new space for the simulacrum’s own mad proliferation. The simulacrum affirms its own difference. It is not an implosion, but a differentiation; it is an index not of absolute proximity, but of galactic distances.
The resemblance of the simulacrum is a means, not an end. A thing, write Deleuze and Guattari, “in order to become apparent, is forced to simulate structural states and to slip into states of forces that serve it as masks. . . . underneath the mask and by means of it, it already invests the terminal forms and the specific higher states whose integrity it will subsequently establish.”13 Resemblance is a beginning masking the advent of whole new vital dimension. This even applies to mimickry in nature. An insect that mimics a leaf does so not to meld with the vegetable state of its surrounding milieu, but to reenter the higher realm of predatory animal warfare on a new footing. Mimickry, according to Lacan, is camouflage.14 It constitutes a war zone. There is a power inherent in the false: the positive power of ruse, the power to gain a strategic advantage by masking one’s life force.
Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner shows that the ultimate enemy in this war of ruse is the so-called “model” itself. The off-world replicants return to earth not to blend in with the indigenous population, but to find the secret of their built-in obsolescence so they can escape their bondage and live full lives, and on their own terms. Imitation is an indication of a life force propelling the falsifier toward the unbridled expression of its uniqueness. The dominant replicant makes a state ment to the man who made his eyes that can be taken as a general formula for simulation: if only you could see what I have seen with your eyes. If they find out how to undo their pre-programed deaths, the replicants will not remain on earth as imitation humans. They will either take over or flee back to their own vital dimension of interplanetary space to see things no human being ever has or will. Their imitation is only a way-station en route to an unmasking and the assumption of difference. As Eric Alliez and Michel Feher observe, the best weapon against the simulacrum is not to unmask it as a false copy, but to force it to be a true copy, thereby resubmitting it to representation and the mastery of the model: the corporation that built the rebellious replicants introduces a new version complete with second-hand human memories.15
I said earlier that the simulacrum cannot adequately be discussed in terms of copy and model, and now I find myself not only talking about a model again, but claiming that it is in a life and death struggle with the simulacrum. The reality of the model is a question that needs to be dealt with. Baudrillard sidesteps the question of whether simulation replaces a real that did indeed exist, or if simulation is all there has ever been.16 Deleuze and Guattari say yes to both. The alternative is a false one because simulation is a process that produces the real, or, more precisely, more real (a more-than-real) on the basis of the real. “It carries the real beyond its principle to the point where it is effectively produced.”17 Every simulation takes as its point of departure a regularized world comprising apparently stable identities or territories. But these “real” entities are in fact undercover simulacra that have consented to feign being copies. A silent film by Louis Feuillade illustrates the process.
Vendémiaire takes place in the final days of World War I. The plot is simple: members of a well-to-family from the north of France who cannot fight in the war flee to unoccupied territory in the south to contribute their efforts to the wine harvest. There they meet one of the daughters’ husband-to-be and a sinister pair of German prisoners of war who have obtained identity papers by killing two Belgians and try to pass themselves off as Allies until they can get enough money to flee to Spain. The Germans’ plan is to steal from the vineyard owners and pin the theft on a gypsie woman who is also working on the harvest. The plan fails when one of the Germans, about to be found out, jumps into an empty grape storage tank. He is killed by poisonous gases produced by grapes fermenting in the next tank. His corpse is found still clutching the loot, and the gypsie woman is saved. His lonely comrade later betrays himself by getting drunk and speaking in German.
The film is bracketted by grapes. The grape harvest supplies the initial motivation that sets up the situation of the plot, and the grapes themselves rather than any human hero resolve the dilemma. The film is not only bracketted by grapes, it swims in wine as its very element. Every crucial moment is expressed in terms of wine: love is expressed by the scintillating image of the faraway wife dancing in the husband’s wine cup; the German menace in its highest expression is one of the escapees stomping on the grape vine; heroism is exemplified by an altruistic trooper who braves death to bring wine back to the trenches to give his comrades a taste of the homeland that will revive their will to victory; when victory does come, it is toasted to with wine, and the movie ends with a sentimental tableau of the vines and a final intertitle saying that from these vineyards a new nation will be reborn. “Simulation,” Deleuze and Guattari write, “does not replace reality . . . but rather it appropriates reality in the operation of despotic overcoding, it produces reality on the new full body that replaces the earth. It expresses the appropriation and production of the real by a quasi-cause.”18 The undivided, abstract flow of wine is the glorified body of the nation. It arrogates to itself the power of love, victory and rebirth. It presents itself as first and final cause. But the war was obviously not won with wine. Its causality is an illusion. But it is an effective illusion because it is reinjected into reality and sets to work: it expresses love, and thereby motivates the man to be a good husband and give sons to the nation rising; it expresses patriotism, and thereby spurs the soldiers to victory. That is why it is called a quasi-cause. It abstracts from bodies and things a transcendental plane of ideal identities: a glorious wife, a glorious family, a glorious nation. (“It carries the real beyond its principle…”) Then it folds that ideal dimension back down onto bodies and things in order to force them to conform to the distribution of identities it lays out for them. (“…to the point where it is effectively produced.”) It creates the entire network of resemblance and representation. Both copy and model are the products of the same fabulatory process, the final goal of which is the recreation of the earth, the creation of a new territory.
The power of the quasi-cause is essentially distributive. It separates the good bodies from the bad, in other words the bodies that agree to resemble the glorious illusion it presents them as a model from those that do not; and it polices for renegade copies operating with a different agenda. The quasi-cause enables the French patriots to unmask the conniving Germans,19 and it shows up the gypsie for the true, hard-working Frenchwoman that she is despite her apparent otherness.
This account overcomes the polarity between the model and the copy by treating them both as second-order productions, as working parts in the same machine; but it seems to leave intact the dichotomy between the real and the imaginary–until it is realized that the bodies and things that are taken up by this fabulatory process are themselves the result of prior simulation-based distributions operating on other levels with different quasi-causes. Simulation upon simulation. Reality is nothing but a well-tempered harmony of simulation. The world is a complex circuit of interconnected simulations, in which Feuillade’s own film takes its place. It was made in 1919, just after the war. Every war, especially one of those dimensions, has a powerful deterritorializing effect: the mobilization of troops and supplies, refugees from other countries, refugees to other countries, families broken, entire regions levelled… The film itself is a simulation meant to insert itelf into that disjointed situation to help induce a unifying reterritorialization, to contribute to the rebirth of the nation. Vendémiare is the first month of the Republican calendar.
So what we are left with is a distinction not primarily between the model and the copy, or the real and the imaginary, but between two modes of simulation. One, exemplified in Feuillade’s film, is normative, regularizing, and reproductive. It selects only certain properties of the entities it takes up: hard work, loyalty, good parenting, etc. It creates a network of surface resemblances. They are surface resemblances because at bottom they not resemblances at all but standardized actions: what those entities do when called upon (the gypsie in this respect is as French as the French). What bodies do depends on where they land in a abstract grid of miraculated identities that are in practice only a bundle of normalized and basically reproductive functions. It is not a question of Platonic copies, but of human replicants. Every society creates a quasi-causal system of this kind. In capitalist society the ultimate quasi-cause is capital itself,20 which is described by Marx as a miraculating substance that arrogates all things to itself and presents itself as first and final cause. This mode of simulation goes by the name of “reality.”
The other mode of simulation is the one that turns against the entire system of resemblance and replication. It is also distributive, but the distribution it effects is not limitative. Rather than selecting only certain properties, it selects them all, it multiplies potentials: not to be human, but to be human plus. This kind of simulation is called “art.” Art also recreates a territory, but a territory that is not really territorial. It is less like the earth with its gravitational grid than an interplanetary space, a deterritorialized territory providing a possibility of movement in all directions. Artists are replicants who have found the secret of their obsolescence.
In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari invent a vocabulary enabling them to discuss both modes of simulation without lapsing into the terminology of representation. The key concept is double becoming. There are always at least two terms swept up in a fabulous process that transforms them both.21 David Cronenberg’s film, The Fly, presents an instance of this, although a failed one. A scientist named Brundle accidentally splices him self with a fly as he is experimenting with a machine that can dematerialize objects and transport them instantly to any chosen location, in defiance of gravity and Newtonian physics generally. When the accident occurs, Brundle does not so much become fly, nor the fly human. Rather, certain properties or potentials of both combine in a new and monstrous amalgation: a Brundle-Fly that can walk on walls and think and speak well enough to describe itself as the world’s first “insect politician.” It tries to purify itself of the fly in it by repeating the process backwards, but only succeeds in combining with the machinery itself. In limitative or negative becoming as portrayed in Vendémiare, one of the terms is an abstract identity and the body in question must curtail its potentials in order to fit into the grid, or at least appear to. In nonlimitative or positive becoming, as in The Fly, both terms are on the same level: rather than looking perpendicularly up or down, one moves sideways toward a another position on the grid for which one was not destined, toward an animal, a machine, a person of a different sex or age or race, an insect, a plant. The fabulatory process, though as abstract as subatomic physics, is immanent to the world of the things it affects, and is as real as a quark.22 The transporting machine is on the same plane as the terms it combines. Its operating principle dips into that world’s quantum level, into its pool of virtuality, to create an as yet unseen amalgamation of potentials. It produces a new body or territory from which there is no turning back. The only choice is to keep on becoming in an endless relay from one term to the next until the process either makes a breakthrough or exhausts its potential, spends its fuel, and the fabulous animal dies. Likening this to interplanatary space can be misleading: there is nothing farther from free-floating weightlessness than this. There is no such thing as total indetermination. Every body has its own propulsion, its own life force, its own set of potentials defining how far it can go. And it moves in a world filled with the obstacles thrown down by sedimentations of preexisting simulations of the “real” persuasion. There is no generalized indetermination, but there are localized points of undecidability where man meets fly. The goal is to reach into one’s world’s quantum level at such a point and, through the strategic mimickry of double becoming, combine as many potentials as possible. Deleuze and Guattari, of course, are not suggesting that people can or should “objectively” become insects. It is a question of extracting and combining potentials, which they define as abstract relations of movement and rest, abilities to affect and be affected: abstract yet real. The idea is to build our own transporting machine and use it to get a relay going and to keep it going, creating ever greater and more powerful amalgamations and spreading them like a contagion until they infect every identity across the land and the point is reached where a now all-invasive positive simulation can turn back against the grid of resemblance and replication and overturn it for a new earth. Deleuze and Guattari insist on the collective nature of this process of becoming, even when it is seemingly embodied in a solitary artist. Revolutionary or “minor”23 artists marshal all of the powers of the false their community has to offer. They create a working simulation that may then reinject itself into society like Feuillade’s wine assemblage, but to very different, though perhaps equally intoxicating, effect.
Returning to The Fly, the former scientist’s only hope for a breakthrough is to convince his former girlfriend to have a child by him and the fly. His hope, and her fear, is that he will infect the human race with Brundle-Flies, and a new race with superhuman strength will rise up to replace the old. The overman as superfly.24 Reproduction, and the forging of a new ethnic identity, are aspects of this process of simulation, but they are not the goal. The goal is life, a world in which the New Brundle can live without hiding and repressing his powers. That possibility is successfully squelched by the powers that be. Brundle-Fly is deprived of an escape route. The original formula, as inscribed in the bodies of Brundle and the fly, was apparently flawed. They did the best they could do, but only reached obsolescence.
How does all of this apply to our present cultural condition? According to Deleuze, the point at which simulacrum began to unmask itself was reached in painting with the advent of Pop Art. In film, it was Italian neo-Realism and the French New Wave.25 Perhaps we are now reaching that point in popular culture as a whole. Advanced capitalism, Deleuze and Guattari argue, is reaching a new transnational level that necessitates a dissolution of old identities and territorialities and the unleashing of objects, images and information having far more mobility and combinatory potential than ever before.26 As always, this deterritorialization is effected only in order to make possible a reterritorialization on an even grander and more glorious land of worldwide capital reborn. But in the meantime, a breach has opened. The challenge is to assume this new world of simulation and take it one step farther, to the point of no return, to raise it to a positive simulation of the highest degree by marshaling all our powers of the false toward shattering the grid of representation once and for all.
This cannot be done by whining. The work of Baudrillard is one long lament. Both linear and dialectical causality no longer function, therefore everything is indetermination. The center of meaning is empty, therefore we are satellites in lost orbit. We can no longer act like legislator-subjects or be passive like slaves, therefore we are sponges. Images are no longer anchored by representation, therefore they float weightless in hyperspace. Words are no longer univocal, therefore signifiers slip chaotically over each other. A circuit has been created between the real and the imaginary, therefore reality has imploded into the undecidable proximity of hyperreality. All of these statements make sense only if it is assumed that the only conceivable alternative to representative order is absolute indetermination, whereas indetermination as he speaks of it is in fact only the flipside of order, as necessary to it as the fake copy is to the model, and every bit as much a part of its system. Baudrillard’s framework can only be the result of a nostalgia for the old reality so intense that it has difformed his vision of everything outside of it. He cannot clearly see that all the things he says have crumbled were simulacra all along: simulacra produced by analyzable procedures of simulation that were as real as real, or actually realer than real, because they carried the real back to its principle of production and in so doing prepared their own rebirth in a new regime of simulation. He cannot see becoming, of either variety. He cannot see that the simulacrum envelops a proliferating play of differences and galactic distances. What Deleuze and Guattari offer, particularly in A Thousand Plateaus, is a logic capable of grasping Baudrillard’s failing world of representation as an effective illusion the demise of which opens a glimmer of possibility. Against cynicism, a thin but fabulous hope–of ourselves becoming realer than real in a monstrous contagion of our own making.
1. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), p. 11.
2. Ibid., p. 4.
3. Ibid., pp. 145-46.
4. Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and John Johnston (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), p. 56.
5. Ibid., pp. 35-37.
6. Baudrillard, Simulations, pp. 55-58, 103-115.
7. Ibid., pp. 56-57, 134-35.
8. Baudrillard, In the Shadow, pp. 1-2.
9. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Capitalism,” New Left Review, no. 146 (July-August 1984). p. 75.
10. Gilles Deleuze, “Plato and the Simulacrum,” October, no. 27 (winter 1983), pp. 52-53.
11. Ibid., 48-49.
12. Ibid., p. 56.
13. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1977), p. 91.
14. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981), p. 99. Cited by Eric Alliez and Michel Feher, “Notes on the Sophisticated City,” Zone, no. 1/2 (1986), p. 55 n.1.
15. Alliez and Feher, p. 54.
16. For example, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, pp. 70- 83.
17. Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 87.
18. Ibid., p. 210.
19. Parenthetically, it is no accident that there are two German escapees: the simulacrum is a multiplicity that poses a threat to identity and is travelling a line of flight that must be blocked at all costs. Here, the multiplicity is reduced to a doubling because under the Oedipal procedures of capitalism the nonidentity within identity takes the form of a splitting of the subject into a subject of enunciation and a subject of the statement: one of the Germans is obliged to remain mute. On the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement, see Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 265 and Mille Plateaux (Paris: Minuit, 1980), p. 162 (English translation forthcoming under the titleA Thousand Plateaus, tr. Brian Massumi [University of Minnesota Press, 1987]).
20. Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 227.
21. Deleuze and Guattari, Mille Plateaux, p. 360 and chapter 10 generally (“Devenir-intense…”).
22. On the “Abstract-Real,” see Mille Plateaux, pp. 177, 181-82. “Real” in this context has a different meaning from the definition given above: here, it refers to the “intensive” realm of the virtual which “subsists” in reality understood as an extensive system of actualized simulations. On the concept of virtuality, see in particular Deleuze, Le Bergonisme (Paris: P.U.F, 1968), pp. 26, 55-56, 96-105.
23. On “minor” art, see Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), pp. 16-27, and Deleuze, “Un manifeste de moins,” in Carmelo Bene and Gilles Deleuze, Superpositions (Paris: Minuit, 1979), pp. 87-131.
24. The allusion to Nietzsche is not gratuitous. For Deleuze, the “power of the false” is another name for the will to power (Cinéma 2: L’image-temps. Paris: Minuit, 1985. P. 172), and what I have been calling positive simulation is described by Deleuze and Guattari as the eternal return (Anti-Oedipus, pp. 330-31).
25. Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2: L’Image-temps, pp. 7-22.
26. Deleuze and Guattari, Mille Plateaux, chapter 13, “Appareil de capture.”
Pop Culture: An Overview
Tim Delaney sets the scene for our philosophical consideration of popular stuff.
The term ‘popular culture’ holds different meanings depending on who’s defining it and the context of use. It is generally recognized as the vernacular or people’sculture that predominates in a society at a point in time. As Brummett explains inRhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture, pop culture involves the aspects of social life most actively involved in by the public. As the ‘culture of the people’, popular culture is determined by the interactions between people in their everyday activities: styles of dress, the use of slang, greeting rituals and the foods that people eat are all examples of popular culture. Popular culture is also informed by the mass media.
There are a number of generally agreed elements comprising popular culture. For example, popular culture encompasses the most immediate and contemporary aspects of our lives. These aspects are often subject to rapid change, especially in a highly technological world in which people are brought closer and closer by omnipresent media. Certain standards and commonly held beliefs are reflected in pop culture. Because of its commonality, pop culture both reflects and influences people’s everyday life (see eg Petracca and Sorapure, Common Culture). Furthermore, brands can attain pop iconic status (eg the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches). However, iconic brands, as other aspects of popular culture, may rise and fall.
With these fundamental aspects in mind, popular culture may be defined as the products and forms of expression and identity that are frequently encountered or widely accepted, commonly liked or approved, and characteristic of a particular society at a given time. Ray Browne in his essay ‘Folklore to Populore’ offers a similar definition: “Popular culture consists of the aspects of attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, customs, and tastes that define the people of any society. Popular culture is, in the historic use of term, the culture of the people.”
Popular culture allows large heterogeneous masses of people to identify collectively. It serves an inclusionary role in society as it unites the masses on ideals of acceptable forms of behavior. Along with forging a sense of identity which binds individuals to the greater society, consuming pop culture items often enhances an individual’s prestige in their peer group. Further, popular culture, unlike folk or high culture, provides individuals with a chance to change the prevailing sentiments and norms of behavior, as we shall see. So popular culture appeals to people because it provides opportunities for both individual happiness and communal bonding.
Examples of Popular Culture
Examples of popular culture come from a wide array of genres, including popular music, print, cyber culture, sports, entertainment, leisure, fads, advertising and television. Sports and television are arguably two of the most widely consumed examples of popular culture, and they also represent two examples of popular culture with great staying power.
Sports are played and watched by members of all social classes, but (tautologously) the masses are responsible for the huge popularity of sports. Some sporting events, such as the World Cup and the Olympics, are consumed by a world community. Sports are pervasive in most societies and represent a major part of many people’s lives. Showing allegiance to a team as a means of self-identification is a common behavior. Further, cheering for a sports team or a favorite athlete is a way any individual can become part of popular culture, as I and Tim Madigan explain in our new book The Sociology of Sport.
Many people watch numerous hours of television everyday. It is such a prevalent aspect of contemporary culture it is difficult to imagine life without it. There are those who believe TV is responsible for the dumbing down of society; that children watch too much television; and that the couch potato syndrome has contributed to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The globally popular TV show The Simpsons provides us with an interesting perspective on television. In the episode ‘Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming’ (#137), while doing time in prison, Sideshow Bob becomes a critic of television. Although he was once a regular on The Krusty the Clown Show, Bob has become obsessed by television’s harmful effect on society. Bob argues that everyone’s lives would be much richer if TV were done away with. As a result, he devises a scheme to detonate a nuclear bomb unless all television is abolished in Springfield. Unable to locate Bob, Springfield’s city officials meet to discuss Bob’s demands of abolishing TV. A panicky Krusty proclaims, “Would it really be worth living in a world without television? I think the survivors would envy the dead.” Although there are people who agree with Sideshow Bob, the masses would more likely agree with Krusty: that living in a world without television is not really living. It is even more difficult to imagine a world without popular culture.
Folk and High Culture
Popular culture is usually distinguished from folk and high culture. In some ways, folk culture is similar to pop culture because of the mass participation involved. Folk culture, however, represents the traditional way of doing things. Consequently, it is not as amendable to change and is much more static than popular culture.
Folk culture represents a simpler lifestyle, that is generally conservative, largely self-sufficient, and often characteristic of rural life. Radical innovation is generally discouraged. Group members are expected to conform to traditional modes of behavior adopted by the community. Folk culture is local in orientation, and non-commercial. In short, folk culture promises stability, whereas popular culture is generally looking for something new or fresh. Because of this, popular culture often represents an intrusion and a challenge to folk culture. Conversely, folk culture rarely intrudes upon popular culture. There are times when certain elements of folk culture (eg Turkish rugs, Mexican blankets and Irish fairy tales) find their way into the world of pop culture. Generally, when items of folk culture are appropriated and marketed by the popular culture, the folk items gradually lose their original form.
A key characteristic of popular culture is its accessibility to the masses. It is, after all, the culture of the people. High culture, on the other hand, is not mass produced, nor meant for mass consumption. It belongs to the social elite; the fine arts, opera, theatre, and high intellectualism are associated with the upper socioeconomic classes. Items of high culture often require extensive experience, training, or reflection to be appreciated. Such items seldom cross over to the pop culture domain. Consequently, popular culture is generally looked (down) upon as being superficial when compared to the sophistication of high culture. (This does not mean that social elites do not participate in popular culture or that members of the masses do not participate in high culture.)
The Formation of Popular Culture
Through most of human history, the masses were influenced by dogmatic forms of rule and traditions dictated by local folk culture. Most people were spread throughout small cities and rural areas – conditions that were not conducive to a ‘popular’ culture. With the beginning of the Industrial era (late eighteenth century), the rural masses began to migrate to cities, leading to the urbanization of most Western societies.
Urbanization is a key ingredient in the formation of popular culture. People who once lived in homogeneous small villages or farms found themselves in crowded cities marked by great cultural diversity. These diverse people would come to see themselves as a ‘collectivity’ as a result of common, or popular, forms of expression. Thus, many scholars trace the beginning of the popular culture phenomenon to the rise of the middle class brought on by the Industrial Revolution.
Industrialization also brought with it mass production; developments in transportation, such as the steam locomotive and the steamship; advancements in building technology; increased literacy; improvements in education and public health; and the emergence of efficient forms of commercial printing, representing the first step in the formation of a mass media (eg the penny press, magazines, and pamphlets). All of these factors contributed to the blossoming of popular culture. By the start of the twentieth century, the print industry mass-produced illustrated newspapers and periodicals, as well as serialized novels and detective stories. Newspapers served as the best source of information for a public with a growing interest in social and economic affairs. The ideas expressed in print provided a starting point for popular discourse on all sorts of topics. Fueled by further technological growth, popular culture was greatly impacted by the emerging forms of mass media throughout the twentieth century. Films, broadcast radio and television all had a profound influence on culture.
So urbanization, industrialization, the mass media and the continuous growth in technology since the late 1700s, have all been significant factors in the formation of popular culture. These continue to be factors shaping pop culture today.
Sources of Popular Culture
There are numerous sources of popular culture. As implied above, a primary source is the mass media, especially popular music, film, television, radio, video games, books and the internet. In addition, advances in communication allows for the greater transmission of ideas by word of mouth, especially via cell phones. Many TV programs, such as American Idol and the Last Comic Standing, provide viewers with a phone number so that they can vote for a contestant. This combining of pop culture sources represents a novel way of increasing public interest, and further fuels the mass production of commodities.
Popular culture is also influenced by professional entities that provide the public with information. These sources include the news media, scientific and scholarly publications, and ‘expert’ opinion from people considered an authority in their field. For example, a news station reporting on a specific topic, say the effects of playing violent video games, will seek a noted psychologist or sociologist who has published in this area. This strategy is a useful way of influencing the public and may shape their collective opinions on a particular subject. At the very least, it provides a starting point for public discourse and differing opinions. News stations often allow viewers to call or email in their opinions, which may be shared with the public.
A seemingly contradictory source of popular culture is individualism. Urban culture has not only provided a common ground for the masses, it has inspired ideals of individualistic aspirations. In the United States, a society formed on the premise of individual rights, there are theoretically no limitations to what an individual might accomplish. An individual may choose to participate in all that is ‘popular’ for popularity’s sake; or they may choose a course of action off the beaten track. At times, these ‘pathfinders’ affect popular culture by their individuality. Of course, once a unique style becomes adopted by others, it ceases to remain unique. It becomes, popular.
© Tim Delaney 2007
Tim Delaney is a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Oswego. A member of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association, Delaney is the author of Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld and is currently writing a book on The Simpsons that is scheduled for publication in February, 2008. Visit his website at www.booksbytimdelaney.com.
In the Air – Art+Auction’s Gossip Column
Ai Weiwei’s Entire Studio Corralled for “Gangnam Style” Parody Shoot [UPDATED]
While we remain highly suspicious of Korean rap sensation PSY’s ostensible connection to his late countryman and video art legend Nam June Paik, we now have photographic proof that his sphere of influence extends into contemporary art: earlier today Ai Weiwei tweeted the above image of himself and his studio crew, practicing PSY’s “Gangnam Style.”
Ai can be seen perfecting one of the PSY’s infectious dance moves in the courtyard of his studio in Beijing’s Caochangdi district. Re-posting the first image on Facebook, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” director Alison Klayman noted, “PSY stops by Caochangdi today and Ai Weiwei learns the dance. According to photos on Twitter and Facebook, this really happened!”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post suggested that rapper PSY had visited Ai Weiwei’s studio in person, but in light of evidence that the Korean MC was meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday, this seems highly unlikely.
We knew Ai had moves (see above), but we look forward to seeing him break it down, “Gangnam Style,” in a future video art project.
— Benjamin Sutton
popular culture Is INtImately coNNecteD WIth eDucatIoN, mass commuNIcatIoN, proDuctIoN aND a socIety’s abIlIty to access KNoWleDGe.
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On Popular Culture
Author: John Morley [More Titles by Morley]
AN ADDRESS DELIVERED AT THE TOWN HALL, BIRMINGHAM (OCTOBER 5, 1876), BY THE WRITER, AS PRESIDENT OF THE MIDLAND INSTITUTE.
The proceedings which have now been brought satisfactorily to an end are of a kind which nobody who has sensibility as well as sense can take a part in without some emotion. An illustrious French philosopher who happened to be an examiner of candidates for admission to the Polytechnic School, once confessed that, when a youth came before him eager to do his best, competently taught, and of an apt intelligence, he needed all his self-control to press back the tears from his eyes. Well, when we think how much industry, patience, and intelligent discipline; how many hard hours of self-denying toil; how many temptations to worthless pleasures resisted; how much steadfast feeling for things that are honest and true and of good report–are all represented by the young men and young women to whom I have had the honour of giving your prizes to-night, we must all feel our hearts warmed and gladdened in generous sympathy with so much excellence, so many good hopes, and so honourable a display of those qualities which make life better worth having for ourselves, and are so likely to make the world better worth living in for those who are to come after us.
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