Culture stasis

This blog had not intended to go into hiatus for two months, but life intervened in various ways that left me with neither the time nor the energy to offer any commentary about the world around me. Since then, the United States ignored my warning to ignore the siren call of Donald Trump, Brexit head bangers seem ever more poised to visit chaos and long term decline on the UK, and another swathe of great entertainers have gone to their reward (of these, the career of George Michael has some relevance to what I will subsequently write). And now we are in 2017, which seems the scary sort of number some of us partly imagined, and partly hoped, would never come around. It is the year of the setting of The Running Man, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to survive a sadistic game show, two years after the setting of Back to the Future Part II, in which self-lacing technology for shoes and hoverboards are commonplace, and already twenty years beyond the setting of Escape from New York, in which Manhattan is depicted as a giant maximum security prison.

It can seem like the world around us is changing in dizzying ways that we cannot comprehend, and that technology is hurtling us towards a fourth industrial revolution that seems to elicit a lot more fear than it does excitement. The “future shock” Alvin Toffler warned about almost half a century ago feels sure to be felt palpably in many societies that have already been weakened by shockingly wrongheaded economic policies that have been implemented across a turbulent decade. But I would propose that in other ways we are not moving towards the future at all, and that we have wilfully remained stuck in a mainstream monoculture for upwards of 25 years or more. People deride Francis Fukuyama for writing of the end of history in the early 1990s, but if he had restricted his gaze to cinema, pop music, fashion and other aspects of popular culture, he would surely be feted as quite the prophet today. For it does seem, unless we can be jolted out of our creative lethargy and nostalgia, that we have reached the end of cultural history where everything looks and sounds the same.

One prime example is to be found in cinema, or to be more specific, the supposed prestige output from the major studios. The movies of today, for the most part, neither truly reflect their time nor advance the way the medium is used creatively. They are largely fixated on technical craft, and they can win Academy Awards for not doing much more than that. Of course, the effects are more impressive now, and they help you try to put an approximate year on the date of release, because there’s usually very little else on display that would help you otherwise. But the use of technology to do things that are rendered more impressively on a big screen seems driven more by commercial than creative concerns, perhaps because cinema is nowadays competing against one of the few real innovations of recent decades – long form television.

This blog post is, I’ll freely confess, a reprise of and homage to a Vanity Fair article I read a few years ago. A key part of that piece’s argument was that technological and economic shock has made us more inclined to cling to the familiar. A second plank was that multi-billion-dollar “style” businesses that have arisen in recent decades don’t much want to be creatively destroyed, which is supposedly a necessary driving impulse of capitalism. Of course, for the initiated who know where to look, there are myriad subcultures that appeal even to the most esoteric tastes – the Internet can take you anywhere. Our culture isn’t uniformly bland horizontally and vertically, but it is atomised and distributed among almost countless niches.

That suits some people very nicely, especially if they are in the know about something you aren’t. But it is lamentable that there is all this fragmentation under the surface, but no vibrant trends that capture a wide audience. Furthermore, popular culture used to have an inherent egalitarianism about it, when mass production wasn’t incompatible with producing great products, consumed both by the man on the street and the economic and cultural elite. Now we have differentiation designed to price out the little guy and deprive him of the experiences that were accessible to his father and grandfather.

In The Running Man, the economy has tanked, freedoms are heavily restricted, and the government conspires with the media to control the population and manipulate their passions. They partly do so through reality television, the most popular and gruesome of which is the show that gives the movie its title. Indeed, the presenter of this programme is one of the most powerful men in the world. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But let’s not fixate on individuals; it’s time to castigate ourselves instead. The movie is a camp caricature of the real way in which we readily descend to gruesome vindictiveness, epitomised in today’s reality TV. It’s striking how willingly we submit to the most tawdry, tacky entertainment. What’s worse, we now also submit to the same old, same old entertainment. We sorely need some culture warriors of a different kind to lead us out of this mainstream creative wasteland.

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