The Oprafication of America

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 14 18:12:05 MST 2003


[On the Marxism list,  Jurriaan Bendien asked about the significance of
Judge Judy's popularity, who has taken over the number one spot from Oprah.
I explained that such shows are bread-and-circus diversions from the real
problems facing working people, who tend to make up their audience. This
led Gary McLennan to add:

 >>The "field" where I labour, Cultural/Media/Screen Studies, has been
captured by the avatars of neo-liberalism. John Hartley by boss here at
Queensland University of Technology is a classic instance. He opposes above
all "critique" - the critical analyses of popular culture. He does this in
the name of populism. He accuses critics of being elitist and against the
people. Also of being 'Manichean' and opposed to sensuality. So in effect
he champions the current cultural level of the working people. To do so is
of course to champion their oppression.<<

[Apropos of this exchange, "The Baffler", the foremost magazine dedicated
to examining the cooptation of the avant-garde broadly defined including
the field of cultural studies, is now in print again after a devastating
fire. I got the latest copy tonight in my mailbox and came across a tip-top
article titled "Cogito Oprah Sum: American in the Postcritical Condition"
that contains the following astute observation. I strongly recommend people
look at www.thebaffler.com for information on how to get this excellent
print publication, which besides Harper's is the only worth spending money on.]

---

While the conservative reflex is to elevate us all as consumer-aristocrats,
the leftish impulse is to empower us all as fans. Take, for example, Hop on
Pop, a doorstop-sized anthology of writings from "the first generation of
cultural scholars to be able to take for granted that popular culture can
be studied on its own terms." This giddy self-image in turn prompts the
book's editors, Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc, to compose
a "manifesto for a new cultural studies," which is largely devoted to
reiterating all the weary shibboleths of the old culture studies. But the
authors do press one novel claim: that as sinecured culture critics, they
need no longer be encumbered by the act of criticism. For not only do they
form a new generation of cultural scholars, they ate those purest and
bravest of culture-war foot soldiers: They are fans. The intellectual and
the fan "remain too closely related for a clean separation," they write.
Nevertheless--oh the indignity!"--as academics, we are told that our
affective relations to popular texts must be cast aside so we may fully
understand 'how they work on us.'" The solution, of course, is to "embrace
our immediate engagement of popular culture as the source of our knowledge
and the motivating force behind our projects"--though how one embraces an
engagement, even an immediate one, is a cognitive puzzle on the order of
lassoing a cloud. But never mind. The thing is, you see, that "being a fan
represents a collective cultural and political identity which links us to
other communities. Our cultural preferences and allegiances, no less than
our racial, sexual, and political identities, are difficult to shed when we
write."

Alas, they do not lie. As any casual detour into a Star Trek convention or
a Phish show will quickly demonstrate, people who stake their identities on
their fandom make for rather monotonous company, and so it is with most of
the essays in Hop on Pop. There are earnest meditations on the
"participatory" nature of karaoke clubs, on the sexualized performance
aesthetic of professional wrestling, on the subcultures of Myst and lo-fi.
And with the introduction of each feeble, tiny taste community comes the
same grand claims to agency, authenticity and liberatory promise, so that
the whole enterprise starts to feel a bit like trying to film a sequel of
Jurassic Park inside a terrarium. Here, for example, is co-editor Shattuc,
describing the rhetorical savvy of daytime TV talk show audiences:

"The talk show relied [in making its arguments] on the tangible proofs
offered by emotional testimonies and bodily signs (laughter, facial
expressions and tears). These are the forms of argument available to the
nonexperts or underclasses.... In this postmodern age of simulations talk
shows of the 1980s demanded a belief in the authenticity of lived
experience as a social truth. Perhaps such direct appeal to raw emotion is
what makes the educated middle class so uncomfortable with the so-called
'oprahfication' of America. As one Oprah audience member stated on April
14, 1994, 'Don't tell me how to feel. I am my experience.'"

Cogito Oprah sum.


Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org


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