I spend a lot of my time thinking about how technology has changed the way we communicate. It has obviously changed the tenor of our conversations: they happen much more quickly now, and many at once, and in many different forms and forums. We talk to more people, and different ones, with experiences different from our own. But has technology changed the content of our communications? And has the level of quality changed?
Cultural intermediaries then…
I read a statement about culture in an article for a class a few years ago, and it has stayed vividly in my memory. The author was Pierre Bourdieu, an important sociologist and thinker from the past century, and he was discussing cultural intermediaries, those who fit between “legitimate” culture and mass-produced culture, the popularizers of the world. He wrote in 1984 but his perspective seemed much older: he described the petit bourgeoisie and their love of what he calls the “minor forms of legitimate culture” such as “light operas, science programmes, [and] poetry readings.” The intermediaries give life to dry institutional competence, as he puts it, but as presenters are devoid of any intrinsic value in and of themselves. They instead stage moderate cultural revolutions by canonizing “not-yet-legitimate arts” and masquerading as experts by surrounding themselves with a veneer of cultural authority in the form of (and this is worth quoting in full) “Academician contributors to painless history magazines, Sorbonne professors debating on TV, Menuhins gracing ‘quality’ variety shows.” (I had to look up Menuhin also; he was considered one of the twentieth century’s best violinists.) I like to think of this as giving street cred to high art, and vice versa.
I think of this passage often. I see its effects when I read web pages dedicated to collecting strange maps or entertainment blogs covering pop culture. I see it when I watch American Idol and note how it attempts to associate itself with the new “legitimate” musical culture (producers like Quincy Jones, judges like Elton John, and YES!, performers like George Michael). I see it when I watch YouTube videos or ze frank’s peculiar brand of comedy. It is exactly what Bourdieu means: everywhere today, individuals without the “standard cultural credentials” (whatever those may be) have essentially cornered the market on some small area of life in which there is great popular interest. (Interestingly, it is often themselves – think of most Internet memes and how they can come out of nowhere from an individual’s particular fancy writ large.) I read the writers’ comments about American Idol and Survivor on EW fairly religiously, all the while thinking that it is crazy that there are individuals out there whose livelihood is earned acerbically describing the proceedings of a variety show to an audience that mostly includes people who watched it the night before. How did this happen? And at least their subjects are real people: there is also extensive discussion about TV dramas, and comedies, and everything in between.
And what discussion of the canonization and genre-ization of life would be complete without discussing Wikipedia? Wikipedia is founded upon the classification and summarization of life’s minutiae, things like characters in popular movies, or levels in video games, or contestants on reality television shows. Approximately 45% of its content is Culture & Arts, or Biographies & Persons. (1% is Thought & Philosophy.) I’m guessing most of that is current pop culture. In order to gain entry, a topic must be “notable,” that is, it must have “received significant coverage in secondary reliable sources (i.e., mainstream media or major academic journals) that are independent of the subject of the topic.” Consider: this is the veneer of cultural “legitimacy” that Bourdieu speaks of, this association with longstanding cultural pillars like the established news media. The irony is that old media are dying, and Wikipedia grows every minute. It has become a cultural compass in its own right.
Cultural legitimacy in the 21st century
Which leads me to ask what “important” and “legitimate” means today. Has technology changed the content of communication after all? Does it, by its nature as transient and inclusive, privilege the popular, mass-produced, lowbrow culture? And if so, is that bad? Are certain types of culture intrinsically better or more valuable than others? Bourdieu would likely say “yes,” in that his discussions of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” culture included an inherent value judgment. The debate rises to new levels of importance – and not just culturally, but politically – with so much more “out there” and accessible. Viewers can pick and choose what elements of culture they pay attention to, essentially filtering out all viewpoints that do not converge with their own. (The Atlantic ran a fascinating article on the shift to new media and how it has affected politics last month – check it out if you have a chance.)
But who are the culture brokers who determine what culture is good or bad, highbrow or lowbrow, worthy or not worthy of attention?
It’s relevant and interesting to me because posthistorical turns 1 month old today. And I look at the most popular posts sometimes on the WordPress Dashboard and sigh that they are always about things like “the truth about Nicole Richie’s engagement ring,” or a “LOST exclusive” or a change in the top 24 of American Idol (full disclosure: I clicked on that one). There is no person deciding what is most popular in and around WordPress. Numbers are. Undoubtedly, because of today’s technology, culture is more democratized than ever before. And there are many, many more intermediaries than ever before because technology has played upon how fractured our culture can be. There are more and more people out there who don’t want to be mere consumers of information and culture, but producers of it as well. Many more people are finding their voices than ever before, and creating new forums to talk about culture. I am one of these people, and I love being able to be one.
New technology has made it easier to become a cultural intermediary, and in doing so has legitimized – at least in part – hundreds of new forms of culture. The content has indeed changed – significantly. It has caused a revolutionary shift in cultural studies as well, and changed the lenses through which we see and categorize the world for the purposes of analysis.
So who are the cultural intermediaries of the twenty-first century? Perhaps we might call them “aggregators,” either in their automated forms, or human ones. They are those who collect seemingly disparate bits of data and combine them into a coherent and meaningful whole. I believe that all this technology makes cultural intermediaries – the trusted, popular, consistently competent ones – more important than ever. Career counsellors and management thinkers in the “information age” are constantly pointing out that with all of the information being thrown at us, the need increases for those who can rise above it all and provide an intelligent layer of analysis to help others sift through it and realize what is important.
So my focus as I move forward in life and with this blog is going to be to provide a lens through which disparate things make sense and are interesting. Wish me luck – and stay tuned!
I’m interested in hearing from you! Are you a cultural intermediary? If so, how do you see your role? Who do you think are the most significant cultural intermediaries of this new century? And what is “legitimate” culture now? Does it still exist?