All God’s Children, Chapters 5 and 6

As I continue to re-read All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes I’m repeatedly reminded that it is an unusually good survey of the many matters that have to be considered when thinking about popular culture and our relationship with it. Myers has done a good job of assembling and organizing the material, and if I’m occasionally disappointed that a particular important matter is mentioned only in passing, well, I’m grateful that he at least brought it up so I can pursue it on my own.

Related to that, I’ve decided that I must have first read this book much longer than seven years ago, because I keep running across references to other good books that I also read longer ago, books that I don’t recall seeing mentioned anywhere else. Two in particular I highly recommend: Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air, a collection of lengthy essays about the experience of modernity; and Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, a history of images that focuses on the social changes that came about as a result of the easy availability of mass-produced images. Both are on my short list of books that had me excited as I read them because I was encountering ideas I had never even considered before.

Although I have no quibble with the content of Myers’s presentation so far, I am finding myself increasingly disturbed by one of his assumptions, namely that it is possible and maybe even advisable for Christians to partake of popular culture, as long as they do so intelligently and sparingly and with full awareness of the dangers it poses. Put another way, popular culture is problematic only because it is inferior to high or folk culture, having the potential to distract us from those better things, dangerous only in its tendency to crowd out more edifying things.

But is this true? I think that Myers isn’t sufficiently cynical about the origin and purpose of popular culture. Popular culture is not something that has always existed alongside high and folk culture, and its origins are not mysterious. In fact, it is a perversion of high and folk culture, one that was invented specifically to separate people from their money. As with industrial food, I think we should worry less about its particular effects on us and more about the near impossibility of living a modern life that is untouched by it. Bad food and bad culture are problematic in themselves, but it is much more problematic that modern society is critically dependent on their existence, i.e. if we all chose lives in which we fed and entertained ourselves—or, more generally, we all chose lives in which we consumed more or less what we ourselves produced.

It may be that there is a level at which it is possible to partake of popular culture without risking damage to our souls. But I don’t think that it’s possible to draw the line intelligently while at the same time living a life which is suffused with popular culture. Many powerful forces have a vested financial interest in having us draw that line wrongly; many institutions benefit from us fooling ourselves into thinking that we can guard ourselves from the dangers it poses.

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3 thoughts on “All God’s Children, Chapters 5 and 6

  1. I like your point about the ubiquitousness of pop culture (4th paragraph). That’s why I posted a link to Mark Steyn’s “Twenty Years Ago Today” in my response. Unfortunately, I probably should have worked it in a lot more integrally and done a better job of editing the whole post, but I wanted to get something up while people were still discussing the chapter. At least it’s in there.

    I can’t lead a life free of pop culture, because it’s everywhere on the street and in every building, but I can ignore a lot. It’s much worse for my 14yo. She’s already the least pop-oriented of her group of friends, homeschooled or not, and she feels increasingly left out of every conversation with anyone her own age, and increasingly isolated generally because the other teens are pulling away from age-integrated groups. I won’t go into more detail. You’ve had a child this age and I’m sure you know what I mean. And it gets better, I think.

    But I have another question: How do you think “pop culture as corporate invention” idea applies to aspects of pop culture with user input, like Facebook, Twitter, or blogs? I don’t watch TV, but “reality TV” (which has little to do with reality) also comes to mind. Seems like user input is the trend, and that opens the way for some independent thought.

    Or how do you think it applies to anti-commercial movements? I’ve seen many pop trends start out as underground, anti-corporate movements, and then get co-opted, as you know well from your organic farming. But there does seem to be an underlying mindset even with the underground versions. When I was in art school, I remember thinking that the alternative musicians I knew had a certain herd mentality of their own, even if they were shopping at thrift stores instead of Beneton. And homeschoolers. Some people would say that even traditionalist movements are a pop trend, though I would disagree that *all* of them are. They may be in certain manifestations.

    Sorry, I know I’m asking you a tough and involved question, but if you have any immediate thoughts, I’d like to hear them when you have time. I’ll be thinking about it, too.

  2. Laura,

    You ask hard (but important) questions, and at this point all I can offer are fragmentary observations. But here they are.

    You’ve had a child this age and I’m sure you know what I mean. And it gets better, I think.

    I know what you mean in the abstract. But the environment in which we’ve raised our own has always emphasized family-centeredness together with an isolating distance from the outside world. We headed down this path almost accidentally, in response to the disappointing results of our efforts to be more involved with whatever community we were a part of. For awhile we were worried, since it was so different than the usual approach, even that taken by separatist-leaning Christians, who seem to compensate for their isolation from the world without by creating a social whirl within. But after thinking a lot about it, studying up on what constituted normal life in pre-modern times, and experiencing continued benefits as a result, we embrace rather than worry about our isolation; twenty-year-old Chris and seventeen-year-old Maggie are the proof we needed to know that such an approach to living could result in a well-balanced person, one who is equally at home spending productive time with others in the community or spending long stretches at home with only the rest of the family.

    But that is only to say that choosing to live in a family-centered, isolated manner can work; at least it has for us. Other approaches work, too—I’ve seen them work—but I’m not really equipped to comment on them in any detail. My guess is that the all-encompassing concern you and Bob show for raising C.Z. as best you know how will lead to excellent, satisfying results—but I don’t know exactly what those results will be.

    How do you think “pop culture as corporate invention” idea applies to aspects of pop culture with user input, like Facebook, Twitter, or blogs? I don’t watch TV, but “reality TV” (which has little to do with reality) also comes to mind. Seems like user input is the trend, and that opens the way for some independent thought.

    I’m both worried and encouraged by the shift to amateur-produced content, which as you point out began before the internet became ascendant; reality TV and amateur porn videos were the leading edge of that trend. The bad news about amateur-produced content, I think, is that it encourages the worst in us. It encourages narcissism, since we are the subjects we know best. It encourages the therapeutic understanding of life, since our emotions and opinions are readily available to write about while objective reality would require some amount of work (research, thinking). And it encourages voyeurism, sanctioning our desire to look too deeply into the private lives and thoughts of others. Amateur-produced content is a potential goldmine for anyone who can control the flow of it, and so powerful forces have been encouraging its acceptance.

    The good news, I think, is that those powerful forces have not figured out how to control that flow. Technology, primarily the internet, has given amateurs the means to distribute what they produce without needing a gatekeeper—and the gatekeeping empires are crumbling as a result.

    For me, the crumbling of those empires is an unalloyed good, because I don’t think the value of the content they distribute is worth the cost of the social influence they wield (and use to their profit). But assuming there is value worth preserving in the easy availability of books, magazines, DVDs, newspapers, online videos, weblogs, and other vehicles for content, then I think an important shift is nearly upon us, that will take us in one of two directions. It may be that the technological utopians are right, and that eliminating the gatekeepers will result in a creative explosion that will dramatically enrich our cultural lives, giving us unprecedented access to just those things that match our own individual tastes, and in abundance, such as seems to be developing in cyberspace right now with the ability to read just about any newspaper or magazine or book ever published, view just about every movie or video ever filmed.

    But I think there is something deceptive about the current explosion of online content. Most of it is created by professional content creators, journalists and filmmakers and writers and thinkers, and even though they aren’t being paid right now they do it in hope that someone will soon figure out how to effectively charge for their services. Just recently I’ve started to notice an upsurge among these folks in the amount of online fussing about how they can’t continue to do it without being paid. If they left the ranks of producers, I’m not sure that most of us would find the rest of what is being produced worth our time. So it may be that once the gatekeepers are gone—those folks who once figured out how to charge people for the content they consumed and to pay creators for the content they produced—the quality of what continues to be produced will no longer attract readers and viewers, and the entire media project will collapse.

    Or how do you think it applies to anti-commercial movements? I’ve seen many pop trends start out as underground, anti-corporate movements, and then get co-opted, as you know well from your organic farming.

    Organic farming is an excellent example, especially because among the counter-movements I think there is one very small one that recognizes not only what was good about the original organic movement but why it was co-opted, namely those folks who argue that we need to know as much as possible about the origins of the food we eat. The reason this goal was lost in the co-opting of the movement is that a key element of commercializing an activity is exactly the opposite—we want reduce our involvement in the process (in this case, of creating the food we eat) to the least possible thing, exchanging money for food with a party which we are otherwise required to know nothing about.

    I think that corporate co-opting always plays on the same laziness. We want some cool thing (a product, a look, a skill) that someone else worked hard to produce, but we don’t want to do that work ourselves. And then someone magically appears who promises to give us the thing without the work (or at least make us think they have done so), by selling it to us.

    But there does seem to be an underlying mindset even with the underground versions. When I was in art school, I remember thinking that the alternative musicians I knew had a certain herd mentality of their own, even if they were shopping at thrift stores instead of Beneton. And homeschoolers. Some people would say that even traditionalist movements are a pop trend, though I would disagree that *all* of them are. They may be in certain manifestations.

    Some folks pursue something for its intrinsic worth, and some pursue it for the trappings. Some folks pursue making bluegrass music because that’s the kind of music they think needs to be made, and some pursue it because they want to hang out with the bluegrass musicians, be seen as an bluegrass musician, or (eventually) make some of the money that bluegrass musicians are making. Some folks homeschool because they think it is an essential component of raising their children as they would see them raised, and some homeschool because they want to hang out with the homeschooling crowd, or they want to take a shot at being a big fish in a small pond, or they’ve been persuaded that it is more pious than the alternatives.

    One real problem with being a trend-follower is that it encourages you to ignore rather than understand cause and effect. A bluegrass musician who is driven to make bluegrass music will look at every last thing they are doing and try to figure out whether it works or not, whether it makes the music better or worse, whether it helps or hinders their performance, whether it deepens their relatioinship with the music or hinders it. What he does will be guided by the understanding he has worked to develop. A trend-follower is looking for a system which, if followed faithfully, will produce the desired results without any need to understand why it does. I am skeptical that any such system exists, for any human activity, and so I think trend-followers are dooming themselves to disappointment and frustration.

    Well, it’s obvious to me that I’ve hardly begun to think through the issues you’ve raised. Whether or not I should have written anything about them so early on, I’ll continue to think about them.

  3. Oh, I’m glad your blog came back! I saw that it was gone yesterday when I came here to reply, and was a little worried that you might have to rebuild it.

    I’ve just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your response. The point about embracing isolation is particularly interesting, and interesting in light of some advice that I’ve gotten from other sources.

    I confess I don’t read enough online news to notice business and journalism trends that much, but what you say is interesting. I have thought through the pursuing something for itself vs. pursuing it for the trappings, though, and what you say fits my own experience.

    If I think of more, I’ll write later, but I’ve saved your comment in a ring-binder that I go through from time to time when I’m thinking about these big picture issues.

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