There must be something so accessible and identifiable with popular culture that makes it popular. For so many people to engage in it as to make a dent in society at large, popular culture must appeal to our desires, it must scratch our itchy instincts. The reality talent shows, the huge fast food chains, the cheap art, the mass-produced furniture, the annual celebrations, the malls, the music constantly replayed in the radio, the general expectations of people from you, are just a clue to the whole picture. In our constant engagement with popular culture, one must pause for a second and ask what’s underneath it all. The question may be prompted because we’re tired of the rituals, or we don’t agree with social rules, or we dislike the powers that strongly dictate and influence our actions, or we feel that our freedom is being stifled, or that our choices are being limited, or that our behavior is being controlled. Thus to question popular culture is to question our ambivalent nature as autonomous and social beings; both characteristics constantly confronting and acting on each other.
There are varied ways to tackle popular culture. The manner I chose for this exercise came to me upon learning that a 23-year-old female classmate of mine in an IT class, who I shall call Sabrina, does not watch TV. A lunch discussion on Piolo Pascual and Supreme Court judge Corona confirmed it. And so I raised my brow and asked, “Do you think you’re missing out on a lot by not watching TV?” To which she offhandedly replied, “No”, as if she couldn’t care less about those people, and she couldn’t care less about people thinking that she’s missing out on a lot.
Upon introspection, that small exchange exhibited several assumptions about popular culture and multimedia: constructed identity, reality, and consciousness which are all too familiar in the social study of mediated communication. Where does the pull of popular culture come from? Is it from the feeling of inclusion, validation and valuation we get in knowing that the media texts we consume, create, and participate in are also shared by most other people? If the power of popular culture comes from the consumption, adaptation, re-packaging and internalization of its artifacts by the majority, so that our knowledge and values are defined by them, will the proliferation of Sabrina’s kind in the near future mean the decline of this power?
There is more to Sabrina than meets the eye. She confesses she’s gender-queer. She hates labels. She does not see the need for religion, despite having been dragged by her parents to church in her childhood. Her Tumbler page says “100% geek”. The anti-mainstream choices of this young lady are a stark contrast to the tendencies of most young people today. Contrariwise, if she’s a rare occurrence, then the future is safe, as far as the controlling agencies of popular culture are concerned. But then, she and the rest of the society today share one significant characteristic: we spend a significant amount of time online. If Sabrina’s attitudes are an effect of the multimedia society, then it is worth speculating that her case, although quite rare at this point, is a peek into the future.
A Function of Popular Culture
If culture is the totality of ideologies, norms and truths that a society constructs to identify itself, then popular culture, being a part of culture, is the conflict-ridden area where the culture’s identity is ironed out. It is the grey space of chaotic and tense energy reflecting the people’s collective conflict resolution, the aftermath of which is the settlement of artifacts that get assimilated and accepted into the culture.
The conflict arises from the arrival of foreign influences, the mainstreaming of previously neglected artifacts, or the people’s changing attitudes towards the hegemony. This struggle for power may easily look self-destructive, but it is actually the modern society’s mechanism to cope with a world of ever expanding population with diminishing resources. Popular culture is a function of a modern society that tries to sustain itself by attacking its massive needs through massive means.
The dominating forces direct the public’s behavior to maintain the stabilizing structures that those in power provide. A coherent and well-defined identity for the culture is one such stabilizing factor. The identity is very important because it is the reference point where the people’s tastes and behavior spring from. A group of people that knows itself results to harmonious, predictable co-existence, a common reality, providing a means for manageable direction of its progress. Thus an important homeostatic function of popular culture is the culture’s identity resolution.
Multimedia Causing Popular Culture’s Decline
With the industrial society’s transformation into and assimilation with the information age, particularly the transformation of mediated communication from mass to individualized and interactive media, the control of messages that build cultural identity has become more fluid, less manageable. As if the dangers of a highly mediated society have not been speculated enough, the proposition here adds that the variety, richness, entrancing interactivity of new media will cause the decline of popular culture’s controlled progression of society so that the ultramodern world will end up being more fragmented and randomized. This speculation is explained by taking inspiration from the radical inclinations of the subject, Sabrina, representing the evolving attitudes of modern life, vis-à-vis the key characteristics of multimedia:
Interactivity: Venting Out
Popular culture is where domination and subjection are manifested. Traditional one-way mass media has suppressed the people’s individual voices. The limited wiggle room for reaction consists of submission, aversion or subversion. In any case, the dominant power is reinforced and still becomes ingrained to the people’s consciousness. But with the far-reaching and highly networked mode of self-expression in new media, we can profoundly act out our reactions, expound on them, and defend them. The once repressed voices and locked out repressions come to the surface to be directly addressed in any manner we so choose: artistically, directly, violently, by parody, by imitation. The manner of expression itself is as relieving as the intended message.
Autonomy: Alternative Freedom
The real world can only do so much to offer us freedom. Where we go, what we do are only as varied as the platform laid out by those in power, subject to the constraints they impose. Multimedia provides an extended reality that compensates for some constraints of the real world. The “me” attitude arises from the normalized business of navigating media texts according to one’s own desires, wants, and needs. The orientation of media to the self fulfills such a fundamental drive that the alternate virtual space of freedom becomes the primary reality, because here the limits imposed on us by popular culture can easily be shunned.
Self-Centeredness: Devaluation of Conformity
One of popular culture’s biggest conflicts is the dilemma of conformity versus uniqueness. In new media, this conflict is resolved by the transmutation of every action as a reflection of true autonomy, contrary to the pseudo-autonomy of the conditions prior. This is the long-term effect of the expressive mechanisms of venting out. If then, the reactions to the formative influences of popular culture revolved around them; today the reactions become just autonomous actions, as a result of re-orientation towards the self. The influencing power of the dominating forces is thus effectively dissolved, so that conformity or opposition to it is not actively sought, and that any incidental conformity is meaningless.
Variety: Fueling Individualism
The success of individualism is also fueled by the variety of choices that depart from the limited offerings of popular culture. The valuation obtained from the mediated interactivity becomes more satiating than the one-way broadcasts of mass media, to scratch the quirkiest of desires, even if the reciprocating members are just a handful. On the contrary, it is the exclusivity of small numbers that increases the perceived self-valuation. When the threshold of specialness is breached, its members are quick to create new mutations, just to preserve the exclusivity. The aftermath is exponential permutations of variety, drastically eclipsing the common reference points laid out by popular culture.
Ubiquity: Detachment to Popular Culture
Affordable infrastructure and more efficient communication technology have made new media commonplace. The site of conflict resolution has expanded greatly such that the scope of culture from the center to the outskirts has also become the scope of popular culture, decentralizing it, diminishing its transformative impact.
New media’s ubiquity makes the dissemination of mainstreamed messages quick and highly volatile that they get stale so easily. Whereas the customized messages that people create for themselves become easily accessible, reinforcing the simulation of their constructed reality, and simultaneously overshadowing the reality that popular culture tries to impose by rendering its messages insignificant. And since almost everyone with connectivity can become active agents of this and the above processes, the culminating effect is the stripping of popular culture’s influence.
Popular culture is the manifestation of a living society’s dynamic progression. It serves as the strain that slows down the changes so that the structures that keep society stable are able to slowly integrate those changes into a stable, newer evolved society. Multimedia, however, serves as the catalyst that speeds up this process so that the self-organizing functions of culture cannot keep up. Like the accelerated heating of water and sugar, multimedia is the fuel that results to a brittle inconsistent concoction, instead of a smooth syrup. Hyper-reality, pluralism, fluidity, and disparity are only few of modern society’s characteristics fueled by multimedia. The indefinable, detached, anti-mainstream character of Sabrina is a manifestation. Thus it is understandable and to be expected that her kind will spring up and will characterize the future citizens.
Fragmentation is not necessarily a bad phenomenon. The decline of popular culture may simply mean that the homeostatic process of the current popular culture is not sufficient anymore in driving society homogeneously and moving it forward to more advanced states. The new technologies, changing attitudes, and new social order are forcing society to evolve. It may be that the empowerment of individuals will be the next organizing principle of a highly dynamic world. As a living organism, human society has never failed to ensure its survival ever since the first humans first walked on the planet and learned the value of socialization. We can just trust in society’s ability to sustain itself.