Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Symbolic Capture

Noel Murray:

I get annoyed whenever anyone slaps a label on something and then presumes that the label itself says all that needs to be said. Whenever a critic or a potential audience member sniffs about “dad rock” or “chick lit” or “one for the fanboys,” it raises my hackles. If you’d rather not engage with what a piece of art actually is—as in, what it expresses and how well it is expresses it—then fine. But don’t presume some kind of superiority because of that choice. One of the biggest fallacies in the way we talk about art is this idea that somehow personal taste equates to quality: That each of us miraculously only enjoys movies and music that are the best of their respective medium, and ergo, any movies and music we don’t enjoy must be terrible. It’s a standard we generally only apply to art. (Well, and politics.) If we dislike salmon, we don’t presume salmon itself to be bad; we just understand we don’t have a taste for it, and we’re generally willing to acknowledge that if prepared properly, we might even be capable of enjoying the occasional piece of salmon. It’s not that degrees of “good” and “bad” don’t exist, but ultimately our taste in art isn’t so different from our taste in food, in that it’s personal, and—if we’re being honest with ourselves—fairly malleable.

I heard the phrase "symbolic capture" used recently in a similar context—the tendency to reduce a person, a work of art, a movement to some generic characteristic for the purpose of belittling and dismissing it straightaway without seriously engaging. Anyway, I'm not sure food preference is quite the contrast he thinks it is; there are plenty of foodie snobs who look down on people in a moralizing way for an unsophisticated palate. And getting back to the article's theme of using "white" as a derogatory term, let us not forget white bread, offensive to the cognoscenti on both the literal and symbolic level.

Moralizing insinuates itself into practically everything we do. If we're elevating personal taste into a standard for objective quality, it's only so that we can enjoy lording our superiority-by-association over those unfortunate outsiders. The point isn't to establish that a certain style of music or film is objectively better, it's to imply that I am a better person than you for appreciating it. But sometimes it's the fact that a certain style of art doesn't conform to accepted standards of quality that gives it its cachet. There is plenty of music for which the near-unlistenability is the entire point. Fans identify with it for the pleasure of haughtily differentiating themselves from anything even remotely mainstream.

It all reminds me of something Freddie deBoer wrote:

Contemporary strivers lack the tools with which people in the past have differentiated themselves from their peers: They live in a post-virtue, post-religion, post-aristocracy age. They lack the skills or inspiration to create something of genuine worth. They have been conditioned to find all but the most conventional and compromised politics worthy of contempt. They are denied even the cold comfort of identification with career, as they cope with the deadening tedium and meaninglessness of work by calling attention to it over and over again, as if acknowledging it somehow elevates them above it.

Into this vacuum comes a relief that is profoundly rational in context—the self as consumer and critic. Given the emptiness of the material conditions of their lives, the formerly manic competitors must come to invest the cultural goods they consume with great meaning. Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value.

These cultural products have no quantifiable value, yet their relative value is fiercely debated as if some such quantifiable understanding could be reached. They are easily mined for ancillary content, the TV recaps and record reviews and endless fulminating in comments and forums that spread like weeds. (Does anyone who watches Mad Men not blog about it?) They are bound up with celebrity, both real and petty. They can inspire and so trick us into believing that our reactions are similarly worthy of inspiration. And they are complex and varied enough that there is always more to know and more rarefied territory to reach, the better to climb the ladder one rung higher than the person the next desk over.