by JIM KNIPFEL
January 15, 2017
Back in the Eighties I argued—and quite cleverly I thought—that there was no such thing as an overarching beast we called “American Culture.” What we had instead by the very nature of the country was a landscape littered with endless unconnected subcultures. There were sports fans, religious zealots, political junkies, actual junkies, freemasons, metalheads, punks, club kids, RPGers, social activists, computer geeks, sci-fi geeks, movie geeks, barflies, video game fanatics, sexual fetishists, fitness nuts, gays, White Supremacists, cops, gangbangers, and on and on and on. Each subculture had its own codes of dress and behavior, its own language, its own heroes and villains and myths and icons, and each tended to be very wary of outsiders. What’s more, each of those subcultures was often broken down even further into smaller factions and tribes defined by specific teams or locales or styles within the larger framework of the subculture. It was simply the nature of our makeup that we would end up being so wildly splintered, but at least it kept things interesting.
Sure there was a good deal of crossover—junkie cops, punk RPGers, gay sports fans—but it seemed that when taking on the momentary identity of one subculture, all the other subcultures with which you were somehow identified were left in the background for a moment. Neglect to do that, and there could be trouble. Mention in passing your particular twisted fetish while talking Packers football at the bar, and look out. In that way, we all to one extent or another carried a number of personalities and secret identities around with us every day.
But all that was thirty years ago, and I no longer think it holds true. Thirty years ago there was no Internet, no Twitter, no Facebook, no smartphones, no trigger warnings or safe spaces. The country was speckled with little indie publishers and record labels, each catering to a different specific tribe. Homemade Xeroxed ‘zines were passed from hand to hand within the above-mentioned special interest factions, and no one had to know about it. Culture really could take place in secret back then, and we liked it that way.
When I was teaching back in 2009, I asked my students if there was any kind of viable underground art, music, or film scene left anymore. Being so out of touch myself I was genuinely curious, and figured since these were all art students in their early twenties, they would know better than anyone. The blank stares and weak shrugs that I got in response told me all I needed to know.
Yes yes yes the general thinking goes, the Internet is a grand democratizer, throwing open the gates for artists and writers and musicians and filmmakers and obsessives to post their work and ideas without having to worry about going through the regular channels and dealing with rejection from corporate stooges. If he was just getting started today, James Joyce likely wouldn’t be able to find a publisher and would have to release Ulysses as a Kindle edition, right? What’s more, the Internet makes it far easier to find like-minded people obsessed with, oh, early Sixties breakfast cereal commercials, allowing you all to form an online community to talk about them. It’s also much easier to spread the word about an event or new release with a single Facebook post than it is to spend a week wandering around town taping flyers to lampposts and hoping for the best. So there.
While all that’s true, the problem is that the Internet, when it comes to the arts, the news media, and the simple dissemination of information is more than anything a great leveler, and a corporate-controlled one at that. Despite the initial dreams and promises that the Web would be a free-for-all giving every last one of us an equal voice, Google now determines whether or not something you’ve posted will be included in a search result. Worse, when you post your latest comic strip or poem on Twitter or Facebook, you’re not only filling the pockets of the people who own FB and Twitter, you’re also laying yourself open to the drooling mob. Some sniveling sensitive type, for whatever insipid reason, takes offense at what you’ve created, you can forget all about healthy debate or the First Amendment. That cartoon or poem you worked so hard on could be yanked in a flash, and the vicious, boneheaded attacks upon you and your work spreading across social media could destroy you. More disheartening still—and this seems to be a major problem with the younger types—the pressure could force you to gear your vision to satisfy the dullards. Back in the days of real subcultures, while yes there were disagreements and fights leading to lingering bitterness, we at least spoke the same language and had the common sense to mind our own business, let others mind theirs, and understood the importance of insularity. We knew in many cases outsiders simply wouldn’t get it, and we didn’t give a fuck if they did or not.
Since entering the Internet age, all boundaries have dissolved, and secrecy went with it. I’m sorry, but I refuse to accept this as a good thing. Everything is public, everything is universal, anything that offends anyone for whatever reason vanishes. Everything gets safe and dumb, and the language continues to shrink. People think they have opinions because of what they’ve read on Breitbart or InfoWars or The Wall Street Journal site, but they don’t. Praise Donald Trump or threaten to assassinate him, attack immigrants, call for reforms to the Affordable Care Act, or demand protection for abortion rights, and it’s all the same, it all comes out of the same tired and dull pre-packaged box. Say something truly radical and insightful, and no one would see it. What’s more, they wouldn’t be able to comprehend it if they did, they’d dismiss it as gibberish, and they wouldn’t care. People only want to encounter things they already know and believe, and the rest is just stupid noise that should be quashed.
Of course that’s always been the case I suppose—look at the pre-Internet examples of Charles Manson and the Unabomber, both of whom were utterly destroyed in the media before anyone had a chance to hear anything they had to say. After that it was too late. Nowadays that power to pre-empt anything honestly unique has only been amplified, and the perpetrators more often than not aren’t evil corporate entities, but a public which has been willingly duped into believing what they’re told, in turn becoming their own cultural gestapo. As a result, a bland sameness has crept into everything. The actors all look and sound alike, the movies are all retreads and rehashes and sequels, the music has all been run through the same digital crap, and literature takes the form of celebrity tell-alls. Everything’s been co-opted and mainstreamed, with fetishists and White Supremacists and drug addicts getting their own reality shows. We all see the same miniseries on cable and think we’re unique and special for knowing about them. “Geek” has become a profitable marketing demographic. We all hear the same songs and read the same news whatever site we happen to choose, and in the end we all see the same world and think the same way.
So yeah, I guess this was the dream for the multiculturalists, right? We really do at long last have a singular, overarching American—even Global—Culture that feeds and defines each and every one of us, and it’s pretty fucking awful.
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