Let me begin with a confession. I spent almost a half century producing pop culture, mostly for television. This admission is an act of penance but also suggests a degree of generational responsibility. Maybe a half century in the entertainment industry isn’t sufficient for a full understanding, but I observed enough at least to be called as a witness. I want to offer some observations based on personal experience as to what pop culture means and its long-lasting effects.
I will dispense with my long-honed theatrical skills and blow the ending of my story up front. The key to understanding modernity and its ultimate demise lies in the many failed efforts to find replacements for religious faith. These efforts included creating identities based on nationality, class, and race as well as utopian ideologies. But it was the mass media fostering a “pop culture” that was the most influential and powerful substitute for a meaningful worldview. It remains perhaps the last idol still standing.
And, as with all idols, it’s a phony.
I am impressed by the many brilliant analyses of Hamlet, Odysseus, and Huckleberry Finn, particularly considering that they are fictional characters. They were fascinating but never existed. Similarly, I’m impressed with equally insightful studies of American popular culture, because it, too, never existed. Popular culture was never popular nor a culture.
I admit to being semantically arbitrary if not contrarian, just as the many analysts who deemed commercial products to be works of art. I submit that my linguistic perversity is more benign. I also confess to little or no objectivity. I am offering an indictment of the pop culture offered in the American marketplace.
I am not addressing popular literature; I don’t even know what that means. Nor am I judging the practitioners of it, for whom I have considerable respect and sympathy. It is the system that I put in the dock.
So let’s examine the terms. “Popular” suggests something enjoyed by, if not derived from, ordinary people themselves. This stands in contrast to classical or high culture and implies less stringent standards of judgment. So far, so good. There is no doubt that mass media products were enjoyed by millions and still are. So when I claim that pop culture isn’t genuinely popular, I mean only that it is not derived from the natural or organic way of life of a people. It is a synthetic industrial product. Nor can “popular” be justified by mere scale and quantity. Plagues are vast, and heroin isn’t as popular as it is addictive. Pop culture is so immense that it is hard to evade or escape, and I concede that it has some common appeal. It satisfies a large consumer appetite.
The word culture is even more troublesome and elusive. In 1946, T. S. Eliot opined that the word culture was so equivocal that anyone using it should be required not just to define it but to offer a concrete example.
Dictionaries typically define culture as a common way of life based on enduring relationships usually rooted in some definable place. A culture produces habits, customs, rituals, and works of art, yet is more than its parts. Culture implies a way of life with shared values and a vocabulary to express them.
By this definition, pop culture is by no means a genuine culture. It is a pseudo-culture at best, and as such constitutes a deprivation of genuine values. To illustrate this, consider two serious consequences of pop culture: the emergence of a distinct “media consciousness” and the subsequent loss of cultural memory.
A culture is preserved and largely defined by shared memory, something that requires a sense of generational obligation. But that’s what pop culture undermines. Cultural memory is precious in a period of radical discontinuity, and its loss is significant. What does it mean for Americans to suffer from cultural amnesia and something akin to a memory-erasing stroke?
My adult memory begins in the 1950s, an era marked by its own illusions and now obscured by later myths. Our generation was dubbed “silent,” which is largely true but misleading. The noisy rebellion of the sixties was already fermenting in the fifties, and astute observers such as David Riesman, Octavio Paz, and others were articulating prophetic warnings about a growing alienation.
The brief postwar bubble of relief and optimism was immediately countered by the first signs of this youthful restlessness—personified by the Beats, the “cool ones,” and a variety of self-proclaimed rebels in literature and on the screen. The sexual revolution was underway, and an epidemic of heroin addiction was spreading.
Observers across the political spectrum were sounding the tocsin of what was to become in time a “culture war.” In 1953, the influential left-wing critic Dwight MacDonald warned that popular culture was an “opiate” being fostered to protect the capitalist order. By 1960, conservatives such as Henry Luce saw the nation as culturally adrift. It would be just as accurate to see the tumultuous sixties as an end, a culmination of discontent, as to consider them a beginning.
The earlier generation of intellectuals who witnessed the “Second Thirty-Years’ War” of 1914–1945 had grasped that this devastation signaled nothing less than the end of the modern world. Romano Guardini wrote his masterly work of that title in 1950. Others such as Benda, Ortega y Gasset, and Eliot provided a tragic perspective that Americans in particular found unpalatable. In contrast, American liberals maintained a cautiously optimistic pragmatism at the start of the half-century-long Cold War.
One of the most deleterious effects of pop culture was the loss of generational relationships and thus shared beliefs. Cultural memory suggests a continuity of meaning, goals, and criteria for evaluation. Pop culture offers confected experiences designed to meet the present demand. It accepts no responsibility for the past, which it uses to get a laugh or evoke a tear, but does not venerate. The loss of this memory has resulted in a loss of external authority and credibility; even the desire for such authority has gone largely missing. This has eroded the basic beliefs that give substance to our lives and future continuity.
The emerging cultural vacuum produced not just increasingly arbitrary standards for art, morality, and simply civil behavior, but an abuse of language that obscured these losses. By arbitrarily redefining terms such as culture, community, morality—and, in time, family and marriage—Americans have maintained an illusion of continuity and deceived themselves by denying the reality and consequences of these deprivations.
It is the mass media, however, that I believe was the most crucial cultural dissolvent and, hence, is the subject of my indictment and repentance.
I will offer a personal anecdote to support my contention that pop culture either ignores reality or distorts it. In the mid-sixties, I was standing next to Mario Savio, the eloquent leader of the student rebels at UC Berkeley, as he gave a passionate address to a large crowd. I was taking notes. At the time I was the youngest screenwriter at Columbia Pictures. The studio had dispatched me there in the hope of finding a movie in all this, something to sell to the growing youth market.
In the end, I submitted several story ideas, but they were all shot down by the front office. They had hoped to find a new version of old “college” movies; what they wanted was a musical. I trust that you won’t think I made this up; I don’t have that rich of an imagination.
What we see on television is television,” wrote Pauline Kael. Beyond my firsthand experience, I can offer the perspective of the last generation not raised on television. I didn’t even own a TV until I was married and starting a family. I then worked primarily in TV for more than thirty years, but anyone who knows the business knows that producing TV leaves no time for viewing it.
In other words, I wasn’t shaped by TV or the sixties’ counterculture, nor by the pushback of the eighties. I was already “detached” by profession and disposition.
Many of the cultural critics of the seventies were also unformed by mass media and could see its ongoing effects. Some, such as Christopher Lasch, predicted the increase in narcissism and fragmentation that so quickly became evident. By the 1970s, viewers of media, if discomforted, could arrange their own reality. Our ability to create our own self-images coincides with the dominance of entertainment on an unprecedented scale, most of it visual. If observers such as Riesman, Arendt, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Lasch, and Postman are even half-right, then the perception of a concrete and objective reality has been diminished, not enhanced.
What I mean by “media consciousness” is a mind-set and orientation toward reality that is less induced by the content of the mass media than by the nature of its modes of perception, that is, by the very nature of the medium, how we use it and how it uses us.
Let me elucidate. The defining characteristics of media consciousness include a loss or insufficiency of context. We get a fragmentation of time and space and, ultimately, awareness, and an increase in anxiety. Media consciousness doesn’t offer a moral perspective but serves as a substitute for one.
At the end of the seventies, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre concluded that what passed for public morality in contemporary America was a form of emotivism, a judgment based almost solely on deep emotion. This subjectivity, however, is often disguised by the use or misuse of traditional language and moral categories.
Emotion is, of course, the chief product of the mass media. Whether comedy, quiz shows, sports, or breaking news, what is sold is raw emotion. Even commercials have thunderous soundtracks. The fact that we are all inured to it by years of exposure doesn’t mean that the emotional conditioning is lessened. Again, we were warned. Hannah Arendt had observed in the fifties that no genuine culture could survive for long if subsumed into the marketplace, which degrades all works into commodities with price tags, including art and people. In the media market, emotion became a packaged product.
Finally, yet equally as definitive, pop culture provides endless conflicts, whether soap operas or news stories. They invariably seek resolutions and an attempt at catharsis based on scapegoating, that is, the blaming of others for our own limits and defects. This is not unique to pop culture but is essential to it.
We are awash in entertainment, which loses its appeal if it becomes complicated by too many particulars or confounding contexts. Analysis is not just boring; it is fatal to entertainment. Our current society, including its politics, is indecipherable if we fail to see this.
I know that there are more reasonable and benign interpretations of mass media and its effects than mine. Yet one needn’t exaggerate its liabilities to recognize its enormous worldwide scale and influence. Even if the disease isn’t fatal, it is highly contagious.
I’m sure you’ve been waiting for some good news in the midst of this gloomy jeremiad. There is some. The era of mass media dominance may be closing. We have been too close to events, perhaps, to see that something ended in the nineties. The eighties saw failures to restore past values in America, Europe, and Russia, yet there was a beginning of something new, if nothing else than a more profound and perhaps liberating disillusionment.
At the same time, the mass of consumers has become more fragmented. Movies increasingly serve a niche audience. The most widely watched TV show has a share of the total audience so small that in my day, it would have been cancelled in thirteen weeks. I sense at least the possibility of a new freedom—a freedom born of necessity. The secularists who have promoted personal choice as the ultimate good are now stuck with it. We must all now embrace a “choice” of how to live our lives.
As Catholics, we must always begin with repentance. St. Paul instructs us, “You are witnesses to these things.” None of us is off the hook. We must be patient in whatever path we follow. Eliot, in considering the possible loss of culture, reminded us that we cannot “build a tree.” We can only plant and nurture it. We lost our culture by losing our most basic social and personal relationships, and the planting must start there. So as the novelist E. M. Forster, also contemplating the coming devastation, once suggested, in the face of all this “we must remain human.”
Catholics know how to stay human because we have models, Son and Mother, to guide us, and we are assured that there is always a Light coming out of darkness.
Ron Austin is a veteran Hollywood writer-producer, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a fellow at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley.