Saturday, May 12, 2018

contra a piece at WaPo about "the crumbling of the monoculture" in reference to the dinosaurs of rock, the monoculture isn't crumbling at all. The shelf-life of individual things and the shelf they sit on are not the same

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Mercifully, Hyden’s affection for vinyl and rock documentaries does not mean he’s a cultural reactionary. “The old classic-rock myth about the white-male superman who pursues truth via decadence and virtuosic displays of musicianship has run its course,” he writes. “The time has come for new legends about different kinds of heroes.” He even nominates a few, such as Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, transgender musician Laura Jane Grace and recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar.
 
The crumbling of the monoculture means that you probably won’t ever have to squint to make out any of these artists from the other side of a football stadium, but that’s a good thing. Hyden’s warm and witty scholarship is, too.
 
Call it the inevitable outcome of reading books by Adorno but ...
 
I would venture to say that it's not even remotely true to declare that the crumbling of the monoculture means we won't make out any of the old rock stars from the other side of a football stadium.  The reason is because the monoculture may change but the presence or absence of this or that can of goods on the topmost, most visible shelf is not the same thing as there being no shelf.  The monoculture can be thought of as the shelf on which the dinosaurs of rock have up until recently been on the top shelf of.  The monoculture is not the cans of goods at the top, middle or bottom of the shelf that can be thought of as the culture industry.  If the Eagles and Madonna and the Beatles are top shelf and Mariah Carey is bottom shelf that's irrelevant to the shelf itself.  Thirty years ago "everybody" would do cultural criticism with reference to The Simpsons as cartoons geared toward adult audiences would go.  Now it's more likely to be Archer or Rick and Morty or Bojack Horseman.  but until the core of the industry changes the monoculture (what Adorno and company would have included in "the culture industry") won't change at its heart, just its costuming.
 
That still doesn't mean folks in the Frankfurt school were all that on the mark anticipating that Eisenhower could be the next Hitler.  When folks at The New Yorker write about how the Frankfurt school saw Trump coming that's generously reading back a whole lot of foresight on to the Frankfurt school authors I don't think they had and doing so in the wrong direction.  I read Grand Hotel Abyss, okay, so I can remember the part where Adorno was worried that the nascent "new left" was just as totalitarian in its aims and means as he thought the fascists and national socialists were. 
 
But a term like "monoculture" has a clear, if limited use, as something that articulates what Adorno and company called "the culture industry".  The caveat there is that I think the best way to understand what the culture industry is is to see it as encompassing not just the "pop" but also the academic scene in American culture.  Academics are in serious danger of seeing themselves as the solution to a problem they may not realize they are a substantial part of.  I also don't believe that battles between "poptimists" and "rockists" will do anything significant to change the monoculture or the culture industry as overlapping circles in the Venn diagram of where we are at. 
 
As long as the shelf is still there (and it will probably always be there) whether the can says "Beatles" or "Madonna" or "Kendrick Lamar" is in key respects irrelevant even if we can all have reasons to be happy or sad that this or that artist is on the proverbial top shelf.  That Beethoven hasn't been on the top shelf for most people doesn't mean his late piano sonatas or string quartets don't have beauty to them.  It also doesn't mean that the beauty of those works is somehow discarded because they no longer have "top shelf" status for a majority of people any more than that hip hop dominates the music market means hip hop has become "great" because of that market dominance.  It doesn't mean that the whole genre is "bad".  This does highlight a withering remark Richard Taruskin made about the Adorno school of thought about the "culture industry", that it's never been as monolithic as Adorno or his fans have made it out to be and that it has been that lambast culture industry within which minorities have managed to find a voice.  Adorno, were he alive, might argue that's precisely what the culture industry is good at manufacturing, the illusion of cultural participation so long as a profit can be made, but Taruskin's point can still stand.  The polemics of an Adorno and a Taruskin about what can be called monoculture or the culture industry are mutually correcting polemics.  To go "all in" for one or the other is to be ... as a Marxist axiom has it, insufficiently dialectical.  ;)
 

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