My generation has a lot of inside jokes that our parents don't get because they're based on pop culture. My dad wouldn't understand brains4zombies.com. He hasn't used Amazon enough to get the joke. I don't get a lot of cultural references, since I'm not very familiar with pop culture.
At the beginning of the semester, I cracked Lord of the Rings jokes in class, knowing that students would laugh, having seen the movies. I even used a Simpsons metaphor at one point, even though I've seen only five or six episodes at most. My prof was completely oblivious to either connection. (this may be a very good thing)
It seems to me that pop culture and parody are a huge part of discourse in my generation. Pop culture (or homework) seems to be the basis of much conversation among people at college. Is this because pop culture is national, and thus the only thing that connects us? In the past, people would argue at the pub about politics and writers (or at least, that is what historians tell us). Now we argue about American Idol? Do we choose the trivial because it has a better chance of bringing us together, less chance of causing a meaningful disagreement?
What's wrong with meaningful disagreements? Don't they hone our ideas and bring us closer to a more complete, more thoughtful way of viewing the world? Friends from England say that massive disagreements among friends are cool, that people can argue their brains into a puff of angry steam, and still visit the pub together, smile when they pass each other.
We can't. Not in the U.S., at least not many of us. We value our ideas more than they do, perhaps. We make our ideas such an important part of us that we feel emotionally hurt when someone disagrees. And this isn't bad. If we believe something, maybe it's worth believing strongly. But we have to be willing to talk about our ideas and gain constructive criticism.
But what has happened to those strong beliefs? We most likely still hold some beliefs that hold close to our heart, but instead of bringing them out, discussing them, and developing them, we talk about the pop star.
College is notorious for perpetuating this kind of thing. In some classes, at some colleges, when a friend mentions that he doesn't agree with a particular idea, he is told that he is free to disagree, but (in so many words) that he should shut up and keep it to himself, since the purpose of the class is to learn a set of bullet points about the idea. This is why I'm glad I'm an English literature student at the school I attend. Everyone's ideas are honestly considered.
Outside class, we talk about a movies, performers, technology. We chat about things that really don't matter. Things that we know really don't matter, but things we can safely argue about and still be friends.
Academic studies would seem to be the perfect tool to escape this kind of shallowness. It at least carries with it the tempting idea that it can help us escape to a meta-level of life, a space where we can see and analyze life more clearly. The knowledge gained (it is subtly implied) is the power to understand and choose. Involved discussion is an important tool of learning.
But academic studies themselves are not completely objective. In our attempt to avoid severe argument, we perpetuate the clichés, the carved-out bubbles of ideology that live in the academy.
But even if it were objective, why would such discourse be useful? Why should I learn how a car works, if no-one can give me the tools to fix it, or at least tell me that I don't need a car to get to work and hand me a bicycle?
By taking a picture, we distance ourselves from a situation. We can look at holocaust photos and cry. We can say, "it was wrong." But we don't have to do anything, since it is far away in time. We do the same thing with distance and let the academic hallways direct our action.
It's good to take something apart and analyze its inner workings. But it is better, after you have analyzed, to propose and take a course of action. This is hard. This makes you vulnerable. It involves argument (of the best sort), since you need rationale, goals, and a plan of action. Others may disagree. They might debate with you.
Is this such a bad thing?
Why would a whole class of people decide to be mere observers?
I suppose it's not too odd, that having been given the tools with which to analyze things, we analyze things that are safely meaningless or analyze meaningful things from a distance. Why does an international studies program go to Dubai to understand poverty and education in the developing world?
So we do the safe things. We joke about pop culture. We watch the movie anyway, just so we can pick it apart. Rather than actually doing anything about society, we sit in our bubble, and look through concave walls at the world, enjoying the fact that we see something different. And we see conformism. And they look at our little bubble, and they see conformism.
Are all of us, in a small way, encouraged in our conformism by the smug knowledge that we're not conforming like them? And thus we stay safe.
I think this connection-through-popculture is a result of two things. First, mass, global communication gives us pervasive national culture. Second, mass transit influences us to know more people at a lesser level. Most of our relationships are always at the first impressions level, when everything is so sensitive. It's safer to talk about pop culture, because we know it doesn't matter. We get the brains4zombies joke, we make Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson jokes, we look at homestarrunner, and say "All Your Base", but culture moves on too quickly. In the time it takes to make the joke, it's old. When Amazon.com changes their design, brains4zombies will cease to be relevant. What will we do then? Move on? No. We will reminisce.
Before pop culture (there was a time!), before we needed to regularly small-talk with people from across the globe, we related to people spatially. If you were my neighbor for 20 years, we knew each other. We developed relationships. We could argue violently, and we had to make up, because there was nobody else. We knew each other for decades, so we knew better than to bristle at some fun conversation. We couldn't just walk away.
Isn't it odd that when meeting someine, in an act central to asserting your individuality, they often ask you what your favorite music or movie is?
What happened to religion, or philosophy, the crops, methods of the trade, or family relationships? Why do I feel happy or sad when I find out that a friend likes action movies instead of country music? Why don't I even know the religion of most people?
This all has a lot to do with the culturally-pervading permutation of pluralism in our time. It's an effect of our willingness to placate each other, and yet for some it seems to be the mark of educated, advanced thinking.
Jumbled thoughts today, because I don't fully understand the issues myself.