While randomly poking around for things to write about (something I do a lot), I came across a very interesting column from the August 30, 2013 edition of A.V. Club that posed a particularly provocative (PP) question. Because I have devoted the past twenty–eight years to ruminating about pop culture, I couldn’t resist trying to answer the question: “If all of pop culture stopped for one year where there were no new movies, TV shows, comics, or albums released, what would you use the time to catch up on? To rewatch?”
Needless to say, most people would be hard pressed to imagine what it would mean to actually stop pop culture, accustomed as they are to experiencing pop culture as a constant torrent of information and stimulation. Setting aside the fact that most of this torrent is made up of pretty lame stuff, pop culture is the fuel that powers the modern world and the battery that gives voice to our dreams and visions, strange as they sometimes are. I often tell my students that, when all is said and done, there is nothing but pop culture–it’s like the water in which a goldfish swims. Just as the goldfish can’t imagine life outside the fishbowl, we can’t contextualize anything but pop culture. So to ask what might happen if the torrent of pop culture just stopped is like asking if all powerful being can move an immovable object (a favorite parlor game of medieval theologians).
The A.V. Club presents several comments from various subscribers who grapple with the question. Following is just a mere sampling. And please keep in mind as you read that, in the world of pop culture, 2013 is a very long time ago, making many of these references seem woefully outdated from our perspective four years later.
One respondent commented that if pop culture were to stand still, she could “finish one of the five, half-started issues of The New Yorker I have lying around”; this resonates with me because I have a New Yorker subscription and have yet to read even half of the many issues that are accumulating on my bedstand–I guess it’s enough to know I have a New Yorker handy at all times in case of a literary emergency. A very telling observation comes from Tasha Robinson, who says “There was a time when I would have used this time to get caught up on books, but these days I mostly feel like I’m missing out on TV,” an admission that TV is our modern form of literacy. A respite from pop culture “would do me good to spend a year getting out of my own head and listening to other people talk about the stuff I’m interested in,” admits another respondent. Of course, what would people talk about other than pop culture when they found themselves cut loose from it? When we’re not watching TV, we are talking about watching TV, and when we are not on Facebook, we are talking about being on Facebook.
I tend to agree with the person who admitted that “I’m surprised this is such a fantasy for so many people, because for me the idea is downright nightmarish.” And why is it nightmarish? Just think of how accustomed we are to a constant stream of movies, TV, music, and social media, and then imagine how hellish the absence of it would be. We would then be left with only the stuff we had already accumulated, which always seems positively ancient when nothing new is pouring in. To be fair, the question posed by the A.V. Club staff doesn’t mean pop culture would cease, but only cease to refresh itself. But I think you get the point.
The one thing that unites these comments is the realization that, even with a year’s cessation of new pop culture, we will never be able to consume all we have collected prior to that time. As Sonia Saraiya reminds us, “I’m getting stressed out just thinking about this question. And this doesn’t even touch the huge amounts of literature I haven’t read yet, or the films I want to see. The hardest thing to accept is that some things are just going to fall by the wayside, but I spend most of the time pretending I’ll be able to watch, see, and read it all during this magical year.” The point here is that are so immersed in pop culture that we will never be able, even in multiple lifetimes, to comprehend, much less absorb, even a miniscule portion of all this data. We are literally drowning in data with no life preserver in sight.
Some of the things respondents said they would try to do in their year would be to watch the entire Criterion Collection (a goal I share), “read Infinite Jest and Ulysses,” plow through the entire list of “every film on the American Film Institute Top 100,” “get caught up on all the media I’ve bought, but haven’t gotten around to finishing,” “watch the entire run of The Simpsons because I’ve only seen the monorail episode,” get through all the episodes of The Twilight Zone, “travel and absorb what other nations consider their culture, pop or otherwise,” and “listen to Bob Dylan’s complete discography.”
Perhaps the most perceptive of these many comments is one from Steve Heisler, who says that “if given this option, I would not do it. To me, the illusion of pop culture is that if I see more, or just the right thing, then somehow more of my life will suddenly have purpose not yet imaginable. But it’s just that: an illusion. There is no singular thing that can change the course of my history, not even multiple things,” so we are left to pick and choose those things that we perceive will add the most meaning (and diversion) to our all-too-brief lives.
Obviously, none of us have the power to turn off the faucet of pop culture, so we should sit back and enjoy the ride, realizing that there will never be enough time to take it all in. As for me, I am looking forward to the birth of my first granddaughter, Clara Lynn, who is scheduled to enter the pop culture mainstream in early August. And this event will be much better and more meaningful than catching up on all those Dick Van Dyke Show episodes I’ve been meaning to watch for several years. As Marvin Gaye so eloquently put it a long time ago, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.”
See you next week with more stuff from the ever-changing world of pop culture.