Not to be elitist or deliberately “high brow,” but I feel like the analysis of pop culture phenomena has more than run its course in leftist circles. Or rather, being optimistic, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, to sift genuine insights from a sea of banalities. Perhaps the real criterion is time, seeing whether or not a given work or series stands up to revaluation after a few years. At least then, once philosophy’s painted its gray on gray, there’s some sense of balance and perspective. Did movie x or y truly capture something of the cultural Zeitgeist? Is it still relevant today? Hence the more quality reflections tend to arrive only after the fact, like Agata Pyzik’s “Mauer Dreamstory” (on Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film Possession) or Fredric Jameson’s “Realism and Utopia in The Wire“ (on the hit show by David Simon).
Writers for The New Inquiry and even Jacobin would do well to revisit an old essay by Harold Rosenberg on “kitsch criticism,” which examines that odd situation where a piece of writing or commentary comes to resemble the object it supposedly critiques: dull, ephemeral, and ultimately forgettable. Originally published in Dissent back in 1958, and later republished in Rosenberg’s influential collection The Tradition of the New, it observes that
[o]ne of the grotesqueries of present-day American life is the amount of reasoning that goes into displaying the wisdom secreted in bad movies while proving that modern art is meaningless. Yet it is nothing else than the intellectualization of kitsch.
Unlike his contemporary, Clement Greenberg, who would probably agree with him that endless inquiries into mass culture are a waste of time, Rosenberg did not think that kitsch could be eliminated by simply championing modern art. “There is no counterconcept to kitsch,” he maintained. “Its antagonist is not an idea but reality. To do away with kitsch it is necessary to change the landscape, as it was necessary to change the landscape of Sardinia in order to get rid of the malarial mosquito.” Neither by delicate demystification nor polemical annihilation can kitsch be removed.
So please, lay off the articles alternately declaring “Death to the Gamer” or standing “In Defense of Gamers,” or dreck about how Breaking Bad is somehow racist or the black family sitcom is in terminal decline. Lana Del Rey is cool, and I even like some of her songs, but dedicating a whole issue of a magazine to the Kulturkritik of her latest album just seems to me like theoretical overkill.
I say this as someone who appreciates many of the classic studies of film, television, and mass media conducted by Benjamin, Adorno, Barthes, and occasionally some even today. For their sake, if not for mine, knock it off.
Just a brief update, December 2016: For whatever reason, the amount of “criticism” written in this vein has only increased. Sam Kriss is a very talented writer, often an insightful critic. But his calls to “smash the force” (i.e., “[the latest Star Wars is] not just infantile bourgeois ultraleftism; it’s Blanquism in space”) and “resist Pokémon Go” (i.e., “this form [of game] demands a particular type of engagement, that of a vicious, sticky-fingered child”) fall flat. Kriss has done pop cultural critique quite well in the past, one need only look at his brilliant sendup of Hildebeast in “Just Plain Nasty” for proof of this fact. If you’re looking for a funny and unexpectedly compelling interpretation of Star Wars, check out “The Radicalization of Luke Skywalker: One Jedi’s Path to Jihad” instead.