Picking through the Trash

How to Cite

Laba, M. (1999). Picking through the Trash. M/C Journal, 2(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1758
Vol. 2 No. 4 (1999): Pop
Published 1999-06-01

In a recent "Arts & Leisure" feature in a national Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail (5 June 1999), music critic Robert Everett-Green muses on the invention by the pop music industry of Andrea Bocelli as an opera singer: "call him an airborne virus or a gift from God ... . He is the voice you are most likely to hear while waiting for a double latte." The pop sentimentality industry fast-tracked Bocelli (a pop singer who "sounds" operatic) and created a global entertainment product. In a masterful stroke of high pop spectacle, the holy trinity of musical melodrama joined together -- Bocelli and Céline Dion gush out David Foster's "The Prayer", the theme for the movie Quest for Camelot -- to create an exquisite pop moment. The massive reach of the mainstream; the resonant power of vocal turgidity and excess; the pop diva who never met a song she couldn't oversing -- this is the pop often neglected in critical forays into the nature of the popular that search for the active and the participatory dimensions of popular culture. Yet pop both plunders and perpetuates popular culture; it contains and dramatises the social possibilities of popular culture, and at the same time, spreads out like a great theme park of trivia. Let's pick through the trash.

If nothing else, the contemplation of the "question" of pop is an enterprise which often begins with the issue of redemption for popular culture. Even the cultural populist wrestles with the anxiety that much of what we understand as "pop" in culture constitutes the detritus, the ephemera, a repository of the trivialities of society in all of its contemporary moments. The best critical insights into the nature and substance of popular culture (studies in cultural geography and perspectives on history and collective memory, for examples), recognise that what they are considering, describing, and analysing in the spaces and experiences of the popular is at the very least deeply and irrevocably contradictory. The cool, renegade, and enormously creative cultural excursions and general messing about of turntablism and drum'n'bass, for examples, are democratic, active, even "heroic" by some critical discourses, where, say, the maudlin "pop diva" is forgettable at best, and unworthy of an analytical encounter at worst.

There is a haziness to the concept of "pop", and more broadly, "popular", and the definitional defiance among the numerous and varied theorists of this energetic practice and/or genre of cultural form and production produces a rather decentred, if not indeterminate object of study. Bill Readings's critique of Cultural Studies offers the relevance of analogy here. Readings notes the "second moment" in the progress of Cultural Studies (around 1990), and the publication of a number of works at the time "that seem to mark the acquisition of professional disciplinarity of Cultural Studies". His excavation of these works reveals a characteristic theoretical element or two -- the suspicion of "the exclusionary force of certain boundaries: female/male, north/south, center/margin, high culture/low culture, western/other, heterosexual/homosexual" (97) -- and some of the authoritative antecedents of these theories against exclusion (Williams, Foucault, Gramsci, Hall, and others). Yet he notes that the striking characteristic of Cultural Studies is the thinness or even absence of theoretical definition or specificity -- "how little it needs to determine its object. Which does not mean that a lot of theorising doesn't go on in its name, only that such efforts are not undertaken in a way that secures the relation of an observer to a determinate set of phenomena or an autonomous object" (97). There is then, a frustration in providing an account of what it means to "do" Cultural Studies, or, more glaringly, what exactly the promised political interventions of Cultural Studies are in the context of hazy objects, floating themes, and sketchy "projects", all of which are products of the declared refusal by Cultural Studies to submit to definitional constraints.

Pop suffers from a similar indeterminacy in its object of study, but interestingly because its tends to be over-defined rather than under-defined. Figuring out the object of study in pop is not unlike attempting to parse the object(s) of study in Cultural Studies -- a frustration ultimately, but for very different reasons. Pop is a universe of "anything and everything", and incomprehensible not because it is conceptually challenging (like a universe), but because its geography stretches across so much cultural space. In critiques, pop takes on the torque of the critic, a necessary strategy to somehow delimit its space, and make it graspable, if not meaningful. Encounters with pop (as in "pop art" and "PoMo pop") mine for signs of life among the trash, and have come up with a heartbeat or two on occasion. This geography of trash is in need of some attention.

For conceptual guidance in this task, or at least for some respite from the arguments about the "projects" and "interventions" of pop and popular culture, I turn to Don DeLillo's seminal critique of media, consumerism, and the bizarre dislocations and bewildering drift of contemporary social life in his 1985 novel, White Noise (a book that should be required reading for undergraduate courses in media and communication). Murray Jay Suskind, an ex-sports writer and émigré from New York City has come to University-on-the-Hill in Blacksmith, somewhere in middle America, and has assumed his position as visiting lecturer in the Department of American Environments. He becomes a kind of participant-observer and quasi-family member in the household of Jack Gladney, the narrator of the novel and Chairman of the Department of Hitler Studies at the university -- a field he invented in 1968. Murray expresses his desire to establish an "Elvis Presley power base in the department of American Environments", to "do for Elvis" what Jack has "done for Hitler". Murray is engaged in a debate with his students on the true substance and significance of television, and the media-saturated Gladney household serves as a laboratory. Murray argues that the medium is a "primal force in the American home ... a myth being born right there in our living room". Murray elaborates in a conversation with Jack:

You have to learn to look. You have to open yourself to the data. TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data. It opens up ancient memories of world birth, its welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture pattern. There is light, there is sound. I ask my students, "What more do you want? Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of the darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. 'Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.' The medium practically overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently and get past our irritation, weariness and disgust. (51)

His students disagree -- television for them is "worse than junk mail", it is "the death throes of human consciousness". Murray, however, finds vindication in the Gladney home where the children live lives of total consumer/television immersion to the extent that they eat, think, speak, and dream according to all things televisual and all things commercial. Jack and his wife Babette are fearful of TV, its "narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power", and Babette has developed a strategy to "de-glamorise" television for the good of the family by instituting a family ritual of watching television en masse every Friday night. Mostly numbed or bored, the family occasionally engages in the strangely pleasurable and thoroughly grotesque activity of watching catastrophes: "we were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass of advance lava". The family found itself wishing for more with each disaster on the screen, something more sensational, "something bigger, grander, more sweeping" (64).

The popular life as depicted by DeLillo is gripping in its familiarity. It is a life that unfolds around and within the television screen; a life that unfolds beside chemical dump sites and industrial waste zones, where toxic fallout produces glorious sunsets as well as fruit that is bright and burnished and always appears to be in season; a life that unfolds in supermarkets and malls where shopping is automatic, somnambulant, and strangely comforting; a life grounded in, structured by, and rationalised within consumerism, media, and omnipresent technological forces that produce everything from dark and insidious pharmaceuticals to an airborne toxic cloud; a life in which families are fragmented and destroyed by the very institutions and pastimes (Disney World and shopping) that declare and promote the support of families and their "values". There is a refrain that emerges like some unconscious ritual chant in the novel, a refrain that has no context or exposition, and that moves through and around the dialogue and the text like a persistent advertising jingle that refuses to quit one's head:

Dacron, Orlon, Lycra, Spandex Mastercard, Visa, American Express Leaded, Unleaded, Superunleaded

And when children dream, they dream in the consumer-unconscious. Jack hears his child mumbling something in her sleep, and leans closer to hear. She says, "Toyota Celica". The utterance transports Jack, an utterance that was "beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform" (155). The brand name has come to have sacred resonance, supreme, transcendent, the stuff of dreams. This is a fiction about suffocating distractedly under the sheer weighty banality of popular trash. It offers a portrait of all of us deep in the commercial media swamp, flailing about in the flotsam and jetsam of all things commercial and popular. DeLillo's narrative moves towards its dark conclusion as the malevolent force of the toxic cloud brings the certainty of death in uncertain ways. The apocalyptic moment is evidenced by the sudden rearrangement of goods on the supermarket shelves. "Older shoppers" panic: "they walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they'd seen the Cream of Wheat" (325).

DeLillo's version of life as we know offers some compelling signposts. Mainstream trash -- much of pop, if you will -- is toxic at many turns, and if not a great cloud, then infinitely more than a mere inflection. We desire that which we despise, and herein is the power of pop as a concept, a way of offering a critical trajectory. In a reflection on Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein once remarked that "What characterises Pop is mainly its use of what is despised" (qtd. in Barthes 22). The pop impulse in art has always suggested a useful ambivalence for addressing the contradictions of life in the maelstrom -- the artist as interventionist/renegade and as commercial hack/celebrity; artful plundering and artless reproduction; the simultaneity of the provocation and the tedium of art in the pop mode; the knowable faux finish of the commercial good look of things and falseness as the raw material of cultural production; bad taste and cool cultural assaults.

Pop in art has been accused of constituting a kind of slick cultural finish over cheap particle board. Still, there is a modicum of subversive power in the reversal of values in Pop Art (and in its precursors and its legacies) -- the common, the vulgar, the garish, the boring, the mass produced, the consumable, the pure commodity, all reworked to reveal their common, vulgar, garish, boring, massified, consumable, commodity nature. There have been impressive pop stylistic aggressions carried out against the constipation of high tastes, immutable standards, seriousness, and the ideologies of artistic and cultural legitimacy. Yet at times pop has been blunted by its very self-conscious edge as it engaged in self-congratulations for its irony, pith, and hipness. For some critics, pop in art suffers the malady of most style statements in the postmodern plague -- statements with no convictions since such statements are served up in quotation marks; and a life in quotation marks is no life at all.

Pop declares that it is the progeny of commercial technique, marketplaces, advertising, and the commodity environments of junk; and if it didn't exactly spring from the mall, it has come to reside there now between the fountain and the food fair. At its worst, pop appears to be a vaporescent activity, but this perspective neglects some fine and very active pop moments. Pop excursions are important because they can open up creative and critical responses to popular culture. There is pop practice that rises well above empty irony and the business of oversinging (as in some current and brilliant cut-ups and constructed sounds in performance that not only have emotional substance, but are also danceable). Sometimes, out of the trash heap of pop, there are spaces in which popular culture is regenerated. And it is only in this relationship to popular culture that pop matters.

Author Biography

Martin Laba