Raise your hand if you saw “Bladerunner.” Or read “The Martian Chronicles.” Or listen to the Top 40. My job in this column will be to convince you that they are all related and actually incredibly important to us.
Since discussing Katy Perry’s video for “Wide Awake” last week, I can’t stop thinking about how smart pop culture is becoming. There may have been a time when all it cared about was getting angry at our parents and televising Spring Break from Cancun, but if so that era is over. Not to say the machine doesn’t feed us plenty of mindless excitement, but even tracks such as Ellie Goulding’s more or less incomprehensible “Lights,” like Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” put us face to face with the particular media-centered challenges of our generation.
In this world, older notions of clear boundaries between nature, human beings and technology feel foreign. My laptop, Wikipedia, Spotify: These aren’t elements that exist somehow outside of “me” (whatever that is); rather, they constitute a concrete overlap of our personal and shared worlds. Some folks talk about these developments in terms of bodies and “affect,” which we could translate loosely as “emotional force or response.”
According to Greg Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “bodies (are) defined not by an outer-skin envelope or other surface boundary but by their potential to reciprocate or co-participate in the passages of affect.” That is, our bodies are not hermetically closed circuits that dumbly bump up against all the other crap in the universe, but dynamic systems of interaction – and affect is one of the primary plug-ins linking bodies together.
A song begins on my iPod, in my car, at The Library; I get swept up in tempo, atmospheric synth, then a British voice – Ellie Goulding’s breathy intonations, and a tapestry of lyrics that are important less for what they mean than the affect they create: memory, space, be strong, dreaming, the hypnotic “calling calling calling me home.”
This is an affect born of and made possible by global media culture – it catches us in the oceanic wash of an encounter with the world so vast yet, shockingly, so locally accessible. While Goulding’s song works primarily through sound, its result is similar to that of Perry’s video, or the worldwide fame cataloged by Minaj and other hip-hop artists.
And who’s to say these affects won’t become closer than our fingertips?
As a kid in the early Cartoon Network age, I used to veg out to “The Centurions” – a show about a super-heroic team blended of man and machine, precursors to the Power Rangers (don’t front, you know the Morphins bring back good memories). But now we suit up just to leave the house: smartphone, smartkey, smartcar. Jump in your exoskeleton and get to class. Who even uses those holsters for their phone anymore? It goes in the purse, the clutch, the pocket. It’s that near.
This proximity is joked about in the first episode of the quirky comedy “Portlandia.” When one of the characters gets stuck in a “technology loop,” the other begins telepathically communicating through Mind-Fi: “I just installed it. It’s like Wi-Fi, but for our thoughts. Now you can let go of all your electronic devices and just be free in your mind.” Of course, a targeted ad immediately interrupts the thought conversation, revealing that new advances never actually get rid of the challenge to master our technologies.
And this is where I make my stand for pop culture against the haters (and where we see that it does the same work as sci-fi, which often works through future ethical dilemmas). Because while change has always been a part of civilization (cut to flashback of two dudes standing around the first iron plow), it has never been so fast.
In light of this speed, a self-aware pop culture helps us, in the words of Lone Bertelsen and Andrew Murphie, “to develop a creative responsibility for modes of living as they come into being.” That is, it helps us develop up-to-the-minute reflections on the changes we encounter, to capture and communicate the affects created by those changes, to cope with and respond to them affirmatively and with composure.
Bill Phillips is in his second year of doctoral studies in English at Ole Miss. He is from Augusta, Ga.
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