Cultural Dopes

April 8, 2022   •   By GD Dess

WE’RE LIVING in an era of cultural dopes. [1] A cultural dope is someone like me or you, a consumer of culture or a “creative content provider” (through social media aren’t we all these days) who produces, or consumes, the preexisting cultural artifacts of the dominant political economy while functioning under the illusion that what they are creating or consuming –– a TV series, a song, a novel, etc. –– is “new.”

The pathway to becoming cultural dopes runs from Virginia Woolf to the Frankfurt School to Fredric Jameson, among others.

Woolf placed the commencement of the transformation of human consciousness at the turn of the 20th century with what we call modernism. In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” she wrote that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” The modernist enterprise, of which she was a part, was attuned to the goals of the Enlightenment, functioned under the belief that there was a real “reality” out there and real “subjects” (in fiction, for example, one could capture and narrativize both consciousness and the subconscious), and presumed this reality could be revealed through art and reason.

In the three decades after Woolf penned her essay, the world changed dramatically. The capacity of capital production increased exponentially, and an unprecedented quantity of mass culture began to be manufactured. In The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two of the leading members of the Frankfurt School, observed that the sense of freedom that the arts engendered had been overtaken by the commodity economy. To them, art had become “a species of commodity, worked up and adapted to industrial production, saleable and exchangeable.”

Overwhelmed by the mass production of culture, the avant-garde was unable to carry out its function, which was to provide “a critical perspective on the everyday workings of ideology from a relatively autonomous, alienated position.” Ultimately, the avant-garde and its “spirit of contestation” couldn’t maintain its autonomous position and stay ahead of mass culture.

The negative function the avant-garde performed had been described by Clement Greenberg in his seminal essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Greenberg thought of the avant-garde as an elite group of individuals who shared a state of mind and a certain sensibility that would serve as the “intellectual conscience” of society. Their purpose was to “find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.” In other words, the avant-garde’s role was to usher in the truly groundbreaking work that would overthrow existing conventions and expand one’s consciousness; it was an emancipatory role — one that was cancelled by capital. With cultural flattening, through the interpenetration of high and low culture, and the lack of an avant-garde to call bullshit, the arts in the United States became nothing more than extensions of the capitalist system.

Postmodernism involved a decisive break with previous hierarchies and hegemonies of aesthetics and culture; it also completed the erasure of the demarcation between high culture and mass culture. “One of the most significant features or practices in postmodernism today is pastiche,” Fredric Jameson noted, in his 1982 essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society. He went on to say that artists no longer quote texts “as a Joyce might have done, or a Mahler; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high-art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw.”

We are living in hauntological [2] times: a stagnant period in which the past is being plundered and it seems impossible that the future will ever arrive. We’ve stopped moving forward dialectically. We’re deluded into thinking the culture is advancing and not endlessly eddying — that something is happening — because the media, in all its different manifestations, relentlessly presents us with something “new.” Our constant exposure to media objects, the rush of texts and images, produces the impression that something is happening. There’s always something new to be seen, some story to follow, something for us to be up on. Most of us who stay tuned in believe we know what’s going on, that we’re abreast of the latest cultural phenomena, that we’re ahead of the game — that we’re winning. We watch the latest Netflix movies and Amazon Prime series and quality TV — an oxymoron if there ever was one. We might also listen to edgy podcasts, like Red Scare or Our Struggle. Some of us have signed up for all the alternative and literary Substacks that come our way.

There is so much new it’s impossible to keep up. To provide an order of magnitude, there are, for example, over 300 magazines on Apple News+. More than 50,000 new songs are uploaded to Spotify every day by over eight million artists. On YouTube, 1.3 billion people tune in to watch some of the 300 hours of video that are uploaded every minute; almost five billion videos are watched on the channel every single day. Over 200 million people chose between 15,000 films on Netflix. Substack has over one million subscribers and tens of thousands of content creators. There are more than 210,000 creators on Patreon. Somewhere between 600,000 and one million books are published in print and online in the United States alone each year, and 7.9 billion content creators post to Instagram monthly. OnlyFans has more than two million creators. Twitter currently has nearly 400 million users, and TikTok has one billion active creators and is now the largest media channel in the world, offering music, video, art, you name it.

The new digital payment system for art made possible by cryptocurrencies, NFTs, represents nothing more than the financialization of art masquerading as cultural innovation. As noted by Luke Savage in Jacobin, NFTs are only “the latest symptom of a decadent and increasingly post-democratic consensus resting on little more than predatory rent-seeking and boundless commodification.” This further commodification of art as a luxury investor product sounds the death knell for any hope of using art to counter capitalism.

The juggernaut that is capitalism has become increasingly more implacable and inescapable as a cultural force, having metastasized from post-industrial capitalism to late capitalism (or neoliberalism) to surveillance capitalism. Paradoxically, throughout these ongoing structural transformations of capital, while art has remained stuck, the rich have become richer — much richer: US billionaires became about $1.2 trillion richer during the pandemic; Elon Musk, alone, added $90 billion to his net worth in 2021, according to Forbes.

As Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, capital “is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary.” The unabated “creative destruction” of one kind of capital after another has only further increased the wealth of a few and done nothing to emancipate the overall collective creative spirit, which has remained stagnant. Today, almost every artistic effort inevitably (perhaps unknowingly) reinscribes the values of the ruling capitalist class.

The reinscription of the ruling ideology and the proliferation of cultural commodities (meretricious for the most part) does not mean anything is new. Rather, it seems to be the case that what Jameson noted 40 years ago has come to pass: everything that is “new” is simply pastiche, with creators using anything from ancient myth to high-art referents to kitsch — or anything from their past or anyone’s past or any paradigm found in the past — and repurposing the material into something heralded as new by the hacks engaged to sell it. Some of the distinctive characteristics of modernism, Jameson noted, were style, voice, clarity, architectonics, and communicative power. Proust, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Faulkner. Each of them, he pointed out, offered a private vision, predicated upon the belief in an unassailable private self, a personal identity and fierce individuality that generated new and unique worlds unto themselves. Citing Sally Rooney and Ben Lerner [3] as examples, the writer and critic Stephen Marche has characterized the recent change in literary culture by claiming that we have moved from these hallmarks to the “literature of the pose,” which “brings writing into the ordinary grueling business of the curation of the self which dominates advanced capitalist culture today.”

Take even the original Matrix: a film immediately hailed as groundbreaking and still considered revolutionary today, it was, as critic John Semley noted, nothing more than a blend of “Terminator-styled dystopian sci-fi with Hong Kong wire-fu action and state-of-the-art special effects, all draped in the industrial liveries of a turn-of-the-millennium goth club. It may not have been wholly new. But it was thrilling remix.”

The directors borrowed themes and genres and technology from existing themes and platforms to produce what is presented as new. This is not to detract from what a banger of a dystopian action film The Matrix is, only to point out how it exemplifies the concept of the cultural dope, insofar as the film reproduced the preexisting features of society and was complicit with the established and legitimate alternatives that the culture provides — including (the not-new idea of) Cartesian dualism: red pill/blue pill.

More insidiously, perhaps, the audience is duped into thinking they are participating in a new project that will give them access to a true, liberated reality even though they remain prisoners in their colonized consciousness, controlled by the capital that created the film. Ultimately, aside from its raw entertainment value, the film leads nowhere except to internet memes and sequels in which the extractive forces of capital work their magic to provide more entertainment: the fourth feature in the franchise was just released. What we see today is that for most artists and writers, like Warhol, their business is their art.

Thus, we find ourselves at an impasse. Our cultural life cannot create the new and move forward without an avant-garde, and capitalism has preempted the possibility of forming one. Here’s why: every artistic and cultural movement that announces itself is doomed, its half-life short, if it has any life at all. Any form of solidarity or communitarianism between artists or groups of people sharing an artistic vision in our totalizing capitalist system is no more durable than any other commodity produced and destroyed by capital.

There are bound to arise small groups who want to fight the good fight. There will be journals and micro-publications or podcasts whose goal is to subvert the power matrix and attempt to carry forward our continually postponed dream of liberation from our capital overlords. It goes without saying that we should support these efforts. But in our world of superabundant cultural commodities, there is nothing that can’t be ignored, and any individual or group effort will most likely prove to be insignificant, except to the followers they manage to attract to their ecosystem: their ability to affect the larger culture will be de minimis, and we will continue to eddy. No critic or member of the commentariat can help us out of this morass. At best, they can call out the most egregious grifters — a job in and of itself. Anyway, a critic’s job is not to formulate an ideological position but to critique those with which they are confronted.

I don’t want to continue to be a dope, but I don’t see a line of flight away from what seems like our fate. In The Aesthetic Dimension, Herbert Marcuse discussed the idea that art can be thought of as synonymous with imagination and is in some sense liberatory; it represents the goal of all revolutions, which is to procure freedom and happiness for individuals. Art provides (ideally) the possibility of attaining a momentary state of insight or the revelation of freedom.

Similar to Marcuse’s idea that art provides liberatory moments is an idea articulated by Walter Pater, an aesthetician and one of the proponents of the idea of “art for art’s sake.” He remarked that “[a]rt comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.” For now, I would suggest that where and when art supplies us with these moments, we revel in them as they can deliver the experience of a sense of freedom or pleasure. The freedom is of course nothing more than an illusion, and the pleasure in any case is transitory. At least it’s something.

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GD Dess is a novelist and literary critic.

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[1] This term was originally proposed by Harold Garfinkel, the founder of ethnomethodology. In my use of it, it is perhaps, more akin to a useful idiot, a person in the service of an ideological cause without necessarily understanding its aims or goals, like a type of false consciousness.

[2] The term was first used by Derrida and later developed by Mark Fisher.

[3] In The Topeka School, Ben Lerner, despite his pretension to create a case against the “collapse of language” and to critique the late capitalist world in which we live, does little but reinscribe the traditional values of work, education, ambition, and family.