Artificial vs Natural Culture

By | Wednesday, July 01, 2020 Leave a Comment
It used to be that everyone would sit down to watch Jackie Gleason or Lucille Ball on television, and then everybody would talk about how funny it was the next day. Media options were limited, so there was a set of shared cultural touchstones. Even if you didn't watch Rawhide, you heard about it through other media outlets -- magazines and newspapers and such. Even as recently as the mid-1980s, there were comic strips like Garfield which everybody read and, even if you didn't, you probably caught a segment about it on 20/20 or an article in People.

But media has spread out to such an extent now that those common touchstones aren't there. There are thousands of cables channels replacing the three networks that used to dominate everything. There are hundreds of thousands of webcomics where a couple or a few dozen might have populated any given city's newspaper. There are multiple TV shows even within a single sub-genre like Real Housewives or CSI. You can't reference a comic strip, even popular ones like PvP or Penny Arcade, and assume your audience knows what you're talking about. In fact, you can't even name-drop a lot of popular webcomics and expect even an audience of cartoonists to know what you're talking about.

I don't know that's a bad thing though.

See, the touchstones we used to have were built on largely artificial ideas of geography. Pretty much every newspaper did carry Garfield but just about anything less popular than that was hit or miss. My newspaper growing up carried Andy Capp but I can't say the same about the next major city over. The commonality I shared with others, where we could superficially unite, was over an accident of where we both happened to be. Even if I did like Andy Capp, the next person might not.

"Hey, did you see the strip today? It was really funny!"

"No, it wasn't."
comic strip

With the proliferation of webcomics out there being disseminated on the internet, I'm not limited to the handful of options that were singularly curated based on an individual editor's preferences. I can go out and find a variety of strips that I personally find entertaining or engaging.

Moreover, I can then share that entertainment and engagement with other people who share my sensibilities. As a fan, I'm not limited to the people who might happen to share a physical space with me. I don't have to share my engagement of something I really enjoy with the only other person in town who kind of likes the same thing but for different reasons and that's really the only thing we share in common and he's always awkward to be around and he has bad breath. I can instead share my engagement of that comic with a group of people who not only like it as well, but like it for many of the same reasons I do. We're not going to all have the exact same opinions, or come to the table with the same backgrounds, but we can share in that strip in generally the same way.

Not to mention the joy of sharing that same strip with a friend who you think might enjoy it as well, but hasn't seen it yet because there's so many things out there.

Now, some would argue that that lack of cultural lodestones has in part gotten us to where we are today as a society. Things have become so fractured that we might not share ANY common touchstones with the person next door. Depending on which news outlets they stick to, it's entirely possible that they don't even recognize the same reality that you do!

But, really, that's always been the case. For generations, "American culture" was defined through a lens of the white, cis hetero male gaze. But the lived experiences of a good chunk of the population didn't line up with that. Black people didn't see their lived reality reflected anywhere. Asian people didn't see their lived reality reflected anywhere. Gay people didn't see their lived reality reflected anywhere. The country accepted -- not entirely willingly -- that "American culture" looked pretty much exactly like what was shown on Leave It to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show. But that was not what everybody experienced. Ask yourself this... what moniker do you associate with June and July 1967? "The Summer of Love" with hippies and music festivals and flower power? Or "The Long, Hot Summer" with nationwide race riots and the FBI's illegal targeting of the Black Panther Party? Your answer probably depends a lot on your cultural background, not necessarily America's.

Those shared touchstones were never as widely shared as people claimed. They circled within segregated geographies. So when somebody started talking about how much they loved the comic strip Torchy in Heartbeats, they would probably get very different reactions, depending on where they lived. Because that comic strip circulated in Black newspapers and was never run next to Blondie or Dick Tracy.

What's happening today isn't that the touchstones are slipping away; what's happening is that people are starting to see that what they thought were touchstones never were anyway. Sure, there's a gazillion more options just generally than there were a half century ago, but you're no longer at all limited by geography in finding people who you can share your touchstones with. I can be the only person who reads a webcomic in the entire state, and still connect with like-minded fans half a world away! So I can build up a more natural culture of shared ideologies, instead of an artificial one based on where the roof over my head is.
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