Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Ha-ha, Ah-ha and Oh-yeah: cultural irony and rediscovery

A lot of the cultural items we consume or partake of – hairstyles, shoes, tv shows, slang, professed values, bands, etc. – can be thought of as socially instrumental. That is, they can have a “symbolic value” over and above their use value, entertainment value or whatever. We often consume them not only because of what they do, but because of what we hope they add to our social identity in the eyes of those we esteem and those we despise, to our in-group and our out-group.

A while ago, I wrote a post illustrating part of this (intuitive? clichéd?) idea. I tried to show how the mutual interactions and reactions of three distinct cultural subgroups – trendsetters, hipsters and regular joes – can drive cultural items through their life cycle. This idea has occurred to a lot of us: many social groups’ preferences (for shoes, bands, styles, slang, etc.) respond – positively or negatively – to other groups’ preferences. Slang and cadence, for example, are often valuable signals and affirmations of group affiliation, so preferences for specific slang terms change rapidly with diffusion outside the group. We illustrated this as interwoven curves along the path from few partaking (o) to most everybody doing it (n).

But so far we haven’t really discussed the later part of a cultural item’s life cycle, the point after c in the graph. Frequently, cultural items just go away and are never heard from again. But sometimes they come back around. In this post I want to look at some late stage possibilities for trends, particularly cultural irony – imbuing cultural items with a different, more "self-aware" symbolic value than they originally had – and rediscovery – rehabilitating older cultural items for current use.

Irony and Rediscovery

First of all, some items never really go through the creep from fringe to mainstream. Agreed. The idea here isn’t to model the essential, inviolable profile of a trend. Rather, it’s just that in most collections of people presented with a cultural choice you can roughly define different subgroups by how their preferences change relative to others’ preferences. For example, within the regular joes there are likely to be different constituencies analogous to trendsetters and hipsters. That is, some regular joes will be a lot like hipsters in their preferences – ready to partake of items not quite fully mainstream. If we restrict n to regular joes, the preference profiles of the different types within this group might look something like our graph.

Anyway, cultural items that never go through the full cycle at the highest, all sub-groups cultural level – that take off in or are specific to one sub-group only – become particularly interesting when we consider irony.

Ironic embrace is cultural consumption that’s generally very aware of the consumed item’s cultural history. This awareness often becomes an explicit part of its new symbolic value. Consider the recent ironic rehabilitation of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rick Astley and ‘90s pop (Bell, Biv, DeVoe is suddenly on every hipster playlist). Faint nostalgia notwithstanding, most of the consumption of this stuff (like 70s and 80s ironic embrace before it) seems to be ironic.

Grossly simplifying, there are two big possibilities for ironic embrace. The first is when one sub-group appropriates a cultural item from another group after the latter has already abandoned it.

When this happens, we often get what I call ha-ha irony. An example – also illustrating my advanced age – might help. At a “noise” show back in the very early ‘90s (noise became fleetingly cool when “alternative” was mainstreamed by bands like Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction) the headliner’s lead screamer wore a New Kids On The Block t-shirt. At this point, NKOTB’s popularity had dried up even among their teen target. The contrast between a defunct teeny-bop group and the aggressive, self-consciously oppositional posturing of noise music was obviously the ironic point. This is a case of ha-ha irony. It’s just a broad joke or gag and in no way even remotely critical. In fact it even has the prototypical joke structure: an unexpected shift in reference or clash of expectations results in humor.

Obviously, this isn’t a full-blown new trend arising out of an old one. Rather it’s a cultural item that typifies the prefab pop trend previously popular among the mainstream appropriated for new symbolic purposes by a self-consciously opposed sub-group. Bearing this in mind, it could be graphed something like this:

This time we start at c, the point on the original graph where the item peaks for the regular joes, and proceed to n. After n the item starts to become a cultural liability for regular joes and the total population partaking plummets to m, which is much less than n. Now the trendsetters can claim the cultural item for ha-ha ironic purposes. The trendsetters, of course, will start to abandon if the hipsters pick it up at a’, that is, when the hipsters come to see it as a codified ironic strategy (see). But this case probably wouldn’t get past a’. (Although, an ironic mini-trend did occur in the early ‘90s when noise acts started appropriating the insipid graphics of those new-agey “Smooth Sounds” whale-song albums.)

The NKOTB case involves an item that never went through the full cycle from trendsetters to regular joes. Or rather, it’s an item that the hipsters at the noise show most likely never invested in. NKOTB more or less started out with the regular joes. My guess is that this is often the case with ha-ha irony: the items that get ironically rehabilitated by one sub-group tend to be yanked off the junk heap of another subgroup. In this case, it was the hipsters using teeny-bop detritus to highlight their aggressively oppositional stance to pop music. It was a joke that everybody – even the regular joes once into NKOTB– would get. As a sort of rule, we could say the greater the item’s one time value to a subgroup, the greater its potential to be used in a ha-ha ironic way by members of a self-consciously oppositional group.

The second possibility for ironic embrace is when one group ironically appropriates a cultural item from another while the latter group is still into it.

Not surprisingly, we usually get ha-ha irony here, too. Consider some clever hip-kids’ “love” of geeky sci-fi/fantasy conventions, like Dragoncon in Atlanta, Georgia where middle-aged IT professionals (that’s actually unfair... young IT pros dig it too) party all night in DIY Klingon armor. These fringe affairs are really, really popular among die-hard fans and represent for them a market for a very specific sort of symbolic capital. For the hip-kids, on the other hand, it’s a lark, a gag, a chance to ogle the arcane rituals of nerd-communion in their proper environs. The hip-kids’ intended audience – the group from whom they seek recognition of the value of attendance – is their buddies, not the group actually attending the convention. Also, the hip-kids' symbolic value comes from a completely different cultural and symbolic arena than it does for the earnest fan-boys.

It’s sort of like cultural poaching for laughs. Once a few ironic trendsetters start doing it, the very next year will see hipsters joining in. We can graph this second ironic configuration like this:

Under certain circumstances, this sort of value relationship can result in what I call ah-ha irony (as opposed to jokey ha-ha irony). We can illustrate ah-ha irony with a slight alteration of the noise band example. Suppose it had been a Nirvana shirt instead of NKOTB. At the time, Nirvana was wickedly popular and symbolized the mainstreaming tendency that allowed noise bands to arise as an oppositional alternative in the cultural marketplace. Nirvana had gone through the full cycle from trendsetter popularity on the periphery to mainstream pop adoration among the regular joes. Wearing a Nirvana shirt – the incarnation of the new ‘90s pop which many hipster fans viewed as a sort of personal cultural theft – would have been a really critical, really exclusionary (in the sense of in-group/out-group defining) statement that few would have gotten. After all, most of the kids at the show had been – or still were – into Nirvana. That ambiguity of intention is sort of the calling card of “good” or at least powerful irony: it should be sneaky or at least not intelligible to all and have some sort of critical quality.

What seems to distinguish these cases of ha-ha and ah-ha irony is closeness to the cultural item. In the ha-ha irony cases, the kids who were being ironic probably hadn’t been part of any of the groups involved in the item’s trend cycle. They were outsiders who could objectify the cultural item. However, in the ah-ha case, it’s trendsetters using something that most hipsters (and they themselves) had recently invested in as an ironic prop.

It’s probably not anything like a rule, but this specific example of ah-ha irony looks something like this:

The item went through the whole curve; the trendsetters and hipsters had been committed to it at one time. Needless to say, ah-ha irony is really rare (or maybe not and I just don’t get it). It’s usually used solely by fine artists, motivated by chronic self-awareness and cultural inferiority complexes, which drive them to theoretical, unaesthetic excesses. I know because I was one... probably still am.

Let’s look finally at “rediscovery,” earnest and ironic. Sometimes cultural items come back from the dead. Sometimes the folks doing the reviving are earnest (the Nick Drake revival about 12 years ago and the garage rock revival about 4-5 years ago). Sometimes they’re ironic (disco’s many revivals and Enoch Light). But most of the time, it’s a mix of both (the ‘80s synth-pop sound, particularly in contemporary French and West Coast alterna-pop) and it’s always with different intentions than when the item was actually culturally current.

This graph, like the irony graphs, starts at c and goes through the crash at n. After n there’s a period of cultural hibernation while all of the groups assume their original relative positions. At some point, the item gets picked up by the self-conscious cultural adventurers (earnest indie rockers for Nick Drake, the gay community for at least a couple of the disco revivals) and the cycle starts again.

So why is rediscovery sometimes earnest and sometimes ironic? Well, I think part of it might have to do with uptake among past cultural groups and the perceived genealogy of contemporary cultural groups. Contemporary groups that understand themselves as having “descended” somehow from traditionally oppositional subcultures often approach items from these “related” subcultures earnestly and items from “unrelated” or mainstream culture ironically. Regular joes, since they’re not quite as culturally sensitized or obsessively self-aware as trendsetters and hipsters, generally shoot for ha-ha irony unless the item has already gotten past b’. In that case, it’s no longer really “rediscovery”: the item has been “contemporized” or brought back into currency. (Regular joes that still dig the music they loved in high school – “it’s not about new or old...Aerosmith just made quality rock, man!” – aren’t rediscovering anything... they’re just frozen in a particular cultural period.)

A Last Note

But this whole graph-y, representational thing I have going skirts one obvious and over-talked point about contemporary culture: it seems to be moving faster. The trend circuit from hip to passé to rediscovery is getting quicker and quicker. So much quicker that the whole concept of rediscovery makes less and less sense every day. Something similar is happening to the idea of mainstream; it doesn’t really seem to have the old, easy to poke at stodginess it used to. Actually, it’s pretty hard to even locate in the first place. Why is this happening?

Just speculating here, but pervasive media probably helps. Modern user-tailored, user-driven media like the web is really good at getting stuff from the fringe to the center, from “hip” to “mainstream,” overnight. Stuff that used to take years to bubble to the surface through old media channels now zips up almost instantly in a process of accelerated mainstreaming that calls into question the whole idea of fringe and center, counterculture and mainstream.

But in the west at least we still seem to highly value the idea of oppositional individualism and the autonomy of our choices, of trendsetters, “mavericks” and nonconformists, out there marching to the beat of a different, etc. A significant number of folks in the west – most I’d say – have internalized this cultural value or ideal. Trendsetters and hipsters probably wouldn’t be our culture’s marketing holy grail otherwise.

You put these together – media that rapidly drains oppositional cultural positions of their “outsider,” “in the know” status and an internalized cultural admiration of the “individualist” or the “nonconformist” – and you get accelerating trend cycles. After all, if cultural items come larded with a symbolic value that is partially determined by the item’s prevalence, and modern media provide a fat but highly user-responsive channel to spread the word, then you’ll have to act quickly to stay relevant. In this environment, uptake and abandonment of trends is going to speed up.

Adding to the mix cultural industries like film and fashion, that, to a certain extent, have institutionalized in their marketing and business models ideas of constant opposition, innovation or nonconformity, and things really get moving. Taking just one example, the fashion industry is built on the idea of annual overthrow, of mainstreaming (i.e. making passé) last year’s line so this year’s can supplant it. It’s a business model founded on the idea of the incessantly new. Fashion marketing hinges on – and thus amplifies – the desire to be slightly ahead of the curve, to break with the currently mainstream fashion, to be more distinct and “original” (in acceptably fashionable ways) than your peers. In the present media context of almost instant diffusion and accelerated mainstreaming, their business model of providing “the new” and their marketing model of codifying, amplifying and creating a “need” for “the latest,” results in accelerating demand that outstrips their creative capacity. The result: unrepentant cultural recycling at a faster and faster pace.


John R said...

This is fantastic. One thing though: JCVD is not ironic, it's meta.

Shannon Bain said...

ha. and cyborg is mecha.

Transparent Nihilism said...

Top notch!