Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Friday, August 15, 2008

Commercial: Where will our culture come from now?

Cultural anthropologist and thinker extraordinare Grant McCracken has posted what is, for me, a persuasive argument on why it is getting harder to produce culture - the decline of the avant garde, what he terms 'our magnetic north'.

He writes:

Generalizing a little, we can say that the center now has some of the creativity and risk taking capability of the margin, the middle class sometimes is an artist class, and that increasingly the culture of capitalism beats the drum of innovation so insistently that privilege, tedium and orthodoxy have gone to the margin and all of us must hew to the cause of risk, imagination and departure.

Which is to say, without an force to oppose, or be in opposition to, it means that we rely on, allow, the centre, the mainstream to dictate the terms of our culture: what we produce, what we celebrate, what we share. While it might appear that *we* are all culturally producing now - Faris Yakob's 'recombinant culture' - the pool of inspiration and the end results are increasing narrow, sharing homogenous roots, outlooks and impacts.

Evidence? Well, most obviously, the rise and uniform similarity to found in hipster culture, as recently eviscerated in Adbusters. It has the simulcra of rebellion, and opposition, but actually as a product of the centre, it has a deracinated if not non-existent avant garde component and outlook.

But the truth of the overall observation has to be reconciled with this idea: the 'decline of the middle'. What do I mean? Well, it's most easy to illustrate in the economic sense: over the last 15 years, it is the largest corporations, and the small to micro niche businesses that have thrived. Those middle-sized enterprises, serving a middle market, and a middle class, have been squeezed by various forces ascribed to globalisation, greater economies of scale, and the greater use of technology to find precisely what you want. What need Woolworths when you can either get or commission exactly what you want via Etsy or browse the biggest selection of stuff at Amazon?

And another observation? Isn't everyone fighting over the same centre ground politically?

So we come to a paradox about the 'idea of middle': There is a hollowing out of it economically; a convergence on it politically; and it is nearly the only cultural playing field that matters now.

What does it mean? No idea. But one point to bear in mind: for a few years now, thanks to network theory, we've been getting used to the idea that the middle doesn't matter as much as the ends/nodes do, because 'innovation happens at the edge'. Is this still true? Probably. But if the middle is taking this increasing prominence in cultural production, then the 'non-generative' future that Jonathan Zittrain has described can't be too far behind.



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