“The new cultural landscape,” writes curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, “is marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts.” If one looks at contemporary art (or fashion or literature or cocktails?) there’s no lack of appropriation, repurposing, re-tooling. The success of such gestures relies on the creation of new contexts that force us to view objects in previously unconsidered ways, opening up new avenues for interpretation, making available new meanings. But what happens when the new context for something is actually no context at all?
Just as contemporary culture has made us all “artists”—our artwork is, after all, the self, and our material is consumerism—it’s also made us all curators, now more than ever, with the ubiquity of social networking sites on which we’re asked to list and list and list. Opinions are everywhere, but discourse is shrinking. Lists have become our way of announcing ourselves through what we know, but of course they require little actual knowledge. Those rock nerds in High Fidelity who spent all their time compiling Top 5s weren’t just imagined representatives of slacker chic, they were harbingers of the digital future. When, in 2000, John Cusack’s character said, “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films,” he may have seemed subversively snotty. Now it just sounds like some nightmare vision of what the generation raised for their entire lives on Facebook will grow up believing.
Just as it’s both reactionary and reasonable to ask, “If you have 4,000 friends on Facebook, do you really have any friends at all?,” so it’s the same to ask, “If you have 400 favorite things on Facebook, do you really have any favorite things at all?” The question is: do we have a limited amount of energy, and if it’s directed too many places, does it become too dispersed? We certainly have a limited amount of time. Really loving something is an investment—and it means taking a risk. It can seem now like we have an aesthetic hook-up culture, one that prefers a breezy one-nighter with cultural objects to a lifetime of devotion.
Lists can, of course, be fascinating. At their best, they become a kind of conceptual gesture. The deft lister doesn’t actually compile their favorite things; rather, they look for odd juxtapositions and unexpected inclusions. Their list becomes something you have to puzzle over, a knot you have to try to untangle. Oftentimes this requires familiarity with the author or the subject.
But a lot of the time lists can come to seem representative of lifestyle consumerism; that all-devouring behemoth that takes everything aesthetic and uses it to mark wealth and status and to subtly make us all slaves to faceless corporate structures whose byproduct is the erasure of individuality and whose real goal is global domination. Which can seem like a bummer.
In your more cynical moments, you imagine that all the people in our culture really constitute a set of overlapping Venn diagrams, and that while no one likes exactly what everybody else likes, everyone likes enough of the same stuff to render people pretty much equal. If you live by your “likes,” you can’t live off the map.
And if recent developments in our culture have shown us anything, it’s that all our likes are seemingly being rendered equal. Anyone you meet might list anything these days:
“Hi, I’m Dave. I like Eat, Pray, Love, John Cage and hardcore pornography. ”
“Hi, my name’s Sue. I’m into Lester Bangs, Internet trolling and Susan Sarandon.”
But wasn’t all this business about culture mattering really just a bunch of hogwash to begin with? I mean, didn’t a bunch of rich white men just use art et al. to assert their power and now we just see that happening in a more subtle and symbolic way with everyone? And wait a minute, does the suffering of Third World people really actually have anything whatsoever to do with what music I listen to?
Taste has simultaneously been elevated to the number one signifier of who you are, and completely denigrated as the heinous mark of the most malicious snobs. The result is that we all play the game, but to avoid being labeled monsters, we have to also believe the game is bullshit. You are what you like, but you better not take it very seriously. Enthusiasm is encouraged, but introspection is suspect. Minimalist sites like Tumblr are gaining the upper hand on classic blogs partly because they discourage all that soul-searching. How weird it can be spending time on a stranger’s Tumblr, trying to figure out what sensibility is grouping all these things together “without commentary,” as the internet’s favorite current descriptor goes.
If we’re losing something, it’s the belief that cultural objects don’t just effect us in some way, they also mean something, and their meaning has an impact on how we live our lives, personally and politically. Even if they don’t mean something the way we were taught in middle school—where clear stories teach obvious lessons—maybe things do really mean something. It’s possible.
Of course, some of the great artists and thinkers throughout the modern era—from Oscar Wilde to Susan Sontag—advocated, in a way, a focusing in on effect overmeaning. But their tastes usually tended toward the disruptive, the challenging, the offensive. They wanted culture to demand something of you, to unsettle you. I’m not sure we’re so fond of that now. With all our lists and likes, we can create a kind of easy box-set culture, offering instantly attainable expertise. Connoisseurship is always just two or three Amazon clicks away. As so many anti-moderns and cultural conservatives are always saying, it does seem like Americans are now easily and passively receiving things we used to have to work for. “Friends,” sex, art, knowledge, spirituality. Name your top 5.