(as published in the University of the Fraser Valley magazine Skookum, November 2010)
“How can you study something like the Simpsons?”
“You’re researching pro wrestling?? “
I get that a lot. A lot! I had a student the other day say to me: “my dad thinks he would do well in this class because he knows a lot of Simpsons trivia. He thinks all we do is watch TV and… ” I missed the last part over the loud rolling of my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that people can (and do) feel this way. We have a federal government that is pulling research grants from arts and humanities programs in favour of business-oriented programs, which seemingly demonstrates an institutionalized bias against the social sciences. The suggestion implied is that economics is the root of our social system and as such is the only element worth researching, worth finding out more about, worth spending money on. Perhaps this in and of itself is exactly why cultural studies in general, and popular culture studies in particular, are so important in today’s increasingly politically polarized climate.
We live in an era and culture often referred to as the Information or Network Society, where our social being is essentially defined by networks. The predominant network is still the media network. It is totally pervasive to our lives. It is everywhere and it is everything. It is the prime component in how most individuals create an identity whether through music or through fashion or through things that they’ve seen on television or in film or maybe had specifically directed at them by Tyra Banks. I mean, who doesn’t want to be fierce? So the media network is the primary way that we communicate messages in our society. By virtue of that alone I think it is crucially important that we don’t then just sit on our couches with our brains turned halfway off and allow everything to overtake us without questioning it, without engaging it in some manner. Now, this is not to suggest that everything that we see hear or read is necessarily evil or that we need to start making picket signs and protesting, but I also don’t mean to suggest that we might not need to do that sometimes; at the very least we need to engage media in such a way as to understand or question the power that it does have (or can have) over us, as well as who has the power over it. It is an important part of our world and should be scrutinized.
Who are we as individuals? Who are we as communities? What are our values, beliefs and ideals? How do we represent ourselves? Perhaps even more poignantly, how do we represent others? It is in this eclectic media milieu that we can interrogate our media for, at the very least, some insight into questions like these.
I am in a relatively unique position to do just that. Rather than affecting some “critical distance” and studying these phenomena from afar like some ancient anthropologist trying to understand a tribal culture, I am personally immersed within the popular culture that I research. My PVR has over 50 shows on auto record. I have close to 2,000 CDs and over 22,000 song files on my computer. I go to movies and rent DVDs. I play guitar and hockey. I can sit and watch old Monty Python on TV before taking in the day’s news and then watching professional wrestling or mixed martial arts. I can follow that up with a new episode of Mad Men or Dexter or Glee or Sons of Anarchy or…. The point here is that I make no excuses and recognize where I stand with regards to all of these cultural forms. I can report as an insider or an outsider and not spend my time denying or distorting or even trying to justify. I can talk about the pleasure that can come from watching a great movie in the same way I can talk about how a great work of art or a great TV commercial encapsulate a particular moment in time and can make us feel. Bottom line, popular culture is just that, culture. It is our culture, it is our world and we use it to see and to be seen. But what exactly is culture?
Cultural theorist Raymond Williams said that culture is one of the most difficult words to define. It has been construed of as “a particular way of life” or as “works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity” but can certainly be imagined more broadly as well. Culture is the “complex web of meanings, beliefs, and ways of living that characterize any society”. This is an important point when discussing ideas of identity, be it personal, regional or national, as this distinction in the definition of culture recognizes the link between culture and social identity. It also posits the constructed nature of this relationship is not natural or unchanging as it is continually shaped and reshaped during social action.
We often hear it lamented that Canada has no unique or inherent identity or that we are constantly under cultural attack from our American neighbours. In fact, Canada has a long and storied history in which we constantly question our identity. Historically, policy initiatives have focused on attempting to address this question. Canadian culture in this respect is approached by scholars in two distinct manners. One approach looks to cultural policy as indicative of how government has attempted to foster ideas of nation and identity through policy related to culture and/or media. We can label the other the popular culture approach. This approach investigates varieties of popular culture in Canada. We watch it, read it, listen to it, and talk with each other about it in meaningfully engaging ways in an effort to continually negotiate our way through a constantly changing and demanding landscape.
How we, as Canadians, make meaning through our interaction with media allows an interrogation of how we construct our sense of Canada — our sense of ourselves. The centre of most all approaches to envisioning Canada as a nation is through the articulation of “space”. Whether as a geographic space that is represented on a map, as a political space to be governed, a space conceived of as an “other” space, or as a space comprised of a culturally produced audience, space remains at the fore of differing Canadian interrogations into nation throughout Canada’s history. It is a space to be linked, a space that is not American, a space containing often invisible media producers, and a space of diverse media consuming agents that we study, deconstruct, and investigate.
While certain Canadian nationalists decry American popular culture as something that Canadians need to be protected from, Stuart Hall has demonstrated how a subversive or oppositional reading of the dominant ideology imbued within these artefacts is possible. As users of popular culture we make our own meanings according to our cultural contexts and as Canadians, we can utilize objects ranging from The Simpsons, baseball, indie music, or even wrestling as an opportunity to express our unique vision of our identity, taking an American product and transforming it into a vehicle for Canadian expression. There is no reason to suggest that these are the only vehicles through which Canadians are able to articulate their own understandings of what it means to be a Canadian in the face of the American cultural behemoth. Rather than being ignorant masses that are duped by American commodities, we actively negotiate with these artefacts as a means to mould our own identities, as individuals and as Canadians. Popular culture is culture and created through an active process of generating and circulating meanings and pleasures. As we produce little “Canadian popular culture” of our own (it has been suggested in fact that is a bit of an oxymoron) appropriating American texts such as professional wrestling for a uniquely Canadian reading allows an assertion of identity in the face of the American other and through a lens that is uniquely diverse and uniquely Canadian.
Thus, it is because of ideas like this that I watch, critique, and teach about topics like The Simpsons and wrestling, and appropriately so I think.