Saturday, January 9, 2010

Contextual Obligations

Cultural products that reference older institutions mean something totally different to people who are unfamiliar with those older things. Does that mean postmodernism is dying, or does it mean it will continue forever?

OK: when I was a child, I witnessed the rise to superstardom of a pop singer named "Madonna." The adults around me understood that her name referenced a religious figure, but I didn't -- even though I went to a parochial school with a statue of the Virgin Mary out front, I heard the term "Madonna" used in reference to the religious icon only afterward, years after I knew who Madonna the singer was. (Yes, I know that's her real name, but that is not germane to this argument.) And even though I've since seen Madonnas in museums and now fully understand what they are, what they always were, my perception of them will always be colored a tiny bit by the existence of the other Madonna. Another example: when the Michael Bay film Armageddon came out, there were many young people who had never heard the term "Armageddon" used to describe the end of the world -- I'm sure those people, who are now adults, snicker inwardly when they hear it used in a serious context. (I was not among them, but I conjecture this is true.) These are kind of extreme versions of seeing something parodied in MAD magazine or, later, on the Simpsons, and having to go back and research the original work -- or just enjoying the parody in ignorance until finally stumbling upon the Hitchcock film or whatever in college.

It's interesting how this all bespeaks a collapsing of things into themselves and each other, another variation on humanity's fabled cultural melting pot. In some ways this is depressing; in other ways it's exciting. It used to bother me, but looking at it as a symptom of "everything becoming the same thing" makes me optimistic and happy, sort of. So how long before everything in the world is recontextualized and nothing exists solely in its original form? And what happens then?


S.K. Azoulay said...

In certain cases knowing the original work referenced may add to your appreciation of a text, but lack of knowledge would not harm it (e.g. knowing that The Big Lebowsky is based on The Big Sleep adds a certain touch of irony, but isn't essential for enjoyment of the film). In other cases lack of knowledge actually prevents you from enjoying or understanding the work. This happens a lot in things like Family Guy, or all those recent parody movies, where they often don't even bother making a joke but just reenact scenes from movies/TV/Youtube; hopefully people will tire of this soon. I believe subtlety is best in these cases - those who get it will smile to themselves and those that don't will pass over it unaware.

Kim said...

I'm anxiously awaiting a hotel in Las Vegas called Las Vegas. This will make the circle complete.