Thursday, September 11, 2008

TV Ninjas and the Decline of a Brotherhood

This is actually a paper I wrote for my Popular Culture Writing Class. It's supposed to be my first draft, but I have a really hard time letting other people read my writing before I've polished it at least a little bit. So, since I have a little over an hour before I need to hand this thing in, I figured I'd post it here.

I should note that I've exaggerated the emptiness of my relationship with my brothers. In spite of what can be inferred from this paper, I do in fact love my siblings. That said, there is a great deal of truth here. I was gone for nearly 7 years of their lives and we grew very much apart in that time. Such is life I suppose. Anyway, enjoy...

TV Ninjas and the Decline of a Brotherhood

There are elements within popular culture that work, either actively or passively, to subvert or replace social bonds that have historically formed the foundation of family life. In the case of my family, a disagreement over the fundamental hipness of imported Japanese cartoons has destroyed my credibility to perform the traditional role of an older brother. In more general terms, popular icons, institutions and tastes can come to substitute the seats of conventional authority figures, role models, and filial relationships. This often brings about a reconstitution of personal hierarchies of value. The now somewhat cliché statement “punk rock saved my life” serves to illustrate how a popular cultural phenomenon or an aspect of it, can assume a role of elevated importance that traverses the chasm between mere appreciation and complete reverence. Punk rock is not a miracle pharmaceutical, nor has it ever held an alcohol intervention, and while it has given individuals experiencing feelings of loneliness or disenfranchisement a sense of community and voice, I am fairly certain that it does not know the Heimlich maneuver. A far cry from a cultural embodiment of the Good Samaritan, punk rock has never and will never actually save anyone’s life. Ultimately, the deciding virtue that allows popular culture manifestations to supplant traditional cultural institutions and rearrange social valuations is the emphasis of an in-the-moment coolness that is conspicuously absent from the average family foyer or rumpus room.

Popular culture commentator Chuck Klosterman ascribes the yearning to be considered cool in his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs as a desire to be included in an exclusive group.
“The desire to be cool is--ultimately—the desire to be rescued. It’s the desire to be pulled from the unwashed masses of society. It’s the desire to be advanced beyond the faceless humanoid robots who will die unheralded deaths and never truly matter, mostly because they all lived the same pedestrian life. Without the spoils of exclusionary coolness, we’re just cogs in the struggle.”
Coolness, in that respect, is not a new concept. The Rapture described in the Bible, namely that the obedient will be plucked from the Earth by the hand of God and delivered into paradise while those lacking the foresight to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ burn in Hell, has many of the same elements of compliance yielding reward as the idea that one might score backstage passes at a Toby Keith concert for arriving in the right denim on denim ensemble. Inevitably, these esoteric circles, in whichever form they take, come to define two distinct groups: those who are in the circle and those who are not, namely, the cool and the uncool.

The apparatus of our popular culture dissemination is completely unprecedented in the scope of human history. Widespread cultural change that would have taken years, or even centuries to establish can now be propagated with the click of a button. Through the course of most of human existence, cultural generations passed more slowly than genealogical generations, meaning that all living members of any given household were likely cut from the same ideological cloth, sharing values, opinions and a generally homogenous view of the world. Illustrating this modern change of pace explains why we can lump sixty-odd years of style and fashion into the Victorian era, but can only account for the non-ironic rise and fall of feathered rock star hair within the comparative blip of the nineteen-eighties. It is the rapidity of cultural permutation which allows elements of modern popular culture to undermine traditional cultural institutions in the home by creating cultural generation gaps over exponentially shorter periods of time.

These two factors, the exclusionary nature of coolness and the rapidity with which popular culture transforms, create divisions within even singular genealogical generations of a household. In my own family, I can point to popular cultural divides that separate me from not only my parents, but also my siblings. I have three brothers between five and seven years younger than me. In the few years that separate us, changes in television programming instilled in them a different set of qualifiers for what constituted coolness. My brothers’ unified concept of cool was reinforced by their closeness in age and affirmed, in their minds, as a universal manifestation of good taste. In a way, they are their own cultural generation. Having left home when the eldest of them was only thirteen I was not present during the years in which they formed their cultural identities. In the absence of my influence they learned how to evaluate coolness from the most readily available authority in the home: a 32-inch television filled with Japanese cartoons. My traditional role as a cultural mentor was effectively usurped in my absense.

I formed a fairly staunch opinion regarding Japanese cartoons and related pop culture transplants sometime in early 1997 during the brief sensation surrounding the Tamagatchi virtual pet, a keychain-bound digital critter that responded to the imaginary nurturing of its owner. I suspect that I was either too old or too sensible to be particularly enamored with the prospect of caring for my very own two-dimensional, big-eyed, fake monstrosity. The Tamagatchi was only the tip of the spear, it was soon followed by wave after wave of similarly themed video-games and more importantly, in so far as indoctrinating my own flesh and blood goes, television programming. I should note, the aspect that separated this wave of Japanese cultural immigration from previous transplants, i.e. Godzilla, Ultraman, Voltron/Power Rangers, Transformers/Gobots, was the lengths to which the marketing machinery of a primarily television originated product was able to inculcate itself in the lives of its audience by extending itself into other mediums. My brothers’ collective taste in television programs informed their taste in music, video games, card games, board games, clothing, internet surfing and, in the case of at least one brother, pornography.

As a result of our opposing views regarding the merits of Japanese cartoons we have very little cultural common ground. My opinions regarding my brothers’ preferred television programming do more than simply rob us of mutually interesting conversation pieces, they diminish our relationships. American satirist Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 publication of The Devil’s Dictionary defines admiration as the polite recognition of another’s resemblance to one’s self. This tongue-in-cheek appraisal of why we hold others in esteem seems to cut to the root of my problem, there is no mutual admiration between us because there is nothing either camp is willing to admire. Just as my brothers chose a surrogate role model in the absence of an older brother, once I realized I had lost my relationship with them, I sought out replacement siblings with similar qualifications for coolness within my own peer group. In essence, the combination of my failure to assume my traditional role within the family unit and the rapid rise of an unfamiliar and even personally detestable popular culture phenomenon has caused my family to become strangers and strangers to become my family. This is a clear revaluation of my hierarchies of social importance. Recognizing changes in popular culture cannot exonerate me of my complicity in this process. It is for sake of pride in my generation of cool that I have exiled my brothers to a cultural wasteland of their own choosing to reside in a familial ghetto of my design.