Mark Pepper

Redefining the popular: Systems, networks, and the circulation of digital desire

Mark Pepper

  • School: Purdue University (0183)
  • Degree: Ph.D.
  • Date: 2011 pp: 242
  • Advisor: Rickert, Thomas
  • Source: DAI-A 73/01(E)
  • Subjects: Social sciences; Language, literature and linguistics; Cultural studies; Digital desire; Networks; Pop culture; Popularity; Rhetoric; Systems; Cultural anthropology; Social structure; 0700:Social structure;
  • ProQuest Document Number: 901117696
  • ISBN: 9781124945880
  • UMI Number: AAT 3477727

Abstract:

This dissertation, Redefining the Popular: Systems, Networks, and the Circulation of Digital Desire, reconsiders the practices and concerns of culture studies by exploring popularity itself. I frame popularity not as an epistemological status that defines textual effects and audience readings; rather, popularity is information that structures connecting relationships between individual people and perceived collectives. I argue that people’s reactions to texts and ideas are far more affected by their conceptions of other people’s tastes and opinions than they are by content. Chapter one takes a tour through the history of popular culture theory. Extended consideration is given to: highbrow/lowbrow culture, the Frankfurt school, Gramscian hegemony, the Birmingham school, and fandom studies. I critique all of them for relying on too narrow a definition of communication. By breaking culture down to the interplay of producers, texts, and audiences (conceived of as existing in separate places), “the ‘meaningfulness’ of culture is reduced to the interpretation of meaning in its simplest and narrowest sense, to that which is easiest to talk about within the codes of Western academic theories: semantic content, cognitive significance, narrative meaning, and representation” (Grossberg, Dancing In Spite of Myself 272). Two possibilities emerge: texts are active agents that produce effects, or audiences are agents that determine what those effects will be. Culture studies additionally fails to produce much surprise – the same arguments about oppressive effects are made over and over, resistance is found exactly where it’s expected, and little change actually takes hold. The chapter concludes by arguing for the importance of a more sociological approach that addresses these impasses from different directions. Chapter two takes the historical conceptions of popularity from the previous chapter and categorizes them as: a matter of quantities, a result of content, and a sign of homogenous experience. Although these conceptions have always been problematic, I argue that the changes brought by digitality to the dissemination and discussion of pop culture pose even more challenges to their usefulness. However, instead of completely dismissing the flaws in these conceptions, I argue that we view them as longstanding, rhetorical commonplaces from which to make arguments about popularity. As commonplaces, they provide ready-made argumentative stances. The commonplaces’ focus on logical rationality and textual content also appeal by seeming to provide a conscious basis for our tastes. I argue that the commonplaces ultimately serve the useful fantasy that we are aware of, and in control of, why we have the specific tastes that provide such a key component of our identities. Chapter three addresses the fears of ideological influence that have been with popular culture study from the beginning. Working primarily with the social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann, I explore how the notion of an agency-invested subject can be replaced with posthumanist processes of self-construction through functional differentiation (the subject/object dichotomy replaced with one of system/environment). Direct manipulation is problematized through an exploration of how the mind, body, and social are all systems that exist independantly. They self-perpetuate through operational closure and can only make sense of each other by observing themselves through their own operational codes. Popularity is presented as information (differences that makes a difference) emerging inside the system of the mass media that enables people to make their own senses of meaning and order. Further, since our conception of the other is encountered through digital networks, I also account for the network power laws and preferential attachments that challenge the notion of the Web as a place of democratic freedom and novel exploration. While chapter three focuses on communication systems, chapter four works in tandem to explore the body and mind. I argue that the individual’s application of categories and generalizations about other people work as a form of complexity reduction which is rooted in needs on the neurological level. Further, the desire to consume and discuss popular culture at all is viewed from the perspective of affective responses that are embodied, unconscious, pre-linguistic, and define the intensities of mattering that surround consumption (perpetuating the impossible fantasy of actually sharing that intensity with someone else through language or text). The final chapter addresses questions that arise from this reconfiguration of popularity with an emphasis on ramifications for social activism. If human minds are hardwired to reduce complexity, if hierarchy is an emergent law of networks, and if intensities of mattering rule over actual articulations, then the fantasy of rational and equal agents making change in the world must be reconsidered. While the traditional allies of culture studies hold on to this fantasy, its traditional targets (markets and conservatives) have tapped into the affective power of popularity and therefore must be responded to with new techniques.