I call it “the cultural smog of the Internet”. If you want just about any novel or album or film ever produced you can find it in a matter of seconds or hours. The focus of high culture that restricted culture to a canon, and the amnesia of mass culture that replaced bands and TV shows every couple of years, has given way to a flat or post-historical cultural simultaneity even as time has started to flow again after the brief post-cold-war fantasy of “the end of history”.
Ease of consumption has been accompanied by a dropping of the barriers to production to an almost negligible level in western culture. Anyone can play guitar, but absolutely everyone can play a sample of someone else playing guitar in a mash-up or comment on it in a blog. This is that democracy you were always talking about, the world of everyone being an artist. Be careful what you wish for.
In the past, the cultural canon was more than most people could hope to read or hear (or see) in their lifetime. Now it’s much, much less. Culture approaches The Condition Of Muzak, of the unceasing BGM (background music) of anime. If we can choose an almost random subset of an almost infinite set of cultural works as our personal canon, how can we speak to others? How can we avoid private-language-like private culture? How can we cheat solipsism?
“This week is Killers week” said one of the kids sitting a few seats away from me on the railway station a few years ago. Popular culture, mass culture, was always supply-side and not only required but produced a kind of cultural amnesia and lack of purchase. That’s why the fifties are back once a decade, even if we call them the sixties because that’s when they were truly commodified.
When the culture one may encounter is effectively random, the human may be emphasized rather than undermined. One’s taste, one’s ability not to react but to engage and conceptualise, becomes key and becomes strengthened. When culture is contingent people are not.
Cultures of scale are the harmonic, set-based, expertise-based-on-exposure-to-many-works-rather-than-a-few, emergent taste and aesthetic products of individual human subjects that only breathing the cultural smog of the internet can produce. We haven’t even begun to guess at them. But rather than retreating into the reactionary defeatism of artificial canons or into the managerialism-that-protests-too-much of semiotic analysis or into the complicit mass-media surfing of cool hunting we should meet cultures of scale and their subjects head on as aesthetics, as valid territory for the history and theory and philosophy of art.