Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Clandestine Truth: The Monoculture

There is a show, of which I am a fan, called Robot Chicken. It's a very simple animated sketch comedy show whose material is almost exclusively composed of parodies of other shows or characters, taking these figures and putting them in new contexts for the amusement of the audience. The entire reason this show works is because their viewers understand the iconic figures. A workplace documentary on Cobra wouldn't be funny if you hadn't seen G.I. Joe, but because all of the hundreds of thousands of people who watch Robot Chicken have it's a funny show. The fact that this can happen through a TV show doesn't really bug me, but Robot Chicken is a good way to describe something that does.

I'm not sure if this is true for other social groups, but the humor amongst nerds is based heavily on references. Every time my table top roleplaying group meets I get a grand example of this. Kevin's character gets an ability that allows him to slide the enemies around the battlefield. He refers to it as "Change Places!" and we all laugh because we've all seen Futurama. The line "look at his great starring eyes," is understood to be funny because we've all seen the Simpsons. This is where Robot Chicken comes in. The way we produce humor amongst ourselves is by referencing the original media, in the same way that the humor that is in Robot Chicken comes from refrencing other media further up the line. None of this is coming from us. Our stories, our experiences, our discussions, those are becoming secondary factors in shaping our culture. I've said before that I am poisoned with quotes and I no longer think that was an exageration. It is a kind of poisoning.

It's not just amongst nerds either. Mantras are being etched into your head every day. There is one perfect example of this from my own life. Several months ago I routinely used the phrase "That's the stuff," as an expression of success or progress, usually in a video game. A lot of the time that I was playing Kevin was around, and whenever he heard me use that phrase he would add the word "Hostess."

The entire phrase that had been ground into his head was "That's the stuff, Hostess!" It's a marketing tagline I'm sure you've heard. It was so fully engrained that for me to use a part of the phrase inevitably brought up the rest of it in his mind. That's fucked up. Question my language if you must but there's simply no other way for me to express myself on this issue. This phrase wasn't one that any of us used. We rarely if ever ate hostess products, only Adam has shown any fondness for them, and yet that phrase had been firmly etched into our minds.

In case you think this is just an isolated incident I'd like to present something to you. Read the list, just casually, and try and tell me that you don't connect at lest one of these phrases to a commercial enterprise.

Think Different.
Fair and Balanced
You've got 30 minutes.
Eat Fresh.
Apply directly to the forehead.
So easy a Caveman could do it.
Have it your way.
I garuntee it.

Those phrases are a perfect example of this effect because each of them is generated by a marketing firm, and has no inherent reason to be associated to its product. You could have any number of things your way. You can garuntee almost anything. Thirty minutes could get a lot done, which may include applying a wide variety of things to your forehead. And yet when we pass over these phrases we think of burger king, Men's Warehouse, Pizza Hut, and Headon.

This however is just the commerical aspect of what I'm calling the monoculture. What I talked about earlier, a culture built around refrences, that's the communal aspect of it.

The monoculture allows us to divide ourselves into a small number of phenomenally large groups. The perfect example of this is PAX. At PAX I saw five thousand people burst into laughter because a group of musical cosplayers dressed up as the bad horse chorus sniped Gabe. All five thousand of us loved this because we had all seen the scene from Dr. Horrible. We were people from all over the country, but because we were all feeding into the same facet of the monoculture we were able to share this amazing experience. I spoke before about the idea that there was a vast community in existance simply waiting for a place to condense, and that PAX was the mecca to which were all drawn. Now I know why. The nerd monoculture is spead across the net, it's spread in the late night cartoon shows, and through the new media of video games. We're not, by nature, social people, but when a summoning goes out the monoculture can condense into an amazing community.

This is where we get to the real problem. The monoculture is affecting us negitively by creating a set of learned consumer behaviors. It's affecting us negitively by homoginizing our culture and taking the public stories out of our hands. And it's allowing us to form rich communities by presenting the same distant homoginized culture to everyone. If you leave the monoculture you leave it all. You can take the red pill, and hope that you find something beyond the illusions, but everything you got from the monoculture will have to stay behind. When everyone is enslaved freedom is alienating.


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