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Culture is an Ecosystem: A Manifesto Towards a New Cultural Criticism (1)

Culture is an Ecosystem: A Manifesto Towards a New Cultural Criticism (1)
A rudimentary hand-drawn diagram of the cultural ecosystem in a complex post-modern society. There are many more overlaps and cultural flows than indicated here.

The "culture" of a society isn't a blob of random human activity, but an orderly ecosystem arising from the interactions between particular subunits. To maintain ecosystem health, we must reject the cynical “poptimist” framing of culture as a mere vehicle for entertainment and commerce and instead promote the benefits of constant cultural refresh.

In three parts, I show why the flourishing of non-mainstream culture is important for the entire ecosystem — and the crucial role that critics play in promoting cultural innovation.

Part One: The Cultural Ecosystem

1.1 In modern society, culture is never a single monolithic entity but instead an ecosystem of interlinking cultural subunits always in the state of dynamic interaction.

1.2 Each of these cultural subunits is a discrete taste world adhering to its own specific conventions (i.e. styles, norms, rules).

1.2.1 Individuals inside each taste world appreciate and advocate specific aesthetics and cultural artifacts, while simultaneously disdaining other groups’ aesthetics and artifacts — e.g. punks pogo but don't line dance, literary snobs like James Joyce but not Danielle Steel.

1.2.2 In the most complex societies, the primary taste worlds include youth culture, class cultures, rural or folk cultures, subcultures, and countercultures. There are also artists who attempt to create new aesthetic experiences through the intentional alteration of mainstream conventions.

1.2.3 The aesthetics within each taste world are not random but map to the social needs of the individuals — e.g. the wealthy prefer goods that signal capital and privilege, while countercultures advocate conventions and beliefs antithetical to the current class structure.

1.2.4  Culture is inherently arbitrary, so the specific tastes of each group change over time within the framework of their needs — e.g. youth and subcultures want slang to mark themselves as distinct from the mainstream, but the specific words used as slang change.

1.3 Cultural subunits do not exist on a vertical hierarchy (i.e. high vs. low culture) but each group seeks different levels of cultural diversity and complexity.

1.3.1 Mainstream and folk conventions tend to require the least amount of pre-existing knowledge to understand.

1.3.2 Smaller-sized taste worlds, especially those based in closed or marginalized communities, develop more obscure codes — e.g. Old Money emphasis on details, gangs using specific colors and tattoos to demonstrate allegiances.

1.3.3 Oppositional taste worlds prefer conventions that are openly antagonistic to the mainstream — e.g. bikers, Bronx gangs, and punks all brandished swastikas in the 1970s.

1.3.4 Artists and art-oriented countercultures (i.e. Bohemians) salute convention-breaking, while conservative and mainstream taste worlds abhor convention-breaking.

1.4. The largest cultural segment in any society is the “mainstream,” although it may represent a plurality rather than a majority.

1.4.1 The “average” person in any society belongs to this taste world as it requires no specialized knowledge, nor has very high barriers to participation. Tastes can be acquired through ambient absorption — e.g. hearing songs as background music, watching whatever program is “on” TV during peak viewing hours, learning about celebrities from magazine covers at dentist offices. 

1.4.2 The mainstream tends to be the most lucrative segment for the cultural industry.

1.4.3 The lack of specialized knowledge amongst the mainstream audience encourages cultural producers to create and distribute cultural works with minimum changes to pre-existing artistic conventions. The industry perceives mainstream individuals as conservative: They “like what they like” and prefer not to be confronted with radical change.

1.4.4 Yet most individuals, even in the mainstream, require some level of novel stimuli for cultural engagement, and this requires occasional refreshes to the formula. While this process may be slow, the introduction of small tweaks does alter the basic conventions of mass culture — e.g. the popularity of an independent film like Pulp Fiction can acclimate non-cinephiles to previous avant-garde techniques such as asynchronous storytelling.

1.5. Youth culture centers around cultural practices that mark teenagers from adults.

1.5.1 Due to the structure of the contemporary cultural industry, there is much overlap between mainstream and youth culture. Most “hits” and “stars” require fandom among young people.

1.5.2 Youth tend to be open-minded towards new forms of cultural expression.

1.5.3 Youth tend to embrace new technologies, especially as early adoption serves as a walled garden keeping out older generations — e.g. 1950s teenagers listening to transistor radios, TikTok in the 21st century.

1.6 Where individuals mostly engage in youth and mainstream culture as entertainment or means of social interaction, the wealthy require culture meant to mark their elevated status. 

1.6.1 New Money desires obvious status-marking goods like expensive homes, cars, boats, accessories, and apparel.

1.6.2 Old Money elevates “coded” and subtle aesthetics (in rejection of New Money's ostentatious display).

1.6.3 Upper-middle class professionals center their tastes around discovery of interesting and superior goods.

1.7 Outside of the mainstream, there is a large rural, non-coastal suburban culture that embraces a more conservative worldview — e.g. country music, Christian TV and films, right-wing politics.

1.7.1 This group forms some of its identity through an opposition to coastal cosmopolitan culture, but it often borrows mainstream conventions and formats — e.g. 21st century country music uses trap beats, Christian clothing brands take ideas from streetwear.

1.7.2 Most of the other taste worlds oppose rural, lower middle-class suburban tastes (e.g. being labeled a "Christian rock band" is a "kiss of death" for non-Christian fans), although fully-outmoded remnants from the past receive re-appraisal (e.g. contemporary independent musical artists take influence from Johnny Cash but not Hank Williams, Jr.)

1.8 Marginalized communities, whether ostracized by bigotry or in choosing to self-isolate, take on alternative conventions that demonstrate obvious separation from mainstream culture.

1.8.1 Countercultures tend to be educated middle-class individuals who self-isolate based on alternative value systems — e.g. hippies, radical political movements, religious cults.

1.8.2 Minority subcultures create new cultural forms when excluded from mainstream society — e.g. hip hop founded by Black youth in the impoverished South Bronx, camp aesthetics arising in queer culture.

1.8.3 Working class subcultures take up alternative styles that arise in opposition to mainstream culture without an explicit ideology — e.g. Teddy Boys, Mods, Bōsōzoku.

1.8.4 Hobbyists create culture in perceived low status areas within mainstream culture, especially things considered childish — e.g. computer nerds in the 1970s, Bronies.

1.9 Artists are agents of invention who attempt to change the dominant conventions (although many individuals operating under the rubric of "artist" have much more pedestrian and commercial goals.)

1.9.1 The avant-garde exposes, devalues, and alters existing conventions in search of new cultural arrangements that could provide new aesthetic experiences.

1.9.2 Virtuosos skillfully reproduce existing conventions for entertainment but rarely invent new conventions.

1.9.3 Hacks make a profession out of artistic activity by repeating pre-existing conventions to ensure commercial success.

1.10 The distinct cultural subunits influence each other within the ecosystem — in the direction of aspiration. The stability of these aspirations makes the cultural flows mostly stable and predictable.

1.10.1 All cultural subunits tend to take influence from mainstream conventions due to the ubiquity of mass media.

1.10.2 The wealthy establish material aspirations for most of society — e.g. even impoverished people dream of owning a Porsche or Rolex.

1.10.3 The creative class takes influence from Old Money, artists, countercultures, and minority subcultures, and through the mechanism of retro, often embrace outmoded forms of culture from the mainstream and rural groups — e.g "granny" glasses, hunting camouflage as streetwear.

1.10.4 The culture industry plucks innovations from youth culture, the creative class, and New Money to find novelties. They also sometimes promote rural culture where there is potential for broader appeal.

1.10.5 The interaction between these subunits means changes to conventions over time, therefore, opening up opportunities to refresh the entire ecosystem.

NEXT IN PART TWO: Why is “refresh” important for cultural health?