University is finally inspiring me to write! Magic!
As this text is full with quotes marked by italics, I will, for once, use bold font to indicate key passages within my own text instead of italics. NOTE: Due to a real or perceived lack of time, I currently rarely manage to edit what I write, so most of the content which may or may not pop up within the next few weeks/months/life-times will basically be straight-draft, quick-shot format.
We 'live' capitalism through its commodities, and, by living it, we validate and invigorate it. The producers and distributors of jeans do not intend to promote capitalist ideology with their product: they are not deliberate propagandists. Rather, the economic system, which determines mass production and mass consumption, reproduces itself ideologically in its commodities. Every commodity reproduces the ideology of the system that procuded it. a commodity is ideology made material.-- John Fiske, The Jeaning of America
This is the most fundamental tenet of America/Capitalism. It produces nothing but itself. America can reproduce it self ideologically through its commodities because it has no ideology. It does not concern itself with anything but selling. The medium is the message. (see also)
The text by Fiske is, in fact, quite an interesting read, despite – or even because of – its relative age (1989), and punctuated by quite a few acute observations. His conclusions, however, are entirely the wrong ones.
But more significant than any other possible meaning of ragged jeans is the fact that the raggedness is the production and choice of the user, it is an excorporation of the commodity into a subordinate subculture and a transfer of at least some of the power inherent in the commodification process. [...] Excorporation is the process by which the subordinate make their own culture out of the resources and commodities provided by the dominant system, and this is central to popular culture, for in an industrial society the only resources from which the subordinate can make their own subcultures are those provided by the system that subordinates them. There is no "authentic" folk culture to provide an alternative, and so popular culture is necessarily the art of making do with what is available. This means that the study of popular culture requires the study not only of the cultgural commodities out of which it is made, but also of the ways that people use themn. The latter are far more creative and varied than the former.
Here lie the fundamental mistakes. If one accepts that the system is one of self-perpetuation, one that is only concerned with selling, then none of these things matter. You can do whatever the hell you want with your jeans as long as you have bought them. (The only way to support and assert the authority of the system even more, would, ironically, be to steal them.) More importantly, however, is the nod towards the Frankfurt school - that there is no "authentic" folk culture. Because folk culture and mass culture are the same thing, or, at least, searching for meaning and identity through either is impossible. The Frankfurt school demands authentic folk culture to derive meaning from, and Fiske finds that reappropriating mass culture is good enough. (More on this in a bit). What both of these idea(l)s have in common is that they try to derive meaning/identity through consumption, which is why both are destined to fail.
The vitality of the subordinated groups that, in various shifting social allegiances, constitute the people is to be found in the ways of using, not in what is used. This results in the producers having to resort to the processes of incorporation or containment. Manufacturers quickly exploited the popularity of ragged (or old and faded) jeans by producing factory-made tears, or by "washing" or fading jeans in the factory before sale. This process of adopting the signs of resistances incorporates them into the dominant system and thus attempt to rob them of any oppositional meanings. (emphasis mine)
Wrooong. The strategy of Jeans designers to co-opt/incorporate /adopting these signs was a ploy, a feint, designed to make the consumers think that the producers care about their dissent - the idea was not to silence dissent, but to further it, i.e. to force/encourage the consumer to come up with a new way of "ragging" the Jeans, thereby implicitly fortifying/confirming the worth of Jeans in the first place.
Popular culture always is part of power relations; it always bears traces of the constant struggle between domination and subordination, between power and various forms of resistance to it or evasions of it, between military strategy and guerilla tactics. Evaluating the balance of power within this struggle is never easy: Who can say, at any one point, who is "winning" a guerrillla war? The essence of guerrilla warfare, as of popular culture, lies in not being defeatable. Despite nearly two centuries of capitalism, subordinated subcultures exist and intransigently refuse finally to be incpororated - people in these subcultures keep devising new ways of tearing their jeans. Despite many more centuries of patriarchy, women have procude and maintained a feminist movement, and inidividual women, in their everyday lives, constantly make guerilla raids upon patriarchy, win small, fleeting vicotries, keep the enemy oconstantly on the alert, and gain, and sometimes hold, pieces of territory (however small), for themselves. And gradually, reluctanyl, patriarchy has to change in response. Structural changes at the level of the system itself, in whatever domain – that of law, of politics, of industry, of the family - occur only after the system has been eroded and weakened by the tactics of everyday life.
Wroooooong. First off, the only territory being fought over in this system is how much money you hand over, so guerilla tactics cannot win, they still tap into the system. Secondly, Note that "people in these subcultures keep devising new ways of tearing their jeans" – i.e. implicitly confirming the worth of Jeans in the first place. Thirdly, the example of feminism shows the exact opposite of what Fiske thinks it does. The end-goal of feminism must necessarily be the dissolution of feminism (and masculinism), that is to say, gender/sex needs to become, for all intents and purposes, in fiction as well as in reality, absolutely incidental to the story/life – i.e. whether a character in a novel has agency or not, whether a person gets a job or not, all of these things should cease to be seen in the light/from the perspective of gender. Fiske notes that a feminist movement has been maintained in spite of the patriarchy - but the patriarchy would be in favor of maintaining a feminist movement, because movement (without direction/end) equals self-perpetuation, which means that the existence of a feminist movements perpetuates the patriarchy, just as ragged jeans maintain jeans. Which is why more and more women "are allowed" by the system to become politicians – power has already moved on.
Until recently, the study of popular culture has taken two main directions. The less productive has been that which has celebrated popular culture without situating it in a model of power. It has been a consensual model, which viewed popular culture as a form of the ritual management of social differences out of which it produced a final harmony. It is a democratic version of elite humanism, which merely resituates the cultural life of a nation in the popular rather than in the highbrow.The other direction has been to situate popular culture firmly within a model of power, but to emphasize so strongly the forces of domination as to make it appear impossible for a genuine popular culture to exist at all. What replaced it was a mass culture imposed upon a powerless and passive people by a culture industry whose interests were in direct opposition to theirs. A mass culture produces a quiescent, passive mass of people, an agglomeration of atomized individuals separated from their position in the social structure, detached from and unaware of their class consciousness, of their various social and cultural allegiances, and thus totally disempowered and helpless.Recently, however, a third direction has begun to emerge, one to which I hope this book will contribute. It, too, sees popular culture as a site of struggle, but, while accepting the power of the forces of dominance, it focuses rather upon the popular tactics by which these forces are coped with, are evaded or are resisted. Instead of tracing exclusively the processes of incorporation, it investigates rather that popular vitality and creativity that makes incorporation such a constant necessity,. Instead of concentrating on the omnipresent, insiduous practices of the dominant ideology, it attempts to understand the everyday resistances and evasions that make that ideology work so hard and insistently to maintain itself and its values. This approach sees popular culture as potentially, and often actually, progressive, (though not radical), and it is essentially optimist, for it finds in the vigor and vitality of the people evidence both of the possibility of social change and of the motivation todrive it. (emphasis mine)
The bolded part goes back to what I said about Ostendorfs text earlier: The inability of Americans to radically oppose America, their desire to fight "guerilla" style is why it will always stay the same, will always remain a system of self-perpetuation. As long as this remains true, being political in America is all but pointless (though such an attitude is just another reinforcement of the system), which is why I so often state the necessity of plugging out in regards to personal fulfillment/happiness. Which brings me to the second point, which I brought up at the outset of this text: Identity, Happiness, Meaning cannot be derived, cannot be gained through consumption, only through creation. What Fiske hails as the "vigorous [...] resistances and evasions [...] of the people" is still consistently consumption, not creation.
Torn jeans were, perhaps, in the beginning, a sign to the self: A sign that allows the wearer to remember a certain episode from his/her life during which the jeans were torn. The sign of torn jeans was, however, commodified not by the producers; it turned into a commodity the second that this personal sign became a social one – in that second, the signified was turned empty. The producers contributed to this by making torn jeans a pre-made product, therefore making the semantic shift irreversible (as one could not longer use it as a personal sign connected to personal episodes), but the damage had already been done by then. As soon as it became a sign for others, it became an attempt to signify identity through consumption. Fiske says that "in an industrial society the only resources from which the subordinate can make their own subcultures are those provided by the system that subordinates them", but this is already the wrong approach. The only resources from which one make any culture at all are words, instruments, pigments, ink, wood, stone, cameras [...]. Facebook profiles most prominently display the shows you watch, the movies you've seen, the books you've read, the video games you play, the music you listen to, but none of these things can form your identity.
You can embrace popular culture (I do, I love drama series), or you can ignore it (I do, I don't watch or read the news). But you can't fight it guerilla style.