Media Leekage and Pop Culture's Immortality
I work at a community college and come into daily contact with a man who has absolutely no idea that his mannerisms drive everyone around him crazy! He is a very nice man and goes the extra mile on everything, but he likes to talk in a faux Jamaican or Southern accent about half the time.This is apparently (for I've started a subscription to Salon via the Well - and I don't know how long I'll keep it going) an advice column written by Cary Tennis and the complaint a letter looking for advice.
He high-fives people constantly when either he or they make some kind of statement he thinks is "right on" -- even folks who barely know him and don't share his gregarious personality. He also says "Oh nooooo!" in a high-pitched Mr. Bill voice, or "Are we having fun yet?" more times a day than I can count.
Tennis answered with a first line that excited me (sorry, low excitement threshold today): "One of the lesser-studied problems of the postmodern world is that of fictional seepage." Tennis plays it for a laugh, how fictional characters seep through the membrane between the real and fictional worlds. But let's think about this a bit, because there's a lot more to this concept than humor.
There's no doubt on my part that the content of the media, taken in total, has a shaping influence on our culture. Simply look at how many people end up quoting lines from sitcoms or movies or even television commercials. This isn't something new. I've seen song lyrics and plays and literature from the 19th century, at least, that had popular culture references from the time that are unrecognizable now.
Politicians do it because they want to show that they're hip and in-touch with the people (which makes me think of the ironic story former child star Patty Duke tells of having to learn popular dances from teenagers hired as tutors when she was on a popular television show in which she played the stereotypical teenager). People do it because they like to be clever. But I think they also do so because they see such references as iconic. These snippets of dialog come with a range of associations indicating thoughts, observations, reactions, and emotions. The few words become more of an image than language, presenting a synthesized (as in completed and artificial at the same time) experience. There's no need to work and digest personal experiences, understand their meaning, and find your own way to express them. You just reach for the off-the-shelf part.
The more we sit in a bath of tepid media - don't want to shock the audience out of a buying mindset, after all - the greater our collection of parts. Obviously the co-worker isn't a specific character from a BBC comedy, as Tennis jokes. But there's a good chance that the high-fives come from one image of how modern people act, the Mr. Bill imitation from Saturday Night Live reruns, the accents from somewhere else. It's a darkly amusing thought until you turn the light onto yourself. Which of my pet phrases come from something I've heard, watched, or read, even if I no longer remember the original source? How much of my body language and mannerisms are so much aping? What opinions or beliefs do I have where I haven't worked them out, but have just accepted them from the New York Times or talk radio, and I only parrot? How often do I force myself to find a new way to express a concern or question the ideas I hold dear. When you start looking around and at yourself, and try to distill the original from the imposed copies, suddenly the concept isn't so funny. It's not seepage; it's a fire hose that can drown you if you're not careful.