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misshapen identity
is your dvr your dna?
by mike julianelle
5.6.09
pop culture


They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Others say you're defined by the company you keep. Some people suggest that you are what you eat, and in today's increasingly manipulated world of online personae, you are what you say you are. But when it comes down to it, you are what you watch, and listen to, and read.

As technology grows cheaper, and helps make the world flatter, the old roadblocks are being eradicated. These days, so long as you don't want to, you don't have to miss out on your pop culture favorites. It hardly matters where you live or what you're worth, you can still find a way to watch "Lost," or see Wolverine (don't), or hear the latest Radiohead album. Don't have cable? I bet you have a DVD player. Don't have a DVD player? Try Hulu. Don't have the internet? Then you're not reading this, and I'm talking to myself. What else is new?

Pop culture has long been common ground for many of us, offering shortcuts to intimacy, or at least small talk, with people with whom we might otherwise have little in common. Don't know somebody well? Just find out what they're into and, at the very least, you'll start some small talk. You could even launch a new friendship. There's no quicker way to get a read on someone than to find out their interests, and, inevitably, those interests include what they watch on Wednesday nights, their desert island movies, and their favorite New Kid. Is it Donnie? Is it Joey?

Case in point: I recently had a job interview in which I was asked to name some of my favorite books, TV shows and films. Obviously, they were getting at my personality, as defined by my interests. No worries there, I wasn't about to scare them off by reciting a list that included Mein Kampf, HBO's "Autopsy" and Gummo; my pop culture credentials are impeccable. But I'm confident that if I'd not been me, and instead been some nutcase who said something crazy about avoiding all TV and movies, or only reading 18th century religious literature, or not using the internet, I'd have raised as many red flags as a morbid, Nazi-loving Harmony Korine fan. And rightfully so.

If you do want to avoid pop culture then you must be Amish, or crazy, or my friend Dmitri, who lives off the grid like John Connor. (Right now, Dmitri is googling John Connor.) And that's fine. But in today's media-saturated world, it makes you a freak. No offense, Dmit.

But just as rejecting pop culture to the point of living in the woods with Ted Kaczynski can be...problematic, using a DVR as your personal biography is equally abhorrent, as I discovered when someone criticized my columns for relying too much on pop culture references. That comment gave me pause, as it's something I've thought about in the past. As a writer, it's easy to fall back on such references for an easy joke or as a way to use something "universal" to draw readers in, and soon enough it becomes a shtick.

As a person, isn't it just as possible to bury your personality under an avalanche of the same pop culture nonsense? When you're known as the "Lost" guy, or have a nickname associated with a favorite band, or engineer your face to look like some celebrity, you might be having trouble separating your personality from your pop culture hobbies. I once told my brother that if I stopped being sarcastic, I'd no longer have a personality. Nowadays I worry far more that if I were deprived of all the pop culture ephemera on which I depend, I'd fade away like Marty McFly in that Polaroid.

See? I did it again. Rather than just make a generic comment about losing my grip on my identity, I called on Back To The Future to make my point. And it made perfect sense! This is a vicious cycle we're in, one that's impossible to fight. Pointless, even.

Maybe this new technology that is serving to flood our lives with more and more pop culture is bringing us somewhere new and unforeseen. In seemingly growing our dependence on this kind of information, is it forming the basis for a new kind of society? Pushing us forward even as we buck, futilely, against it?

As they allow us unprecedented, immediate access to all kinds of media, the internet and DVR and iPods and all the other sexy new stuff out there also allows us to schedule our pop culture intake around our lives, rather than vice versa. And sites like Facebook and Twitter are being used to forge human connection and interaction, no matter how superficial and spurious those connections and that interaction may seem. Maybe in constantly forcing us to consider who we are before filling out the dozens of profiles needed for every new website we'll come to some sort of insight about ourselves.

And maybe, just maybe, what today seems to be an overload of pop culture is about to reach a tipping point, where after what was once invasive and overwhelming will fade into a kind of mundanity. And what was once noise and clutter will become the landscape of our lives and the backgrounds of our personalities, eventually serving as a breeding ground for new versions of ourselves, versions informed and buoyed by a collective pop culture consciousness but existing above that consciousness, so that not only are we no longer defined individually by what we watch or read or download, we have instead evolved past those things and into a newly aware kind of humanity that lives collectively and symbiotically with all this "stuff." A humanity built on all of this information but able to ignore it even as it feeds us. Like the air we breathe.

Whoa.

On second thought, maybe I'll just take the blue pill and stick with the reference making (The Matrix!). Sure, should I ever find myself Beyond Thunderdome, I'll be ill-equipped to survive. But at least I'll know what's going to happen next.


ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE

Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

more about mike julianelle

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COMMENTS

sandra thompson
5.6.09 @ 9:26a

One of the reasons I love Mil Millington's novels is his appropriate use of pop culture references. Speaking of which, I just finished his latest novel: Instructions for Living Someone Else's Life. As are all his novels, it's excruciatingly funny and has a few dozen profound insights about us human beings. His other novels are: Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About; A Certain Chemistry and Love and Other Near-Death Experiences. Yeah, I'm shilling for Mil!!! I'm his biggest fan on this continent.

juli mccarthy
5.6.09 @ 1:53p

Actually, you DON'T need to watch TV or movies or listen to popular music. Pop culture is so pervasive that it escapes its media all the time. I have never seen an episode of Seinfeld, but I can tell you Kramer's first name, what method of birth control Elaine uses, what Festivus is and why every guy has a puffy shirt.

I know that's an old show, but it's still going on. I know stuff about House, The Office and The O.C. and Desperate Housewives without having turned my own television on for over a year. (It's been on, because other people here watch it, but I honestly have no idea even which remote control operates it.)

mike julianelle
5.6.09 @ 4:13p

Awesome! And I know what you mean. Though I am more attuned than most people, I know plenty about TV shows and movies I've never seen. It just gets absorbed.

But this is exactly what I'm talking about in my crazy sci-fi rant at the end of the column, about the evolution of pop culture into part of the atmosphere, feeding our collective consciousness without us even trying.

Juli, you are the beginning of that new evolution!

[edited]



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