WARNING: This post is really long and not very well done. I was sitting bored at the airport for three hours and just kind of rambled on for awhile. Its mostly just an excuse to insult my housemates. Unless you’re really bored, I wouldn’t read this one.
This past weekend I took a trip with the parents to Atlantic City. I won’t bore you with details and pictures but rather introduce a theory of human behavior in the context of our current mass media.
For the most part, the trip was pretty boring (you can’t drunkenly stumble naked down the Boardwalk with the parents around). Most of the trip was spent meandering through the Trump Hotel, Trump Taj Mahal, and Trump plaza. We even had a sighting of the Trump-copter.
I’ve learned that the way to deal with the montony and mediocrity that my parents can perpetuate is to bring along my own entertainment. Last time it was Freakonomics, this time it was a book that I had skimmed through (read: read an online summary) for my senior year high school English class but Lisa has urged me to complete: White Noise. No, it has nothing to do with the recent horror movie of the same name. It is actually about a college professor who pioneers a Hitler studies department in his small liberal-arts college and spends his time deconstructing the meanings of car crash movies, TV commercials, death, fried chicken, consumer culture and mass media. Basically, it’s a book about the inner-monologue of a Brown student. And Lisa was right, it was totally worth reading and often laugh-at-loud funny. Now I want to write a book named Black Noise.
A quick aside before the theorizing: to Adam, the Hu, and other pro-book people, I must admit now that there is some worth to fiction books. However, I would say that fiction is only worthwhile in relation to understanding realities and would be improved in television form.
Alright, now to my theory. Like all of my theories, this is basically a restating of something you already know in different terms. Let’s begin:
Q: 1000 people are offered $50 if they can guess the number from 0 to 100 closest to 2/3’s of the average response. (Only whole numbers can be guessed, the correct response will be rounded up, in case of a tie a random method will determine the winner.) What number would you submit and why?
A: Obviously, there is no one “correct” answer here. And no this isn’t some kind of trick question thing. Simply put, your goal is to guess what other people would guess and then submit 2/3’s of that number. In experimental economics there are multiple methods that would explain the thought process one might go through to come up with an answer. I will focus on two: iterative dominance and the Nash equilibrium.
Iterative dominance is a simple concept that means thinking one step beyond your opponents. In this case, it may work out like this:
Iteration #1: Unless you’re a complete idiot you would have to guess less than 67 because even if everyone chose 100, the correct answer would be 66 2/3.
Iteration #2: You know that everyone knows iteration #1 so you know that the answer must be less than 2/3s of 2/3s of 100 or less than 2/3s of 66 2/3 or less than about 44.
Iteration #3: You know that most people will realize iteration #2 so you know that the answer must be less than 2/3s of 2/3s of 2/3 of 100 or less than 2/3s of 44 which is about 29…
And it goes from there. Simple enough.
Now its application. In my time in Cleveland and at Brown I’ve figured out how many groups define themselves and their world. Blacks are defined by struggle and opposition. Asians are defined either by isolation or self-hate and shame. Jews are defined by fear of failure and self-deprication. Preps and jocks are defined by living up to the standard of being preps and jocks. Women are defined by active self-commidifization, submission and incompetence. However, I’ve been trying to figure out the culture of the sect of White people that I’ve designated as indy. They are also referred to as hipsters I understand. Living with three of them this summer gave me insight into their culture and schema and I think I understand the driving force behind their culture: iterative dominance.
In a world where it is increasingly difficult to exist independent of mass culture and commercialization, the indy people are desparate to find that which is authentic. That was crystallized to me when I admitted to one of my housemates that I enjoyed Linkin Park despite the fact that they are a corporate creation meant to appeal to disillusioned white teenagers. His response was: well then why do you like them? Apparently he felt that liking a band should not be based on enjoying their music but rather on their claim to authenticity. If that means listening to random mind-numbing sounds in the kitchen rather than listening to commercial radio, then so be it.
The indy people are are smart enough to realize that they cannot exist outside of the pop culture hegemony so they subvert it by calling it into question. However, their coporate opponents have learned how to repurpose that very opposition into consumer culture. It then becomes the challenge for the indy subject to find the next iteration or lose their indy capital.
For example (circa 2000):
Iteration #1: Pop music is cool and fun. I will listen to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
Iteration #2: Pop music is for pussies. I will listen to Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park.
Iteration #3: That rage rock shit is for whitey. I’m going to listen to DMX and Eminem.
Iteration #4: Popular rap artists have sold out, I’m going to listen to this underground rap music.
Iteration #5: All of today’s rap music is too derivative, I’m going to kick it old school.
Iteration #6: Only kids who think they’re cool/black listen to rap, I listen to rock music.
Iteration #7: All of today’s rock music is derivative. I listen to the Beatles and the Who.
Iteration #8: Everyone does that, I will listen to country and hardcore. I’m sooo indy.
Iteration #9: Music is for pussies, I like listening to random sounds and trying to enjoy it.
And so it goes…
Several points on this:
First, you eventually get so far down the chain that you begin to move back up and enjoy popular culture ironically in a phenomenon known as “camp” (i.e. the Hu’s fascination with Ashlee Simpson and Paris Hilton).
Secondly, it is unfair of me to cast this phenomenon as strictly characteristic of indy people. It is something that we all do. In my experience people that are lower than us on the iteration chain tend to be predictable and mediocre while those higher on the chain can be pretentious and unwilling to enjoy simple pleasures. I am making no statement here whether being higher on the iteration chain is normatively better or worse.
As Brown students, and certainly as MCM students, we pride ourselves on being smarter than everyone else and being able to figure out things that the average American idiot overlooks (i.e. of being higher on the iteration chain). I would argue that the goal of the Democratic party is to appeal less to those of us at higher levels of iteration and take a lesson from the Republicans and play dumb (more on this in a future post). Of course, to take this it will take a master of interative dominance who can come off as a “common man” (Clinton).
Third, by writing this article, I make the implicit statement that I am higher on the iterated dominance chain than those I criticize. I am.
Basically, my argument is that the hope of the indy personality (and all of us to a certain extent) is that through enough reaction and iteration we can cut through all of the crap to find the authenticity hidden inside culture. It’s sort of like looking for corn kernels in your poo.
Extra Credit question: What are the iterations behind “poo”? I counted six.