A demand for pop
This year’s Conrad Festival will ask critical questions regarding “pop”, which is considered the core of our current cultural and political experiences. The subsequent days of this year’s edition were given the following categories: Correctness, Popularity, Drive, Populism, Popculture, Panic, Demand.
What is disappearing (or perhaps already disappeared) in a world dominated by populism is conversation – the only social bond that violence is afraid of.
Michał Paweł Markowski, the Conrad Festival Artistic Director
A demand for pop? What does it mean exactly? In Latin, popularis means “belonging to the people”, and all the words in this family – including popular, populism and many more – share the same common source. But what exactly does the notion of a people – populus – mean today? Back in the day, it was always known that the people were peasants, particularly in Poland. We do not even have to go back in time to ancient Rome, where the emperor had his populus romanus, we also do not need to quote the American constitution, the first words of which are “We, the People...” As a social class, peasants did not own any property, but – especially in the eyes of the intelligentsia – they had a mysterious relationship with the land, where true values lie buried. Fraternisation with the people, ruthlessly mocked by the aristocrat Gombrowicz in Ferdydurke was a serious, albeit hardly realistic goal of every “leftist” politician in Poland from the mid-19th century.
Many of us had the opportunity to experience the Polish People’s Republic, where all the power was supposed to belong to “the people”, but in reality, was held by a bunch of demoralised party members, protected by Moscow. From time to time, one can still hear that a person who manages to captivate the crowds with their speeches is called a tribune of the plebs – or tribune of the people in other words – and in doing so, the notion of “the people” is equated to “crowds”, and as it might seem, this meaning is the closest to the colloquial use of the word. When somebody says with conviction that people will or will not buy something, they are trying to say that the masses will or will not be convinced by some promises or arguments.
Regardless of one’s opinion about “the people”, the notion has a political resonance today. Disjointed from the peasant folklore, in the 20th century it started denoting people ruled by others or those who are assigned a pretend impact on the rule, as is the case with the Democratic Republic of China and other people’s republics; pretend, because from a political standpoint “the people” are and always were synonymous with exclusion. From the peasantry, which entered the Polish political scene by spilling blood in 1846, to the undifferentiated electoral mass, which is easy to manipulate in authoritarian societies, the “people” never really participated in ruling, although they always constituted the other – dark – side of power, held in check or aside, depending on the aims of successive rulers. Therefore, the restitution of “the people” could – if someone were to take it seriously – mean empowering those who are ruthlessly objectified, lending a voice to those who are drowned out or glossed over, giving rights to those who are deprived of their rights.
The restitution of “the people” is still a task that needs to be carried out, a task that is becoming more and more urgent in a world of economic and legal inequality and injustice.
It is our time now
But since nothing exists in today’s political world without its opposite, the restitution of “the people” is undertaken in the name of a fierce cultural war. By considering “the people” as the sovereign who gave legitimacy to the authorities by electing them, they are treated as a bargaining chip in the fight against a political opponent who is made out to be a member of the degenerate elite, because they are out of touch with the real life of the people. By doing so, populism is born.
Populism stems from the conviction that power is exclusively grounded in – the obviously defined in a very mysterious way – “people” and is their only authentic voice, the significance of which trumps all other attempts at political expression. The circle closes and turns: the term “the people”, which used to be a category encompassing the excluded and marginalised, is becoming a tool of exclusion itself. This retaliatory mechanism is undoubtedly the source of popularity of today’s populisms, which hold the traditional rules of democracy in contempt.
Populism is neither the rule of the people or the rule for the people; it is the rule instead of people, who do not have a say in the rule, because they leave it to those who promise to kick others’ asses. In this sense, “the people” – the populist electorate – occupies a strange place somewhere in the middle: neither in politics (because they are not interested in discussion and negotiation), nor outside it (because they maintain the appearance of democracy by going to the polls), forming some kind of an undifferentiated magma, which moves quite inertly, driven by emotional impulses. If civil society accepts the principle of agreeing to disagree with others (“let us see what makes us different and let us find a common ground”), a populist society is mainly guided by disagreeing to agree: “no one will tell us what to think, say and do.”
“A people” is a group of people who should be empowered, given rights, dignity and public form, because it does not have any of these privileges. However, an empowered “people” cease to be “a people” and become a fully-fledged political actor, evoking disgust in the state apparatus. There are no “people” in civil society, because everyone, by mutual agreement, is looking for a place for themselves among others, a place that will allow them and others (especially others) to thrive: for a better salary, with more social security, without racial, gender, cultural or age discrimination. Therefore, they elect authorities whose aim is the common good, the common thing, the res publica, and not the good of a faction, party, or any oligarchy.
This is not the case in a populist society, whose motto is “‘it is our time now”: now we are going to dictate the terms, now we are going to change the laws, now we are going to build a wall along the border, now we are going to tell you what is true. Anybody who opposes us will be gone. “The people”, the populus, therefore exists only in the populist consciousness, that is, one that divides the world into those who are with us and those who are against us.
The popularity of populism stems from the fact that it offers a simple picture of the world, divided into those who are exploited, who should become exploiters, and those who perpetrate the exploitation, who should be brought down and be exploited. Populism is based on the idea of social revenge and emotional manipulation, while it excludes social cooperation and political negotiation. In short, populism is an expression of disillusionment with politics. It is a political movement that removes the political (rational) foundations of the community and tries to build it anew on the basis of non-negotiable affects.
Illusion of directness
Is it a coincidence that with the escalation of populism in the world, we are witnessing an unprecedented crisis in social media? No: popculture is only one step away from populism. What connects both phenomena is the illusion of directness. Just as democracy is based on the category of representation (power is an adequate representation of the community), any attempt to circumvent democratic rules must be based on putting an end to mediation, such as the media. Every populist is fighting the media, or more precisely, the media saying something different from what they would like to hear.
Isn’t this also a definition of popular culture, that it should tell us what we want to hear, show us what we want to see, give us what we want? Isn’t that why there are likes on Facebook, but there are no dislikes? Is it not the case that like Mamoń the Engineer, we like only what we already like (in truth, philosophical idealism defines human cognition in the same way), and we like ourselves the most, as evidenced by an unstoppable popularity of selfies? Popular culture defined this way goes beyond the traditional division of culture into high and low, aristocratic and mass culture, because even high culture aimed at intelligentsia satisfies ready-made expectations in a wholesale manner and has its sophisticated profiles on Facebook. “People to their own, for their own” used to be and still remains a political slogan (in the Interbellum, it meant a boycott of Jewish trade), but in fact, it is also a cultural slogan. Never before have cultural tastes been in such a state of disrepair. The former vertical divisions (up-down, high-low) have given way to horizontal divisions. Miłosz was right, diagnosing the disappearance of religious imagination, which placed the sense of life above – in heaven – half a century ago. However, he was wrong when he, along with other aristocrats of culture, condemned the commonness of human existence.
The crazy expansion of public media did not go the way of pluralisation by distinction, as it was expected, but instead it headed towards separation by identification. Social media – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – are treated exclusively as places of direct expression in front of a closed audience with the fastest possible circulation, and not as discussion forums where a social agreement – more or less successful – should be developed. The anonymity of the Internet is a radical contradiction of the public space in which everyone appears under their own name and meets other people.
The absolute dominance of the Internet has a colossal political significance. Not only because, as the recent elections in the US demonstrated, bots (non-human applications) can freely manipulate public sentiment and opinions, but also due to the fact that the Internet, through the illusion of direct participation in the world, neutralised its own intermediation, just as President Donald Trump neutralised the space of public debate with his frustrated tweets.
If democracy is a system that delays the illusion of direct rule in favour of discussion (hated by all authoritarian politicians, for whom discussion is a sign of weakness), then the Internet seems to shorten the way to reality, although it actually removes the latter. What is disappearing (or perhaps already has disappeared) in cyberspace is conversation – the only social bond that violence is afraid of.
Welcome to post-postmodernity!
It can be reasonably argued that popular culture was born at a time when access to the cultural sphere was no longer the domain of an educated elite. That is why it is right to say that romanticism is responsible for democratising culture. Mickiewicz’s Ballads and Romances were, as their author himself admitted, popular at the courts, mainly because Lithuanian servants found their own world in them, where there was no room for epic solemnity; instead, it offered space for the spirits and emotions to freely flow. The dispute between the classics and the Romantics was in fact a prelude to the later cultural wars, in which the fundamental question was invariably asked: what should organise our culture – emotions (“feeling and faith”) or reason (“sage’s glass and eye”)? The Romantic line will fight for the rights to unlimited irrationality (Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz would call it a “Polish madness”), while the Enlightenment line will fight for the right to rational assessment of reality. Stemming from this dispute is a sharp opposition between culture and civilisation. A supporter of culture would call a supporter of civilisational development a miserable materialist, while for a civilisationalist, culture is just fluff.
The dispute between culture and civilisation has defined our modernity for two hundred years. The sharp distinctions between high culture and media pop culture are also among its privileged variants. The abolition of these distinctions was supposed to characterise post-modern culture, thus bringing us to post-modernism. The confusion of these distinctions (and their subsequent return in a new form) is characteristic of a new era, the post-postmodern era, which came to be when the last stage of globalisation eliminated the borders between the private and public, giving the public sphere a completely privatised character. Donald Trump (“the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters”, as he defined himself) is a great herald of this change, as his policy of consistent privatisation of the public sphere goes hand in hand with the twitterisation of social communication (it is worth mentioning that the word twit (not tweet) nicely denotes an idiot.)
In the modern era, emotions and technology fiercely fought against each other. In post-modern times, emotions disappeared from the list of desirable attributes of culture and were replaced by cold irony. In the post-postmodern era, on the other hand, civilisational devices were pulled into the game of emotions to such an extent that today we can speak boldly about the culture of technicalised affect. The clearest manifestation of this is, of course, online “hate”.
The culture of technicalised affect uses the media only to eliminate its intermediary character and to install itself in immediate directness, promising the immediate satisfaction of desires. If the slogan of modernity was “quickly, as quickly as possible!” (on the way to progress), and the slogan of traditionally understood post-modernity was the ambiguity of quotation marks, the truly post-postmodern slogan is “affect here and now!”. The post-postmodern users of pop culture hate slow-moving time, the curves and bends of which prevent them from making their dreams come true immediately. Everything has to happen here and now.
If the essence of desire is the distance from the desired object, post-postmodernity is a great eliminator of desire.
It is also a great threat to democracy and of course, literature.