Offload the excess baggage

From anoraks to parrots to cars, they all come under the scrutiny of the critical theorist. A new radio series exposes the shortcomings of an obsession with the ordinary. By Michael Bracewell; 'Sofas, it transpires, lend themselves extremely well to a sociological reading that would seem absurd were it not redeemed by the comedy of recognitio n'
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The Independent Culture
Had Madonna, that siren of the semiotic age, really had her wits about her, she'd have told us to get metaphysical because we're living in a culturally material world. As it was, she achieved the double whammy of singing catchy songs about sex and finding a place on many a cultural theorist's reading list.

It is a relatively short step, these days, from MTV to the ICA (or from Toys 'R' Us to the BBC), and this is because we have developed the cultural tic of turning everything into "phenomena". Neil Tennant, the more aphoristic half of the Pet Shop Boys, remarked on this "phenomenisation" of society and culture way back in 1989, in an interview in the now-defunct Blitz magazine. "If it moves," he observed, "it's social history." And this phenomenisation was as true for the commonplace icons of everyday living as it was for pop stars. Pioneered by the style press and The Late Show, the conversion of the commonplace into culture took off in a big way towards the end of the 1980s. Banality revisited, as a means of reading contemporary society, became a high concept in media which created a new brand of thinking person's "infotainment". Everything and anything, from carpets and fridges to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the arrival of McDonald's in Moscow, could become a phenomenon to discuss in the language of critical theory.

This was a neat and entertaining reversal of the traditional notion of tackling big issues and big ideas with the furrowed brow of professional scholarship or the ponderous tones of academic gravitas. One could compare, for instance, the suave erudition of AJP Taylor's televised lectures on English history (an Oxbridge don in your very own sitting room - the Fanny Craddock of the dreaming spires) back in the 1960s, with the "slice of life" social history of cooking which was screened last year on BBC2.

The monolithic difference in the two projects lies in our acceptance, as consumers of media, that we can understand social history through the rise of high street dining as readily as we can through the relationship between parliament and monarchy. In fact, to go by recent trends in cultural media, we are more at home with complex readings of simple things than we are with simple readings of complex things. Forget Kenneth Clark on civilisation, let's have a 20-part series on office furniture.

And who can blame us? Contemporary media are incredibly well-suited to clever essays on seemingly superficial subjects. The superficial, once regarded as a phenomenon, is revealed to contain layers of metaphor which not only reflect the complex constitution and contradictions of modern culture, but also shed a light on much larger areas of society. The trick, however, is to recognise when ordinariness is just plain ordinary. The study of banality, as much as the study of exotica, requires a selective eye. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Radio 3's new series Cultural Baggage, which explores the cultural status of the commonplace from dogs to guns, and from anoraks to taxonomy, has taken the mediation of supposedly simple subjects to radical new lengths. This basic premise of Cultural Baggage - to meditate on aspects of the ordinary - is both courageous and internally flawed. In its choice of ordinary subjects, some are too ordinary to be remotely interesting, while others are too complex to yield up their secrets in the allotted 20 minutes.

None of the 20 programmes has a linking narrative voice; rather, by an eclectic and persuasive montage of interviews, archive material, literary readings and music, the listener is presented with a revisionist directory of cultural phenomena which have undergone a kind of deconstruction by soundbite. This proves effective in reflecting a range of opinions, but (other than the occasional difficulty of knowing who is speaking) it also blurs the intellectual focus of the programmes by denying them a coherent argument.

But this very absence of judgement or definition may well be the point of Cultural Baggage. After all, with the media so dominated by pundits and celebrity polemicists there is a very good case for saying that no single voice has authority over cultural phenomena, and that we live in a society of impressions and received ideas (the old post-modern notion of "information bombardment") that denies authority figures and coherence anyway. To this end, Cultural Baggage is applying flippancy to fundamental issues and vice versa, according a wholly democratic status not just to its subjects but also to the montaged material through which they are expressed. This, if anything, is the belated triumph of utterly post-modern programme-making: the denial of authorship, the translation of subjects into signs and the juxtaposition of historical data to provoke new readings. This doesn't quite correspond to the classic "three Ps" of post-modernism (punning, parody and plagiarism) but it's a soft-core variation on the theme.

The makers of Cultural Baggage have chosen 20 phenomena of uneven weight. Thus, the stranding of information which works very well for the lighter subjects (cars, dogs, jeans, parrots, rubber, anoraks, shopping and suits) becomes matted and insubstantial when applied to the heavier - therapy, the Bible, viruses, guns, pilgrims, community, taxonomy, museums and celibacy. What seems to transpire is that certain phenomena, however commonplace, will not be levelled by this technique of montaging illustrative material because of their own cultural baggage - which cannot be checked in at the terminal of deconstruction.

A highly entertaining programme on the marginalised cultural significance of sofas, for instance, is followed by a programme on the Bible. Both sofas and the Bible (note that they didn't try the Koran) may well be commonplace phenomena, but to jerk us out of our social conditioning by means of collaged soundbites, to sit on the former and respect the latter, may well prove impossible. Sofas, it transpires, lend themselves extremely well to a sociological reading that would seem absurd were it not redeemed by the comedy of recognition. "If you can't lie down on it flat," says a sofa salesperson, "it won't sell in Britain." And then there is the literary historian who points out, with musical acuity, that "rotters did the dirty on the ottoman"; to be topped only by this incredible pronouncement: "The plague didn't just wipe out people, it wiped out sofas as well..." This is terrific infotainment, wholly in line with the arcane of its subject.

But then we come to the Bible. A succession of voices, backed by sacred chanting, begins to probe the outer darkness of the Bible as a cultural edifice. Each raises a valid point about the Bible as a post-modern novel or the difficulties of translation. "The Bible should be a strange and bumpy text," opines one theologian; but before he can define his terms we have moved on to a salesperson predicting the rise of sacred software for the youth market.

The very fragmentation upon which the thesis of Cultural Baggage survives is proved too acute when the extraordinary is approached as ordinary. Similarly, a programme on anoraks, featuring John Hegley and the YHA Adventure Centre, is backed with a programme on celibacy, which houses the unholy combination of Frank Kermode and Morrissey. The tremendous temptation to saltate across the surface of subjects, finding cultural puns and deft equations in the pure ether of image and style, gives way to an intellectual shorthand which fails to describe the full historic reach of emblems and icons of human nature.

But, once again, one feels that this anxiety may really be the secret sub-textual agenda of Cultural Baggage: a style of programme-making which defines the contemporary unease with certainty about anything. Perhaps, after all, the project behind the series is to describe by example the Flaubertian conundrum of how to find wisdom or knowledge in the face of massed sophistry and triumphant truisms. Certainly, this comes across in the programme on therapy, where we hear that psychoanalysis may "turn into a religion of misery", but then - by way of Joni Mitchell and Oliver Sacks - that "feeling bad is feeling, too". Thus one is left with a beautifully crafted impression of therapy which reaffirms our notion of the topic as a debate which is laced with complexity, doubt and self-dissent.

Historically, you could say that this particular school of mediation (a kind of Early Learning Centre with a dash of Derrida) is the progeny of a marriage between critical theory and cultural materialism - elegant little parcels of information, wrapped up like Belgian chocolates, which deliver two parts social history to one part cod semiotics with an intellectual playfulness that is hard to resist and harder still to consume in large quantities.

Like a child's first computer, sophisticated infotainment can make learning fun but cannot accommodate the angles and awkwardness of deeper arguments. Which is why, perhaps, the study of the commonplace works best when it emulates the donnish sagacity of AJP Taylor or Kenneth Clark; their patriarchal portentousness may well seem outdated, but there was something reassuring about their solidity. Cultural Baggage, as an interesting and provocative example of the new school of media impressionism, raises as many questions as it answers. Which, these days, may pass for the truth.

n 'Cultural Baggage' is on Radio 3 daily after the evening concert to 5 Jan, and recommences on 29 Jan