Hello, I'm special
by Alex Boyd
[ bookreviews ]
Hello, I'm self-indulgent, a constant consumer yet dissatisfied with an increasingly larger, corporate and impenetrable monoculture that even tries to sell me my rebellion, my individuality. While nowhere near as catchy, this could be said to summarize the immense problem Hal Niedzviecki bravely takes on in Hello, I'm Special. He labels the problem in his introduction: "If everyone is a free-thinking, deepening-the-self-understanding rebel, then I'm just like everyone else, a nonconformist conforming to nonconformity." But even here I think he begins with a faulty premise. Surely millions of people are not much into "deepening-the-self," including much of the corporate world, something Niedzviecki immediately acknowledges in the first chapter: "Not long ago, the businessman was an admired symbol of success. Today, conforming nonconformists cut him down to size. The businessman in a loser, an anonymous cog. He has not reclaimed his identity, announced his specialness."
Niedzviecki does identify some modern trends that ring true, including an erosion of faith in traditions and former institutions, like church and community, combined with mass culture's ability to reach everyone and sell rebellion and a kind of pseudo-individualism. Hollywood can't market grassroots activism, but instead subtly encourages us to drift apart by routinely hammering home "the triumph of the ordinary person who, in the process of following his or her heart, bucks the system and becomes the exception, a larger-than-life but still completely regular it-could-happen-to-you-hero." He tends to overstate the problem, though, when he argues we're all in a mass-media spell, explaining that thousands of "pop supplicants" arrived over the weekend of the first Canadian Idol tryouts. Yes, that's a lot of people, and Niedzviecki goes to great lengths to illustrate that they were all nursing the same, fragile dream. But in a nation of over thirty million, clearly most people didn't give a damn about being on Canadian Idol.
The middle part of the book bogs down, with Niedzviecki providing cultural anecdote after cultural anecdote, infrequently punctuated by his own occasionally misguided observations. As part of his argument that current cultural trends cater to our every whim and feed our pseudo-specialness, he manages to be vaguely critical of churches accepting gays, employers being flexible, and a teen magazine with a new section ("Curvy Girl") that suggests girls needn't stress about their weight. And to put it simply, the book should have been better edited. Niedzviecki wanders back and forth through similar arguments, but he also should have been steered away from statements as maddeningly unsupported and sweeping as "a good chunk of us search for a way into the pop world through mind-altering drugs" or "trapped between the extremes, we long for escape, a place where we are not constantly torn between emotionally unstable pop stardom and emotionally unfulfilling regular life." Or even, "Pop culture gets inside us in ways that the old-style arts never could." So, an episode of Three's Company beats Dickens?
I agree, this is a critical time. This is a time when the first world is ever so slowly waking up to the idea that constant consumption ironically leaves us unsatisfied, always hungry for the next thing, and that a delay between desire and gratification adds to the experience. And more importantly, we're waking up to the idea that we need to redistribute wealth in a world where most of the population lives on a fraction of what the rest does, that terrorism must come at least partly from this ongoing pool of resentment, and that we'll either act collectively to deal with the climate crisis, or join the dinosaurs. More than anything else, surely the ongoing population explosion has contributed to pop culture's ability to produce mindless tedium that is nevertheless watched by millions. We also get more people willing to go to extremes for attention, more lunatics on shooting sprees, more everything.
But these things get only the briefest mention in Niedzviecki's book, as the kind of thing that will supposedly fall into place if we can change mass culture. He's an articulate man with his heart in the right place, but he spends 240 pages in Hello, I'm Special banging his head against the TV screen, wanting a way in to pop culture to make it more meaningful, when ninety percent of it never will be. Out of nowhere, he makes startling, good observations, such as the fact that 24 hour news coverage robbed war protests of their momentum fairly quickly, because though they were "large in some cities they were one-time events" and not ongoing, giving the appearance of something fizzling out. But here again, Niedzviecki looks at the world through the lens of popular culture.
He argues that we need to act, but first we need to be careful how we act, and should find "a new way to understand the self within the context of our new global systems of mass production... Before we get up and do, we must find this formula, otherwise our 'doing' may well end up having the exact opposite effect it intended, just as the CBC's all-day call-in show and constant coverage of the protests against the second Iraq war ended up dampening discord against the US-led invasion." But the call in show didn't dampen discord, at best it only appeared to do so, which is a critical difference. Teaching media awareness more would help us with the skewed perspectives we get from media, as much as we'd be conscious of looking at the world through binoculars.
Niedzviecki acknowledges the short-sightedness of capitalist culture, but he only wants to tackle it through the by-product of mass culture, which may have varying degrees of quality, but everyone knows it's ultimately another product, there to keep us passively entertained. I think this is a middle book for Niedzviecki. He wrote one (We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture) where he recommended consuming pop culture as a way to be able to reinvent it and give it different kinds of authenticity. Here, he wavers, uncertain pop culture can be changed ("The transformation has not come") but sadly, dives back into his belief of supposed validity of mass culture: "We want in for a variety of political, social, aesthetic, and personal reasons... We want more, not less. We want in, not out."
What capitalist culture will never understand, however, is that less is more. An unintentional hopelessness permeates this book, when even activists are out for attention: "Getting arrested in Canada is impressive, but risking death in Columbia is way more exciting." There are undoubtedly good moments, such as when he warns "A culture in which it is no longer possible to author genuine dissent is a dying culture." I'd love to see Niedzviecki write a book of essays, where his ideas will find more focus, maybe even turning his restless intelligence to ways to resist mass culture. A Buddhist, for example, would say it's important to avoid being caught up in endless cycles of longing and loathing. When he completes the trilogy, it will be the announcement, at long last, that an intelligent voice can wrestle free of the magnetic and enduring pull of popular culture. Personally, I look forward to that.