To pay attention to pop culture takes energy – like anything else. One can choose to pay attention to, say, Taylor Swift’s feud with Kim Kardashian or not, but attention is not free, and the payoff is not guaranteed. Perhaps, in the end, the feud won’t amuse you. Perhaps it will even leave a sour feeling – you will feel like you didn’t want to go into it.
The pop culture rush, which is administered by thousands of media sites, is supposed to overwhelm any prudence you might feel about your attention, and even make it laughable that you haven’t “given” it to some phenomenon that everybody knows about. Usually, the media sites can rely on shaming techniques among the audience, who will pick some certain piece of information and make the person who doesn’t know that piece of information feel embarrassed about his ignorance. Shame and information are linked from our earliest days. I see myself using shame, ocassionally, to make Adam know things. I find it weird, when I step back, that I do this. But I do. Classrooms use this to the extent that a small, attenuated ring of shame is put around the “great books”, or about this or that piece of information in the sciences.
Myself, in the last few weeks I have run into mentions of Pokemon Go whenever I look at a newspaper or magazine. Pokemon go jokes are all over twitter. Yet, so far, I haven’t given my attention to it even to extent of knowing what it is. Of course, saying this is rather like reversing the poles, and making knowing about Pokemon Go shameful; but I am not trying to head there – instead, the question is at what point a critical mass in pop culture makes one feel that this is something I have to know. Especially if you are a writer trying continually to get a fix on the culture, this is the kind of question you do have to ponder. James Joyce assumed that a free lance marketer in Dublin in 1904 would know about the semi-smutty stories of Paul de Kock, and about the paper Tit-bits, and about many of the day’s popular songs. Ullyses is one of the few novels ever written that tries to exhaust the question of what a character at a given date in a given place would know. Since 1904, the intrusion of popular culture – of images, songs, and games – into the sphere of private life has become exponentially greater. Even Joyce refined his references. Would a Leonard Bloom in 2016 know, or want to know, about Pokemon Go?
So far, my answer is no. It isn’t as important, or at least it doesn’t float in the semiosphere with such importance, that 2016 would not be describable without it. But I don’t exactly know how I know this. One creates a filter for pop culture information semi-consciously. As much as we live in a hype world, we don’t have a firm idea of where these filters come from.