22 October 2012

Gangnam Style.  You’ve seen it I’m sure (I mean it’s in the Guinness Book for highest number of likes on Youtube).  At first I just dismissed it as just some fad, completely harmless and at most just the latest weirdly ironic thing people picked up on to pass the time.  And yet… in retrospect it’s a lot more than that, it’s a great excuse to write about ideology today.

Ideology.  The word is most commonly used these days to refer to ideas (usually “evil” or at least misguided) that we disagree with.  Western society likes to think of itself as ideologically neutral—you know, in the same way that White people are the default type in the West—but a serious look at pop culture and the evening news is all you need to see that ideology is alive and kicking.

What’s interesting about Western ideology is how despite open outright critique of liberal capitalism by so many, the system continues to operate as if the people openly admitted to accepting it.  More than this critique not having an effect, ideology in practice actually plays a pivotal role in propping it up.

So Gangnam Style.  You know it as that K-Pop import that sparked a dance craze and all sorts of remixes.  Have you ever wondered what the song itself is about?

In an article in The Atlantic, I found an interesting analysis:

Gangnam is a tiny Seoul neighborhood, and Park’s “Gangnam Style” video lampoons its self-importance and ostentatious wealth, with Psy playing a clownish caricature of a Gangnam man… it turns out that the video is rich with subtle references that, along with the song itself, suggest a subtext with a surprisingly subversive message about class and wealth in contemporary South Korean society… One of the first things…pointed to in explaining the video’s subtext was, believe it or not, South Korea’s sky-high credit card debt rate. In 2010, the average household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent)… Gangnam… is a symbol of that aspect of South Korean culture…


The video is “a satire about Gangnam itself but also it’s about how people outside Gangnam pursue their dream to be one of those Gangnam residents without even realizing what it really means…”


“I think it all ties back to the same thing: the pursuit of materialism, the pursuit of form over function. Koreans made extraordinary gains as a country, in terms of GDP and everything else, but that growth has not been equitable. I think the young people are finally realizing that. There’s a genuine backlash. … You’re seeing a huge amount of resentment from youth about their economic circumstances.”[http://tinyurl.com/9ggsxgk]

The backgrounder was fascinating.  The conclusion, that “young people are finally realizing [social inequities],” is ideology.

This ironic critique of liberal capitalist society sounds positive at first no?  And are not such critiques very common in global pop culture?  Often I hear this pointed to as an example of how people around the world are “waking up” (to use Occupy style jargon).  Examples of this abound (especially with the “like/share” activism on Facebook).  But let’s look deeper.

How effective are these pop critiques of the system in actually changing the system?

With Gangnam Style, its popularity has spread beyond South Korea and gone international. The song’s dance, supposedly an ironic take on club culture, has been performed by several politicians, business leaders, and prisoners including the British Prime Minister David Cameron, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and Philippine prisoners (also made famous by youtube, and now used as cash cows for the jail).  It’s been featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and has been hailed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as a “force for world peace.”  And it’s been remixed countless times in the West and made a lot of money for a lot of people.

Suffice to say, the song critiques consumerism while also being embraced by consumerist culture.  So instead of having challenging the status quo, this song helps strengthen it.

Odd isn’t it?

You might argue that the message has been co-opted.  I dismiss this.  It’s too easy an answer.  If it was just this song then maybe, but it’s not is it?

Isn’t this the same way “fair trade” products work?  Or recycling?  Or cultural/racial/gender tolerance?  Or most forms of “activism?”  Or “strategic voting?”

Don’t all these examples just allow us a psychological exhaust valve to release excess pressure created by the oppressive contradictions of society so as to allow things to continue to function as they are?

Isn’t it the case that Western ideology has adopted irony as a way to allow psychological distance?  To allow us to feel good about how our thoughts are “with the people” while our actions actually prop up the systemic mechanisms that oppress them?

Is this type of public critique not akin to a friend or psychologist telling someone to just ‘let out your feelings?’  This act of screaming and crying helps an individual feel better.  And yet this only helps with emotional acceptance, and not with the material conditions that led to the issue in the first place.  Is not the next step after emotion release, action against the direct cause of the problem?  Yet with most political critique is not action often missing?  Or if present, is it not more often directed at a symptom rather than the cause?  It’s as if one had an abusive relationship and instead of leaving the partner, one chastised the partners fists.

Let’s take another case.  One from the evening news, for those who dismiss this as “mere pop culture,” and I guess by that they mean that it’s not important.  [Though for me, pop culture is of the highest importance because it’s in the popular that we can glimpse the reality of the populace.  That and the fact that taking ‘serious’ topics too seriously bores me.]

This morning I watched this from The Real News Network: http://tinyurl.com/9bug5ht

In this video (and in many more like it on even mainstream news outlets), the argument being put forth is that in the upcoming US elections leftist voters have one of two progressive choices.  One, to vote for a third party like the Greens.  Or, two, to vote strategically for President Obama to ensure that the “much worse” Republicans not make it back to the Oval Office.

Do you see the problem?

The progressives interviewed openly admit to grave problems in the electoral system.  They admit that President Obama is only just a little better than Romney.  They admit that the system is broken.  And yet…?  The solution is to continue doing what we’re doing: participate, vote, but hold your nose and know that deep down inside you’re “one of the good guys.”

It’s oft heard these days that people don’t care about issues of inequality or injustice.  I disagree.  I think surface level emotional caring is everywhere.  If “caring” was all it took I think the world would look much different than it does.  But unfortunately ideology has done a marvelous misdirect to the general cultural consciousness.  It has allowed us to yell and scream to release the stress.  But it asks us to accept this emotional relief as enough–and for those trouble makes looking for more it allows them diversionary activism in the form of cultural politics: recycle! buy organic! fight racism! end patriarchy! vote Democrat!

With these examples isn’t the actual message:

You may freely critique and complain.  You can even try to make small changes here and there, if it’s politically beneficial for the system to be maintained, you might even be rewarded financially for it. That’s totally ok.  It’s more than ok, you’ll also feel fantastic about yourself!  Yes you are the change we want to see in the world!

And that’s how ideology works today.  Despite our cynicism, despite our Occupy style ‘awakening,’ the system continues to function, and our critique—rather than challenging the way things are—becomes an important component of maintaining it.

… but it doesn’t have to be that way.  We don’t have to stop at the emotional outburst.  Or agree to go to the designated, cordoned off, safe, all-plastic playground.  We can see through this if we want to.  We can choose to tackle the roots of the issues.

If for nothing else, imagine the great pop culture that would emerge out of that struggle!

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alex felipe

BAYAN-Canada, Toronto spokesperson / Anakbayan- Toronto organizer



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p.s.  I am in no way saying that I don’t believe racism, patriarchy, and the rest are not important issues… I’m just saying that they don’t address immediate root causes.  And I am also not saying that because they are not the immediate root causes that they should be ignore.  Especially issues like racism and sexism, these issues are intertwined with everything and they must be addressed concurrently.  I just don’t think they should be addressed as individual issues of tolerance as they most commonly are.

To put it simply, for me effective activism challenges the system, and this kind of activism is rare in the West (less so in the global south).  If you’re interested in learning more about our work feel free get in touch.