Meaning is the highest signpost. It is what we want. It is how we know what to want. It is thus also the highest currency. All production is about meaning. The lowest levels on Maslow’s hierarchy are still about meaning. Starve and you’ll understand just how meaningful food is. Spend a week exposed in the wilderness and the meaning of shelter will impose itself upon you soon enough. In many ways, the higher order of needs are pure surplus. If you are struggling to survive, you have neither time nor sensitivity to art or poetry. A culture of basic need is starkly utilitarian. Culture still exists, but meaning is focused on the practical. Friend or foe? Risk or benefit? “What is the meaning of this?”
But this does not mean that “the basics” are more meaningful. Just that they are necessary. The simple fact that once the basics are taken care-of, they no longer satisfy to provide that sensation of “meaning” gives the clue. Indeed, the inversion of sensibility that is successfully imposed by ascetics also gives the clue. Given adequate food and water, shelter and basic health – the human being will immediately begin focusing on other things. Other things will become more important. Cultural Production: the production of meaning beyond the simple biological fundamentals.
It seems that today we are awash in cultural production. And, to be sure, the vast majority of it is pure manipulation. Reverse-engineering of our sensibilities to manifest experiences that generate the sensation of meaning. And, perhaps, that is all that cultural production is. A distillation of meaning down to fetishes that generate the “pure result”. The formula drama that plays our sensibilities like an instrument and generates the sensation of meaning.
But that isn’t likely the case. We are sensitive to the inauthentic. We can taste its artificiality. It might satisfy, but still leaves unsatisfied. The “cotton-candy effect”. It stimulates our faculties, tricking us into believing that we are having a good (meaningful) experience, but, in fact is pure artifice. And we know the sensation of a diet of too much of this cultural junk food. The gnawing hunger. The sense of dissatisfaction. Of overfullness and lack at the same time. The modern novelty of simultaneous obesity and starvation.
By contrast, we are aware of authentically meaningful experiences. Wonder, adventure, connection. What is the difference? Simply one of depth. The nuanced complexity of something that has been produced from the bottom-up. Something that is more than surface, more than the reflection of a sign. Its not a matter of what is more real, of what is more natural, of what is more produced. All meaning is produced. The candy-bar and the peach are both produced. And both taste good. But, for the candy bar, the story ends at tasting good. Whereas the peach has depth. It has nutrition (borne out of a long co-evolutionary dance). Thus, while the candy bar merely tastes good, the peach is good.
Of course, depth is difficult to re-produce. Particularly difficult to re-produce at a mass level. There seems to be a certain irrevocable investment that must be made in depth. There seems to be a manifest difference between the authentic and the inauthentic. That which “comes from the heart” and that which is “merely produced”. Perhaps this is because the root of meaning at a social level is connection and you can’t connect with something that is not itself connected.
Similarly, there seems to be a manifest difference between that which is done well and that which is amateurish or sloppy. No matter how profound and authentic is the thing produced, if the execution is poor, the signal is lost. In many ways, the “punk aesthetic” is all about getting the execution entirely out of the way and focusing on pure authenticity. In an environment where artifice is everywhere and it becomes difficult to tell what is good and what simply tastes good, this kind of approach is needful. However, it has its drawbacks. Style is also needful – there is only so much that can be expressed directly and through unmediated intensity. Passion can open one to the meaning of connection – but it is hard-pressed to inspire wonder. There seem to be two movements here. That which is meaningful and that which is able to evoke the sensation of meaning.
Watch cultural production closely and this seems all too clear. At the first order, we see the flow of objects and expressions through the lives of young people. Impressionable. Sensitive. Layering-in so much to every experience. Remember, every experience is synthetic. If you watch Happy Days while sitting on the couch with your brothers and sisters, every day through a long summer at a house at the beach, the gritty feel of the air near salt water and the smell of wet dog, old paintings of generic scenes, layered with too-thick brush strokes, your grandmothers rug with that coffee stain, full moons and fireflies, your cousins broken arm and the swarm of bees enraged by a thrown rock; if you watch Happy Days like this, then it will be invested with, associated with, a synthetic meaning that goes well beyond anything that is inherent in the show itself. All of this is meaningful. There is a depth to this experience. It is, precisely because of it’s synthetic breadth and depth, meaningful. It is a complete panoply of feelings and sensations, causations and learnings. And, while Happy Days might be linked to it, might be linked into it, it goes well beyond Happy Days.
And of course, this is the way it works through youth. Everything is a broad synthetic experience. Everything is a transferred fetish that shares in a gestalt meaning. Which means that the cultural artifacts that are linked to youth are particularly powerful tools of cultural production. Both uniquely valuable and uniquely susceptible to manipulation and artifice. Anything that evokes these deep gestalts, anything that is able to manifest some portion of the synthetic experience will be able to re-present some if not all of the sensation of meaning associated with that experience.
In the right hands, these gestalts are powerful tools of meaning. You can pull out different elements of the synthetic experience and conjoin them with other elements to resonate an effect that “works”. A language of experience. Pure meaning. Authentic and in good faith: this is what I have discovered, this is wonder and connection. This is darkness and horror. This is meaningful. The quintessence.
In the wrong hands, these gestalts are the material for “retromancy”. Regurgitation. Nostalgia. This is the sensation of meaning. This feels meaningful, but, in fact, has no connection. At best this kind of fabrication will leave you distracted and confused, unable to know meaning when it is present to you. At worst, it will, quite literally, kill you.
It seems that the more that a given cultural production actually has in it, the more it merits its fetishistic position. That is, the more it carries in itself, the less likely that it can be used inauthentically. Remember that summer that you read To Kill a Mockingbird? Staying up late and smelling the wet grass? Riding in the back of a pick-up-truck to camp near the lake? Remember Boo Radley? Atticus Finch? There is a fundamental authenticity of To Kill a Mockingbird that is adequate to your own synthetic experience. In a sense, it can never betray you – can never be used against you, precisely because it has a heart of its own.
Then again. Didn’t they use “All You Need is Love” to advertise diapers? Be wary of cultural production. Be wary of those things that play on your own personal youth and syntheses. Be wary of the experiences that *you* give to children.