The Cultural Tyranny of North Beach and South of Market

by anna on July 3, 2009

Photo by xxpanthernovaxx at DeviantArt

Photo by xxpanthernovaxx at DeviantArt

I had the distinct pleasure of being seated next to a guy at a wedding once who was writing a sequel to The Godfather. The book, that is, not the movie–he was writing a sequel to the trashy novel, originally penned by Mario Puzo, that was then made into a masterpiece by Francis Ford Coppola. Because the movie, The Godfather, already has a sequel, of course–it won more Oscars (6) than the original (3).

So to recap, he was writing a book based on an already-made movie. About 30 years after the fact. I think, anyway. It was not completely clear. What was clear, though, was that this guy lived somewhere in Florida and that he felt oppressed by what he referred to as the “Cultural Tyranny of New York and LA.” From what I gather, this guy had been fairly financially successful at his craft–writing book versions of movies, that is–and though his income would have allowed him to live anywhere he wanted, he preferred to live in Florida with his wife and four children because there, in addition to avoiding state income taxes, he was better able to elude the cultural tyranny of New York and LA.

That phrase has stuck with me for years for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it’s such a mouthful that I found it fascinating he could mention it so many times over the course of one relatively short dinner. To think of Los Angeles, in particular, as a cultural tyrant–I’ll leave New York alone for now since I hardly feel qualified to speak to its alleged cultural tyranny over the rest of the country, I just figure that the concept of New York having a culture with which to tyrannize is a more acceptable idea in the abstract and less in need of troubling–to think of Los Angeles as being a cultural presence of the stature that could tyrannize a country–well. This a strange idea, I think, having lived here my whole life and having always struggled to figure out how I feel, honestly, about this place.

Please do not misunderstand me–I am well aware that, as a result of the entertainment industry, parts of Los Angeles are beamed into the lives of people around the globe on a daily basis. But that is the culture of celebrity, not of Los Angeles per se, and that celebrity culture does not even exist as such in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a town always in flux: most people who live in Los Angeles came here from somewhere else, so if you are using those people as the perpetrators of some kind of cultural tyranny–well, then, you are in effect saying that the whole country is culturally tyrannizing itself.

Which is silly, really.

Because two places, no matter how rich or influential, do not decide an entire country’s culture. No matter how much time they get on The Insider. And if we fetishize one or the other, or both, it is not because everyone in the country is striving to be what those two places represent, but rather because those two places tend to be home to the people with the biggest mouths, the largest need for attention, the tendency to say look-at-me! Look AT ME! Why did you stop looking at me?

And if you don’t want to be a part of that, OK, no big deal. Live in Florida. But stop complaining to me about my cultural tyranny.

I bring up the fallacy of cultural tyranny not just for comic relief, but also because it came to mind as I was thinking about these warring “cultures” I see dominating Web 2.0, neither of which I feel particularly attached to, nor am I affiliated with, though some of the proponents of both groups appeal to me more than others. It seems like in assessing culture and cultural productions we are always already assigning each other to factions that suit our need to live in a polarized world of good and bad, right and wrong–when I was in school, it was all about the Western Canon and how it had been corrupted or enhanced, depending upon who you spoke to, based on the inclusion of literary works from other cultures. I will admit that when I took my first course in American Fiction I was taken aback by the fact that there was no Fitzgerald or Hemingway, and that the titles had authors with names like Paredes, Wright, Cisneros and Ellison. But after a while I realized that only a certain amount of books can be taught in a single course. And if you want Fitzgerald or Hemingway, well–you might have to wait. Because these other guys have been waiting a while to be allowed their seat at the counter.

Some of the funniest, most clever things I’ve come across on the internet have been produced by a smallish group of insiders, old skool webmen who threw their roots down early, before there was mass-market access to user-friendly blogging platforms and you pretty much had to know what you were doing, technically speaking, in order to be a part of the conversation. Some of them even had a hand in putting up the roots of the technology we use now that the blogosphere has been democratized. Coincidentally, but nonetheless convenient for my generalization purposes, I believe them to be all white men in their late thirties to early forties who live, with a few notable exceptions, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are well-educated, smart, and talented individuals. And they are witty. Very witty.

And this is all well and good for them. Because they were here first. And so I suppose we’ll have to forgive them for being a little bit precious in their attitudes about how the blogosphere should be run. Because they are not fond of many people who came after them, those people who farmed out their tech stuff and worked on marketing, or who built blogs from the ground up with the idea of making money. They have particular ideas about how one should conduct himself on Twitter and how blogging should be used to generate income, if at all. They do not want to hear of promotion, because after all they never used it themselves. And if you need promotion–if you need to advertise your creative work on the internet, then you are not one of them, and have missed wholesale the point of this thing that we are doing.

Are they cultural tyrants, circa Web 2.0? I don’t know. But I do know that they operate from a position of privilege, and as such they shouldn’t assume that nothing worthwhile can be created outside their sphere of influence. And I will keep reading them, enjoying their work even if it doesn’t represent my experience, just as I do Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But one day I might also choose to pick up a Sandra Cisneros or a Richard Wright for fun. And maybe a bunch of other people will join me, because they’re ready for something different too. And if we do it won’t mean the end of the old guard, but it might mean the start of something even bigger, something that not even they could have predicted, way back when.

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