the postmodern critic

September 13, 2008

Charles John Klosterman’s standard biography is pretty bland. He was born during the early 1970s in northern Minnesota and grew up on a farm outside of Wydmere, North Dakota. After graduating from the University of North Dakota with a degree in history, he started working as a writer in Fargo and, later, as an art critic in Akron, Ohio. After moving to New York City in 2002, his career took off and he has since written a lot of funny articles, essays and books about music, sports, movies and popular culture for a variety of magazines and spent this past summer teaching American Cultural Studies somewhere in Germany.

Now, let’s back up a bit and squeeze this information into context.

In my afore-outlined argument about the decline of public intellectuals, I talked about the failing definitions of word “intellectual” and how the lack of a line of demarcation between the erudite elitist attitude and cats that keep regularly-updated blogs makes for a grey area on either side where members of the academia spar with popular culture commentators for the true title of “public intellectual.”

Before I start talking about Chuck Klosterman, a popular culture critic who—after four non-fiction books, lecturing stints across the country, guest professor gigs in Germany and payroll time with SPIN, Esquire and ESPN.com—has bridged these two warring voices on public opinion by becoming the intellectual voice of subjects assumed thought to merit none, I should note the current state of culture hierarchy.

First, there is high culture. This consists of Renaissance art, Gutenberg bibles and Mozart concertos and is basically whatever history, universities and the guys in charge tell you are relevant from the history of everything. It is a carefully selected and bourgeois account of what art has been, is and should be and the whole concept reeks of pretention.

Everything left over is considered pop culture. And to academia, that’s a dirty word. As far back as the 1950s, popular culture—also called “low culture”—was seen as a degradation of “real”, traditional high culture and life staples like Pineapple Express, Vans Warped Tour, Seinfeld, American Apparel and Pinkberry are “undermining the standards of seriousness” and “dumbing down the populace.”

This is completely true.

And the traditional public intellectuals that subscribe to the high-culture standard of knowledge use the “idiocy” argument as an excuse to downplay pop culture’s merits. But just because we live in an accelerated—and bullshit-fueled—society doesn’t mean it does not warrant deeper analyzation. If anything, I think it requires more!

Thankfully, as we enter the postmodern age, the distinction between high and popular culture is becoming nonexistent as things like The Fly: The Opera and Stephen Hawking Simpsons action figures become tangible realities and the newspaper industry is moving its printed words online.

It’s a sick, sad, backwards world out there, but by looking deeper into the seemingly innocuous bombardment of useless stimuli that makes low culture what it is, it’s easy to
find—interestingly enough—high culture undertones.

Chuck Klosterman is aware of all of this. If anything, he’s hyper-aware. In the introduction to his essay collection Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, he notes:

The goal of being alive is to figure out what it means to be alive, and there is a myriad of ways to deduce that answer; I just happen to prefer examining the question through the context of Pamela Anderson and The Real World and Frosted Flakes. It’s certainly no less plausible than trying to understand Kant or Wittgenstein. And while half of my brain worries that writing about Saved By The Bell and Memento will immediately seem as outdated as a 1983 book about Fantasy Island and Gerry Cooney, my mind’s better half knows that temporality is part of the truth. The subjects in this book are not the only ones that prove my point; they’re just the ones I happened to pick before I fell asleep.

Right away, Klosterman sets himself apart from me and you and anyone else with an opinion about last week’s Video Music Awards: he knows a lot of information about a lot of stuff and has the spatial capacity to connect it all in an easy-to-follow yet mind-blowingly informational way.

I could never make a logical claim that my horrible love life is all John Cusack’s fault, Perez Hilton probably thinks Immanuel Kant is LaLohan’s new girlfriend and the blogging cat could not use Leonardo DaVinci’s Golden Ratio to justify the outcome of game two of the 1983 NBA finals.

I know it seems weird to consider Klosterman an intellectual when he discusses a subject that can basically be learned from watching too much TV, but Klosterman is the only pop culture writer with the audacity to say things like: “The tangible effect of internet pornography is roughly the same as the tangible effect of Ozzy Osborne’s music on stoned Midwestern teenagers” and the only one with the subsequent social evidence to back it the hell up.

He tackles that gray space I talk about so much—between traditional public intellectuals and opinionated laymen with an internet connection—because he is both an intellectual with tons of public access and a layman with an internet connection (and a friend at Esquire).

My generation is one of the first to grow up with video games and syndicated television and we connect with Klosterman because he’s not a textbook; he writes about the social relevance of alt-country like he talks and he talks like you want to go grab a drink with him. His arguments are about topics that may not fare well in the academic sector, but for the future of America—or the ones that aren’t getting tattoos because they saw Angelina Jolie’s–they are surprisingly poignant answers to questions we never knew we had (like what’s it like to drive around with Bono in his Maserati?).

Klosterman is more than just a guy that reviews CDs or some dude that gets to interview Radiohead and have his name on a glossy magazine cover, he is an intellectual breath of fresh air with a philosophy on writing so laid back that I’m convinced the only reason it hasn’t been done before is because no one thought they could get paid doing it.

Once only known to Black Sabbath freaks or those of us lucky enough to have a subscription to SPIN magazine for the three years it was worth the money, the oaf-y, self-proclaimed music nerd who, according to one review, “exhibits a disturbingly thorough understanding of contemporary cultural phenomena,” is now a cultural phenomena, himself.

With Facebook groups titled “If Chuck Klosterman spit in my face, I’d stop taking showers” and “I ache to be alluded to by Chuck Klosterman,” he is one of the few pop culture writers who, through his popularity among younger readers, has become woven into the very fabric of that which he debunks. Newsweek dubbed him “the new Hunter S. Thompson” and another magazine compared him to rock critic god, Lester Bangs, but I think, more accurately he’s a genius freak offspring of the two.

Regardless of comparisons, Klosterman has undoubtedly achieved a status that would solidify him as a public intellectual, albeit for a generation that might not know what to do with one (except make Facebook groups). The Rural Hipster, however, put the mystery behind Klosterman’s appeal and magnetism bluntly:

How did a Mountain Dew guzzling, 34-year-old mid-westerner who writes exhaustingly intense essays on Saved by the Bell and Motley Crue, become noted as “one of America’s top cultural critics” by Entertainment Weekly, and “the reigning Kasparov of pop-culture wits-matching” by the San Francisco Chronicle? Everyone wants to know how a pudgy, beady eyed, Billy Joel fan with a lisp-ridden, effeminate voice happened to end up with anonymous people creating fake MySpace accounts for him, where young nymphets post comments like: “I want your child inside me.”

And—in the most endearing way possible—Klosterman is in denial of this iconography. When asked if he views himself as a pop icon, his reply sounds like something out of his own essays: “The short answer is, ‘no.’ But the long answer is, ‘I certainly fucking hope not.’”

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