When Valentina Hasan auditioned for the reality show Bulgarian Idol, the stars were aligned for instant fame, just not in the way she was hoping. Hasan’s translation of the power ballad “Without You,” with its famous line, “I can’t live, if living is without you,” became “Ken Lee, tulibu dibu douchoo,” and her big-hearted attempt at selling her performance made her a YouTube sensation.
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Hasan also, as told by Dubravka Ugresic in her essay “Post-Communist Practice” from her new collection Karaoke Culture, became the accidental center of a nationalist fight in online forums, as Bulgarians, Gypsies, Romanians, Greeks and Macedonians tried to disclaim the embarrassing Hasan as one of their own. The focus of the argument shifted from the single person to the general people until old resentments and bad habits flared up.
All of this, from Hasan’s ascent, to the Bulgarian version of an American competition, to the nationalist squabbling, is indicative of the way we live now. It is a symptom of what Ugresic calls our Karaoke Culture, a culture that is obsessed with copying over creation, obsessive fandom over light entertainment, and virtual reality over plain old reality.
“Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self,” the author writes. “The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging in the dirt of the self.” Ugresic examines these tendencies from all angles, from the ephemeral video games and YouTube clips to the darker side, with sectarian violence and her exile from Croatia.
We discussed via e-mail the author’s relationship to pop culture and how a Hemingway lookalike contest fits into the same essay as the war criminal Radovan Karadžic.
I'm always interested in writers who move between fiction and nonfiction, because so few writers are able to do both well. How do you use the different mediums? Does the research you do for nonfiction sometimes show up in your fiction? Is one easier than the other?
In my case, writing fiction or nonfiction implies the same procedure. I struggle with an essay the same way a poet struggles with a poem or a short story writer with a story. I’m no less passionate, or less creatively engaged; I don’t differentiate—a text is a text, and each requires hard work.
My essays don’t strictly respect the borders between fiction and nonfiction—they often behave like short stories, and that’s why they often confuse the reader, betraying his or her expectations. But essays are written to confuse and provoke, to ask questions, not necessarily to answer them. The narrators of my essays are often “unreliable,” “fictional,” and—I hope—funny. As a reader I don’t like “authoritarian,” all-knowing narrators, they bore me. All in all, I find the essay a very attractive form: exciting, playful, vigorous, intimate, communicative and risky.
What's your relationship to pop culture? Detached observer? Or do you have the last season of The Good Wife on DVD?
Popular culture (or moreover, its products) doesn’t interest me so much. What interests me is cultural populism. In other words, I’m not interested in the saga of the Twilight books and movies, but in the mechanism of fascination these products instill in millions of young consumers.
The patterns of popular culture have permeated every sphere of our lives, our entire mental landscape: politics, relationships, the education system, language, our narratives, trends, fashions, art and literature. Popular culture has even penetrated scholarly enclaves. That’s why it’s impossible to talk about popular culture, because it’s a very particular cultural reservation; popular culture is more like the air we breathe, and that’s why participation in it is so hard to escape.
Much of the Karaoke Culture you write about contains this impulse to remove the viewer from reality as much as possible, or to dunk them as fully into a new world as possible. From the intense fandom sites that put you in the world of the object of your affection, whether that be a vampire book or a television show, to something like Second Life. Is it something about contemporary life that drives this, or are humans always looking for the exit ramp?
Popular culture and cultural populism work two ways. Popular culture is a carrier of “old truths,” myth-like structures, and in this respect it’s always retrograde. But it’s also highly topical, engaged and relevant, because it works as a mirror. It reflects the obsessions, fears, dilemmas and frustrations of many people, transforming them into a pleasure zone, into our contemporary myths, into screens for our projections. Today’s popular culture boasts tremendous power because its consumers are no longer passive: thanks to technology, s/he is an inter/active participant. Technology gives the consumer a strong sense of communality and the power to change things. Whether it’s just a psychological trap, whether one really can change things or not, that’s another question.
You move from topics like popular culture to war criminals and fascist followers in the same book. Occasionally in the same essay. Is there something about contemporary pop culture that flattens the difference between Valentina Hasan and a man being brought up on charges at The Hague?
We live in a “carnival” of a sort, at the peak of its orgy. But while in traditional cultures carnival was an annual occurrence—its purpose to dethrone existing hierarchies, to mock the elite (patrons, saints, judges, priests) and the existing hierarchy of values—today’s carnival lasts the whole year and goes 24 hours a day, and subversion is a long way from its top priority. It’s as if nobody wants to do the job of mocking, everybody wants to be a star. Take politicians, for instance, Berlusconi first comes to mind. Karadžic, a war criminal, he too has his fan club.
I was struck perhaps most by your essay "Old Men and Their Grandchildren," where you start off with a news item about a Hemingway lookalike contest, which turns Hemingway into a toothless Santa Claus figure, or a cartoon version of himself, and then ends up imagining a parade of the war criminal Karadžic lookalikes, not to turn him into a cartoon to be worshipped but to admit their complacency over Karadzic’s crimes and take on his shame and a part of the blame. Can you talk a little about this essay, and how it came to be?
The essay you’ve mentioned is about fascism. Here my appreciation for the imagination of psychologists and psychotherapists in coining new terms is relevant. There is a behavioral syndrom called LFT (low frustration tolerance), and then its opposite, HFT (high frustration tolerance).
Most people, most of us, to paraphrase what a diligent therapist might say, are HFT (high fascism tolerance), or HTT (high totalitarianism tolerance). In other words, we are ready to obey, to follow, we are trained not to argue, not to judge, not to confront. We are trained to be perfect consumers, followers, imitators and believers. This common reflex is perfect ground for our contemporary “karaoke culture,” an idea I’ve tried to articulate in the book. In the essay you mention I use the pathetic figure of Radovan Karadžic, a war criminal, to deconstruct the mechanism of fascism. In another essay, “Assault on the Minibar,” I try to show how the HTT mechanism works.
You write at one point that the reason we don't have children anymore, referring to the increased rates of violence amongst youths, is because we don't have adults anymore. Certainly there is little difference in the culture we consume—every generation is listening to the same music, watching the same television shows, playing the same video games. Is there something stunting about a culture that tells us we can all pursue our dreams rather than deal with dreary obligations, and when pleasure is only a few clicks away?
We do live in infantile times, mothers increasingly look like their daughters, and they, mothers and daughters, both behave like little girls. Fathers compete with their sons. We all try to stay young until we die. Nobody wants to be lumped in the “old jerks” category anymore. That’s why the world, or the richest and “luckiest” part of it, resembles a kindergarten.
Popular culture, TV shows, movies, books, games, the Internet, media, technology—these are our favorite toys. Vladimir Putin miserably singing “Blueberry Hill,” accompanied by the best American musicians and applauded by the best American actors, is one of the most grotesque recent images of life in our kindergarten.
However, I write my essays not to preach and moralize, though that’s unavoidable, too, but to see what’s behind the curtain, how the mechanism works. One of my dearest books was, and still is, The Wizard of Oz. And my favorite literary hero is not Dorothy, or her three companions, but Toto, a little dog. He’s the one who pulls the curtain, not because he’s brave, but simply because he’s curious.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.