Some thoughts on “the mainstream”

Yesterday’s plenary panel at IASPM was about “the mainstream” as a (pop) cultural phenomenon, a media practice, and a critical theoretical concept. I have some really nerdy philosophical thoughts about the conversation that I didn’t bring up in the discussion because, well, I’m the only philosopher here and I didn’t want to drag the discussion down an idiosyncratic philosophical rabbit-hole.

Keir Keightley talked about how the “mainstream” is both placeless–it’s EVERYWHERE–and often geographically grounded in a very specific place, such as Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, Bollywood, 30 Rock, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere/New York, New York,” and so on.

The mainstream is both abstractly placeless and concretely local. This dynamic–it can be narrowly particular (local) because it is universal (placeless)–is what Hegel calls the dialectic of sense-certainty (which is in the Phenomenology). “Here” and “now” can refer to any very, very, microscopically specific place or time precisely because they refer to no specific place or time at all. Any instant can be “now.”

So this got me thinking: How is the “mainstream,” as a sensory and aesthetic phenomenon–that is, as a practice of sense-discernment–organized by this dialectical movement back and forth between particularlity and universality, concreteness and abstraction? (A dialectic which, if you follow Hegel, is a feature of sense-discernment as such.) Is the idea of “the mainstream” like “here” and “now”? How? Can Hegel’s dialectic of sense-certainty be in any way helpful in thinking about the problem of “the mainstream”?

So, first, let’s walk through the passage. Hegel begins this section of The Phenomenology of Spirit discussing Descartes’ wax passage from the second meditation. Thinking about the wax, seeing and touching it, how can I be certain of its physical existence before me? How can I trust my senses to provide me with reliable information about the wax? Well, I can’t, reasons Descartes, BUT I can be sure that I exist, either as the perceiver of the wax or as the object of deception/false impressions. That’s what Hegel summarizes in paragraph 91.

Then in paragraph 93 Hegel notes a problem: How can I know that there is a correspondence between how things really are and how they appear to me? How do I know what I see and feel here, now, is really what is here, now? To test this out, Hegel does a little thought experiment: write down what “now” is–now is nighttime. But the problem is that “now” is nighttime, now, but later it nighttime won’t be an accurate description of “now.” (Yeah, this is seriously approaching Spaceballs territory….). “Now” is both this precise moment in time, but it’s also not this precise moment in time, but another precise moment in time. As Hegel puts it, “The Now that is night is kept fixed, i.e. it is treated as what it is given out to be, as something which is; but it proves to be rather a something which is not” (96). Now, here, these are both “with equal indifference this as well as that.” So, these very precise, narrowly-focused terms are actually “universal” (96)–their ability to mark a narrowly specific point in space or time is conditioned upon their abstractness, their lack of reference to any specific point in space or time. Any time can be “now,” any place, “here.” But at the same time, the only space that actually IS “here” is right here, where sitting. “Of course we do not present before our mind in saying, so the universal this, or being in general, but we utter what is universal; in other words, we do not actually and absolutely say what in this sense-certainty we really mean” (97). So, the concrete content of “the mainstream” is, according to this logic, necessarily ineffable.

If “the mainstream” doesn’t tell us anything specific about the content we’re using it to describe, the object of our perception, what does it do? What does it indicate? Well, it tells us about us, the perceiving subject. As in Descartes’s second meditation, the certainty in sense-certainty lies not in the object, but in the subject: the wax passage tells us about the Cogito (the kind of thinking thing I am), not about the wax. “Sense-certainty is thus indeed banished from the object, but it is not yet thereby done away with; it is merely forced back into the I” (100). Hegel continues, “what does not disappear is the I qua universal, whose seeing is neither the seeing of this tree nor of this house, but just seeing simpliciter” (102).

And this “I” is similarly universal: By saying “this Here”, “this Now”, “an individual thing”, I say all Thises, Heres, Nows, or Individuals. In the same way when I say “I”, “this individual I”, I say quite generally “all I’s”, every one is “I”, this individual I” (102). So what “the mainstream” does is produce the subject as universal, as any individual at all. “The mainstream,” organized by this dialectic between absolute particularity and universality, produces subjects as “anyones”–it mainstreams individuals, in other words.

But, of course, not everyone can be an anyone. Some people are too “particular” to be anyone in general. Only people oriented in the same trajectory I am can constitute this “mainstream.”

So, I think Hegel’s dialectic of sense-certainty can illuminate the concept of “the mainstream.” It unpacks the concept’s paradoxical locality and generality, and it shows how the concept of the mainstream produces its own constituent population.