Why Culture Matters

Article excerpt

[BOOKS] Why Culture Matters CHARLIE BERTSCH PRETEND WE'RE DEAD: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, by Annalee Newitz. Duke University Press, 2006.

ACADEMIC SCHOLARship on popular culture starts by confronting a paradox. In trying to take seriously books, films, and records that weren't intended to be taken that seriously-at least from an intellectual standpoint-scholars risk having their own work trivialized. Nobody who writes about Shakespeare, Hitler's rise to power, or the matriarchal structure of a small South American tribe has to justify their research topic to their colleagues. But if you want to write about the role of Shakespeare on the Star Trek: Next Generation holodeck, Darth Sidious's rise to power in the Star Wars series, or the gender politics of Xena: Warrior Princess, you are bound to encounter befuddlement, if not outright mockery. This is why those in the academy who study popular culture tend to protest the importance of their work a little too vociferously, and also why some ofthe people who do it best end up pursuing other career opportunities.

Annalee Newitz, who writes a popular syndicated column on technology and contributes regularly to magazines like Wired, falls into the latter category. As she explains in the acknowledgements to Pretend We're Dead, the book began as a dissertation project. That it ended somewhere else was clearly a boon for her prose. After beginning the book with a brief discussion ofthe film The Sixth Sense, in which she describes the dead, whom the young character Cole sees as, "spirits who cannot rest until they get some kind of closure on their lives," she turns to the Blair Witch Project:

Of course, some ghosts could give a crap about closure. Certainly this is the case with the bloodthirsty sprits who haunt the remote Maryland woods in Blair Witch. When a bunch of art students decide to slum it around the countryside to get footage for a sarcasm-laced film they're making about the legend of these spirits, they discover what documentary filmmakers have known for almost a century: the natives don't appreciate their condescending attitude.

This is writing that, like those pissedoff Maryland ghosts, hits its point with the force of a hammer. But that doesn't make the point any less sophisticated than it would have looked buried in a halfpage sentence full of abstract terminology.

Although Pretend We're Dead is clearly the product of someone who has thought long and hard about her topic, it is also refreshingly free ofthe secondary and tertiary references that make most university press books of this kind a tough read. …