Popology 5: Referents, the war, George Washington, Heidi Fleiss and of course Pokemon
Popology asserts that an total cultural hit count can be calculated for any referent, and that the result represents the instantaneous cultural significance of that referent.What in hell is a "referent"?A "referent" is that person, place or thing to which an impression refers.The war in Iraq is a subject of pressing national importance. On our collective list of Urgent National Priorities, the war is Number One. People are dying. The fate of nations is being determined. The war in Iraq is important. The war matters.I watch a lot of Cartoon Network, and lately I've watched a couple of episodes of Pokemon, the animated series. I've been a frankly admiring observer of the Pokemon phenomenon for some time, but always from afar; I've never seen a Pokemon card. My admiration stems from hearing some time ago that the cards and associated imaginary universe were created by a Tokyo advertising agency, which if true makes Pokemon something of a popological watershed event. Of course, Pokemon is of no national importance whatever.The war is of incalculable national importance. Pokemon is of no national importance. I believe these propositions pass the Rule of 100 People With Guns At Their Heads.Popology has nothing useful to say about the war in Iraq, which is a real and bloody conflict, but it has quite a lot to say about "the war in Iraq," which is an analytical icon -- a referent -- representing all references to the war in Iraq. Popology is of no use in analyzing the intricacies of Pokemon (whatever they may be), but it is extremely useful when analyzing "Pokemon," which is the referent representing the Pokemon cultural phenomenon.The war is important. Pokemon is not. But "the war in Iraq" and "Pokemon" possess identical popological status.All referents are of equal value.As the preceding example suggests, this premise introduces into popology an unavoidable capacity to offend. That all referents are of equal value asserts that people, places and things held sacred by some audience, often a very large audience, will seem to be blasphemed or dismissed by popology, which treats "the Grand Canyon" and "Wal-Mart" as analytical equivalents, "Mother Theresa" and "Heidi Fleiss" as identical icons. That is nonetheless how popology treats them.The dense cloud of emotional associations, public moralities, personal beliefs and world-transformative history that attaches to figures like Jesus or George Washington or Jeanne D'Arc is beyond popology's competence. Popology doesn't have anything to say about Jesus or George Washington or the Maiden, but it accounts for "Jesus" and "George Washington" and "Jeanne D'Arc" in exactly the way it accounts for "Saskatchewan" and "tax reform" and "Charles Manson." This will inevitably annoy some observers.Thus we note that, formally speaking, a referent is not the thing it represents. There will come a time when we talk about what (if anything) "George Washington" tells us about the real George Washington, when we move from theoretical popology to applied popology, but when we do so, it will be with the understanding that "George Washington" does not purport to completely describe the Father of Our Country.Jesus Christ was an electrifying spiritual figure of divine consequence whose teaching has conquered half the world. "Jesus Christ" is a file header.A referent is the subject of hits, and that's all it is.