Venkatesh Rao on Psy Cultural Interaction

by Reihan Salam

Venkatesh Rao, an independent intellectual perhaps best known for his blog Ribbonfarm, has written an insightful meditation on the Korean rapper Psy’s hit single “Gangnam Style” and how it has been received by Americans for Quora. His basic take is as follows:

This can be hard to analyze culturally, so let me save you the trouble. The reason this is a hard question is that Gangnam Style is a self-consciously campy song, so both Koreans and Americans view it as funny. 

But the song is deliberate, adult camp to Koreans while it is enjoyed through infantilization, patronization and a lens of assumed cultural superiority over a foreign culture by most Americans. 

To explain why this is the case, Rao offers a guide to understanding different cases of cultural interaction:

1. Peer to peer: the producer and consumer culture have roughly the same social status. So this would be like the Japanese watching Korean things, or Americans watching French things. Or Indians watching Jackie Chan movies. In this case, consumers reserve judgement about, or attempt to learn about, the parts that they do not understand.

2. Lower to higher: the producer culture is viewed (and views itself) as generally lower status than the consumer culture. This would be Americans processing basically anything non-European. Americans processing European has been slowly drifting from p2p to this category over the last couple of decades. This class also includes “blackface” American shows before the civil rights movement. In this case, the consumers dismiss, ignore or trivialize the parts they do not understand.

3. Higher to lower: the producer culture is viewed (and views itself) as generally higher status than the consumer culture. So this would be Asians watching Hollywood movies etc. In this case, the consumers uncritically respect, fear or develop awe for, the parts that they do not understand.

As Rao goes on to explain, these hierarchies can vary by domain, e.g., U.S. perceptions of Japanese culture might generally by of Type II, but U.S. subcultures that prize Japanese cultural forms (like manga and anime) view Japanese culture through a Type III lens. 

Some will no doubt find Rao’s analysis a bit heavy-handed, if not humorless. But I recommend applying his three cases of cultural interaction to the ways in which affluent college-educated Americans living in dense coastal metropolitan areas perceive the folkways and cultural practices of Americans living in rural areas or in smaller cities in the South and the Midwest. I think it helps clarify matters.