In the Second World War, Allied troops airdropped massive amounts of food, weaponry, and supplies onto the Melanesian islands. To the islanders, largely isolated from modern industrialization, the wealth and abundance of the drops was interpreted within a mystical, quasi-religious framework. Upon the war’s end, these airlifts dwindled to a stop, and island cults emerged which attempted to ritualistically summon more supplies. Lacking an understanding of the core mechanisms behind the airdrops — a world war, mechanized flight, the Allied island-hopping offensive — these so-called cargo cults began constructing imitation runways, dressing like U.S. soldiers, and generally mimicking military behaviors without success.
This style of reaction has already been co-opted metaphorically into the concept of cargocult programming. Here, I’ll attempt to adapt it to describe a specific kind of artistic imitative practice.
“I think ‘CargoCult’ is better used to describe situations where the current inhabitants of an organization are in awe of an artifact (piece of technology, body of code, policy, etc.) that’s… been left by ancient, venerable, (and now gone from the scene) ancestors…” (Discussion)
Frequently, a writer, filmmaker, or any type of artist will imitate the qualities of a work he admires. All imitation, however, is not equal. Any element in a work operates as a part of a whole; it functions in context, in fitness, in conjunction with other parts; and only in this way can it be understood.
Works, moreover, are applications of conscious and unconscious theories; they are governed by unifying logics. Many of a piece’s surface qualities are born as byproducts of conceptual concerns, or serve as pawns for greater mechanisms; when this is ignored, when the “why” and “how” of an element is not given adequate consideration, the artist and critic are at risk of cargoculting.
To understand and thus learn from a work of literature, music, or art, one must traverse from the specific to the general, must get at the category of mechanism which each part obeys in its relationship to the whole. It necessitates a moving from away from words or notes towards causes and effects, for only then can the imitator apply learned abstraction to the specific context of new work. It is the difference, in admiring the tailoring of another person’s suit, between copying the exact measurements of the cuffs and copying the proportions of the cuffs relative to jacket and frame. Effect derives as much or more from underlying principles and coordination as it does from applied specifics.
In art, cargocult is the inclusion of nonessential, purposeless, or even counterproductive elements, elements which have been lifted without being properly understood. Choices made in constraint are given agency, and rarely are the effects which the imitator desires transferred. Cargocult is not destined to fail —sometimes a lifted style or tic will fit snugly in new contexts. But when it does succeed it is through happenstance rather than strategy. Analogue fetish, contemporary lo-fi, folk imitation, and a capitalized Avant-Garde tradition all strike me as examples of cargocult in art.
It’s important to clarify that imitation is frequently unconscious, resulting from socialization and tribal norms. Consider what makes one aesthetic choice seem entirely acceptable to one group, and entirely unacceptable to another; consider the ways artists attempt to proxy certain effects by adhering to group value hierarchies. Within art, film, and literary circles, experimentalism is often signaled (and understood) through non-narrative structure, self-reflexivity, nested patterns, and a direct treatment (acknowledging the physicality) of its medium. And yet these are qualities of an experimentalism long past, associated with modernist and postmodernist innovations of the 20th century. They are no longer experiments but the signifiers of experimentalism, announcements of status.
In criticism, this is the confusion and proxying of surface for essence, trapping for harness. A certain aesthetic style or affect is perceived as correlating with a desirable trait — perhaps acoustic instrumentation with honest self expression in the early 20th century — and soon the two become hopelessly confused, audiences using the appearance or absence of a style as a proxy for its ideology, quality, and depth. Genuine innovation can go unnoticed, while regurgitation disguised with savvy signaling is showered in praise. The nostalgia which has swept over pop’s critical landscape in the 21st century is in part a product of cargocult. Likewise, that uncanny tendency for modern films, viewed in black and white, to transform into masterpieces. Rockism, Dylan at Newport, and midcult all strike me as examples of cargocult in criticism.
Essays for further reading, which circle the concept of cargocult in one form or another:
If It Sounds Bad It Is Bad, Suspended Reason
Masscult & Midcult, Dwight Mcdonald
The Progress of Poptimism, Rare Candy (section 4.1, “The Need for a New Criticism”)
Why I Hate the Avant-Garde, HTMLGiant