Like shipwrecks that come to serve as sea-life habitats, even the most banal and throwaway products of consumer society could be refashioned into the stuff of community and personal meaning. “Anything can be a sunken ship — a point around which a species of social life can muster,” McCracken wrote. “But, strictly speaking, the metaphor has its limits. After all, real sunken ships draw only existing species while the metaphorical ones of the contemporary world actually help invent new ones.”
Conservatives, nostalgic for a lost sense of cultural unity, often lament the modern weakening of social bonds and the individualist, ad-hoc manner in which people go about finding or creating a sense of belonging and meaning. But the Heraclitean flow of life carries some of us out beyond the dependable, safe harbors of tradition, where we must adapt to the endless flux in our own experimental ways. Sometimes a devoted listener discovers a song that sank unnoticed and unmourned beneath the waves of popular culture, but he communes with its beauty and it strengthens his spirit. Sometimes an attentive reader happens upon an earnest passage in an old book that failed to crest any waves of popularity or significance, and writer and reader are suddenly joined in an intimate confidence that transcends time and distance. As Hannah Arendt wrote, the higher values like truth and beauty have to be created and recreated through unceasing effort, often by working in non-ideal circumstances with meager resources. The humble structures of popular culture may not have the grandeur and majesty of ancient cathedrals and coliseums, but even in a denuded environment of plastic and pixels, the innate human drive to connect and celebrate through shared rituals remains undiminished.