Rhetorical Thursday II
In which we remind everyone, while we keep gradin’ our papers (and writin’ a book review to be named later), that there’s another book out there just chock full of prose like the kind you find on this blog. For example, in an essay titled “The Elvis Costello Problem,” I take up the arguments of Sanford Pinsker and Roger Kimball, who appeared in a 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education essay to inveigh against the study of popular culture:
Pop-culture studies are “an educational disaster area,” he said, “part of an infamous effort to make education relevant”—something too often accomplished at the expense of rigor.
When asked how long it should take before a work is included in the canon, Pinsker suggested 50 years. That seemed fair to Mr. Kimball, although he was unconvinced that pop culture deserved any place in the classroom. “Do we really need classes on Toni Morrison? Our students will read it anyway,” he said.
In my first book, Marginal Forces/ Cultural Centers, I argued that invocations of the “test of time,” when made by journalists, represent (among other things) a form of competition between journalists and professors for the right to speak and write about contemporary literature. Basically, the argument is that we professors have to keep our hands off literature until the fifty-year expiration date is up—almost as if we’re talking about a form of copyright. And why? So that the “test of time” can be conducted. But exactly who is supposed to conduct the test, and why should academic critics be barred from participating in it for fifty years? Just who is supposed to benefit from suggestions like this? Not literary critics, who tend to despise any arrangement that keeps them from doing work they want to do. Not contemporary writers, most of whom prefer to get their critical attention before they die. Ah, but journalists would have the field of contemporary literature all to themselves, especially with regard to the job of book reviewing. Academics would be barred from discussing Gravity’s Rainbow until 2023, Beloved until 2037, and Underworld until 2047, while everyone else could comment and critique just as much as they liked. In “The Elvis Costello Problem,” I not only make that argument about contemporary literature, but I also revisit the question of the popular and the ephemeral more generally—like so:
During the twentieth century, universities in the United States first created Great Books and Western Civilization courses as part of a larger general-education enterprise, in part to combat the excesses and impermanence of vocationalism and specialization. Amidst all the 1990s culture-wars fervor over whether Western Civ courses are hegemonic and oppressive or, alternatively, the bedrock of all that we stand for, academic critics (and journalists) largely forgot that “core” courses were proposed at places like Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard partly to insure that undergraduate education would have a kind of cross-generational continuity. At Harvard, for instance, the landmark committee report of 1945, General Education in a Free Society (known more colloquially as the Red Book), argued that the books that “have most influenced the men who in turn influenced others are those we can least afford to neglect. . . . It is a safe assumption that a work which has delighted and instructed many generations of ordinary readers and been to them a common possession, enriching and enriched, is to be preferred to a product which is on its way to limbo and will not link together even two school generations” (26). No doubt the phrasing may strike some readers today as infelicitous: Are “men” the only readers who count? Who are those “ordinary readers,” anyway? And do we really have to keep reading and teaching third-rate drivel like Pilgrim’s Progress just because the emergent British middle classes kept a copy at their bedsides for the better part of three centuries?
But the cogency of the Red Book’s argument will be felt by any teacher who has experienced what I call the Elvis Costello Problem—namely, the difficulty of communicating to students by means of the touchstones of popular culture. If you’re reading this in 2006, think of it this way: next year’s entering class of college students was born in 1988, by which point Elvis Costello had long since made the transition from punk/ New Wave wunderkind to Serious Singer/Songwriter; for those students, the cultural impact of Costello’s first three albums—whose remarkable wit and anger helped to puncture the bloated, complacent rock-star scene of the 1970s—is so remote as to be unintelligible. On my bad days in the classroom, even the man’s name draws blank stares from twenty-year-olds whose memories barely reach back to the reunion of the Eagles in the mid-1990s, let alone to the breakup of the Beatles in 1970. How many of today’s students can recall the punk class of 1977—the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones—whose music is now ancient enough, though still not tame enough, to be played on an oldies station? How many students, for that matter, can recall the ephemera of the early years of the previous decade—Londonbeat and Tone-Lōc, Deee-Lite, and Bell Biv DeVoe? Those ubiquitous cries of yesteryear, “Whoomp! There it is!” and “2 Legit 2 Quit,” have rapidly become as dated as “23-skidoo” and “hubba hubba.” “Who let the dogs out,” in turn, will no doubt be unintelligible by 2010, and it’ll be a good thing, too.
Popular culture is designed, after all, to move products quickly, and that means short shelf lives for the vast majority of cultural artifacts in any genre, from good-quality paperbacks to eight-track tapes. By the time the pop singer Natalie Imbruglia’s latest single hits the airwaves, the system is betting that you’ve forgotten all about last year’s Warbling Waif, Heather Nova. And chances are (as Johnny Mathis used to say) that you have forgotten—if, in fact, you ever noticed.
I should point out that I say all this not as an aspiring managing editor of the New Criterion but as a fortysomething teacher of undergraduate seminars on postmodernism, someone who goes out and sees movies like The Matrix (twice! It rocked!) whenever enough students suggest that its references to the French theorist Jean Baudrillard are really worth checking out. I have no desire to invoke a fifty-year rule for my own courses (it would, of course, eliminate my entire reading list in postmodern fiction), but I can tell you from a lifetime of immersion in the detritus of popular culture that, whereas the subject is often quite worthy of serious study, it’s getting harder for an aging body to keep up with it every year, and . . . well, let me put it this way: I simply have no idea who 50 Cent is, all right? I yearn for the good old days of Tupac. (Actually, that’s not true on either count. But you see my point, I’m sure.)
Yet that’s not all there is, my friends. As it happens, the terrain of popular culture has lately become even more complicated—and, therefore, has made a pedagogy of the contemporary both more possible and more interesting. True enough, most of the stuff of the entertainment industry consists of cultural ephemera destined for trivia contests, tent sales, and collectors’ bins. But over the past decade, popular culture has also begun to institutionalize its own canons—in oldies radio (and its niche-market offshoots, classic rock and “jammin’” oldies soul), cable-television stations devoted to “the classics” (meaning everything from I Love Lucy to Welcome Back, Kotter), motion-picture “revivals” and “remakes” of practically every 1960s sitcom save for Hazel, and the retrospective Where Are They Now? and Behind the Music series on the music-video network VH1. The cultural-recycling industry even has its own self-parodying devices, like VH1’s Best Week Ever, a nostalgic look back at whatever week has just concluded (a show modeled on VH1’s only slightly less self-parodic features, I Love the 70s / 80s / 90s), such that it is not unusual to hear—in 2005, say—a call for a “revival” of Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” Accelerating and deranging the modernist demand to “make it new,” this aspect of popular culture says, make it neo- and make it snappy.
The irony of that last item is itself postmodern, is it not? Music video, once thought to be the final final piece of evidence that the decline of Western civilization is complete and irreversible, turns out to be one of the vehicles of cultural memory seeking to combat the Elvis Costello Problem—making, for example, the 1977 divas of disco available to a whole new generation of dancing fools. Who would have guessed it? Though there are still some days when students look at me blankly when I speak of Parliament-Funkadelic, popular culture has actually begun to link the generations more broadly than “high” culture ever could. Thanks to contemporary culture’s ravenous appetite for recycling, fans of music video can not only keep up with This Year’s Model (oops, a dated Elvis Costello reference), but also get acquainted with twenty-first-century versions of 1970s reggae and 1940s swing. The same economic forces that drive popular culture’s high rate of turnover also drive popular culture’s high rate of revival. Popular culture creates the Elvis Costello Problem—and affords its partial solution, all at the same time. Hubba hubba. Also, show me the money!
Ars longa, VH1 brevis, and all we are is dust in the wind, dude. I’ll be back tomorrow with a brand new game.
...this aspect of popular culture says, make it neo- and make it snappy.
The new-to-neo cycles are accelerating, which begs the question: What happens as the cycles approach zero, when things become new and neo simultaneously? Is that when we look to the sky for the GNF?Posted by on 10/19 at 09:42 AM
if you don’t stop thinking about tommorrow, it will be here, better than before.
So we can all escape this terrible fate by getting in the Wayback Machine.Posted by on 10/19 at 09:44 AM
And don’t forget covers. Covers have long been a means of continuity that still stretch back as far as Tin Pan Alley. Even Elvis Costello tipped his hat to the many that preceded him, not just in complete covers, but in a thousand subtle ticks and twitches tucked inside of each and every song.
Pop-Culture may be a cannibal, but not in the 1950s B-thriller sense, but rather, it consumes in order to possess the essence of the consumed object into itself. And really, isn’t that what cultural continuity is anyway? Consuming the essence of our ancestors?Posted by Central Content Publisher on 10/19 at 09:52 AM
Good thing my Borders 30% off coupon came in today…
Anyway, I have thought a great deal about the topic of your post and note that those of us in our 40s (I’m still barely there at 49) have things like Adam West’s Batman, Gilligan Island as very wide spread and shared culture reference points. This was because television consisted of only a few channels in the 1950s through early 1970s and were truly “broadcast” as opposed to “narrowcast.” Even radio was relatively broadcast as most stations continue to play the same thing--though today, music has been so decimated as an art form that it is no longer culturally important to too many younger folks (Which is not blaming them, I assure you. My blame is on my generation and older).
Since the advent of cable, television is increasingly narrow casting, not broadcasting. One must be more of a cable hound, or read a hellava lot as I do (and you do), to keep up with the different, more narrow cultural references. For example, far fewer people watched the Sopranos or House in first runs than the Brady Bunch or even Welcome Back, Kotter.
For my parents, radio, which had only three or four national networks during the 1930s and 1940s, that provided wide spread and shared, but singular, cultural reference points: Fred Allen, “Fibber McGee,” “The Shadow,” for example.
Today, our spectator portion of our culture is more diffuse than ever--and so are the media. While Clear Channel continues to provide an unfortunately largely trashy level of shared cultural references in radio (starting with 50 Cent or Britney Spears), it is not just television and radio any longer that form the cultural reference points. For my 13 year old son, at least, he finds common language and reference points with computer games, such as Frogger, WarCraft, etc. These are, however, only shared cultural references among boys, not girls for the most part.
Girls are largely left out of that equation, unfortunately, which causes me some concern about male-female relations (though of course, people tend to find their ways). In fact, I recently saw an article by a woman who had just graduated from law school who said she has now refused to date men who play computer games as she finds they are more socially awkward and unable to be sharing individuals. That’s a bit harsh, but I do not in the least doubt her experience with such boys and men. Still, I expect too many boys my son’s age will overwhelm her younger sisters if they tried to follow her advice.
For my eight year old daughter, she is finding her way to Nintendogs on an increasingly sexist named, “Game Boy” and she enjoys the Barbie/American Girl web site.
So if you’re feeling like you can’t find the right cultural reference points with students born in 1988...well, it’s likely to get worse for those of us who are not watching our children on the computer (which often includes me).Posted by Mitchell Freedman on 10/19 at 10:51 AM
I remember when, a few years ago (soon after I had returned to teaching), my students would mention a fondness for R&B. My face lit up: “Who are you listening to? Sam Cooke? Otis Redding?” “Huh?” they responded.
The “test of time,” as you hint, is simply a “test of popular culture.” Which, strangely enough, is exactly what those lobbying for a “test of time” don’t want.
How does something “pass” the “test of time”? Simply by remaining present in popular culture--even if that is popular “literary” culture.
Oh, I shouldn’t have gotten started on this, it’s just all so tied to the superficiality of event and place (and not just time). One of the greatest (and most popular) writers of the twentieth century, Somerset Maugham, hasn’t passed the “test of time"--at least, not in the United States (he continues to be read elsewhere). Why not? Because Bunny Wilson, just after WWII, panned him in The New Yorker, placing him “below” a number of writers much less read anywhere today than Maugham. But Wilson’s slight push was enough to send Maugham on the slow path to near oblivion in America.
What does that say about the “value” of Maugham’s writing? Nothing.
Captcha: “book"--as in, “They ought to throw the book (preferably one of Maugham’s longer ones) at the people who justify anything through a ‘test of time.’”Posted by Aaron Barlow on 10/19 at 11:04 AM
Great stuff, Michael. I for one would like to welcome our Parliament Funkadelic Overlords, for when we give up the funk and tear the roof off the sucka, and the Mothership connection is made, that’s our only hope to escape the GNF. But only if we REALLY want the funk.Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 11:34 AM
Bonus points on my next pop quiz in my Foucault course for any student able to spell, define, and use correctly in a sentence “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication.” Half credit for “Thumpasorus.”Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 11:40 AM
Finally, for your delectation this morning, feast your eyes on this picture of Bill Clinton’s long lost brother, George.Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 11:56 AM
Jeez, Aaron, I thought everyone knew that “R & B” meant “Rhythm and Business.” These kidz today! But hey Mitchell, what is a “Brady Bunch”? Is that one of those Survivor tribes I keep hearing about?Posted by Michael on 10/19 at 11:58 AM
You can walk a mile in my shoes, Mr. Protevi, but you can’t dance a step in my feet.
But hey Mitchell, what is a “Brady Bunch”? Is that one of those Survivor tribes I keep hearing about?
Isn’t it one of those gun control groups?Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 12:06 PM
I just saw Elvis Costello open for the Rolling Stones in Chicago. 36 degrees and windy at Soldier Field. He did mostly his 70’s stuff, but speaking of covers, he closed with a cover of the Stones’ 1966 “Just Take It Or Leave It,” a perfect lead in to the Stones’ mostly 70’s show. Anyway, the people standing next to us had no idea who he was, and they were in their 30’s. Fame is fleeting, just saying.Posted by on 10/19 at 12:07 PM
Fame is fleeting, just saying.
I told a cow orker about the time in 1980 I’d snuck into a Patti Smith concert by the back door when a security guard left a fire door open, and said cow orker responded with the in this context no doubt predictable “who?”
Said conversation took place in 1984.Posted by Kirby Olson on 10/19 at 12:21 PM
Oh, and V. Ed., your comment made me nostalgic for the early days of the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now party, when things were simpler and people were kinder, and the pace of life was a little slower, and you could actually take a rocking chair out onto the front porch of your blog and watch the GNF with your virtual friends. Now all we have is VH1’s tongue-in-cheek Best GNF Ever. It’s just not the same.Posted by Michael on 10/19 at 12:22 PM
Someone snuck into my office and set my handle to Kirby Olson, dammit! Of all the lousy, rotten,…
ok, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep lying to my friends.
I’m Kirby Olson. He’s a sockpuppet I made up. It’s all a desperate bid for attention. I’ll be going off to get help now. Sorry about the Lex Luther stuff.Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 12:23 PM
Careful, Mr. Clarke! Any allusion to electric spanking, of war babies or not, risks bringing Kirby running. How much spanking, he’ll want to know? As much as the 380 times of the North Koreans?Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 12:23 PM
Ah, I see my prediction in #15 was correct. I just never expected the sprezzatural twist! Well played, Mr. Clarke, well played.Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 12:26 PM
And it really was a prediction, honest. The comments are coming thick and fast today!Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 12:28 PM
The measuring of great works has always sounded like a tricky business to me. Do we count the frequency of references to a work to measure its importance - sort-of-a measurement by semiotics? What about works that have been artificially marginalized? What about cultural spheres - surely there isn’t a single cultural center? By what “basis” do we decide that a work is great? By what “basis” do we know anything? And really Michael, what do you mean by “basis” anyway?Posted by Central Content Publisher on 10/19 at 12:32 PM
It’s just not the same.
Those were the days, to be sure. An undergrad who couldn’t believe I was there for the beginning was just asking me about them, with a mixture of awe and wonder.Posted by on 10/19 at 12:51 PM
What, no mention of hip-hop and sampling? Can’t you tell the kids that the beat in Snoop’s What’s My Name is sampled from Parliament and that they were listening to a sample from Sam Cooke when they saw Common & Kanye West performing on Dave Chappelle’s Show?Posted by Blar on 10/19 at 12:52 PM
And what is a Cow Orker anyway? Sounds mean. Darn these young people today and their inexplicable buzzwords!Posted by on 10/19 at 12:55 PM
Up here in balmy North Dakota, we are starting up a “Great Podcast” curriculum. The St. John’s curriculum was good that that whole WASPy homosocial “thang,” but it did very little to connect playlists.
Of course, the podcasts must fully load into their iTunes before it becomes part of the curriculum, which is a kind of “time” and/or “test” factor/thingy.
We may be accused of “podcentrism” here (or even...podomorphism), but we feel pretty comfortable our students will appreciate the curriculum revisions.Posted by DocMara on 10/19 at 12:56 PM
What about cultural spheres - surely there isn’t a single cultural center?
Hence the title of my first book! No one center, thus no reliable margins. I did natter on about this at the time, though.
By what “basis” do we decide that a work is great? By what “basis” do we know anything? And really Michael, what do you mean by “basis” anyway?
I answered this one weeks ago, didn’t I?
Damn, I’ll have to get around to it sooner or later. Probably later. And the answer will have something to do with Wittgenstein. I hope that’ll send “Kirby” into a whole new series of paroxysms, now that we know he’s been Chris Clarke all this time. . . .Posted by Michael on 10/19 at 12:57 PM
The fleetingness of pop culture reared its ugly head for me last week. I have a terrific (trust me) powerpoint presentation entitled “Calvin and Hobbes Learn about the Pragmatic Theory of Explanation.” Frightfully clever way to introduce a slippery subject, I’ve always thought: use Calvin’s “why questions” to his dad to explain how what “counts” as an explanation depends on the constrast space of the arguers, etc.
Of course, C&H ended in 1995. In my class of 75 students, nearly half only had a vague idea of who C&H were. Damn, did I feel old.Posted by on 10/19 at 12:59 PM
I was wondering the same thing, rm. Perhaps a cow orker is some kind of voice-activated instrument used in Lutheran dairy farming.Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/19 at 01:06 PM
"I’m Kirby Olson. He’s a sockpuppet I made up. It’s all a desperate bid for attention. I’ll be going off to get help now. Sorry about the Lex Luther stuff.”
This news comes as a terrible blow. I thought Kirby Olson was the most interesting persona on this blog ever (with the possible exception of its author).
Triple dog damn you, Kirby Olson, I *believed* in you! I was going to buy your novel!Posted by on 10/19 at 01:13 PM
Cow orker? Could have something to do with that Animal House bestiality Kirby was on about a few posts ago.Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 01:17 PM
Blar, I talk about digital sampling and morphing in order to explain Modernist palimpsest and the “many voices” of _The Waste Land_. The kids are enthralled.Posted by on 10/19 at 01:22 PM
I’ve long been partial to Eliot’s “F**k tha Police in Different Voices,” from the breakthough album Straight Outta St. Louis. Though the kidz today don’t even know what an “album” is.Posted by Michael on 10/19 at 01:49 PM
[half-remembered routine by some unremembered guy on Comedy Central about 15 years ago:]
They keep increasing the amount of raisins they put in raisin bran. I like raisins, but lately they just put too damn many of ‘em in there. The other day I poured myself a bowl of raisin bran and it was about half raisins. I had to dump the bowl out onto an album cover and separate the raisins out with my driver’s license.
OK, I realize some people might be a little young to get that reference. In college we used to use album covers and credit cards to separate the seeds out of our pot.
OK, I realize some people might be a little younger than that. See, pot used to have seeds in it.
OK. Sorry. There used to be these things called “albums"…Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 02:01 PM
All the truly interesting posts under Kirby Olson are by me, Kirby Olson. All the dumb posts under Kirby Olson are by Chris Clarke.
It takes a literary critic to know the difference. In other words, political hacks won’t be able to tell the difference.
It’s a question of TASTE.
Anything truly tasteless is by Kirby Olson.
Anything just somewhat tasteless is by Chris Clarke.
Triple axels with pinpoint landing are by Kirby Olson.
Any really great puns are by Kirby Olson.
Anything that you might actually remember and will stick in your mind for years is by Kirby Olson.
Everything else—even if it is posted under the name of Kirby Olson—is by Chris Clarke.Posted by Kirby Olson on 10/19 at 02:02 PM
Ow. I just blacked out at my desk. Hit my head on the keyboard. Did I miss anything?Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 02:04 PM
Hence the title of my first book! No one center, thus no reliable margins. - Michael
A friend of mine is a big Rammstein fan. He got a little irate because someone criticised him for not liking mainstream music. His response went something like: “Look! Fucko! I saw Rammstein in a sold out stadium. They have the number one album in Germany, they have more on-stage fire than any band ever, they sing about America and anal sex, and their last album outsold Madonna’s last album. If that’s not mainstream; then wtf is?” There was a lot of hand gesticulation that went with this; he is, after all, a Rammstein fan.
The “no reliable margins” is certainly a good description, but I think the scary questions people get stuck on are concerning, what I’m going to daringly call: “artificial margins”. Those things or persons who are artificially marginalized (like any black jazz musician in say, the 1940s), or those things that have been artificially centerized (like, let’s say, that great early 1900s classic: Lutheran Fables for Swedish Children).
There’s this idea that the “test of time” will somehow reverse, or correct these artificial margins, but I don’t know if I’m completely convinced this is the case, and I certainly haven’t been convinced that we’ve even found a way to measure such things, much less draw conclusions. How do we measure REAL cultural impact? I’m under the impression that Otis Redding’s version of “Try a little Tenderness” had important cultural impact, and I have a lot of reasons for thinking that, but I can’t really say if it was more or less important than Underworld or Gravity’s Rainbow (though my gut, driven on pure unadulterated bias, tells me it’s more important than Underworld, but less so than Gravity’s Rainbow).
(and Chris, if I turn out to be you, I’m gunna be really pissed)Posted by Central Content Publisher on 10/19 at 02:15 PM
A cow orker is someone you might invite to a Superb Owl party.Posted by on 10/19 at 02:56 PM
<i>A cow orker is someone you might invite to a Superb Owl party.</a>
A party at which Hootie and the Blowf Ish play?Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 03:31 PM
Oh, so that’s what the “preview” button is there for? Let’s try it again.
A cow orker is someone you might invite to a Superb Owl party.
A party at which Hootie and the Blowf Ish play?
There. Much worse the second time around. Curse you, little preview button!Posted by John Protevi on 10/19 at 03:33 PM
it’s an Inj Oke.Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 03:34 PM
Sounds like a tag team on some alien planet: Blowf Ish and Inj Oke. Add in Por Krind and we’ve get a jazz trio from the bar in the first Star Wars movie.
captcha: “free” as in, the best things in life are ____Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/19 at 03:43 PM
Scientists Create ‘Cloak of Invisibility’
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: October 19, 2006
Filed at 2:48 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON (AP)—Scientists are boldly going where only fiction has gone before—to develop a Cloak of Invisibility. It isn’t quite ready to hide a Romulan space ship from Capt. Kirk or to disguise Harry Potter, but it is a significant start and could show the way to more sophisticated designs.
In this first successful experiment, researchers from the United States and England were able to cloak a copper cylinder.
The article goes on to say that the “cloak” is made of “metamaterials.” It figures.
I wonder if the human scale version will be available in time for elections this fall.Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/19 at 04:00 PM
The way my Dad was taught it in the early 60s (and I heard the same joke in the late 80s at Columbia at least once) was that anything before World War One was history, and anything after that was Current Events.Posted by MoXmas on 10/19 at 04:00 PM
I think that’s a fascinating argument, Michael, that “popular culture has actually begun to link the generations more broadly than ‘high’ culture ever could.” I’m curious: do you think pop culture has really only “begun” to do this, or did previous pop cultures also do it? Something strictly postmodern, you think?
By the way, it occurs to me that one of the more pleasant aspects of a giant nuclear fireball that consumes all life on earth is that it will burn up all student essays that begin “In today’s society . . .” and, for that matter, all other student essays, as well as most of the essays penned by scholars, probably, though perhaps not all.
[Note to self: require students to begin next week’s essays with the words “Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame / Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “The Blessed Damozel” / The current system of scholarly publication resembles a giant nuclear fireball in that . . . “]Posted by on 10/19 at 04:03 PM
Since the dawn of time, teachers have wondered why students start their essays with the phrase “In today’s society.”Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 05:33 PM
What happens as the cycles approach zero, when things become new and neo simultaneously?
Terrence McKenna spent years researching this phenomena, calling it “time-wave zero”. He suggested that as we find less and less novelty in social and cultural systems, the more prone the younger members of our society maybe towards acts of violence and other physical expressions of frustration, anger, and angst. But then Terrence was one of the world’s leading authorities on human history’s shamanic use of fungi.
What about cultural spheres
Well there was that Jeopardy category the other night, Pop Culture Quotes. The $2000 rhetorical clue for that column was:
On his TV “Report”: “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you”
The correct question being: Who is Stephen Colbert? A sphere of truthiness and factoidness, which correctly predicted that the pResident would utter the phrase: “My gut tells me..,” yesterday.
speaking of contemporary cultural criticism; it seems that Houston is now employing a very special technique! Please suggest to any touring bands you know that maybe they should avoid that city for, i don’t know, a dozen years or so.Posted by on 10/19 at 05:59 PM
I think Google and Wikipedia are helping to bridge the cultural divide in some ways.
I recently was able to discover who Sid Barrett was thanks to my online searches for famous crazy people of the 1960s. I had this theory that “madness” was valorized to some degree by the psychedelic youth cultures of that era, and needed some well-known artists to support my hypothesis. Skip Spence was another well-known ranter and raver. There were many of them back in the day; now, you end up like Howard Dean if you do anything remotely theatrical.
I would never have known these things were it not for the cultural storehouse known as the Internets.Posted by on 10/19 at 06:46 PM
As much as I’m willing to grant that pop culture artifacts are marketed for instant nostalgia, how do we account for stuff that has had staying power? I taught Ishmael Reed’s “Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon” (1970-ish) the other day and found a few things. Elmer Fudd was universally recognized. I recognized Gilligan’s Island references from first-hand experience; some of my students (about 6 years younger than me) did also; everyone was aware of a show called Gilligan’s Island. A few recognized Dragnet (presumably from oldies-station-equivalent Nick at Night). They recognized the Rat Pack (to be fair, we read the prologue to Underworld a few weeks ago, but they were cognizant then too, I think). They could dig the line, “All the cars have american flags on them.” Walt Disney. “White Castle restaurants” (personally, I wish they were long gone). “That’s All Folks.”
Of course, “Cab Calloway Stands In For The Moon” meant nothing to them. Nor, for that matter, did the line “People are threatening to go Chicago,” so I had to tell them about the Weathermen. When did they cease to be cool?
Anyway, some pop-cultural artifacts endure; why? If we can explain that via economic forces, will those same economic forces be able to distinguish between current-cool and revived-cool? Can economic forces explain the distinction between Chris Clarke and Kirby Olson?
(Chris, whether your suckpuppet is KO or a persona claiming to have invented KO: amazing and hilarious).
now that we know he’s been Chris Clarke all this time
Yes indeed, Professor, “now” “we” know. So I ask, what did you know and when did you know it?Posted by on 10/19 at 06:56 PM
As Mitchell Freedman notes - it is hard enough to stay linked “horizontally” across the current cultural spectrum, much less vertically through time. The general model I see in any one space are a fair number of commercial nodes or canons (many, as noted, retroactively replaying and rescripting the past) with some prominent “counterculture” nodes and a plethora of subgenres: regional, “serious” practitioner, satirical, fiercely “thouer-than-thou” etc. Turn on the flow of time adding emergence, bifurcation, merging and co-option and the best visual models I have are anastamosing (braided) streams.
Fits the model of multiple centers. Still there a few dominant strands - there always more ways to be different than there are to be the same.
[And as I get ready to post I see Foucault has hit the same following idea.] I do find Wikipedia playing an interesting role as an aggregator of a common understanding of popular cultural items - often infuriating to those “in the know” in that area* - but a good easy place to look for a quick summary for the rest. I often go there (or the Pandora sumaries) to at least place musical references I encounter here or elsewhere in some kind of context.
* For internet phenomena (such as cow-orker) I find that it tends to be a bit more authoritative. (not surprising I guess.)
And I’m down with the Superb Owl thingie - assume that Janetj Ackson’s estbray wil be on isplayday.Posted by on 10/19 at 06:57 PM
Don’t worry, JP Stormcrow--others seem to be chagrined by Wikipedia, as well. So much so that certain people have decided to take matters into their own hands and create a ‘thinking man’s’ version of the project. I personally think this new idea (described below) is a little elitist and high-fallutin’. But if it causes more accurate cultural knowledge to travel our highways, who am I to object?
New Citizendium to correct Wikipedia’s wrongs?
Captcha: believe. As in “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”Posted by on 10/19 at 07:16 PM
so I had to tell them about the Weathermen. When did they cease to be cool?
When David Horowitz joined.Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 07:35 PM
Only three objections:
(1) Pilgrim’s Progress is hardly third rate drivel.
(2) “Emergent middle classes” is an inaccurate localization of the audience it appealed to.
(3) No one has made no one include in the curriculum for historical or nostalgic or any other reasons for a hound’s age anyhow, so that’s a straw man well below the usual high level of this weblog.
Am I the only one with kids who manage to combine an interest in much, certainly not all, current pop culture, certainly not hip hop, with a fairly informed appreciation of a long range of American popular culture?Posted by on 10/19 at 07:41 PM
Are you an internets addict?
US internet addicts ‘as ill as alcoholics’
12:55 18 October 2006
NewScientist.com news service
New Scientist Tech staff and AFP
The US could be rife with “internet addicts” who are as clinically ill as alcoholics, according to psychiatrists involved in a nationwide study.
The study, carried out by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, US, indicates that more than one in eight US residents show signs of “problematic internet use”.
The Stanford researchers interviewed 2513 adults in a nationwide survey. Because internet addiction is not a clinically defined medical condition, the questions used were based on analysis of other addiction disorders.
Most disturbing, according to the study’s lead author Elias Aboujaoude, is the discovery that some people hide their internet surfing, or go online to cure foul moods – behaviour that mirrors the way alcoholics behave.
“In a sense, they’re using the internet to self-medicate,” Aboujaoude says. “And, obviously, something is wrong when people go out of their way to hide their internet activity.”
yadda yadda yadda more at:
Journal reference: CNS Spectrums: The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine (October issue)
captcha: “self”Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/19 at 07:46 PM
Of course, The Onion nailed this one nearly ten years ago: U.S. Dept. of Retro Warns: “We May be Running out of Past”.Posted by JD on 10/19 at 08:12 PM
Messing too much with the Great Books reminds me of the Taliban destroying the Buddhists statues. But I think they can best be examined by contemporary intellectual thought: historicism, feminism etc. I don’t envy teachers having to keep up with contemporary culture or make “classics” relevant. I mean they are over fifty. Have the middle class been emerging for all time? I think this was even applied to the Cromagnon.Posted by on 10/19 at 08:36 PM
"Have the middle class been emerging for all time? I think this was even applied to the Cromagnon.”
Yes, in fact Fred Flintstone is an archetype of the rising burgeoise Cromagnon. Always looking over his shoulder, fearful of encroachments from above and below.
From a Marxist perspective, Mr. Slate represents the oppressive factory owner. He perpetually reminds Fred of his lowly place on the primordial ladder, even as Fred secretly aspires to replace him one day. (Here, we see overtones of Freudian intellectual thought, as well).
Barney, however, reassures Fred of his supremacy among the ‘common man,’ the blue-collar community, as it were. Barney is the loyal sidekick who will always be one step below Fred on the social ladder, even as they both remain alienated from the products of their labor.
More complexly, Dino and the nameless Cat represent struggles between domesticity and anarchy, between the Green Zone and the Taliban. The cat is Hiss-lamic, and an obvious symbol of the rise of the Tail-iban. He is unruly and dissenting, a creature of constant rebellion.
Perhaps it is in his paws that the future lies?Posted by on 10/19 at 08:55 PM
Fintstones, meet the Flintstones they’re the rising bourgeois familee..Posted by on 10/19 at 09:03 PM
Anyone dismissing Bunyan is passing over an immensely powerful rhetorical style. At my father’s funeral, for example, I quoted
“Then said he, “I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage; and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my Rewarder.” When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the riverside; into which as he went he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over; and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”
Not a dry eye in the house. Certainly not mine.Posted by Chris B on 10/19 at 09:12 PM
Actually, what’s interesting is how few televisions shows we see these days (particularly aimed at kids and youths) about the struggles of middle class families.
It’s all “reality t.v.” but without any reality that most young people might recognize. Country life with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie? Auditioning to be America’s next pop idol?
The one squarely “working class” reality show I can think of is that one about the guys who work on motorcycles in the shop-garage. You know, the one where the dad is always dissing the sons for being lazy good-for-nothings?Posted by on 10/19 at 09:15 PM
Wow Foucault. You like American Choppers? CCP: I cannot forgive you for impersonating me the other day in fact ... (Rich Pulasky irony coming up, do not take at face value!) ...YOU READ MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY...Houseparty in SF! We can even watch “Stop Making Sense” the greatest concert movie ever (not irony)!Posted by on 10/19 at 09:21 PM
Sure, even continental philosophers like myself are influenced by popular culture. How do you think I came up with the notion of the episteme?
It all came from watching the Jetsons and Star Trek.Posted by on 10/19 at 09:31 PM
Foucault, where does the episteme go on the motorcycle? (Rich, irony again)Posted by on 10/19 at 09:33 PM
Why, it goes to pick up the body without organs, of course.Posted by on 10/19 at 09:42 PM
If we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a hundred times: stop reterritorializing our material, Foucault.Posted by on 10/19 at 09:52 PM
Never again will I riff on your ecosophy.
By the way, let it be known that I always found you dense and vague and out of touch with reality. But you were still kind of cute in your leather jockstrap!Posted by on 10/19 at 09:58 PM
Did I impersonate you? Holy shit. I don’t even remember. Maybe I am Chris Clarke. I totally blacked out.Posted by Central Content Publisher on 10/19 at 10:11 PM
Well CCP, I do remember a really snarky comment and then you blogging that your own name was jim and then I awoke with my hand between two pillows...How about those Bears!Posted by on 10/19 at 10:15 PM
Rich Pulasky and Chris Clarke,
The last quote was a reference to the movie Plane Trains and Automobiles and does not imply my sexual preference or who I think will win the Superbowl this year.Posted by on 10/19 at 10:27 PM
Can’t speak for Rich, jim, but where your hand is when you wake makes no diference to me as long as the pillows have granted express verbal consent.Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 10:46 PM
This blog has been declared a
on account of
caused byPosted by Bill Benzon on 10/19 at 10:46 PM
Nice try Chris: who will win the Superbowl?Posted by on 10/19 at 10:55 PM
Perhaps alone among this blog’s readers, jim, I don’t follow professional sports.Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/19 at 11:02 PM
I like pictures. Where’s my fucking fireball?
Actually, my name really is Jim, and I would never ever be snarky, because, I’m just not that kind of person.Posted by Central Content Publisher on 10/19 at 11:04 PM
You’re right CCP, impersonating another blogger is not snarky it’s Neanderthal. Get with the emerging middle-class Cromagnon program CCP!Posted by on 10/19 at 11:25 PM
Rich Pulansky and Chris Clarke,
The previous comment does not imply my evolutionary stage or my feelings for troglodytes, though I do find cave art erotic.Posted by on 10/19 at 11:30 PM
Sir yes sir! I would like nothing than to get with the emerging middle-class Cromagnon program sir!
(I might need a loan first though)Posted by Central Content Publisher on 10/19 at 11:41 PM
(and seriously, I really didn’t impersonate you)Posted by Central Content Publisher on 10/19 at 11:41 PM
Yeah CCP, more like it. Now for the next step, agragrian communities on the Tigris and Euphrates. Can you keep up, or do you choose extinction?Posted by on 10/19 at 11:46 PM
CCP: (I believe you)Posted by on 10/19 at 11:51 PM
Um… um… I’ll take what’s behind curtain number two.Posted by Central Content Publisher on 10/20 at 12:03 AM
Actually, what’s interesting is how few televisions shows we see these days (particularly aimed at kids and youths) about the struggles of middle class families.
On a related note: I do give America’s Funniest Home Videos credit [words you thought you would never write] for being pioneers in giving a glimpse into the way people actually live in their homes (forget the antics, I am talking about the backgrounds - the only thing on TV that ever looks remotely like my house for instance ... well maybe, COPS too.) Elsewhere it is all hilarious sterility, save for the rare Sanford and Son exaggerated for comedic effect mess. YouTube has of course pushed this even further. People have messy piles of papers and books around their computers! Imagine that!
And for reach back across time to earlier GNF-relevant popular culture, John Amato was kind enough to put up a video of Randy Newman playing Political Science. (which song has been referenced at least once in the GNF discussions round about here as I recall.)Posted by on 10/20 at 02:25 AM
People have messy piles of papers and books around their computers.
And as this imaginative candidate for public office in Oklahoma illustrates - good thing, as they can use them for protection in hand gun attacks. (via DailyKos.)
For extra credit: Write an essay deconstructing shirt styles in the Randy Newman and Oklahoma textbook shooting videos. Is YouTube an effective mechanism for cross-generational transmission of fashion norms?Posted by on 10/20 at 02:59 AM
CCP: This is as the closest one to a fireball in the set:
It’s pretty close, actually. “Existential threat” is not bad as a euphemism for Giant Cock-Sucking Nuclear Mother-Fucking Fireball (sorry about the Deadwoodisms, I’ve just read this) and omega seems just right as a visual pun. If the GCSNMFF isn’t the cessation of all mortality as it has heretofor been in evidence in these-here nefarious and god-forsaken internets, just what might be a reasonable butt-fucking approximation given appropriate cock-sucking boundary conditions there-unto?Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/20 at 07:11 AM
“The End,” courtesy of The Doors, Francis Ford Coppala, and YouTube. It ain’t nuclear, but there’s lots of fire in evidence. And that kinda summaries a few decades of popular culture, no?Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/20 at 07:18 AM
But then Terrence was one of the world’s leading authorities on human history’s shamanic use of fungi.
See, that’s what I’m talking about. With all this focus on the rot of popular culture, classical studies like Human History’s Shamanic Use of Fungi have been lost.Posted by on 10/20 at 08:10 AM
Shamanic use of Fungi
I offer a binary choice:
(a) a rock band that played at the wake for CBGB
(b) what GWBush was doing in his sock-enhanced flight suit when he declared victoryPosted by Bill Benzon on 10/20 at 08:32 AM
Good to see the turnout among Bunyan fans! You know, we deride because we love, people. If you’d prefer that I point out that Defoe was a less polished writer than Fielding, I could do that instead. But Gene (comment 49):
No one has made no one include in the curriculum for historical or nostalgic or any other reasons for a hound’s age anyhow, so that’s a straw man well below the usual high level of this weblog.
Well, I just taught On the Road largely for historical reasons. And people don’t teach Robinson Crusoe because it’s a great work of art, you know. They teach it because it’s important without being great, if you know what I mean. But then, hey! it’s arbitrary but fun Friday, and even though I’m on the road myself—speaking at SUNY-New Paltz (and therefore can answer Amanda’s question in 41 only with a hurried I think so, thanks to all these electronic devices)—it’s time for me to come up with that new game I promised.
Captcha: “record,” as in ”Robinson Crusoe‘s importance is a matter of historical.”Posted by Michael on 10/20 at 08:38 AM
Whew. Late to the party. I have 2 reasons to be grateful for Bunyan:
a) I was raised Fundy and read Pilgrim’s Progress obsessively as a kid. I can thank Bunyan and C. S. Lewis for introducing me to scary monsters and thence to D&D and eventually the Middle Ages;
b) My first two conference papers, way back during the MA, were on Pilgrim’s Progress. Thanks for cluttering up my CV, Bunyan! (I gave the second paper at an International Bunyan Society conference where I happened to be on a panel with the person whose argument I was refuting. All I can say is: she was very gracious).
Chris, I hate watching sports too. The only time I got into baseball was my mid twenties, when I was happily living off unemployment and an under-the-table DJ gig. Plenty of time to play music; too much time to think. I figured learning about baseball would be a way to occupy my brain. I was right; I was bored; so I went to grad school.
I sort of get this 50 years thing, as it’s akin to, what, Horace insisting that anything you write should be put in the drawer for 10 years before publication. I also think it’s important that anyone you write about should be dead before they can benefit from your help.
That said, does dude think something should be read continually during that 50-year period or does it just have to be 50 years old? Oddly enough, this actually seems to have been the case for Margery Kempe’s book. Written in the 15th century, it disappeared until 1934, but really didn’t attain critical centrality in late medieval English studies until, say, the mid 80s. What about Beowulf, though, or the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (rediscovered only in the late 18th century, in a Leningrad stable I think: classical crèche)? Beowulf doesn’t seem to have been read by anyone, not even in the Middle Ages. Should the 18th-century antiquarians have sat on it for 50 years before publishing anything, you know, to make sure it was any good?
And what is this reading for quality thing anyhow?Posted by on 10/20 at 11:11 AM
and therefore can answer Amanda’s question in 41 only with a hurried I think so, thanks to all these electronic devices
I see several mechanisms working in tandem by which these electronic devices (and the digital representations they carry) differentially favor popular culture linkages: increased cheap channel capacity and digital representation effectively slay the preservation problem; and increased easy access and visibility into the “channels” that do exist (for instance, Google as mentioned above.)
“High” culture, although hugely aided by these developments as well, historically had better mechanisms (often associated with its being deemed “worthy” of academic inquiry) to handle these issues. For instance, a number of times from, say, the mid ‘70s to the mid ‘90s I lamented not having access to the complete Rolling Stone archive, while at the same time I could much more easily access all manner of “high” culture content thorugh libraries.
So bottom line: dramatically lower barriers to entry for channel creation and long-term storage of channel content, and dramatically increased ability to find channels and their associated content have differentially benefitted “low-value” popular culture, by basically removing it’s ephemeral nature.
A question for the future - will the demand for simulacra such as Happy Days decrease (or at least be subject to “higher” standards for novel interpretation) as increasing amounts of original popular cultural content survive into the future.Posted by on 10/20 at 02:02 PM
With all this focus on the rot of popular culture, classical studies like human history’s shamanic use of fungi have been lost.
Actually, due to popular cultural demand most of those long past published books are now being reprinted and sold in vastly greater numbers: Wasson, McKenna, Shulgin, Grof, Metzner, Hoffman, and H. Smith; along with tributes and edited commentaries: Forte, Clark, Schultes, et al.Posted by on 10/20 at 03:41 PM
JP brings up a great issue I didn’t even realize was there: Hey, yeah, why should all the electrogizamawhoosits favor pop culture over high culture? I’m thinking about what you’ve said, JP, but I’m a slow thinker. Interesting idea, that pop culture has a longer life span now than it ever used to.
Usually I’m skeptical of what might be called “historical exceptionalism.” In today’s society, everyone thinks they’re so dang different from everyone in yesterday’s society, and danged if in yesterday’s society they didn’t think the same dang thing. But there are exceptions to my taking exception to such exceptionalism: the electrogizamawhoosits obviously make a difference, although maybe not as big a difference as some think.
Just for instance, I bet that there will always be a high culture and a low culture, even though what populates those categories shifts immensely.Posted by on 10/20 at 05:16 PM
Low culture is elevator music.
High culture is elevator music on the 112th floor.Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/20 at 06:26 PM
Superchunk said it best:
“The test of time is not a test.
It is the rest
And you are what’s left
And you will be nothing sooner
You will be nothing sooner
You will be nothing sooner, sooner than me.”
‘cuz you’re never too young to smoke
captcha: DIY ain’t big “business”Posted by on 10/20 at 08:09 PM
In my geography class (Europe Week this week!) I played some kinda recent music from the British Isles, dating 2003-2005, mostly garage-y stuff like Dizzee Rascal, Lady Sovereign, and M.I.A. One of my undergraduates suggested that I might, ya know, play the Beatles or Sting as representative examples. Kids these days.Posted by on 10/21 at 12:44 AM
Damn, Karl, I’m also late to the party, so late in fact, that you said exactly what I was going to say. I would also add something like the York Corpus Christi plays, which weren’t played between the late 16th century and the mid 20th century because of laws against the performance of God on stage, laws created mainly to outlaw “papist” drama. (So it didn’t fail the test of time so much as the test of ideology—same goes for Kempe, whose text was spirited off to the continent for safe keeping, as I recall. Or was that Julian of Norwich? Anywho...) So does the 50 year clock start over in the mid-20th century, or did it start earlier because the texts were at least available in print in the late 19th century?
Anyway, I delight in telling students in my medieval-lit-excluding-Chaucer class that none of the many texts we read in there, save Malory’s Morte Darthur, has been read continuously since its composition. So, I ask, does that make it all bunk?Posted by Dr. Virago on 10/21 at 12:30 PM
DV: hmmm, on mss, dunno. I just pulled my TEAMS editions of Julian and Margery Kempe off the shelf. We have lots of mss of the Shewings, most of them in the BL (which suggests to me that they mostly stayed in England from initial production on), and we can trace the provenance of Kempe back to the mid 18th century, when it was held in the hands of some English gentry. Maybe you’re thinking of a lot of the Wycliffite/Lollard mss, a lot of which, I think, are available only through the Hussites?
It’s a funny thing to realize that SGGK seems to have been as much a flop in its time as, say, It’s a Wonderful Life was on its first release.
But, really, what has been read continuously? A lot of philosophy and Xian doctrine (Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas), but very little literature, especially English lit (in other words, Dante and Boccaccio survived just fine), not because it’s bad, but because those bastards in the most recent Renaissance decided that all they needed to read was recent historiography and classical lit, let the Middle be damned.Posted by on 10/21 at 01:25 PM
MB—loved this essay when I first read it in the Chronicle way back when, and the sole time I met you (at the MLA in ‘99) I mentioned that a prof of mine was teaching a film-noir course called Watching the Detectives—a reference that none of the students in the class got.
My only quibble: you update just about every current pop-cult reference, but leave in the bit about Natalie Imbruglia and Heather Nova? “Torn” is so eight years ago!Posted by jaymc on 10/25 at 02:51 PM
"Torn” is now ten years ago, and “Walk This World” is twelve years ago. The more dated those singles get, the more effectively they make the point, no? So I left ‘em in, ‘cause it’s like that, and that’s the way it is.
Captcha: students, most of whom will not catch the early Run-DMC reference.Posted by Michael on 10/25 at 03:30 PM
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