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Thursday, October 19, 2006

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.

Posted by Michael on 10/19 at 07:31 AM
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