Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Culture We Need, The Culture We Want

“There is much to be said in favor of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community. By carefully chronicling the current events of contemporary life, it shows us of what very little importance such events really are. By invariably discussing the unnecessary, it makes us understand what things are requisite for culture, and what are not.” –Oscar Wilde

As much as I generally dislike pop culture, I do believe it is important to be regularly examined. Unquestioned, pop culture is much more injurious and damaging. I'm sure those of you reading this can think of several examples which fit the above criteria. And yet, along with our denunciation, there's the troublesome concept of that which does and does not signify "culture". It seems as though every activist, identity group, or concerned citizen has a different interpretation. Sometimes the task seems daunting. There is usually some value present, but that requires lots of effort to locate. Sifting through the massive amount of garbage churned out for public consumption on a daily basis is like panning for gold. It takes much work to find a relatively small amount of that which is worth keeping.

The news media mines the work of scientists and scholars and conveys it to the general public, often emphasizing elements that have inherent appeal or the power to amaze. For instance, giant pandas (a species in remote Chinese woodlands) have become well-known items of popular culture; parasitic worms, though of greater practical importance, have not. Both scholarly facts and news stories get modified through popular transmission, often to the point of outright falsehoods.

Hannah Arendt's 1961 essay "The Crisis in Culture" suggested that a "market-driven media would lead to the displacement of culture by the dictates of entertainment." Susan Sontag argues that in our culture, the most "...intelligible, persuasive values are [increasingly] drawn from the entertainment industries", which is "undermining of standards of seriousness." As a result, "tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel" topics are becoming the norm. Some critics argue that popular culture is “dumbing down”: "newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip, pictures of scantily dressed young ladies... television has replaced high-quality drama with gardening, cookery, and other “lifestyle” programmes [and] reality TV and asinine soaps," to the point that people are constantly immersed in trivia about celebrity culture.

One can make a strong case for and against this argument. Many of us have adopted a cynical, defensive posture whereby we assume the worst so that we can be surprised when the best appears. There's also a certain aspect of elitism and purity that dominates this kind of thinking. We who value education highly have been taught to equate self-worth with difficulty of attainment and a refined vantage point. This has even crept into language itself. Should we have the means, the money, and the work ethic, we can achieve a Master's Degree. Theoretically, at this stage, we ought to have some sort of mastery over a particular subject area, but anyone who thinks that education stops with the presentation of diplomas is often sadly mistaken. Synthesizing hypotheticals with realities is hard work.

These days, I'm more enthusiastic about education and training that deals with the practical, rather than the intellectual. I wish that more schools provided access and credit to those willing to take CPR classes. It has long been my dream that in addition to teaching facts, dates, and concepts, teachers and professors both would allow their students to think critically and draw their own conclusions from the materials set before them. Real world skills like learning how to file one's taxes or take out a bank loan are often in the minority. And beyond the strictly practical, I know the value of locating oneself where content areas intersect and influence each other. When these parallels are drawn, school subjects do not as easily exist in ranked fashion as part of their own hierarchy. If I had been able to link math to history, I might have done better myself in the former subject.

How we variously filter and categorize what passes muster for us travels first through several lenses. Societal taboos like racism, sexism, and homophobia come first. Then matter of personal preference or bias come next. For example, I genuinely am irritated by reality television. I see the entire genre as a means to perpetuate unhealthy stereotypes that harm other people for the sake of profit. Can I prove any of this? Sometimes, and sometimes not. Amateur social scientist that I am, I have been known to sound the alarm of caution when I feel it is necessary. Still, this world is often too big to reflect more than my own casual observations based on my own limited pair of eyes. At times, I have been known to make hasty generalizations that shore up my argument, as have we all.

I've often been this guy.

DENNIS: Anarcho-syndicalism is a way of preserving freedom.
WOMAN: Oh, Dennis, forget about freedom. Now I've dropped my mud.

It might be more wise not to see the attainment of culture in terms of name, rank, and serial number. If we can manage that, we might put aside our desire to rescue the Eliza Doolittles of the world. Many of us would refuse to convert others to our own religious faith, should we be religious people ourselves. But we would and do take that same approach to those without, and I shall repeat it once more, culture. We will never really be satisfied unless we reach the top rung of a ladder ourselves, should this be our grandest ambition of all. And even then, we may not find lasting contentment. This doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of worthwhile work out there that needs doing, but it does mean that larger cross-currents we may not always be privy to sometimes get swept aside in our desire to be better people. I've never been a bit fan of Justification by Works because it functions on the basis of an unfair, unreachable standard. Sometimes being still and being present is better than drawing up battle plans.

No comments: