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Friday, May 21, 2004

Of Classics and Kitsch

To demonstrate the merits of having a common, shared cultural literacy, a study was done some years ago. In the study a man was who was dressed as a tourist--complete with camera and a map--was sent on to the streets of Boston to ask for directions. The directions he was given by Bostonians were long and drawn out. The locals had to assume that he didn’t know anything about the city. When the researchers sent another man out to get directions they dressed him as a businessman with a copy of the Boston Herald under his arm. This time the directions the locals gave were short and to the point because they assumed he knew his way around and just needed some minor clarification.

This study was cited in the book Cultural Literacy: What Every American should Know; the point of the book being that if we all have a common cultural literacy we can speak in a sort of short hand. The book goes on to list what sort of cultural background all Americans should share. As an example of this shared cultural literacy in action I would cite the recent movie and book, Cold Mountain. Without at least the faintest of familiarity with the events of the American Civil War and The Odyssey of Homer the book and movie would come across like hearing part of a conversation out of context.

The problem is that with every passing year more and more of our shared consciousness is related to kitschy pop culture. The line-up on prime time TV has edged out the classics of literature as our cultural heritage. This language of pop culture, the lingua franca of this era, is one that I now speak haltingly and with a heavy accent. There isn’t much in the way of popular music that I even recognize, let alone enjoy. I go to fewer and fewer movies these days unless they have subtitles, and TV is pretty much the dark planet as far as I’m concerned. Just to see what I have been missing I will cite a few of the offerings from today’s line up of prime time TV:

Dr. Phil
Totally Outrageous Behavior & World’s Craziest Videos
Dude, where’s My Car?
Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls
The O’Reilley Factor
Golden Girls

I think you get the idea. I would send for help but I don’t know who to call. To get an analogy of my lack of understanding of pop culture the folks doing that study in Boston would have to send a Martian out to ask for directions.

All of this stuff is made for immediate consumption and has the shelf life of ripe bananas. Our shared intellectual consciousness is not only off course, it is rudderless and adrift in a strange sea. How are we supposed to talk to one another with so little shared cultural and intellectual experience? I wrote about how Haitian Kreyol, the language of Haiti, has been mutating at such an alarming rate due to its lack of grounding in a written form. The language people speak there today will be difficult for Haitians 50 years from now to understand. I feel our own culture is mutating at a similar rate. I will look at a copy of People Magazine when I am at the check-out counter and I will have no idea who is on the cover. I looked at The Onion this morning and I had no idea who Jessica Simpson is so I didn’t understand the gag. Not understanding a satirical humor magazine is not the greatest of losses but these things add up and take their toll.

People are lining up to see the blockbuster new movie about Troy yet I would guess few people know anything at all about this mythical city and the war that raged outside its gates for ten years. From now on the myth of Troy will be defined by this shitty movie instead of The Iliad of Homer.

I realize that writing this makes me a pretentious gas bag but here it is. The good news is that the wonderful new Seattle Library opens this Sunday.

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