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09 January 2010 @ 11:52 pm
Cultural literacy, I likes it!  
I had a strange discussion with a person on the internet (god forbid!) over the concept of cultural literacy. Her thesis was that it wasn't important, that popular culture was more useful, and that no one could agree on what one needed to know to be culturally literate anyway.

We exchanged a number of comments, and she was a thoroughly decent person to argue with, but I can't help thinking that we come from opposing starting positions on this one. To start with, she's literally half my age. But she also went to school all through the period where one text was interchangeable with another, whereas I went to school in the days when you had to learn about great literature before they let you mess around with the other stuff.

And yeah, I do mean great and other. I know this will have some of you demanding I turn in my Credentialled Postmodernist badge, but some texts are better than others. They last longer, they impact more, they're Penicillin rather than Cialis, the Periodic Table as opposed to Phlogiston. To my mind, there are certain texts you should have a grounding in if you want to be a culturally literate person.

The problem is, of course, that the idea of their being 'certain texts', a canon, if you will, has become problematic. Harold 'Groper' Bloom's The Western Canon is often held up to ridicule by people who call it a roll-call of dead white men. But I think that's because they couldn't be arsed reading it. He talks positively about Austen and Woolf, Mary Shelley and not one but two Brontës (though how he could choose Emily over Anne is a mystery to me), among other women, and has a good set from the Ancient world as well as Persian and Asian sources. He is weaker on the Orient, I wanted The Tale of Genji at least, but when he sat down to think 'Who has influenced what we think about literature in the West', he genuinely seems to have done so on the basis of the works, not who wrote them.

To me, the idea that we should not privilege some texts over others is ridiculous. No one would argue that there is no difference between a Skoda Octavia and a Bugatti Veyron, or between salad cream and hand-made mayonnaise. It's fine to like and enjoy trashier texts, Skodas and salad cream, but to argue that they should be given the same weight as their opposing numbers is something I cannot agree with.

And the case is more certain with literature than with salad cream. If you only know salad cream, you don't know how delicious aioli is. But, to use an example given, if you are familiar with Harry Potter and not Hamlet, not only do you miss out on Hamlet, but you miss out on the myriad Shakespearean references and jokes within Harry Potter. And while I think it's certainly possible to enjoy Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire if you have no classical education, I suspect it is not possible to do so without a constant feeling that there are certain levels of the text that are passing over your head. Without the cultural literacy that allows you to do so, some authors are wholly unapproachable: Laurence Sterne, Jasper Fforde and the entire Monty Python output, to start with.

Some people have absolutely no urge to cultural literacy, which I can see as a valid choice, but it cuts you off from a lot of reading. I would argue that you cannot say that you are a keen reader or keen consumer of film and television if you are also avowedly against cultural literacy, because it is like saying that you are a biochemist who doesn't believe in valences. However, this could all just be another sign of me becoming an old fogey.

What about you lot? Especially you young folk? Do you still have that frisson of glee I used to have when I uncovered secret references in texts as I read and learned more and more? Or is that so appallingly 20th century that I should just dig out a corset and start worrying about those commies?

On a final pomo note, Happy 50th Birthday, Severus, and Happy 75th Elvis! May you continue to bring joy to your fans for many years! And happy Real Birthday to tnumfive ! You're in good company ;-)
It's that Bucket woman!curia_regis on January 9th, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)
I don't think I'm at all representative of my generation but, personally, I read to be entertained, which means that cultural literacy becomes less important to me. I like finding secret references in texts but at a certain point, I find that if a text seems to have too many secret references, I find it unapproachable. To me, novels are purely for entertainment value. I like trashy novels as much as I love Booker prize winning novels. Heck, I even read Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking (their popular science texts, not their hard science texts) because I find astrophysics entertaining.

All of this probably explains why I don't really like Monty Python or Jasper Fforde and prefer reading Matthew Reilly. *g*

ETA: Oh and I'm not really one for popular culture either. I find information about pop stars and actors to be incredibly boring.

I'm obviously not against the idea of cultural literacy. Although, overall, when it comes to novels and movies, I guess, I'd prefer to not see it most of the time. Then again, I think the references to politics and political movements was the entire reason why I adored the movie V for Vendetta, so perhaps it depends. *g*

Edited at 2010-01-09 01:06 pm (UTC)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on January 9th, 2010 01:12 pm (UTC)
AHahahahaah! Oh Matthew ... I interviewed him several times when I was a literary reviewer, and was supportive in my reviews given that he was so thoroughly honest in his unabashed plot-driven popularism. His fan website had a quote calling me a pretentious bastard for YEARS. But I still like him and wish him well!
(no subject) - curia_regis on January 9th, 2010 01:17 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - blamebrampton on January 9th, 2010 01:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Loyaulte Me Lieshocolate on January 9th, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)
I very much agree with you (and bless you for mentioning Monty Python), but know I am missing much, much of cultural literary import, having done a maths degree.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on January 9th, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
If you ever need a hand with literary references, can we set up a swap where you can call on me and I can call on you for Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking? I made it through A Brief History of Time, but only by having a brief fling with a physicist and hanging onto the anti-Thatcher joke about halfway through.

Edited at 2010-01-09 01:12 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - azurelunatic on January 9th, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - blamebrampton on January 10th, 2010 10:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - winterthunder on January 9th, 2010 07:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Sherrysherryillk on January 9th, 2010 01:28 pm (UTC)
Like curia_regis I read to be entertained as well. I read a lot of popular fiction since it goes fast and is fun but was forced to read the classics in school. I seriously doubt I would have read Crime & Punishment if I didn't need to since it felt like punishment reading it but I count myself better having done it...

That being said, it is fun when you can spot a quote from so and so or this and that and it's personally fulfilling whenever it happens. But I've found that it was a lot more important to me when I was younger (though, I'm arguably young still). I found myself wanting to share in these sort of things but when the people you converse with don't have the same background knowledge, it diminishes the satisfaction a bit. What is the point if I'm the only one who gets it?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not against it. But neither do I try hard at it either. But then again, I'm probably equally, if not more so, behind on pop culture references as I am on cultural literacy...

This talk does remind me of something that happened over the Christmas holidays... I was playing Taboo with my family and one of my cards was of Macbeth. Suffice to say, despite my clues to the actual play and to the pop culture reference of the superstition surrounding it, no one got it. And I know for a fact that at least one of them had read it before.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on January 9th, 2010 01:32 pm (UTC)
HA! Oh dear, what did they think you were doing with the stabbing and the spot rubbing and the creeping wood? Re-enacting the Greenham Common protest?

For some reason, that makes me think of the English professor in David Lodge's Changing Places who is fired for never having read Hamlet. While his successor has never read it, either, he's smart enough to keep mum on the fact ;-)
(no subject) - sherryillk on January 9th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - azurelunatic on January 9th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - treacle_tartlet on January 9th, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - blamebrampton on January 10th, 2010 02:09 pm (UTC) (Expand)
suttonwritersuttonwriter on January 9th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)
A rambling answer
Note: I'm writing this before I've had a proper breakfast, so it may be incoherent. If I need to clarify, let me know.

I think cultural literacy is useful, though I always have concerns about whose culture is being taught and whose is being devalued. While the classic texts are important, there are a lot more cultures now, and I don't want to give people the sense that one culture is innately better just because it's older/has more political power. That said, people need to know the dominant culture in order to succeed, if for no other reason than those in control of the world value that culture. If a person wants some of that power, they have to as well. This comes up in writing classes a lot, and it's a line I feel like I have to balance constantly.

Are you familiar with Hirsch's view on cultural literacy? I tend to lean more towards that approach, though I'd make his list a lot longer. Of course, this could be the teacher's impulse to make sure students know all they should, even when my job is to make sure they know how to find answers themselves. . .
blamebramptonblamebrampton on January 10th, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC)
Re: A rambling answer
My answer is far more deranged than yours, and can only claim late night and extremely hot day ;-)

I think that we have a lot of angst about culture being devalued in the name of cultural literacy, but that most of it is misplaced. For example, the idea of there being ingrained political power in knowing Shakespeare is anachronistic: you might gain the power to challenge Stephen Fry in a quiz, but the average US Senator is more likely to be unable to tell his Hamlet from his Macbeth.

Increasingly, the world is run by people who are anti-culture, for which I cite the Murdoch empire with particular focus on Fox News, the US Republican party circa 2000-now (minus a sterling few who are not heard from very often), and the educational boards in Texas (I accept there may be some crossover in these three sets).

Where knowledge of the classics gains you an advantage is being able to use that knowledge in the way of, say, a junior Senator from Illinois, whose rhetorical skill can captivate and inspire. This is the reason literary classics are classic: because they are great, and because they speak to us on deep levels. Capturing the tempo of the saga in a way that would be as familiar to those who first heard Gilgamesh as to those who held their breath to 'we few, we happy few', and using it to convince a nation that 'yes, we can', is as bold and beautiful a use of language as any you will find in the canon, and born solely out of knowledge thereof.

As to who is in and who is out: it is the case that you're generally a generation dead before you are 'in', which makes change slower than it need be, I agree. But there are also different lists for different Englishes, and wholly separate lists for other cultures. These other English lists should change faster, given the regional tradition is shorter, and be more locally responsive: I would be suspicious of any US canon that included Shakespeare but not Twain, Philip Larkin but not Toni Morrison, for example.

And I don't think it makes one culture 'better' than another: it's about individual practioners who are. For all that Elizabethan Shakespeare remains our touchstone, very few recall Thomas Nash. What it does do is say that some ways of using language are better than others, and that I would stand by. But I think that you could say Jean Rhys or Toni Morrison is better than Stephenie Meyer just as easily as using the example of Jane Austen or Mary Shelley.
Catscatsintheattic on January 9th, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC)
I have two perspectives on this subject. On one hand, cultural literacy is important, and there is a lot of art that exists because it's referential - it exists in the whole context of what came before, opposes some of its predecessors and aligns with others. This is why many of us work so hard to write something that is original, because even in fanfic there is a history, and writing in 2010 means that you know the fanfic-canon of the years before. This is how tropes and cliches develop, in art just as in fanfic.

On the other hand, art and literature, in particular when they are canonised, have a tendency to inflict a manual on you, how they "should" be read. I'm friends with an art historian, and last summer, I heard him comment on the sculpture. The sculpture was about a woman at her moment of greatest distress (ready to throw herself off a cliff), and he criticised that her posture was too beautiful, that sculptures showing distress had to be twisted - like all great sculptures of people in distress. It struck me hard that he obviously had a code of how to read art, that he was looking for signs almost like an interpreter of a language. Whereas I found enough reasons for her to be just as beautiful as she was sculptured, because a woman at the point of killing herself and trying to look beautiful is an even better on women's role in society than a woman at the point of killing herself and looking distressed. In other words: code is helpful, but it can also be a hindrance.

So, cultural literacy can be both: it gives us a language of signs and references to use and to quote to others who know it. And it can take away our freedom when it becomes too rigid, too much of a corset. It has the potential for both, and this is what I find interesting: to be aware of the code and then to use it and adjust to it or to break it consciously.
Cerisewivern on January 10th, 2010 12:07 am (UTC)
and he criticised that her posture was too beautiful, that sculptures showing distress had to be twisted - like all great sculptures of people in distress.

It distresses me that this man is an Art Historian, I hope he isn't teaching. As someone who has studied art history myself I find that attitude anathema and frankly stupid. Sadly Education doesn't necessarily educate a person. *g*
(no subject) - catsintheattic on January 10th, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on January 10th, 2010 08:51 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - wivern on January 10th, 2010 08:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - catsintheattic on January 10th, 2010 09:13 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - blamebrampton on January 14th, 2010 02:28 am (UTC) (Expand)
she had the face of an angel & the body of a devil: [rpattz] sick of twilightnuclearsugars on January 9th, 2010 02:00 pm (UTC)
As someone who is currently majoring in "Great Literature" and a young folk, I can definitely see the merit in being culturally literate. This semester alone I've read many texts where I suddenly "understand" all pop culture references to it.

I hate to bring this up, but take the Twilight series for instance. Each novel in the saga loosely corresponds to one of the author's favourite books [Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Wuthering Heights], as she was inspired by them. There are epithets from the source texts in the prologue of the Twilight novels.

An interesting publishing correspondence to this is that recently "the classics" have been reprinted with new "Twilight-inspired" covers as seen here: Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights.
prone to mischieftreacle_tartlet on January 9th, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
I think Stephenie Meyers's writing would have benefitted from a dose of pop cultural literacy. What do you get when someone, with absolutely no knowledge or understanding of the modern horror genre or the medieval and Gothic literary tradition that produced it, attempts to write about vampires? Sparkly eunuchs, that's what. I blame Anne Rice, myself, for making vampires into sympathetic protagonists in the first place.
(no subject) - nuclearsugars on January 10th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC) (Expand)
Coffeejunkii: between bookscoffeejunkii on January 9th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
funny, i've never read hamlet and i have never had the feeling that some level of gof was passing over my head [but perhaps i should mention that i have read other shakespeare?]. polysemy is the name of the game.
women's lasers: pride and prejudice - most seriously dissarcasticpixie on January 9th, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC)
As a young'un, I unabashedly agree with you. Harold Bloom is a tool, no doubt, but his literary canon provides a great base for understanding what the rest of the middlebrow world is going on about. Is it about time that some modern cultural heavyweight updated his list? Yes, of course. But the fact remains that Bridget Jones' Diary is immensely more enjoyable when you know Pride and Prejudice.

I love reading disposable mysteries about crime-solving chefs and psychic detectives, but they don't make me cry. Kavalier and Clay made me cry. Middlesex made me cry. And those are the books that the next generation will privilege as classics.

(This reminds me that I should get back to my Northanger Abbey update -- a Gossip Girl-inspired pastiche called The Adjective Noun.)

Edited at 2010-01-09 02:48 pm (UTC)
κάτι τρέχει στα γύφτικα: deathandthemaiden_inbetween_ on January 9th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
Adding another angle, more pragmatically the further back in time one goes, the less has survived. This of course is partly due to previous quality judgements, but availability is an issue. Therefore it is much easier to get your kind of cultural literacy - up until the last century, then it gets messy, so people might think ochwhyboffa and just read what the loudest voices recommend.
Any good writer though has read a lot, or as a director once said any film maker should know and be interested in all art forms (also before today's film makers came along; even mainstream/single female director Nancy Myers nod to Bluebeard's Eight Wife is like the only seed in a morass of nothing but can't elevate her film to quality anymore).
But guess what, I stopped finding enjoyment in obvious references decades ago. I loved Pratchett long before his fame and grew more and more bored and frustrated when L-shaped Space kept pointing out the bleeding obvious. I can't stand Jasper Fforde (I'm still waiting for Tristram Shandy though, so eagerly). I appreciate footnotes in historical texts but they are always about the obvious, and I waste days checking them, interrupting my reading only to be annoyed and frustrated because I KNOW THAT TELL ME SOMETHING ABOUT XYZ WHYYYYDONTYOU. It's worse in TV where the "why why whyyyy" or "it's people" once was a very funny insider nod but has been regurgitated so many times that in SGU it is tedious, made unbearable by then BEING EXPLAINED. On screen. By the person who said it.

It was lovely the way MP did, I saw my transition in Pratchett, and now I find nobody who does literary references enjoyably anymore. Maybe there the popcultural references still have a small chance, since authors don't expect everyone to get it and therefore it's just a bonus. But see my Planet of Apes comment above.

PS: I also went from reading challenging stuff in my teens to deeply despising "high culture" in all forms, esp. the accessible new novels that were only considered good because the critics never read widely. But much later I have to accept that nobody really writes for me. Genre is atrocious; where I was looking for non-male-written love stories there is only sick 350 pages bodice ripping. Everyone writes Scififantasy and Vampires have sucked the bookmarket dry. I spent the last years in crime and mysteries but the female written is often shopping-list like, the male sexist, and the lauded newcomers write what I'd read elsewhere decades ago.

So, did you read all that? Because though I'm now bored by Don Quijote, which I had been so looking forward too (endless footnotes only telling the title of what the author had basically already mocked in the text, which in itself is meta on heroic knight stories ...), I find Kafka amusing and some other literary writers spot on - except they don't write much more than I do in my notebook. Then again that proves they are closer to me than any popcultural writer can be?
themadpokerthemadpoker on January 9th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
What I find interesting is the way constant referencing can give you an idea of cultural literacy in reverse? For example, out of Shakespeare's work I've only read Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear but I feel like I've got a pretty decent grasp on the plots of Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Merchant of Venice just from hearing about them all over the place and I can recognize a couple of quotes from other plays that I've seen referenced a lot (most of the St. Crispin's day speech for one). Not the same as reading them definitely, and usually when someone asks how I know I have to give the vague answer of 'cultural osmosis'. You just sort of pick things up!
wemyss: true bluewemyss on January 9th, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
Well, I think where I stand on this is generally acknowledged.
There's a great deal here I might say.

However, your journal is not to be turned into an arena for a munera sine missione. Or put otherwise, the last thing you want in your cyber-drawing room is me and Roger Scruton and Peter Ackroyd 'threatening visiting lecturers with a poker' (another reference!).

I will say, I saw the other day, through metafandom, the mod's explanation of why certain things don't get linked, and one reason was, Look, if it's in a language the mods don't read, well.... My immediate thought was, Brammers and I should submit meta - in Latin!
Seshetasesheta_66 on January 9th, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC)
I, like curia_regis, read mainly for the entertainment value. I read to escape. If a book is well enough written (it doesn't have to be great or literary) and enjoyable, it shouldn't matter if a reader 'gets' the references. If you do, then the book has those extra layers, and you may triumph at the little goodies. Or, in some instances, get it without even registering there was something to get. But if you don't get it, since you don't know there's something to get, what does it matter? In fact, if there were too many references, it would throw me out, making me feel as though the author were trying to show me how well read she was, rather than doing what she should be doing, which is entertaining me.

I tend to immerse myself in texts, and lose myself in the world. That to me is a sign of a good book. Too many of the 'classics' lose me in a haze of description that inevitably throws me out of the story. My eyes glaze over. I just don't care. I don't need the entire setting described in minute detail. Part of the fun for me is picturing it for myself. I mainly want plot-driven tales that move me along.

God, I remember the pain of having to read Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence (my high school made grade 11 all about the Canadian writers). I will never again pick up a book by either of them. I lost count of the number of times I nodded off while trying to read what in this country are supposedly brilliant works. GAH!

We'll see how I do with the Iliad, the Odyssey and Crime and Punishment. They're on this year's 'to read' list. Maybe one of these years I'll read a Bronte book. (That's right. I've not read any. Never appealed to me, though Wuthering Heights might be interesting.)

So ... do you have a list of 'must reads' that you'd care to share?
Welcome to Ant Countryant_queen on January 9th, 2010 11:37 pm (UTC)
Wuthering Heights
Recommend downloading The Puppini Sisters cover version of Kate Bush's song Wuthering Heights. It's done in 1940's "Andrews Sisters" style so you can actually understand all the words, and that's pretty much all you need to know about Wuthering Heights and you get some perky "do-be-do-be-do"s in there to stop you otherwise wanting to either slash your wrists or give all the main characters a slap upside the head.
(no subject) - wivern on January 10th, 2010 12:11 am (UTC) (Expand)
not your typical annihilatrix: Ichigo: That is why I camefuriosity on January 9th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
Oh, agreed to the extreme.

However, I think a lot of folks are turned off by the idea of cultural literacy because some (in some areas, many) culturally literate people are insufferable snobs who put others down for not having the same reading background, not to mention, as Cats said above, trying to enforce ways of interpretation. In a cultural milieu where independent thought is encouraged, this doesn't really accomplish much besides alienating people and making them think of reasons why they shouldn't be just like the Cicero-spouting jerk with sideburns.

I don't know if I count as young folk though. :D *waves cane and tells damn kids to get off my lawn*
rosathome on January 9th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
It's that old thing of Hamlet being so full of quotations, isn't it?

I dunno as I qualifies as a young folk any more, being in the prime of life at 35, but I completely agree with everything you say. And not just that texts become more interesting when you have the cultural literacy to read them (Dorothy L Sayers is my favourite example here), but so does all of culture. I remember a few years ago when Greece won some football thing, hearing a discussion about this sort of thing on R4 where one of the contributors had listened to the Greek TV commentary on the winning game, which apparently climaxed with a lengthy quote from the Iliad, as the only appropriate way of expressing such deep emotion in that culture. We perhaps wouldn't expect that from Gary Lineker, but even in small ways all our language and culture is influenced by the Great Literature and knowing that helps us to understand everything else better.
lotus_lizzylotus_lizzy on January 9th, 2010 04:54 pm (UTC)
Ah yes, this is the age old problem with the younger generation (I'm including myself here) and teachers want to get more "creative" with their lessons - the fundamental basics of learning are ignored for more flash and interest in hopes of encouraging more people to read.

Well I think that's hogwash. I myself am 28, and while I haven't read all the classics, I have a list in my head of all of them and I'm going down them one by one. Why? Because, to me, the world of literature is like one big reference. Nothing is original. It's all borrowed plot techniques and swindled characters.

But that is half the fun! Currently, I'm in a big history phase and I'm purchasing large historical reference books that are too heavy to read in bed but I do anyway, much to my hubby's chagrin. Why do I do this? Because its so much fun to read book and go AHA! I know and fully understand the multiple meaning of the sentence, paragraph, character, etc....

My father is a minister, and not the wave your hand in the air god is love kind, but the literate professor type who preferred to reference the New York Times in his sermons than tell his congregation they were all going to burn in hell. This meant that I had a solid background in religious studies by the time I hit my teens. I knew and understood that the bible meant more than one thing all the time, and I had been exposed to the history of the church as I stole several books off my father's shelves on what it meant to be a Presbyterian.

So, when I read Shakespeare and Blake and Joyce, I was often the only one in the class that realized the stories and poems meant more than x happened and then y followed by z.

I completely agree that you need to understand your past before you can truly appreciate your present. Everything has a context, you just have to realize what it is. Sure you can appreciate a book now without any knowledge of the different literary movements, but it just isn't as fun.