Saturday, October 07, 2006

Cultural Critique

I had a Cultural Studies class yesterday that began to explore some of the differing views on the study of culture, what culture is, is not, and if culture is declining in the modern world. Since I have encountered firsthand both of the extremist views I am going to share below, and thus was exposed to their flaws (not that any view is “perfect”), I felt it important to share about them, especially in the light of modern religious and Gnostic culture.

The first view presented was that of the “Conservative Critique”. This view postulates that there is a cultural decline going on, that High Culture (literature as apposed to books, classical music as apposed to pop, etc.) is being overrun by “pop culture”, which is a degradation of the form (and, effectively, doesn’t count as culture), that an “influence of America” is taking hold, that there is “worship of machinery”, a rise in “utilitarianism”, and that the masses, that is, not the elite, who do know about culture (and, indeed, are “cultured”), are “raw and half developed”. This view also often contains a lament for what is seen as a decline in religiosity or faith in the people as they become more robotic and scientific, and can, given this, appear more strongly in the views given by those involved with religion and related fields.

I think the above (in particular, the critique of the masses) might seem like a ghastly view to many people nowadays, especially since we live in a world that is much more liberal and utilitarian (which is, indeed, one of the fears that the conservative critics have), but it’s also important to note that this view has been the most popular out there up until the mid twentieth century, and that its views are still present in modern society, especially in what we see as “proper” culture. I disagree with the conservative critics on some key points.

Firstly, while the world is indeed becoming more mechanized, this is not inherently a bad thing – yes, there are long commutes and such which may distract people from engrossing themselves in culture, but because a larger number of people now do not need to spend their entire life solely focused on the bare essentials of physical survival (i.e. farming, etc. for their own day’s worth of food, as compared to our modern “luxury” of being able to pop down to the local shop and have it all delivered up to us, pre-packed, etc., from a factory [indeed, this is a change from the elite who didn’t do the work but had the culture, to the working class pushing the work onto machinery and now having access to culture], they have more time and energy to devote to their other needs, needs of the heart, mind, and soul.

Secondly, I feel that, while there is undoubtedly much “crap” out there (for want of a better word) in terms of culture, this is not necessarily because we are abandoning “High Culture” (that is, exhibitions, literature, operas, plays, etc.), but because there is more culture to contend with. If we had, for example, 10 elite for every 90 working class in bygone days, this would mean 10% of the population had access to culture, that it was a restricted and limited thing. Now if we still have this ratio, but the working class has its own kind of culture (pop culture, if you will), that’s 100% culture, while retaining the original 10% of “High Culture”. Yes, indeed, that may mean that up to 90% of culture nowadays could be seen as diluted, weak, uneducated, or, as Matthew Arnold would say, “raw and half-developed”, but it honestly does come with the territory. If we want, for example, Gnosticism to be strong and popular in the modern world, and for people to have easy access to it, we have to take it as a given that we are going to get books like “The Da Vinci Code”, not to even mention the whole Madonna-Kabbalah fiasco. Does this mean that “true” culture is dying out? Hardly. That “elite”, if you will, is still there, still providing and critiquing and exposing us to “High Culture” – Harold Bloom is a perfect example – but this also means we have access to good quality “pop culture” like the various HBO TV shows, Philip K. Dick’s work, the Matrix, V For Vendetta, etc. Indeed, isn’t it better that there’s more to choose from, even if a fair chunk of it isn’t great?

The second view presented was that of “Cultural Relativism”, which basically resorts to “you have your opinion, I have mine – none is right, so let’s just all get along – *group hug*”. While I agree that we all have our own views, none of which are inherently “right” or “wrong”, and that culture is indeed relative to the groups and people in question, I feel Cultural Relativism is dangerously close to complacency. There is no more disagreement because we simply recognise that all is relative – so there are no more arguments and debate, and without these we become apathetic, uninspired, and even, dare I say it, dull. Indeed, without debate, without arguing views, discussing alternatives (rather than just recognising we all have the perfect view for us), etc., there is a high chance that we will slow, stagnate, and sink into indifference. Yes, of course none of us are wrong or right, as we are all conditioned with our views, but if we are to not allow the questioning of them (by ourselves or others), how are we to expose our reality tunnels to scrutiny in the interest of improving them into better (admittedly, equally conditioned) views? Now, of course, the cultural relativists would ask “what is the ‘better’ view, and who gets to decide what is ‘better’?” However, while that seems like a strong argument against what is, essentially, an elitist view coming from the conservative critics, it is equally flawed, because it suggests jumping to the other end of the spectrum just because opinions and “truths” are relative. Does this mean we should sit back and not try to discover stronger arguments, truer realities, and more enlightened opinions?

I’ve seen so many critiques of the conservative view (indeed, isn’t the word “conservative” seen as anathema to many in our increasingly liberal world?) and a general change of the word “elite” (which was, at the times in question, seen as a good thing) to the form of an insult or dismissal. A lot of people who critique this “elitism” fall into the cultural relativist camp, and actually claim that this relativity is a balanced view. I strongly disagree here, as I feel it is just the other end of the spectrum entirely; indeed, the other extreme. While the conservatives might be suggesting that an “elite” alone have access to valid culture, the relativists go 180 degrees to the view that all culture is relative, everyone has access to it, and we should just sit back and accept everything as right, because there are no wrongs. Notice the swing from an authoritarian to a utilitarian view, both equally flawed, though I have a strong dislike for the latter for what I see as a pretentious all-loving kumbaya-culture that will bore itself to death for pretending there is no disagreement between opinions, or what could be seen a watering down of views, so that they become so diluted that they no longer have the efficacy to work in an argument.

So, the effective point of this rant is: I disagree with both extremist positions. I feel we should indeed “discriminate” between what is good and bad culture (this word was used in a question I received on it, and, while it has horrible connotations nowadays [discriminating against race, sex, orientation, etc], it used to have a “higher” meaning in another respect – discrimination is the Virtue of Malkuth, for example), for it is this argument and debate, in itself, that helps contribute to the growth and development of our views, stopping us from stagnating. Yes, indeed, we should not force our opinions or views upon others, or herald them as inherently above those of others (i.e. the elitist view), but, at the end of the day, we need to have an opinion (and, indeed, we do – anyone who tries to play off that they don’t have an opinion on something is, I believe, lying or fooling themselves), and we need to recognise that, no, not all opinions are equal, relevant, or “valid” in respect to what they are dealing with.

For example, I don’t like the “reality” show “Big Brother” – I think it’s weak, pointless, and a waste of time, not to mention a debasement of the original work and the argument contained within it. Saying that, I recognise why people watch it, why it is popular – humanity has an inherent voyeuristic quality that achieves its epitome in the idea of looking into someone else’s life, unadulterated and uncut. We play on this quality when we watch any kind of TV or Film, for example, but not to quite the same extent as is suggested in the show “Big Brother”. However, I think this is flawed, because there is no way I am going to accept that these people in that house are acting as they normally would. They know there are cameras there, and are going to play on that by either avoiding embarrassing things they would do normally, or by going over the top with other things they wouldn’t do, knowing that they’re being watched, and, indeed, judged. Now, am I to, given the relativist theory, accept that this program is in any way on par with Shakespeare, for example (indeed, I’d have a very hard time trying to compare these)? True, the latter is a different medium entirely, but what about “Six Feet Under” and similar shows? I am not going to get so liberal and all-accepting that I begin to allow a level of disinterest and apathy to sink in, so I’m not going to pretend I don’t have views, or to pretend I don’t feel very strongly about certain things. I recognise and accept that there is much in modern pop culture that is valuable (and, indeed, I have many favourite modern singers, TV programs, films, etc.), and I do consider it as culture, but there is a difference between some elements of these spheres which I can’t even pretend to ignore.

I will leave off with a great phrase which I’ve seen in connection with this, one which I feel summarises my whole argument here:

“We shouldn’t become so open-minded that our brains fall out”

How do you feel about this, and where do you feel you fall in the spectrum of cultural critique? Do you feel modern Gnostic culture is a degradation of the true "High Culture", or do you feel we all have equally valid opinions, and, possibly, that we shouldn't even bother arguing them? Do you feel we need more modern and/or pop culture for Gnosticism, or should we go back to the "greats" alone as valid authorities on the subject? Do you feel Gnosticism is becoming debased by pop culture, or, rather, certain elements of pop culture (which confuses the reality of what Gnosticism is, and, then, presents it to a majority who accept it as this), and, if so, how do you feel we can change or amend this?



life just a good

Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

Cultural conservatives tend to adhere to formal structures and "courtly" presentation venues. What they consider to be "high" culture is actually a degraded form of a higher culture.

Many are the critics of Shakespeare who perceive him as a barbarous writer. In fact, the bardic tradition was attacked by both Caesar and Pope as being an illegitimate form of cultural expression. It's free style and liberating mode of expression shakes the Roman court to its foundations.

I share your appreciation for the popularized forms of gnostic literature. Like the wandering bard, such cinematic presentation can open the minds of the Average Jane and Joe to a more profound form of cultural appreciation.

Dean Wilson said...

That's an excellent point, SS, regarding their "high culture" being a degraded form of an even higher culture (and, possibly, the latter being a degraded form of an even higher high culture, ad infinatum), as what is conservative now is actually quite liberal to what was conservative a century or two ago (and that likewise).

I can understand how the emperor and pope might have seen Shakespeare as "barbarous", given he chose to write in the tongue of the common people, etc. (which seems like such a lofty tongue to many people today, lol), but I can't ever share their feelings in regards to him or his work, given my own poetic and bardic tendencies. Many cheers for the bards! :)