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This whole Culture with a capital C thing is just a way for a handful of people to pretend that the things they like are the only things that matter. It’s like what that Finnish guy said about Shakespeare.
We’re supposed to pretend that this high Culture is what defines “westerners” as people, when in the real world 90% of people in the English-speaking world and probably an even higher proportion of the creative people who make the music/video games/movies/whatever we all love have never actually read Shakespeare beyond what they forced to in school.
And when it comes to the world stage, these hacks think that they can stick a few token women and blacks onto their list of what “real” Culture is and then rebrand their medieval idea of “western Culture” as “world Culture”. But the problem isn’t that the list lacks foreigners and minorities- the problem is the very idea of the list itself.
People like Harold Bloom are literally no different from some twelve-year old on X-Box Live whining that “ZELDA ISN’T A REAL VIDEO GAME BECAUSE IT DOESN’T HAVE GUNS IN IT!”. It’s the exact same mentality, just expressed with more subtlety. You don’t like it, therefore it’s objectively rubbish. Even though you’ve never even bothered to try it.
Culture is the way people live our lives. If you (this is in general, not addressed to anyone specifically) want to say something about culture then maybe the place to start is to actually study what people in REALITY are interested in- not some prescriptive vision of what you think people should like.
(btw. I’ve been a fan of the webcomics for years, keep up the good work!)
When you say ‘don’t be prescriptive’ — I hear two things being run together: “Don’t make claims to objective, eternal truth” and “don’t say anything about what a good life or good future for ‘us’ may look like”. I think we can do the latter without doing the first. In fact, that’s just what I see Bloom (despite how he might see his own project) as doing. I see him doing what everyone else is doing: advocating a vision of the future and demonstrating, by living his life, what a resident of that future might look like.
Furthermore, it seems to me that the individual project of deciding what’s important for oneself CANNOT be divorced from the project of recommending what’s important for the other individuals that constitute those who say ‘we’ (i.e. ‘us’), and for that reason, the very idea of ‘we’.
Why? Well, I think that we just can’t avoid making making moves in the normative game of recommending certain ways of life because living life as a human being JUST IS making moves in that normative game — when we speak a language, work with others, or engage with friends and family and community, we are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) reinforcing, eroding, or proposing new cultural norms. Even saying “Hello!” to someone is such a move. Why? Because you can be wrong about when you should say “Hello!” and the possibility of error can only exist against a norm to correct to.
Even when we say “This book is great to me, but that doesn’t mean anyone else has to like it. It’s just good for me. I don’t think we should have canons, everyone can enjoy what they like.” that is engaging in that same normative game: it paints a portrait of a future populated by such conscientiousness people and implicitly (by being conscientiousness, which is ‘good’) recommends this attitude to those who notice this behavior (because you’re supposed to do good things!). So that’s a normative move in the cultural game. And, of course, just talking with others about this stuff is reinforcing the norms about how those words are to be used and what kinds of things can be talked about — again, our linguistic and cultural practices.
So I don’t see prescription as a problem. Bloom’s canon, for example, can be viewed as just one more list among others — just as, say, our political values are just one more set of values among other sets. But that’s not to say we should treat all lists and values equally. We can usefully defend our own lists, views, and values while, at the same time, remain open to talking about and modifying those dearly held beliefs and concerns.
So hopefully that sounds benign. So what’s my concern?
Here where I’m coming from:
We can all probably agree that elevating one’s personal view to the level of dogma is unhelpful. Someone who just won’t change their opinion (the XBOX kid) doesn’t help the culture very much, even though they do influence it (like a voter who won’t ever change their mind).
At the same time, I wonder if those who have let a healthy pinch of skepticism (toward elite and supposedly ‘objective’ opinions) become hyper-skepticism are also unhelpful in their own way… maybe like a voter who buys into false equivalences (“both the right as left do it!! All politicians are scum!”) or take councils of despair (“we’re all fucked, humans are stupid, why bother?”) or a relativist of the sort who believes that being entitled to an opinion means being entitled to an uncriticizable opinion — or, perhaps, they hold the very understandable view that some things are “just” a matter of opinion and that where there is no objectivity there is no discussion worth having. I can sympathize with the view, and in some practical cases that may be right — but I think the opposite holds when it comes to the general principle: where there IS objectivity, no discussion is necessary. Why? Because where there is objectivity we can just get to the truth, have it settled, and then never need to debate it again. In the human sphere where subjectivity and competing values, needs, and desires reign, the question is not just “what are the objective facts?” but “how shall we live?”. To answer that latter question, we have to keep listening and talking to each other — describing, prescribing, offering suggestions, advocating our views, and criticizing those same views.
So, tl;dr: I just want a cultural dialogue which includes descriptions, prescriptions, and criticisms of those prescriptions and descriptions. We should be able to prescribe as well as criticize without getting antsy about objectivity.
Well. I hope I was able to say that semi-clearly.
Let me know what you think, I’ll probably shift my view — I’ve shifted it so many times already.
I agree that having a lively debate about things we care about that includes both putting forward our own views and strongly criticizing others is a good thing. It’s part of human nature to try to impose our own ideals on the world (and other people).
The problem I have is the extent to which authority figures in academia, the government and elsewhere ignore popular culture. So we end up with discussions about Culture, Art, Philosophy, Civilization etc. that actually begin right off the bat by completely excluding literally everything which is popular and commonplace to focus exclusively on the favored hobbies of the elite.
Look at the treatment of videogames on television, for example. It used to be that the only time you would ever see a videogame on TV is when someone would sit in front of it with a SNES controller, playing a SEGA Megadrive while on the screen would be PONG. It’s hardly any better today. The entire subject was (and to a large extent still is) completely taboo except when the news decides that it’s time to start accusing the entire medium of promoting gun violence.
This kind of elitist attitude actually prevents discussion and debate, because it takes so much art and so much culture (and the huge number of people who like it) and locks them out of the discussion.
I suppose that what I want to see is a world where there actually [i]is[/i] a cultural dialogue, rather than having this “high culture” “low culture” dichotomy. It artificially divides art and people up and gives all of the official recognition, media exposure and government subsidies to one favored group.
I’m not against people prescribing their own ideas about culture. I am against the way in which a small group is so effectively using institutions, the media and the government to push forward its own particular views while everyone else gets left out in the rain.