Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Cultural Conservative

The hardest part of teaching in the humanities is that doing so drafts you into the culture wars. Whether you'd like to be a conscientious objector or not, you're enlisted to fight because everything you do is intrinsically combative. And what I think a lot of humanities people are in serious denial about is the fact that we are, by our calling, 'cultural conservatives'. Now, of course, this is a controversial thing to say in some regards. So, let me explain what I mean by 'cultural conservative', a word that has at least three different meanings.
  1. The first meaning tends to be one who wants to preserve a national culture, its language and beliefs and arts, against imported foreign culture. This isn't me. Oh, I will mark down any student who abuses the English language in their papers. But, as any artist will tell you, culture has always borrowed across borders and always will. Art is universal, and when it attempts to be narrowly national, it becomes kitsch. The same is true of philosophy, religion and all other aspects of the human-made world. So, let other people defend American culture or Western culture against other forms of high culture. I will defend culture. Period.
  2. Secondly, a cultural conservative can be someone who wants to protect the entire culture from gays and strippers and divorce, or whatever. This isn't me either. Not only because I think a world without gays and strippers is like a day without sunshine, but also because the canon was created by plenty of gays and perverts and is a lot more perverse than the whitewashed version would have it. Read Sexual Personae some time. Well, or just read The Taming of the Shrew with a dirty mind. It's there, believe me. Trying to limit art and culture to only the 'pure' stuff limits the imagination itself, which is the death of culture.
  3. The third meaning of cultural conservative is one who wants to preserve what they consider to be high culture, and to do so, recognizes that it must be defended as more worthy of preservation than low culture. This is an 'elitist' position to take, and more than a little at odds with mass democracy. It's an aristocratic value, as Nietzsche understood. This is me, the elitist.


sock puppet said...

In this capacity, is 'high culture' relative, individually defined? What might be examples of 'low culture'?

Rufus said...

Well, I'm going to tread lightly here because it is such a contested idea anymore. High culture is usually defined, quoting Matthew Arnold, as "the best that has been thought and said in the world". Certainly, this includes works of literature and the plastic arts too, and it did for Arnold. It is made up entirely of individual examples. As you can imagine though this is a very contested and slippery definition.

The problem is that we can assert that there is no such thing as high culture, but still come to the conclusion that there is something about Hamlet that makes it more worthwhile for study than South Pacific. There is something about the play that makes it challenging, enriching, and even enobling to study it. To be honest, I can't imagine the pedagogical value of studying South Pacific, although I enjoy it greatly. So, if we can only study one play, let it be Hamlet.

High culture rewards close readings, and repeated readings, in a way that mass culture doesn't. It deepens our emotional responses or our intellectual responses in some way that mass culture does not. It is 'hard' and challenges us to rise to its level. For this reason, it is often valued by a society, so long as they don't have to have any contact with it!

Examples of low culture are legion- they do not reward close readings because there's no there there. The Bad News Bears, Horatio Alger novels, CATS, beer hall songs, the Ghetto Boys, Friday the 13th part 56... there is generally an abundance of low culture. It can certainly be studied as well, but I'd be hard pressed to argue that the study of CATS is as spiritually enriching as the study of Ibsen's Ghosts.

The conservative argument that there is no Zulu Proust is really bizarre to me- my canon is made up of the greatest works of all cultures. It is inherently multicultural. But, it is a canon, and I don't think the canon is worth abandonning for trivial political reasons, as many have suggested. So, I tend to disagree with conservatives and radicals on the canon.

High culture is usually opposed from a number of directions:
1. It's elitist.
2. It tends to oppose capitalism, either implicitly or explicitly.
3. It numerically favors white males who have been encouraged to do philosophy, create art, etc. for several centuries longer than anyone else.
4. Some of it is perverse or immoral.
5. It's open to personal opinion.

So, most academics are uncomfortable with the idea of a canon. And yet, the more you study individual works of art, the more those hierarchies creep in to your thinking. You start noticing that Proust opens up corridors in your mind that Kinky Friedman does not. You find yourself returning to certain works again and again, and when your time is short, find that you would get more out of watching Persona for the 13th time than watching Mean Girls for the second. The price of erudition and critical thought is this fierce discernment, which is anathema to most populist values.

sock puppet said...

Perhaps I don’t entirely understand, or maybe I’m oversimplifying... but doesn’t an object maintain its elevated status (its rank amongst the high culture) in part because its worthiness has been reinforced? Aren’t we socialized through Academe, and then we become the influencer? Doesn’t high culture ultimately equate to intellectual (“challenging”, “ennobling”, “hard”)? Thus, isn’t every academic potentially ‘guilty’ (of elitism)?

Rufus said...

No, I think that's right. We are de facto the influencers and even the enforcers of high culture, which is essentially that culture which is elevated in an intellectual, or even spiritual sense. And even stating that sounds arrogant by the standards of mass culture.

What I found in teaching at Mall University was that society at large detests those cultural things that we consider to be most worthwhile, which they consider to be "Boring!" If the values of capitalism ruled completely, figures like August Strindberg would have been long forgotten. So, I'm all for elitism. I know plenty of profs who try to be more populist than I am, but I don't think it works very well. It's uncomfortable in a populist society to take the role of the discerner, which is culturally elitist. On the other hand, a lot of Marxists found that cultural conservatism was very compatible with a critique of capitalism- actually, Marx himself was very culturally conservative.

What's funny about it is that so many academics are rather progressive, or even radical politically. But, when it comes to culture, we have to be somewhat conservative. Because, I think we have to be the ones to argue that Strindberg, or Blake, or whoever has merit, and even greater merit than the tidal wave of popular culture. So, we fit the role that William F. Buckley assigned to political conservatives- we stand atop the cultural world, which is enamoured with MTV-popcorn culture and its violence, woman-hate, simplicity and stupidity, and yell 'Stop!' Otherwise, I think the intellectually rewarding texts would be thrown in the garbage.