Review of Week 8: March 1, 3 (by Ruth Blaskis)
Dr. Seaman began the class by talking about our big project. She posted the steps and their due dates on the blog.
For Tuesday’s class, we were assigned the “Culture” chapter in the Theory Toolbox and a supplemental reading in the Bedford Glossary (“cultural criticism.”) We opened the discussion by talking about “high culture” and “low culture.” As a society, we tend to place all media (and the individual works contained in it) in this hierarchy, based on our own subjective values. For example, is Mozart high or low culture? What about a Sunday morning cartoon? Not many people would hesitate to answer that question. This evaluation is not limited to artistry, though. It’s a way of life. We use these distinctions to express our values – what we deem acceptable as a society. However, this division can be problematic in many ways. For example, we consider Shakespeare to be the height of “high culture,” but his works liberally use bawdy “low” humor. Many historians simplify this, saying that Shakespeare directed the eloquent speeches and intricate plots to his wealthy patrons, and included the bawdy jokes to satisfy the rabble. These distinctions are artificial in many ways, though; highly educated people are still capable of enjoying dirty jokes.
One definition of culture is “the best that is written and thought.” In more colloquial terms, it’s what we want other people to think we’re interested in, what makes us look smart and educated. When students two hundred years from now study our culture, we would probably prefer them to be looking at poetry rather than reality television. But what is the actual criteria we use to decide this? In the chapter we read, a photograph taken by Robert Mapplethorpe was used to illustrate this point. In the photo, there are two naked men. Is this art or just pornography? “High culture” is seen as something that edifies rather than merely titillates. But who gets to decide what is edifying or titillating? And what if a work manages to do both? In our discussion, we raised all these questions, but there aren’t any clear answers to them. Yet we still make these distinctions automatically every day. There’s a rather famous quote about pornography that reflects this – pornography hard to define, but that you “know it when you see it.”
One person brought up a story that described the United States from a foreign perspective. For example, hair dryers were described as ovens that the people place their heads in. These things have been naturalized, though, to the point that an American reader isn’t aware that this is their own culture being described. Ideas and habits become ingrained in us. But is the United States a single, defined culture? Allan Bloom and Jeffrey Hart seem to believe so. In “How to Get a College Education,” Hart talks about classes that have “always been taken and obviously should be taken.” He assumes a shared consensus, that our culture has always maintained (and always will maintain) certain values. Those that don’t fit inside this (such as students who want to learn about Nicaraguan lesbian poets) are not simply different, but of less importance.
What then are the boundaries of a culture? Especially in a country such as the United States, which has long been called the melting pot of the world? The truth is that culture even determines things we consider to be scientific fact, such as race and ethnicity. We determine these based on skin color and facial features, after all. Several students named famous African-Americans who would be able to “pass.” These distinctions are culturally based. For example, in one anthropological study, African tribesmen were not able to note differences in the facial features of a white man and his Chinese colleague, even though they could describe many differences between themselves and a neighboring tribe. Even something as “fundamental” or natural as race is determined by culture.
Yet people like Hart express a desire for a single, unified culture. We were asked to answer why this might be advocated, but the question remain unsolved.
We began the class with a practical exercise. We were given a sheet of paper with five sample thesis statements on it and asked to evaluate them:
“Toy Story 3 teaches us, young and old alike, much more than does The Odyssey, Jane Eyre, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Paradise Lost combined.”
This sentence, we agreed, is too much of an opinion if the paper is supposed to be analytical rather than evaluative. The word “combined” is a particular issue. It overstates the writer’s argument. The way an argument is expressed is important. Many people also noted that “teaches” is a broad term and should have been more focused and particular (for example, arguing that it teaches more than classic literature because it is more relevant.)
“The success of The King’s Speech at the 2011 Oscars and the fascination with the royal wedding two months later make clear that Americans prefer their democracy with a dash of monarchy.”
This sparked a debate in the classroom, which could show that this thesis was very effective – it drew an immediate, passionate response from the audience. Most of the critiques were about the ideas expressed. Complaints about the structure were about how “prefer their democracy with a dash of monarchy” might be too vague.
“There is a canon of popular culture just as there is a canon of literature. Unlike literary classics, however, popular culture classic represent the interests of all of us, not just some of us.”
This, most of us agreed, is far too vague and should have used specific examples, since “canon of popular culture” is left undefined. The broad generalizations also hurt the argument – what interests? Who is “some of us?”
“What happened to ‘Arrested Development,’ ‘Firefly,’ and ‘Freaks and Geeks’ is what’s happening to American culture at large.”
It is impossible to tell what is being argued here, since we are not told what happened to those TV shows or what’s happening to American culture. People were able to make assumptions based on their knowledge of the shows, but those can only be guesses, since we do not see an explanation in this sentence. “American culture at large” is also a very broad generalization.
After we completed this exercise, we went on to discuss our assigned reading, the “Ideology” chapter in the Theory Toolbox. Ideology can be defined in two ways – prescriptive and descriptive. The prescriptive definition is what is more commonly used in everyday language. Prescriptive ideology is false of misleading, serving a particular purpose. The Marxists call this “false consciousness.” Descriptive ideology is the study of ideas. Ideology in this context is talking about a whole way of life. These are the beliefs that create a cultural consensus. For example, why do we say “bless you” when someone sneezes or wash our hands after using the bathroom? These habits are thoroughly ingrained in us.
What values are being revealed through these actions? Where do social habits come from? In Marxist philosophy, they are forced upon the people by the ruling class. Others argue that we willingly take ideology in. We are immersed in a culture from the day we are born. No one is actually forcing people to perform these habits, but it is impossible to escape from them. This is the same way foreign languages are now taught. Students are immersed in it so it becomes natural to them.
It is often impossible to escape from these ingrained ideas. For example, the words “freedom” and “progress” are essentially good in our culture. It is hard to think of any time that they are used to describe something bad. Even politicians try to speak badly of progress in a certain direction; they phrase it so that it’s actually a regression. This is one of the reasons the environmental movement has seen so few results. They are asking industries to cut down. And for Americans, this goes against our ingrained ideas about progress being the highest good.
These values cannot be called universal, though. Other countries emphasize the group over the individual, for example. We see this in terms like “universal human rights.” They are not truly universal, since the West is taking their values and expecting the entire world to follow them. It is hard not to make a value judgment about other cultures, since our definitions of what is good or bad are so different and based on our own culture.
“It seems unlikely, in other words, that race and ethnicity found a cultural context, insofar as figuring out what ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ means already presupposes a context…” (Theory Toolbox 52)
“What he wants to locate as ‘timeless’ values are themselves ‘social’ values, inextricably tied to a particular time and place.” (TT 66)
“Ideology, understood as a kind of cultural common sense, doesn’t need to be articulated, discussed, or justified.” (TT 87)
“This, however, brings out the paradoxical nature of ideology yet again: Any appeal to ‘common sense’ or ‘real work’ is itself thoroughly ideological.” (TT 88)
Ideology (prescriptive and descriptive)
Preview of Next Week:
After being thoroughly refreshed by Spring Break, we will return with energy to sustain us through the remaining weeks of the semester.
Tuesday is another workshop day, including two different parts. **Remember to bring a copy of your Response essay, in its current state (which is to say if you’ve done some revising, bring that version).**
Part 1 will focus on producing works cited entries in accord with MLA style. The reading from the MLA Handbook addresses this. I will bring some sample texts for us to work on. **Before class, you should locate a text that you think is particularly difficult to produce a works cited entry for. Bring a copy to class (print it up the article, at least the first two pages of it, if it’s an online source), and produce an appropriate works cited entry in accord with MLA conventions. Turn that in at the start of class and it will replace that week’s blog post. (If you don’t turn one in, you’ll need to do a blog post, or you will lose those points.) We’ll work on these together in class. Compete to win extra credit (2 points for a missed blog post, or 2 extra points on your blog post grade) for selecting the most challenging item.**
We will also, in part one, review the procedures for accessing articles electronically through the library’s electronic databases (primarily through doing a search for a journal’s title–not the article’s title–on the library’s search window for “e-journals”). You will need to be doing this to produce your Preliminary Bibliography.
Part 2 will focus on your revision of Essay 2, your response to Tompkins’ “Masterpiece Theater.” These revisions are due a week later, on the 22nd. We will have no scheduled out-of-class conferences on your revision, so this workshop time will be especially important. (You may, of course, see me during my office hours–Tuesday 11-12 and Thursday 3-4:30–to discuss your revision.)
On Thursday we will turn to the Space/Time chapter in Theory Toolbox. Their central claim here is “Space and time are deeply social as opposed to natural phenomena” (109). See how they support this in the chapter, and consider, at the end of it, how you might connect the chapter’s issues to those of the “Subjectivity” chapter.