Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Popular Culture -- Seriously

So I was over reading Amanda at Mousewords (a blog I recommend, if you haven’t already come across it – -http://mousewords.blogspot.com/2004/12/otherness.html#comments )

And she recommends someone named Susan Bordo, with a link (which in case you haven’t noticed I haven’t figured out how to do yet, create nifty links) and I hop on over on the link, which takes me to Amazon.com, one of my favorite places, so I’m reading about this Bordo person, and her book, and I get down to the review section, and I find that some guardian of our culture disapproves of Bordo’s books, and gives this as one of the reasons:

“if you take her pop culture writings seriously... you probably watch too much t.v., and seriously at that.”

I heave a heavy sigh. I think of entering a counter-review. Since I haven’t yet read the book (though I did order a copy) I figure it’s not kosher to do that. But can I just take this space to object?

Let me inject, here, in the interests of full-disclosure, that while my doctorate is in comparative literature, with my three areas of specialty being Greek, Roman, and World Literature, and my two languages being Greek and Latin, I have, nonetheless, spent the past six years working in the area of popular culture, and almost all of that in studying, yes, television. During very nearly all of that time, what I have gotten from the, ah, uninitiated is that precise reaction: "You study television shows? That’s stupid."

This despite the fact that the, ah, uninitiated, when I interrogate them, spend about half their lives watching TV.

This despite the fact that, when they’re my students, and I ask them for specific examples for any damn thing, the first examples that spring to their minds come from television shows. (Not, may I note, despite how much they all love Jesus, the Bible. If they knew the Bible the way they know The Apprentice, hey, maybe we would have a Christian Nation.)

So, yes, television is a serious area for study, and I’m studying it seriously. Why? Not necessarily because I like it, although I do like some bits of it – and in fact I do like the bits of it I’m studying (South Park right now, Buffy for the past three years) – but because it is, in fact, the most significant force in our culture. Anyone who doesn’t believe that isn’t paying attention.

Popular culture is our culture.

What else would be culture, may I ask? Does the person who wrote that comment think Shakespeare is shaping people’s lives these days? Or Mozart is?

Certainly some people listen to Mozart. Some people read George Eliot and Chaucer and line up at showings of Aristophanes. I’m one of them. Middlemarch is, in fact, one of my favorite novels on the planet. (Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign among my other top ten.) But most Americans? Most folks’ culture? It’s television slash movies slash pop music.

So yes, we need to be looking at it. And yes, we need to be looking at it seriously.

We seriously need to know why it is that so many American citizens got so seriously turned on by Gibson’s Passion. We seriously need to know what the texts and subtexts were in that movie – as opposed to what the dominate culture is claiming they were. We seriously do need to know what’s going on that so many other Americans are drawn to one kind of vampire film – the kind exemplified in John Carpenter’s Vampires – while others are drawn toward Ann Rice’s Lestat – and others, a third sort of Other – are drawn toward Buffy, and what exactly is going on with the vampires and villains on that show. Here, too, we seriously need to know what the texts/subtexts are – not what they’re supposed to be, what they actually are.

We need to know those things because the texts and subtexts of the popular culture are what form the culture. My students claim to be Christians, most of them. But, as I have said, not one of them could pass a pop quiz on the Bible. They couldn’t tell you anything Christ said at the Sermon on the Mount, or name six of the ten commandments. But every single one of them would make an A+ on a pop culture exam.

So, yes, we ought to be studying television seriously. We ought to be teaching classes in Buffy and the Survivor and the Simpsons and Sex in the City – you’re damn straight we ought to.

Not only is popular culture a serious field of study, I’d say it might be the most serious field of study happening in English right now.

I'm just saying.

1 comment:

zelda1 said...

Vampires should be studied, or should I say, programs about Vampires because they do not die, and I don't mean that as a pun because we do know that all of them die with of course the right weapon, well, all of them except Dracula. Anyway, Vampires are neverending, they have haunted us for generations past and keep getting resurrected in better and more tasteful settings. There are lessons to be learned from these creatures of the night. Buffy is full of mythological and archetypical characters and messages. The good and bad, the heroes journey, the yearning to be good and the yearning to be bad, the wise old woman/man and the trickster, all and more, plus the demons who are vengence demons--straight from the Furies. The quest of Buffy when she turned eighteen is similar to Hercules. So, yes to not study pop culture would be a shame. When it is all said and done, this pop culture emulates the classics and because of this, it should be studied and put in college courses to be studied and how easy would mythology be to learn if you could compare it to Buffy the Vampire slayer?