Thursday, September 27, 2012

What's culture, anyway?

When you try to analyse works of popular culture, be it the "Song of Ice and Fire" or "Battlestar Galactica", "Breaking Bad" or "The Walking Dead", you can be sure to get only a sneer by those who are sure that anything of cultural value can be enshrined only by the covers of two books. Preferably, old books. It is something that continues to drive me mad. I started to hate the phenomenon when I studied German literature (a subject I'm currently teaching). At university, a universal ruleset seemed to form itself, at least to me:
1) Only books can be precious and "culture". 
2) The fewer people understand the given text because of its complicated structure, the better it must therefore be. 
3) The less entertaining a text is, the better it is. Only fools and jesters aim at entertaintment, the real artist bores his audience to death. 
4) The older the text is, the better it must be. 
Of course, this is a very bitter and exaggerated ruleset. You read contemporary texts, too, but this violation of rule 4 is almost always compensated by restraining the choice of text to rules 2 and 3. I am ashamed to say that back in school and when I started studying at university, I prided myself of liking this sort of stuff and even tried to write "sophisticated" texts of my own, just to prove how long my literary penis was. About halfway through university I came to hate it more and more. Today, I still love to read and to analyse, but I sure as hell also love to watch stuff and analyze it. I have broadened the definition of what is worthy of analysis, so to speak. This leaves the question of what exactly belongs to "popular culture" and what doesn't, and what measuring instruments I use to decide the question.
He's long dead, so his work must have been great!

It's after the break now, so I can stop teasing and continue ranting about the old stuff for a while before really getting to the core of my premise. Let's take two classics, unanimously revered and beloved: Goethe and Shakespeare. Both defined literature and language of their respective tongues. Both also sucked in storytelling, reaffirming my rule number 3. Really, look at what Shakespeare wrote. His plays don't have characters, they have roles. They are vehicles for very neatly crafted lines of dialogue. Logic or anything of the like doesn't go in any consideration; the form is the content. That's why you were most likely forced to analyse his works - the language consist of several layers of carefully constructed rhetorical devices, uses puns and manages to invent new words that have since entered common parlance.
The funny thing is, we don't even know how they pronounced English back then, so we could be totally wrong.
I will not deny that there is a certain fascination to unlayering all these carefully craftet, well, layers. I would not have gotten through university if I didn't enjoy that stuff from time to time, and most likely, you will also acknowledge that having a text that is simultaneously a puzzle challenges you, and that sometimes a challenge is just the thing you want. The interesting thing is, however, how widely unpopular the stuff was at its time. It's the part they never tell you. The great German poets that are forced upon unsuspecting pupils for generations now sucked at the box office. There was one work by Friedrich Schiller, second only to Johann Goethe (both titled "German Shakespeare" in their time already) that managed exactly one performance before the rest of the schedule was cancelled because the audience didn't like it. Performances of these dramas have numbers way higher today than in their contemporary times. 

Because we force pupils to go there.
People back then loves to go to the popular stuff, where, you know, stuff happened. We don't know of it today because no one thought it worthy of preservation through the ages, and the overwhelming majority of it was stupid shit for sure - cheap comedies full of jokes about farting and sex, for example, without any linguistic ellegance to make up for it. But, and now we're getting finally to the point, the works of Goethe, Schiller and Shakespeare were conserved by the intellectual elite, and they despised the entertaining stuff. We will never know if there was something good and worthwhile buried under all the crap. It's like digging through several seasons of "American Idol" to find the pilot of "Breaking Bad". And no one did it. My hope is that future generations will ease up on the issue and broaden horizon for what can be regarded as culture, including stuff like great movies, video games and TV series. 
Engaged in a serious discussion about the moral values of Walter White.
I will certainly not go as far as to consider anything popular as worthy of being called culture, if only because it clearly has an effect on contemporary culture. When it comes to shows like "American Idol" or the "next Topmodel" series, I'm as much a cultural snob as the next elitist. I despise this cheap stuff, and maybe I am at fault for it. Perhaps it's hipocrisy. A flaw in character. For the nonce, I have decided to live with it.  One revolution at a time, I guess. Now, the works I mentioned are in my humble opinion pieces of culture worthy of analysis because they all succeed not only in telling a story, but connecting this story with something worth beind said. While it is by no means easy to tell a good, cohesive and exciting story, the real difficulty is making it about something. For example, "Inception" tells a tight and very exciting narrative, but when the credits move over the screen, what else is there? You have been entertained well. "The Dark Knight", on the other one of Nolan's hands, manages to explore the extremes of the human psyche and walks along the thin red line between good and bad, blurring the differences to the point where you can't be sure about them anymore as a viewer. 
Who wouldn't want to close these fists?
"Battlestar Galactica", to bring up another example, certainly has several flaws on the level of storytelling. Some episodes don't work at all, some others are clumsy, and the general cohesiveness leaves much to be desired for. But these flaws are balanced by a ballsy approach to several very unsettling topics. There are not many shows that dared to put the main characters in the spot of the Iraqi insurrectionist terrorists, letting them conduct suicide bombings and letting the audience decide whether they approved of this or not. How can anyone say a show doing this is in any way inferior to a novel pulling the same trick? "Breaking Bad" takes us on a very slippery slope down the path of crime, repeatedly asking the question what will happen to you once you comit to a certain set of moral codes and societal rules. After watching these episodes, I have to lean back and think about what I just saw (and blog about it, of course). How can this not be culture? How can it not be worth the attention of critics, not a worthy subject of analysis? I don't know, but I'm certainly committed to try my best to change this.


  1. I have'nt seen at stage any Goethe or Schiller plays (I 've read at school Werter and Faust and The Robbers), but I really like Sheakspeare plays and films based on them. They have striking characters, fantastic plots, cultural stereotypes written for the first time. But my point is - wasn't his plays popular in his times, being presented in his own theatre?

    BTW - I really liked Your essays at "The tower of the hand" and I read Your new blog with pleasure.

  2. @Magda: I haven't seen it from the angle of Shakespeare writing this stuff for the first time ever, so I apologize on that count. Never studied English literature, unfortunately. I wouldn't agree to the striking characters and fantasting plots, though, but each his own :)
    There were great stagings of his plays for sure, especially the one in which they burned down the theatre firing a cannon salute (donnu which one it was), but somehow I doubt they ever had a mass appeal. They were popular among the elite for sure, if only because Shakespeare was shamelessly pandering to the political power players. Certainly, some of them also acknowledged the cultural worth of them, the sheer elegance of speech and dialogue etc.
    But the discussion ultimately comes down to the same question as with the Greek dramas: is it really likely that a considerable amount of people back then was so sophisticated in taste and educated to really enjoy this stuff? In a time where many couldn't even read and write? I strongly believe that these plays were the pasttime of a really small elite. That doesn't diminish their worth and shouldn't be regarded as an argument not to talk about them in school, pray. But they certainly weren't "popular culture".

  3. IMHO you really don't understand Shakespeare if you believe he was shamelessly pandering to the political elite. Shakespeare's attitude towards politicians was at best ambiguous. Any careful reading of his plays shows the grand politicians such as Prince Hal, Octavian, Ulysses, the Prince of Vienna etc to be a pretty cynical and hypocritical bunch. And your statement that Shakespeare created roles not characters is kind of misleading. What he created were characters that are so deep and complex that good actors can portray them in many different ways, and readers can interpret them in many different ways, but like real people, they are ultimately unknowable. You should read Harold Bloom's "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human".

  4. I have to admit to not really being a Shakespeare expert. So I can really answer to only one of your comments and assume for the rest they are true since you are most likely to have more knowledge than I do. While it may be so that the characters can be interpreted very differently, and that this is a feat in and of itself, my point that he didn't really write great characters still stands. That's not necessarily a bad thing, by no means. But it is something else than the character dramas I love, and since I'm hopelessly biased and this is a bit of a rant anyway, I exaggerated to drive the point home. :)

  5. I know I'm really late to the party but I really enjoyed this post and I think you raise some very good points here (even though I don't agree with your assesment that Goethe and Shakespeare sucked at storytelling and just for the record, I do think Shakespeare was quite popular with the masses). As a fellow German teacher who also happens to love children's book, young adult fiction and TV shows (oh, the horror) I have met my fair share of disdain by some of my fellow students and colleagues. I've also studied English and found that a much broader definition of culture was employed in this area and so I was able to study popular culture, children's literature and crime fiction on an academic level. It is high time that this approach will be taken in German literary studies as well - Proseminar Tatort, anyone?

    On a more general note: Love your blog, Stefan, I found it via Boiled Leather and I am always eagerly awaiting Sean's and your next podcast. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks a lot for the praise! Today I had a conversation with a fellow teacher, giving English, and she wants her pupils to read Game of Thrones. The most modern thing I can get into German literature lessons is "The Perfume". And please, Tatort? I want things to matter ;)