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Everything Bad is Good for Youand other thoughts about pop culture


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#1 bart

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 11:54 AM

A number of threads recently have flirted with the the influence of pop culture on ballet, music, and the other arts.

In this week's THE NATION, there's an interesting review, by Russell Jacoby of UCLA, of two books on the subject:

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Pop Cutlure is Actually Making us Smarter (Steven Johnson, Riverhead)

Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way you Live it. (Thomas de Zengotita, Bloomsbury).

Here's the Link

The starting point appears to be the thesis of Josef Weber, described as "a forgotten essayist who pondered, among other things, popular culture, which did not please him." (This was back in the 1950s). Among Weber's points, apparently, is the idea that people increasingly know about things and decreasingly about social reality." Jacoby paraphrases: "Later reformulated as the law of the falling rate of intelligence, it posits that intelligence sinks in society as the production, selling and advertising of commodies rises. We face a cris of the overproduction of idiocy."

Recent Ballet Talk threads on the topic leave the impression that several of us seem to take an intuitively Weberian position, while others are more tolerant. This review -- thoughtful and very shrewd indeed -- helped me in my own attempt to reach a balanced view.

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 11:58 AM

The link only gives you the first two paragraphs, unless you subscribe to The Nation.

So, not being able to read Mr. Jacoby's more balanced position, I'll stick with my own intuitively formed one :)

More seriously - is the full article available online, or only in the print edition?

#3 bart

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 12:10 PM

Sorry about the link. In the interest of full disclosure, I shouldl have included myself among those who are "intuitively Weberian."

I tried to find a way to download the full article, but you need a subscriber's registration. The site has recently been redesigned. Some content is available to all -- but not this one.

Here are some of Jacoby's points:

"Steven Johnson, a savvy writer on technology and its pleasures, offers a thorough-going challenge to [Weber's] bleak outlook on popular culture. To be sure, Johnson's contrariness may be a pose, inasmuch as it depends on opposition that has all but melted away. Apart from a few depressed followers of Josef Weber and his ilk, who today believes in falling cognition?" Champions of popular culture can be found throughout this broad land. One need not venture very far to discover courses on soap operas, situation comedies of Star Trek offered by cultural studies professors... To be sure, doubt about the legitimacy of their subject matter haunts even the most avid boosters of popular culture. I sometimes ask my students a variant of an Internet dating uestion: Whom would you rather date, someone who indicates their favorite pastime is to stay home to play video games or to step out to a ballet or museum? Even the most avid enthusiasts of television balk at dating their own soul mates."

"Johnson tells a 'progressive story,' in which popular culture, far from dumbing us down, becomes ever more complex, intellectually stimulating and sophisticated each year." For instance, he compares the single narrative structure of an old Dragnet episode with new shows like The Sopranos which juggle numerous characters, plots, etc. He finds the Fox series "24" to be "at least three times as complex as the old Dallas." Films, Johnson says, are also becoming increasingly complicated.

Jacoby responds: "How complex is complexity? Or, more precisely, does an ability to master complex narratives and intricate games reflect an expansion of general intelligence?" The recognition of attention-deficit-disorder shows that many people today cannot focus on one thing for long -- not usually associated with high levels of "intelligence" Jacoby: "The new complex intelligence does not foster a capacity to follow the 'sustained' argument of a typical book. Johnson must make this concession -- after all, he offers us an argumentative book, not a blog or a video game." Jacoby's final word on the book, which he praises generally: "Media complexity may express the dwindling force of cognition in the era of attention-deficit-disorder."

Edited by bart, 15 June 2005 - 12:28 PM.


#4 carbro

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 12:16 PM

Mr. Johnson's thesis has been discussed -->here.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 12:27 PM

One of the problems I have with the argument is that art (for which pop culture is being substituted) isn't supposed to make us "smarter." It is supposed to feed our imaginations and our souls and enrich our lives.

#6 Helene

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 01:20 PM

I haven't read the book yet, but I haven't seen any reviewer state that Johnson's argument is that pop culture should replace high culture or that it nurtures the soul. The only point made is that pop culture is uniformly rejected as junk food for the mind, and that's the one he's trying to refute by showing the way it helps the mind.

I prefer a win-win situation: getting smarter and having my soul nurtured.

#7 bart

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 01:29 PM

What about this point about weak concentration and attention-deficit. With an art like ballet, isn't so much of the beauty in the details? Doesn't ballet require precisely the kind of extended concentration (as well as cognitive knowledge) that Jacoby claims is in deficit in our culture?

Much of the popularity of show dancing, interpretive dancing, Fosse movements, acrobatic dancing, etc. -- as well as the sexualized dancing now being discussed on another thread -- is precisely that it is easy to follow, oddly predictable and familiar from other parts of our daily dose of culture. And you can often tune out for a while in the middle of a performance without missing anything essential. I would imagine that Balanchine -- or Taylor for that matter -- or even the complex steps in story ballets like Swan Lake or Sylvia -- would be very tiring for some people to follow, if they tried.

#8 Helene

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 02:10 PM

What about this point about weak concentration and attention-deficit.  With an art like ballet, isn't so much of the beauty in the details?  Doesn't ballet require precisely the kind of extended concentration (as well as cognitive knowledge) that Jacoby claims is in deficit in our culture?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I don't think that is a generational thing. I've been attending performances of ballet and opera for almost 35 years, and there have been nappers and snorers of all ages.

#9 dirac

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 02:26 PM

Unfortunately, it may not be possible to have it both ways. Thatís the danger.

As the review bart quotes points out, many people have observed that pop culture is not always and only junk food for the mind, so I think that is something of a straw man.

#10 kfw

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 03:53 PM

One of the problems I have with the argument is that art (for which pop culture is being substituted) isn't supposed to make us "smarter."  It is supposed to feed our imaginations and our souls and enrich our lives.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Which makes us not exactly smarter, but wiser, or at least offers us that possibility.

#11 bart

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Posted 17 June 2005 - 05:39 AM

For those interested in a conservative perspective on the issue of changing culture, David Brooks had a recent op ed piece in the New York Times. This was reprinted in my local paper under the title, "Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack". If you don't have access to the NYT site, you can find it at:

www.palmbeachpost.com

Go to the bottom of the main page and hit Opinion -- this leads you to David Brooks's columns.

Brooks begins with his redisovery of an essay on Hemingway from a 1961 issue of Time Magazine. Among his points:

"If you read Time and Newsweek from the 1950s and early 1960s, you discover that they were pitched at middle-class people across the country who aspired to have the same sorts of convesations as the New York Boston elite. The magazines ... devoted as much space to opera as to movies because an educated person was expected to know something aobut oepra, even if that person had no prospect of actually seeing one."

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 17 June 2005 - 05:59 AM

Thanks for finding that, bart -- it is an interesting essay. Here's a direct link; the piece is in the NYTimes today.

Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack

It's interesting that Brooks, rather than attacking pop culture as being what corrupted us, or blaming Joe Six-Pack for being dumb, seemed to place most of the blame on intellectuals in the 1960s who attacked middlebrow culture. Tom Wolfe has written and spoken on this -- that prior to the 1960s, the great writers and musicians and painters wanted an audience, or perhaps needed an audience because somebody had to pay the bills, and though art could be excellent, it was also accessible. When art became deliberately rarified, when artists started making work for each other rather than us, people turned away.

#13 Farrell Fan

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Posted 17 June 2005 - 07:36 AM

I'm not a fan of David Brooks. Be that as it may, who is Joe Strauss?

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 17 June 2005 - 08:21 AM

I think Brooks outlines the situation reasonably, and succumbs to his own prejudices when discussing the cause. No great surprise there, he's a political columnist who masquerades as a social commentator. If only leftist eggheads like Lincoln Kirstein and Morton Baum weren't out there trying to get the State Theater built instead of combatting the pernicious influences of Stockhausen and Yvonne Rainier, we wouldn't have this problem. He's putting the cart before the horse. I think you'd find as much evidence that artists got self-referential when their audience declined as much as the other way around.

#15 kfw

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Posted 17 June 2005 - 08:51 AM

I'm not a fan of David Brooks. Be that as it may, who is Joe Strauss?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Joe Sixpack's middlebrow-striving-for-highbrow forbearer.


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