Faking Cultural Literacy
By Karl Taro Greenfield
New York Times, MAY 24, 2014
LOS ANGELES — I CAN’T help it. Every few weeks, my wife mentions the latest book her book club is reading, and no matter what it is, whether I’ve read it or not, I offer an opinion of the work, based entirely on … what, exactly? Often, these are books I’ve not even read a review or essay about, yet I freely hold forth on the grandiosity of Cheryl Strayed or the restrained sentimentality of Edwidge Danticat. These data motes are gleaned, apparently, from the ether — or, more realistically, from various social media feeds.
What was Solange Knowles’s elevator attack on Jay-Z about? I didn’t watch the security-camera video on TMZ — it would have taken too long — but I scrolled through enough chatter to know that Solange had scrubbed her Instagram feed of photos of her sister, Beyoncé. How about this season of “Game of Thrones” and that nonconsensual intercourse in the crypt? I don’t watch the show, but I’ve scanned the recaps on Vulture.com, and I am prepared to argue that this was deeply offensive. Is Pope Francis a postmodern pontiff? I’ve never listened to one of his homilies nor watched his recent “60 Minutes” appearance, but I’ve seen plenty of his @Pontifex tweets retweeted, so I’m ready to say his position on inequality and social justice is remarkably progressive.
It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them. Instead of watching “Mad Men” or the Super Bowl or the Oscars or a presidential debate, you can simply scroll through someone else’s live-tweeting of it, or read the recaps the next day. Our cultural canon is becoming determined by whatever gets the most clicks.
In his 1987 book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” E. D. Hirsch Jr. listed 5,000 essential concepts and names — 1066, Babbitt, Pickwickian — that educated people should be familiar with. (Or at least that’s what I believe he wrote, not having actually read the book.) Mr. Hirsch’s book, along with its contemporary “The Closing of the American Mind” by Allan Bloom, made the point that cultural literacy — Mr. Bloom’s canon — was the bedrock of our agreed-upon values.
What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.
NPR’s April Fools’ Day web story “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” went viral on Facebook, where pranksters in on the joke linked to the piece and others then argued that they do too read and indignantly shared the link with exhortations to “read the story!” without actually clicking on it themselves to see that the only content was the revelation that the whole thing was a prank: “We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’ ”
According to a recent survey by the American Press Institute, nearly six in 10 Americans acknowledge that they do nothing more than read news headlines — and I know this only because I skimmed a Washington Post headline about the survey. After we’ve skimmed, we share. Commenters frequently start their posts with TL;DR — short for Too Long; Didn’t Read — and then proceed to offer an opinion on the subject at hand anyway. As Tony Haile, the chief executive of the web traffic analytics company Chartbeat, recently put it, “We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.” (He tweeted that.)
It’s not lying, exactly, when we nod knowingly at a cocktail party or over drinks when a colleague mentions a movie or book that we have not actually seen or read, nor even read a review of. There is a very good chance that our conversational partner may herself be simply repeating the mordant observations of someone in her timeline or feed. The entire in-person exchange is built from a few factoids netted in the course of a day’s scanning of iPhone apps. Who wants to be the Luddite who slows everything down by admitting he has never actually read a Malcolm Gladwell book and maybe doesn’t exactly understand what is meant by the term “Gladwellian” — though he occasionally uses it himself?
Whenever anyone, anywhere, mentions anything, we must pretend to know about it. Data has become our currency. (And in the case of Bitcoin, a classic example of something that we all talk about but nobody actually seems to understand, I mean that literally.)
Those of us in the business of gathering, dispensing and otherwise trafficking in information may be among the worst offenders. Recently I was on the phone with an editor who mentioned a piece by a prominent author. I claimed I had read the story. It was only later in the conversation that it became clear to me that the article had not yet been published and I could not possibly have read it. By then we had moved on to discussing a possible article on a California politician caught in a rather complicated scandal. Neither of us could come up with his first name. Did that prevent us from talking pseudo-knowledgably about the pros and cons of the potential story? Absolutely not.
It’s understandable that one party or even both parties in a conversation may have only the faintest idea of what is being talked about. We’re all very busy — busier, if I believe the harried responses (when there are any at all) to most emails I send, than any previous generation. And because we spend so much time staring at our phones and screens, texting and tweeting about how busy we are, we no longer have the time to consume any primary material. We rely instead on the casual observations of our “friends” or the people we “follow” or, well, who, actually?
Who decides what we know, what opinions we see, what ideas we are repurposing as our own observations? Algorithms, apparently, as Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media postindustrial complex rely on these complicated mathematical tools to determine what we are actually reading and seeing and buying.
We have outsourced our opinions to this loop of data that will allow us to hold steady at a dinner party, though while you and I are ostensibly talking about “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” what we are actually doing, since neither of us has seen it, is comparing social media feeds. Does anyone anywhere ever admit that he or she is completely lost in the conversation? No. We nod and say, “I’ve heard the name,” or “It sounds very familiar,” which usually means we are totally unfamiliar with the subject at hand.
THERE was a time when we knew where we were getting our ideas. In my eighth grade English class, we were assigned “A Tale of Two Cities,” and lest we enjoy the novel, we were instructed to read Charles Dickens’s classic with an eye toward tracking the symbolism in the text. One afternoon while I was in the library, struggling to find symbols, I ran into a few of my classmates, who removed from their pockets folded yellow and black pamphlets that read “Cliffs Notes” and beneath that the title of Dickens’s novel in block letters. That “study guide” was a revelation.
Here were the plot, the characters, even the symbols, all laid out in paragraphs and bullet points. I read the Cliffs Notes in one night, and wrote my B paper without finishing the novel. The lesson was not to immerse and get lost in the actual cultural document itself but to mine it for any valuable ore and minerals — data, factoids, what you need to know — and then trade them on the open market.
With the advent of each new technology — movable type, radio, television, the Internet — there have been laments that the end is nigh for illuminated manuscripts, for books, magazines and newspapers. What is different now is the ubiquity of the technology that is replacing every old medium.
The information is everywhere, a constant feed in our hands, in our pockets, on our desktops, our cars, even in the cloud. The data stream can’t be shut off. It pours into our lives a rising tide of words, facts, jokes, GIFs, gossip and commentary that threatens to drown us. Perhaps it is this fear of submersion that is behind this insistence that we’ve seen, we’ve read, we know. It’s a none-too-convincing assertion that we are still afloat. So here we are, desperately paddling, making observations about pop culture memes, because to admit that we’ve fallen behind, that we don’t know what anyone is talking about, that we have nothing to say about each passing blip on the screen, is to be dead.
Illustration: Jennifer Daniel
Tmac’s note: I read this whole article.
Sight and Sound magazine called this the second best film book in history.
It’s full of fantastic little reflections
‘SIGHT AND HEARING’:
To know thoroughly what business that sound (or that image) has there.
”What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear.
”If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. (And vice versa, if the ear is entirely won, give nothing to the eye.) One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.
”When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralise it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.
”A sound must never come to the rescue of an image, nor an image to the rescue of a sound.
My second favourite is:
"My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water."
But his deepest and most universal insight is:
"Empty the pond to get the fish."
Wax Poetics asked DJ Babu to list his top 10 albums he came up with this West Australian oddity for number four.
The Dean of Perth with Bakery and Jazz Ensemble
Rock Mass for Love (Astor) 1971
Here’s an illy I caught down under in Australia. You’d be surprised how funky and musical cats are from other parts of the world, but these Australian cats basically set up shop in a cathedral in front of six thousand people. They did their own musical interpretation of Catholic mass and recorded it. Whatever it is, all I know is that these cats were ill and many a loop I have dissected from this record. Do not front on Aussie records!
I found a short video of the performance, or you can listen to it in full here.
Three matadors were gored at a fight on Tuesday, during the month long ‘World Series of bullfighting’ in Madrid. With no one left to challenge the bulls, festivities were cancelled for the day. The first time that’s happened in 35 Years.
I love it when the bulls win.
Interior Design magazine has a profile on the Mad Men interiors.
The interview is with Matthew Weiner, when the work was done by Christopher Brown, Shanna Starzyk (art directors) and Camille Bratkowski (set designer).
I’m always very impressed on what they manage to pull off on a low AMC budget.
If you’re not watching s7 you should get on it.
I also love how much care they take in choosing songs to go over the credits, a few weeks ago it was You Keep Me Hangin’ On by Vanilla Fudge
Looking forward to the last few episodes with screenwriting from Robert Towne, who wrote Chinatown.
Just in case you needed another reason to see Ayoade’s The Double…
The music is off chops:
Jackey Yoshikawa and his Blue Comets
Kim Jung Mi
Danny and the Islanders (Ilkka Lipsanen)
Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, And Supermarkets
Directed by Florian Habicht
I love Jarvis Cocker.
What he says at the start of this song is a little bit inspiring.
A potential antidote for the midnight Monday melancholy.
Or is this derived from 'Wish it, want it, do it'?
Photo: F.C. Gundlach
Check out the trailer for his film showing at Cannes this year, Adieu au Langage
For Sight & Sound, Nick Roddick recalls a few of the more turbulent moments in the history of the relationship between Godard and Cannes and suggests that Goodbye to Language“situates him firmly, almost 65 years since his first short, within the tradition of artistic provocateur even more firmly than it recalls his beginnings in the nouvelle vague…. Clearly JLG has effortlessly completed the transition from enfant terrible to Bad Grandpa.” At any rate, “this is language in the sense of conventions of communication (the French langage), not national tongues (langues). But here too, Godard belongs in a tradition more than he might be willing to accept: that of Sartre and other philosophers whose philosophical and political langage involves the manipulation and re-definition of the meaning of words, often in aphorisms.” And “Godard’s films abound with aphorisms… Adieu au langage is (not surprisingly) no exception.”
Yes yes it’s pretty much impenetrable.
This current (!!) and subtitled (!!!!) interview from CPN sheds a bit of light on it.