Some Thoughts On The Things We Haven't Read, But Know About Anyway
Sunday already, which means a substantial portion of US America is preparing to be astonished/heartbroken/outraged by the series finale of that show with the dragons, while another portion is just going to stay off Twitter for three days because nothing will make any sense. Yr Dok Zoom tends to come very late to trendy things, so get ready for our own thoughts on the gamy thrones show sometime in about 2023, or never. But we'd be glad to tell you just how much we enjoy the brilliance and humanity of the Cartoon Network series "Steven Universe," which debuted in 2013 and we started bingeing on the Hulu last month, late again.
Hell, we still want to talk about that one Mrs Landingham episode of "The West Wing," which we first watched years after it aired (We finally bought our new used car yesterday, and know one thing: don't drive over to the White House to show it off to President Bartlet). We might even get around to reading Infinite Jest someday. We hear it has something to do with a superhero team and a guy named Thanos. So hey, let's talk about culture and missing out and patching together some knowledge of what's happening anyway.
You Can't Read Everything
Not that Staying Current is necessary or even feasible, since it's impossible to read/watch/hear everything anyway. It was a bit of a comfort to be reminded of that, yes, eight years ago, in a still wonderful essay by NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour writer Linda Holmes. Ain't no way to even read all the good stuff out there, let alone absorb all the other media. That sad fact was already a cliché when Rod Serling had Burgess Meredith get prematurely excited about the prospect of finally having enough time to read everything. After the Bomb fell. Also, I totally missed the sly reference to that in "Fear the Walking Dead" until I looked at the Source Of All Knowledge just now. (My personal idea of Heaven would be Elysium, with a full library and broadband, and people to talk with about all of it -- and no trolls. Plus unbreakable glasses.)
There were almost certainly no Renaissance 'Men" ever. Yeah, yeah, Thomas Jefferson, but being a wealthy planter (who made enslaved people do the heavy lifting) sure helps with becoming a polymath. Somebody should write a devastating takedown of all the embarrassing gaps in Jefferson's reading, is what I say.
Which isn't to say we're praising ignorance here; it's just one of those bugbears that has stuck with me since grad school days, when books like Cultural Literacy and other screeds about how even educated Americans don't Know All The Things were the rage (Fun fact! One of my most treasured books as a child was A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which probably explains some things — Robyn). You can still get a book contract or at least a funny TV segment out of being shocked and appalled at how little the average person knows about culture stuff. And yes, people who refuse to take science seriously aren't merely horrifying, but are outright dangerous for the survival of all us big-brained ape descendants. We get that.
But that problem is more a matter of outlook -- a rejection of objective reality -- than of ignorance, anyway. I don't know enough about climate science to do it, hell no. But I don't need to, since A) I'm oriented to respect reality-based research; B) I know enough about science in general to know that 97 percent of climate scientists probably don't make shit up; and C) the attempts to "disprove" climate change are generally so clumsily tied up with right-wing ideology and corporate interests that they lack credibility. (I'm also very aware of just how many assumptions I'm just breezing past here!)
Again, not much of this is new. In 1989, New York magazine ran a lovely essay by Richard Rosen called "Bullcrit," all about the phenomenon of picking up just enough about current books that you can talk about them at a cocktail party, without having ever read the things. Appropriately enough, I know just enough about Rosen's thesis that I can seem knowledgeable, without having actually read the whole piece, not in 1989, and not now. I promise to leave the tab open and get to it today, finally. Maybe.
Oh Look, Dok's Going On About Grad School Again
In fact, the idea that you don't need to know everything about everything -- and can't, anyway -- drove my PhD dissertation in Rhetoric at the University of Arizona. Back in my undergrad classes, it occurred to me that a hell of a lot of the Culture Stuff I was learning about had first entered my awareness through Loony Tunes cartoons and other offhand references in pop culture. For instance, the first time I ever heard the name "Don Quixote" sure wasn't the novel, or even the community theater production of Man of La Mancha that Mom took me to when I was ten or so. Nah, it was a little puppet named Donkey Hodie on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." He had a windmill, of course.
When we read Cervantes in my undergrad Comparative Lit class, the professor railed against the romantic blather of Man of LaMancha, insisting that we try to get "To Dream the Impossible Dream" out of our heads when reading about the ridiculous old doofus whose brain was addled by tales of chivalry. That doesn't work, of course (I'm hearing it now, and so are a lot of youse), but it was an important reminder to question received assumptions. Don Quixote was an idiot, not a beautiful dreamer. We didn't read any postmodern theory in that class, but the prof was certainly teaching it -- you gotta give thought to how one set of cultural assumptions colors the way you read anything.
Or consider how two pop culture texts have done more to affect the way most people think about Wagnerian opera than any production in an opera house. I've never seen the Ring cycle, but I've damn sure seen Chuck Jones's 1957 masterpiece, "What's Opera, Doc?" It's virtually impossible-- for most Americans, at least -- to hear "Ride of the Valkyries" without thinking "Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit!" The epigraph for my dissertation if from Seinfeld: "It's so sad. Everything you know about opera comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons." Thing is, Bugs Bunny actually provides a pretty good introduction to operatic conventions, albeit with a satiric twist.
And simultaneously, a whole hell of a lot of us also see in our heads the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now. I love the smell of intertextuality in the morning.
I'd argue that only a minority of people even primarily think of Wagner's adaptation of Norse myth when they hear the tune -- and even for opera fans, those other uses of the music are likely in their heads, to say nothing of other historical associations between Wagner's music and the Nazis, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. Just last year, Israeli public radio apologized for playing Wagner over the air. It's literally impossible to hear that music the way 19th-century audiences did.
Also, when Mark Twain said, "They say that Wagner's music is better than it sounds,: he was quoting his pal William Nye, to whom he always made a point of giving credit.
In my dissertation -- I called the phenomenon "Wabbit Literacy" -- I tried to figure out why it might matter that we encounter so much "culture" through parody and offhand references in other texts. Damned if I had a perfect answer, but I'm inclined to think it undermines the notion that everyone needs to master a fixed canon of Important Knowledge (or Crom help us, "Western Culture"), because in reality, ain't no such thing as a pure cultural icon to start with. And there's nothing wrong with that, particularly as all sorts of wonderful new voices keep coming to prominence and adding to the cultural mix.
As linguist/philosopher Kenneth Burke argued, we're all glorious amalgamations of conversations that started before we were born and will keep going long after we leave:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
Huh. So that's part of what happens when you start out talking about not having seen "Game of Thrones" and let your thoughts ramble. We would tie this discussion up with a neat cultural bow, but suddenly, we are run over by a truck.
Now have some kitties!
We are totally in love -- again, several years late, we suspect -- with the Twitter feed "Bodega Cats," and the kitties it features. (Yes, we are sympathetic to people with allergies, too.) Here, have some cuteness:
https://t.co/OQ1RzQhC8F— Bodega Cats (@Bodega Cats) 1558269316.0
https://t.co/DjEFzY0YEz— Bodega Cats (@Bodega Cats) 1558200668.0
https://t.co/gJkjgPNe4u— Bodega Cats (@Bodega Cats) 1557960617.0
https://t.co/SF1imcbu8z— Bodega Cats (@Bodega Cats) 1557567142.0
https://t.co/dcXFCdQPDt— Bodega Cats (@Bodega Cats) 1557481540.0
https://t.co/E7eyTHkKZi— Bodega Cats (@Bodega Cats) 1556792463.0
Also too, some non-cat content:
📷: @leela_the_bulldog https://t.co/M7ywnCNzUr— Bodega Cats (@Bodega Cats) 1556809896.0
#GOAT https://t.co/aTqTgScKdZ— Bodega Cats (@Bodega Cats) 1557603367.0
Actually, we KNOW we're late to the topic -- WNYC did a fun series of videos for kids, giving voice to some bodega cats. Here's a sample!
Bodega Cats In Their Own Words: Oliver of the Upper West Side youtu.be
Also, we have just signed up for the newsletter for that WNYC site, "The Kids Should See This," which is, again, WONDERFUL. Expect more stuff from them in the future!
We'll probably return next week to our more usual format of collecting nice stuff from around the web. But today, I sort of got rolling on a theme, and honestly, I probably could talk about it more. Dip your oar in and join the conversation! Too bad Wonkette does not allow comments.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.