Rebuilding a common cultural literacy doesn’t mean we all have to return to the same classical books as our grandparents. We don’t all need to read all the same dead western white guys to understand each other, but we probably should start reading (and watching, listening, and experiencing) a little of as many different works of art, from as many different cultures and backgrounds as possible, if we’re going to save civilization from ourselves.
“How does an audience identify an allusion? The whole system of signaling depends, quite obviously, on a high degree of cultural literacy – an easy assumption in traditional societies with fixed literary canons and a high capacity for verbatim retention of texts, but something of a problem for contemporaries, who often come to literary texts from a background of loose canons, little reading, and languid memory.”The Pleasure of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter
That’s a lot of fancy words for we aren’t all coming from the same entertainment background. We aren’t all reading the same small collection of books these days, even more today than when he wrote this because our world has become infinitely larger and more connected virtually.
Funny story, and one you’re probably familiar with. My kids think the memes they find on social media are hilarious. Sometimes, when they show them to me, I don’t get the joke. Or the other way around. I think something is deep and wonderous and they look at me like, “Huh?”
We don’t get the allusion in each other’s media. We don’t see the signals. Once again, I’m reminded of the Star Trek TNG episode “Darmok and Jalad”
To understand each other, especially in the written word, we have to come from a similar background first of all. The more figurative the media, the more it relies on allusion, the more similar our backgrounds need to be for us to “get it.” I can’t understand why you say that the character is like Sisyphus if I haven’t heard or read that story. And you won’t understand that I “Trumped your sly comment with a better one” if you’ve never played the game.
Each nation, each culture, each generation alters its canon a little at a time. We build on the past, let some things go, and add new things, all in an effort to do what? Describe and understand the world around us? Communicate with others near and far, now and in the future? Too bad we can’t send messages back in time and warn them. “Don’t light that match mom!” or “Don’t invent that device!” But then, I’m not sure that would help us really. If we know anything from time travel movies, it’s that events are sticky. They seem to want to happen no matter what we do.
Unlike most children in the U.S., my sons grew up in close proximity to us, 24/7, not because we’re paranoid about someone taking them, or over-protective. It was because we liked them. I wanted to be around them more and figured they’d go to school later when we got tired of each other. I’ve talked about it before, but we unschooled instead of homeschooled. We lived as if school didn’t exist. I should write a new post about THAT!
The short version is that we lived and worked from home, together for 18 years. They had a very similar canon of books, tv, movies, and music as we did because that’s what we knew and shared with them. As we grew, so did they. New movies. New books. New music. Human events unfolded around us. All of it happened in light of what we already knew, our own family’s background canon.
So, when we write a story, share a joke, or make a reference, all of us almost always get the allusion. Until…cue dramatic music…they began to move in circles outside our house. Noooo!!! Once, they found social media, got jobs, friends, and then started college, it all changed. Their canon shifted from ours. And I know that shift isn’t over. Now that they have moved out on their own it will keep growing and changing as long as they live. We’ll be coming back together for holiday gatherings and sharing our worlds with each other for a long time to come.
Michelle? What they heck? What does that have to do with reading?!
It’s the same with books, not to mention articles, movies, and music. The artist creates his work from the memory of his own canon, assuming that the audience has a similar enough background to understand the allusions. If I read something by someone that is so far outside my world, it’s more difficult for me to understand the deeper meanings of the references the creator is trying to convey. That’s what happened to me when I read, “The 28 Mansion of the Moon.”
I think most of us tend to remember that when we’re reading a book but tend to forget that we need to do the same when we read or watch anything, especially on the internet. Here we are with the world at our fingertips. We can see and hear everyone all over the world, but are we communicating? Rarely. It’s not because we’re mean and evil, or less smart than we ever were. It’s simply because we are assuming that everyone we see and hear has the same canon, the same cultural background, as we do. Translation is not simple. We may even be speaking the same language but come from entirely different worlds.
It’s going to take humanity a long time to adjust to this new development. Let’s hope we don’t destroy each other in the process.
Click over to my original post, “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” to read my initial thoughts on this book!