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Friday, 1 July 2016

Popular Culture aka Lazy Culture (maybe)

I'm what one might call a non-participant. In general, I don't listen to contemporary music nor, indeed, do I ever actively seek out any new form of media: I am perfectly content listening to the "same" 800+ songs, reading the same books and watching the same things. In fact, I periodically re-read things I read years and years ago (a bit like an annual migration). This extends to how I use Facebook. I don't post, except maybe to post screenshots of games I play. I don't "like" things, aside from the odd post (and often replies on my infrequent posts). I definitely don't wish people happy birthday. On the other hand, I don't expect any of these things in return: my birthday is not on Facebook, for instance. These days I pretty much only use Facebook for various groups (and the odd invitation). But, sometimes, I read the newsfeed and that's where I found this Junkee (?) article: "You’re Not Smart Or Interesting For Shitting All Over Popular Culture".

Firstly, this is an ironic title. That is not a smart or interesting title. It is, in fact, a clickbait title. And, as all readers of Young Avengers know, clickbait is spammy. It is also criticising people for giving Popular Culture the "high hat". It's giving those people the "high hat". More irony. Secondly, I clicked on it regardless of my opinions of clickbait (versus, say, sharkbait, ooh haha) because the topic is interesting to me. Thirdly, I thought of writing a post about it as I was reading the thing. Which, I guess, is where we are now.

Get it? (from Miller's Crossing)
I think I should probably begin by saying that Lenton (the article's author) begins with a false premise. Namely that the separation of lowbrow and highbrow cultural forms is utterly arbitrary. Specifically, this is what Lenton has to say: "This arbitrary binary relies on the idea that some art forms are inherently smart, deep and rewarding, while the rest are just dross to be consumed with guilt, if at all." I think Lenton has got the gist but not grasped the reason.

In general, if something is highbrow it is a) aware of its themes and b) gives them serious and stolid treatment. Thus, they look "smart, deep and rewarding". Now, sometimes there are genre complications. That is, some things are immediately imagined to be lowbrow/pop culture. If you try to approach them as highbrow, you'll probably be accused of taking yourself too seriously. That's not to say that you can't use superheroes to make points about social exclusion (see: mutants/X-Men), but it is to say even if you do that right you can still over-reach, if you want to make a different point (see: any time X-Men tries to make a point about child soldiers). And, sometimes, things do go from being lowbrow to being highbrow. Let's quote the article.
Grouping art into these fictitious opposing teams is made even more ludicrous when you consider how subjective the statuses of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” actually are. Sometimes all it takes is an artist’s or author’s death to reclassify their work. Van Gogh never sold a painting. Shakespeare wrote for the masses, and is now seen as an essential literary experience.
There are actually some errors of fact here. Van Gogh sold at least one painting, and others were semi-bartered/made for others. His reputation actually began to turn in his last few years, anyway. Shakespeare's audience was not just mass. What actually changed these from lowbrow to highbrow was societal change. People don't watch plays in the same way that we used to. Going to a theatre these days is a sign of high culture and, often, is treated as aspirational in class terms. Going to a movie? Now that's a completely different thing. Watching television? Again, different. Same goes for art galleries and art appreciation. At school you're a scam artist playing the system for easy marks (poppycock, by the way). Art with a capital A is also perceived as high culture. People are interested, in popular terms, in things more like concept art for films or games. People look at memes, not museums. Does this matter in terms of Lenton's argument? That art with a capital A exists? Not really.
Both Nazis.
What we have here is two different depictions of Nazis. One is High Culture (from Schindler's List) and the other is Low/Popular Culture (from a production of The Producers). This dynamic was introduced to me in History 217 (which I took last year in semester two). It's pretty obvious why one is the other. That's not arbitrary. The thing is, as is perhaps made clear by both being part of an academic history course, that this classification doesn't mean that one is meaningful and the other meaningless. Indeed, I believe that satirical works, generally put in low culture (until they get old and become canon:  e.g. Vanity Fair) will probably piss all over a lot of High Culture in terms of the bigness of the meaning. The point is that the article seems to believe that people think that meaning is contained only in High Culture. Hell, I reckon that's true. The trouble occurs when Lenton goes on to say, "This thinking is obviously outdated. These days, there is so much smart, incisive and critical writing being done about popular culture, about the ‘lowbrow,'" a line which makes the point of the meaningless of the distinction. People like to think about what they've consumed and because people consume popular culture (by definition more than High Culture), there's going to be a lot of thinking about it. (Also, Popular Culture gives more insight into people than High Culture, which is ultimately generally just studying one particular person's perspective of people.)

At this point, naturally, one is left to ponder why I haven't actually created a definition of lowbrow/Popular Culture. Well, to some extent that's because it is everything that isn't High Brow/Culture. It's also worth noting that there is an element of "craft" to my definition of High Culture. I didn't consciously realise this until I read the following comment from Emma Louise Kuehnbaum (probably a real name as the comments section is via Facebook) in the comments section of that article:
The Kardashian's reality show has value because it "gives people pleasure"? Well, so does crystal meth. These pieces of "reality-tv" (even the name is a lie; none of it is actually real) culture are designed to stimulate and enflame the basest parts of human nature; people's avarice, covetousness, consumerism and titillation. Shakespeare may have written for the masses, but a tale well-told is equally moving no matter how many people like it. I'll continue to judge culture on whether it is well-crafted, thought-provoking and authentic. That standard allows for appreciation of romance novels and condemnation of the Kardashians, btw.
Reality television, then, can never be High Culture? Well, probably. However, you may be able to manipulate the design and editing of the show in such a fashion that you can have your producer/presenter get up and say, "Well, at heart, it's about how the human psyche reacts in situations of pressure" and people won't being going, "Jesus, what have they been smoking: it's reality crapovision". It's possibly how you might take Yesterday or Eleanor Rigby and contrast such with Can I Hold Your Hand? Same band but they evolved the style enough that you can deal with pretty serious stuff in pretty serious fashions. Help! sort of occupies a middle ground. At heart we've got "bubblegum pop" but it's not the third song just mentioned because it's matter is more like the first two. But, because it's bubblegum pop it can't be High Culture because it doesn't act as though it is.

Talking the Talk is Walking the Walk (cf. How to Live Well on Nothing a Year)
That first line in the comments section quote is our point of return to the article. One of the contentions made is that we shouldn't really be comparing Keeping up with the Kardashians to War and Peace. I, in particular, shouldn't compare them because I've neither seen the former nor read the latter (although, I have read another work of Russian Literature: Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead). This is a pretty common argument. The point is that both do what they're meant to. Okay, but that doesn't mean that one can't be better than the other (the point being made). And this is where your subjective preference comes in as you may choose to evaluate betterness with different criteria to what I choose: we cannot say that any given criterion is definitively more appropriate than another. This also doesn't mean that "War and Peace vs The Kardashians, which is better?" is a question that can never be resolved. What it means is that every answer we give will be true only within the system of the answer. But, maybe, we can say that there is a system which we ought to prefer more. Kuehnbaum's comment, for instance, posits that favouring "well-crafted, thought-provoking and authentic" cultural artefacts is such a system. Lenton uses just the "satisfies consumers" standard.

Where things get interesting is what Lenton just never comments on (his stuff about The Shire is accepted to be good vs accepted to be bad, given the genre). How many times have you read/heard people say Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad is the Best Show Ever? People want to make comparisons among things even Lenton would have to accept are on the same level. Now, personally, I seriously doubt most of the people who say these things have seen much television from before 2000, but that aside, where are you meant to start? Well, in general, there is the implicit notion that even among Popular Culture's artefacts (e.g. television shows) there are sub-categories. In particular, that there is a difference between more arty-television (not so sure about Breaking Bad, but this is clearly where Game of Thrones thinks it belongs) and normal (scripted) television like, say, Person of Interest or The Blacklist. Arty Television isn't High Culture per se, but it's close. The reality is that people forget about television shows pretty quickly. Did you know Edge of Darkness was on television first? That House of Cards is a remake? These discussions are ultimately pissing contests between fans with short memories (or, as I suggested before, no memories).

The thing with High Culture is that it's not Popular Culture. People can like it and lots and lots of people can like it, but it's not part of the popular consciousness. Sherlock Holmes is still very much popular culture. Which kinda makes sense because Sherlock Holmes was one of the original Mass Characters, the sort of figure that the readership/audience feels they own more than the creator. In general, popular culture is like this because consuming it doesn't require any additional effort. To some extent, popular culture is normal consumption behaviour. High Culture is consumption behaviour with effort. You have to choose to read, say, Vanity Fair. You just read The Colour of Magic. High Culture lives in the unconsciousness: the sort of thing that you go, "Oh, yeah" that whenever it is referenced. This is why arty television isn't really High Culture, it's a blend of normal and cult consumption: still feels too genre to be High Culture. Over time. of course, I expect arty television to either become over-rated/why did we care so much? or High Culture. In this sense, if you're familiar with High Culture, by all means hold yourself to be superior to the pop culturists but only because you know that the ways we think about the two are different.

Oh, if you hadn't realised, I started off with the non-participant blurb in order that you may understand that while I like popular culture, I am inclined to the view interest in many things as cult behaviour.

Textbooks

A few weeks ago, I sat down at a computer, turned to Minding the Campus, as I often do, and noticed a link "College courses without textbooks? These schools are giving it a shot." Ah, the kind of link that means I return to Minding the Campus as often as I do. However, because the link (not mine), went to the wrong place, I was also familiar with this nice opening paragraph from another article by the Washington Post:
EVERY YEAR, college students shell out thousands of dollars for tuition. Then they face an additional cost: textbooks. Students spend as much as $1,300 over their college careers on books alone — a burden that falls most heavily on those who have to take out loans to pay. A pilot program from a community college reform group just outside Washington, D.C., could help.
I'm not sure if that interpretation is correct. If it is, then that means that you spend pretty much the same amount on textbooks if you do a two year programme as you do if you are enrolled in a four year one. That really would be insane. After all, assuming two semesters a year (and $1300 exactly), the former is paying $325 a semester whereas the latter a "mere" $162.5. I have seen just two textbooks (admittedly in NZD and we'd expect to pay more here, in general) fetch around about this latter mark... in fact, I think they exceeded it. The following line from the full report made by the College Board suggests that this $1300 is annual:
The prices reported in Trends in College Pricing are for one year of full-time study
$1300 a year? On textbooks?! That is, quite simply, mad. Mind you, if we contextualise with the insanity of the average annual figure for private non-profits exceeding my current loan total accumulated over three years, it seems less so. Think of how you'd find it strange if your neighbour kept a bull-dog in a large goldfish bowl, but how that'd be just another thing if your neighbour also lived in a large goldfish bowl instead of a house. That's what I mean. This little example should also tell you something about where this post is going. That is, if I find $1300 insane, my neighbour clearly doesn't live in a goldfish bowl.

The University of Auckland has several associated (but unaffiliated) Facebook groups. The one I have talked about before is Overheard. However, there is also Lost and Found and, of relevance here, the Second Hand Textbook group. If there are others (course specific ones aside), I do not know of them. I didn't know about this group in my first semester (in fact, I believe, I remained unaware until late last year), which possibly would've been useful as that was the only semester where I really did buy textbooks. Let's see, there was History 103, Business 101 (two of them), Maths 150 (also two) and I could've bought one for Economics 101 as well. Second Semester First Year saw me purchase fewer books. After all, Stats 108 had a recommended text, History 106 had a supplementary former textbook and my other courses reused some of the ones from my first semester. Infosys 110 also had a textbook so I bought that. If the mentality underlying this behaviour seems strange to you, perhaps the Facebook group's introductory post will help (written Luke Revell, 9 Nov 2014):

It is up to you to find out what exact textbooks you need for each of your papers from your coursebook which will be available from the book shops in your respective facilities.

For compulsory textbooks: They're compulsory for a reason, it will be near impossible to get a good grade without them. If you want to save your money, not buy them and settle for a C, that's cool, somebody has to work at McDonald's.

For recommended text books: Attend lectures for around two weeks or so before deciding if you really need it, everyone's learning style is different, you may need it, you may not.

[...]

ALL (or at least most) text books are available at short loan in Kate Edger if you do not have the money to buy the books, or would rather spend it on piss (do not advise if you're taking a degree like med or law, if you're arts, go hard).

I didn't get the textbook for Economics because I was familiar with the material. After all, everyone knows that Stage One and Level Three overlap a lot. I have several books from my failed attempt at Scholarship Economics regarding Stage Three. Also, it was recommended, which was probably the case for Maths 150. Economics 111 (which I took last year) had a prescribed textbook, which I didn't get for much the same reasons. Also, I knew about Short Loan (now sadly gutted by its move to the General Library: shocking decision) and exploited that when I thought I needed to. The basic model for these courses was definitely supplementary. That is, you read the textbook when you needed another resource. This was despite the slides for both economics courses clearly being lifted from a textbook (this is true of 4/5 economics papers done by me... and I'm not sure about the 5th: it seems highly likely).

This supplementary model can be contrasted with a core part of course approach. Business 101 and 102 cannot be completed without the textbooks. History 103 used its one extensively for readings (and, apparently, these are now assessed but they weren't when I did it: and it seemed like much of my tutorial didn't do the readings as a matter of course). I include 103 here, even though my tutorial seemed to do well enough without reading the book, because the course was clearly built with the textbook in mind. That is, all/most weeks our tutorial content was based on the textbook + something else (generally from the coursebook). The Business courses took this further: all learning was in the textbooks (but maybe you'd get away with just the webcasts). Do you really expect anything else from a flipped classroom pedagogy?

The University of Auckland also has a third approach: no textbook whatsoever. I suggest three models here. One is similar to, say, Stats 330: absolutely nothing. Two, have a list of useful general texts (every History course I've had since 103). Three, have a specific text that you may want to look at. Stats 10x has a general one, Stats 301 has one to help with the coding. These courses don't seem to have any particular connection to textbooks in the way that they are delivered. Naturally, textbooks can be read by history students for essays and the like, but courses will generally just have a list of readings and make those individual readings available to students (possibly digitally or physically only). This often happens with courses that have textbooks too. These readings will be things like journal articles, book chapters or primary sources: whatever really.

The point being made here is that courses without textbooks are no strange thing to me. Indeed, courses with textbooks can be terribly confusing. For every History 103 or Business 101, there are five courses that have no clear relationship between the lectures, textbook (and/or other readings) and assessment. This lack of certainty is killer. Economics 221, for instance, didn't look like a course that needed the textbook. I only bought the textbook because I thought it'd be nice to have one that covered regression and to potentially fill in some holes for other topics I have encountered at university. When the first assignment rolled around, it turned out the textbook was actually pretty important because I swear one of the questions was never part of the lectures. Not ever.

Auckland's approach to textbooks is really well described by that Facebook quote. Lecturers are so aware of the wait and see approach that a course with a textbook will generally open with something like "If you're wondering about the textbook..." And by open I mean in the first lecture, not the first bloody sentence. However, I daresay a decent portion of the student body is of the mindset that textbooks are never worth it (I'm not sure the quote goes this far). To be fair, for a lot of students the concept of readings is entirely foreign and many courses seem comprehensive enough without them. This, of course, just makes the confusion worse.

As a final word, some courses make things even more troublesome. Comlaw 101 had a textbook when I did it. That was a useless book. I regret buying it. At least with Accounting 101's textbook I used it for the first few topics. Other textbooks I have actually felt the urge to consult and/or ultimately regretted not referring to more often (looking at you, Maths). This one? I read a little on the way home the day I bought it, and I don't think I looked at it again for more than five minutes. Crap resale too. The old textbook for Comlaw 101 available in several different libraries? Now that was a textbook. I spent a lot of time using that during my exam study.