Unpopular Culture

Popular culture is Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, Jersey Shore. It is buying the iPhone 5 for its own sake, tweeting personal updates like a new bag, a party, currently feeling down. It is the ME-culture. It is the un-thinking culture.

Over the holidays I saw the movie Liberal Arts and started wondering about the popular culture of our time. There was a part where they discussed the merits of Twilight (they didn’t actually mention the title, but ‘vampire novel’ was mentioned and you could see the cover of the book). The debate was between being happy reading a popular but supposedly unintelligent work like Twilight, and being unhappy reading an unpopular but supposedly intelligent work like Chaucer. There was a mention of the snobbishness of the supposed intellectual elite judging popular works as trash based on their academic standards.

The debate is on good taste. I can imagine some people starting to think that perhaps there should be no standard of good and bad. Of course, this is something academics and intellectuals would talk about while the rest of the population would just say Edward and Bella are amazing. As someone who has worked with intellectual academics and nonintellectual corporate folks, I know that it is bad taste to say you like Chaucer because you want to look cool to the former, and also to say that nobody should read Twilight to the latter. Some people do not bother themselves with literary standards and so read what the newspapers and bookstores tell them they should read. Thus, for a nonintellectual person pursuing a nonacademic corporate career, liking Twilight is not a crime. Such a person is not expected to think about and hence to know the difference between the popular (trashy) literary works and the classics.

This does not necessarily mean they are inferior people. We cannot maintain high standards for all aspects of our lives. For top chefs and gourmets, many people have low standards because they eat very ordinary food, even trashy food like fast food hamburgers. That should not be a crime in their case because they are not expected to deal with such things. For the non-gourmets, food is just something they need to consume to live. In the same way, for nonintellectual and nonliterary people, Twilight is just something they read to pass the time.

It is a different case when we talk of those who supposedly should know better, say, the liberal arts student who is exposed to a larger world of literature and art, precisely because they are supposed to be thinking of these things, constantly analyzing and debating about objective standards. There is a reason why academics say books like Twilight are trash, and it is not just because of the subjective standard. Even if I cannot go into details, I do not suppose Twilight will be at par with Pride and Prejudice despite both works tackling the relatively lighter genre of romance.

The objective criteria that determine what is great and what is mediocre should continue to exist even in times of increasing subjective standards. The ME-culture has allowed us to think in terms of our personal standards and so many people turn up their noses at those who do not agree with them. I think part of the problem is when intellectual snobs force their objective criteria of greatness to the supporters of popular culture, calling them idiots with bad taste. Such people are correctly called snobs because they have stopped evaluating and comparing. They are stuck with the criteria handed down to them by their teachers who were proponents of the classics and fail to see that those classics could have been quite popular during their time too.

I have long thought the difficulty of defending objectivity is due to this incorrect belief. Objectivity does not mean stubbornness. An objective criterion is not absolute. It must constantly be evaluated in light of new experiences and new work. We can say then that intellectual snobs belong to popular culture because they have seized to think.

Those who seize to think will be literally stuck with the ME-culture. They have expressed their opinions and they have lived, but the significance of their lives do not go beyond their deaths. Twilight may be popular now, but I will bet that Elizabeth and Darcy will still be loved 50 years from now while Edward and Bella will just be another history trivia.


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