Saturday, December 24, 2005

An Amazing Essay

In Praise of Vulgarity
How commercial culture liberates Islam -- and the West

In Reason magazine.


Pulitzer Prize winner Quindlen had given voice to the Cultural Sputter of the bien-pensant, a well-known reaction afflicting people of taste forced to live in a world of vulgarities. It’s an act with a very long pedigree. Eighteenth-century aristocrats by the palaceful were appalled when professional writers first appeared. Writing in exchange for money, they thought, would be the ruin of letters. John Ruskin, King of Victorian Sputterers, couldn’t stand Rembrandt because the Dutch master’s paintings lacked "dignity": All those paintings of self-satisfied, bulbous-nosed burghers made Ruskin gag.

The sputter is endlessly adaptable. A notorious space-age version choked Norman Mailer half to death. He was watching astronaut Alan B. Shepard walking on the moon in 1971, when Shepard suddenly took out a secretly stowed golf club and launched a drive at the lunar horizon. Mailer was spiritually mortified. Humankind should have been humbled, literally on its knees, as it entered the cathedral of the universe; instead it drove golf balls through its windows. What’s the matter with people? Give them infinity, and they make it a fairway. Give them liberty, and they reach for a Lucky. Or they go shopping.
and this:
The West has never been comfortable with its own cultural vulgarity. Such anxiety is arguably strongest in the United States, which has long nursed a cultural inferiority complex vis-à-vis more-established British and European practitioners of high art. Popular, commercial forms are not thoughtful. Rather, they are temporary, noisy, intense, ecstatic. They are sensual and disruptive. Because they are frequently set in motion by powerless and even despised outgroups, they appear subversive. They not only threaten social morals, but challenge established power relationships.

The result is that such ecstatic forms are attacked not only by the West’s left-liberal critics for their commercial origin, but by the West’s conservatives for their disruptive power. Cultural ecstasy may have billions of participants, but it hardly has a single friend.

For the last 200 years, vulgar forms and subcultures have often set off a series of "moral panics" among those who perceive a threat to their own cultural power and status. The popular novel, when it first appeared, set one off. So did penny dreadfuls and pulps. So did melodramatic theater. So did the music hall. So did the tabloid press, and the waltz, and ragtime, and jazz, and radio, movies, comic books, rock music, television, rap, and computer games.

All of these -- and more -- led contemporary critics to declare the end of civility, to worry over some newly identified form of supposed "addiction" (to novels, to TV, to video games, to pornography, to the Internet, to Pokémon, etc.), to announce that the coming generation was "desensitized," and to rail about childishness and triviality. It’s the cultural sputter that never ends.

It's a long piece, but chock-full of interesting detail and esoteric examples of the high impact of low-culture, from the Soviet Union in Uncle Joe's time, to Algeria of the 50s, to liberated Afghanistan.

hat tip: Positive Ape Index, via Iowahawk.

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