Sunday, December 7, 2008

Of Simpsons and Samurai

What makes something that is popular part of culture, and the reverse, what makes anything that is part of culture more popular to point of being commonly understood than other portions? The United States has long been said to be suffering from a lack of cultural literacy. But what is that? Definition from Wikipedia “Cultural literacy is the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions and informal content which creates and constitutes a dominant culture. From being familiar with street signs to knowing historical references to understanding the most recent slang, literacy demands interaction with the culture and reflection of it. Knowledge of a canonical set of literature is not sufficient in and of itself when engaging with others in a society, as life is interwoven with art, expression, history and experience. Cultural literacy requires familiarity with a broad range of trivia and implies the use of that trivia in the creation of a communal language and collective knowledge. Cultural literacy stresses the knowledge of those pieces of information which content creators will assume the audience already possesses.” So, in order to be fully conversant you need to know the roots of a cultural idiom and the icons of culture, but also you need to understand it and be conversant with it in the modern language.

An example is The Simpsons cartoon. In an episode called “Homer Loves Flanders” Homer Simpson has driven Ned Flanders a bit mad, and in his dreams Flanders dreams of shooting people from a bell tower, only to have one of the possible victims, a postal worker return fire with his own concealed firearm. However much one laughs at the top layer of Homer going so overboard that he drives kind Ned mad, we have an example of cultural literacy. Ned’s dream reflects two moments/episodes of American cultural history that entered common thought. On August 1, 1966 Charles Whitman ascended the top floor of the UT Austin admin building, with an open observation deck, and murdered 14 people and wounded 31 others. When Ned shot at the Postal worker who returned fire it was use of a then common worry of Postal workers going mad and shooting people, or going postal. My son being 10 has no concept of either event/episode but laughed uproariously at the humor of the story. He didn’t get the whole multilayered joke because he wasn’t and rightly, couldn’t have been culturally literate enough yet to understand it all.

So we have symbols in culture, words, iconic images, that tell us clues how to feel, think or respond. I spoke to Arthurian Legend being a keystone of English culture. In Japan a very different cultural region from England/UK, the cultural touch point is more a romanticized era than a set of stories. The Japanese have made great strides, became modern despite having a medieval system as late as 1870. But they never forgot the Samurai, Emperor, Shogun, and more who peopled their stories, who lived in the era, when violence and a vital caste system allowed for a great and powerful cultural story book. The Japanese could hardly forget moments from their past because however modern they are as a people, they can still see the Emperor’s castle and residence, the castles from the Tokugawa and earlier regimes. The very aspects of the world they left by becoming modern were never lost to them, for they simply developed a culture that kept the keystones, and never ignored them.

The arts that have grown since are vibrant and varied, but also, they still cling to the aesthetic of “Chrysanthemum and Sword”, being beautiful and unique, at the same time as stark and often simple. Japan’s legends and lore are vital to their being. Much like the American image of Cowboys and the Frontier, Japan’s memories of Samurai and court intrigues make their world go round.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

mmmmmmmmmmm raw fish.