Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Shaming and the Pop Culture Canon

A Facebook status update from a colleague here at the English Department of the University of Basel:
genuine shock and dismay that only 50% of my class has seen Star Wars!!!!
My comment (among the others that had already commented):

For years now (decades even), I have joked with students that it's okay to have never read "Hamlet" but it's not okay to have never seen "The Wizard of Oz." And until just now, I've always meant it as a joke.

But your status here made me realize that there's something more serious going on: in contemporary culture, there's no particular reason to have not "done" any particular traditionally canonical work, be it "Hamlet" or "The Odyssey" or "Pride and Prejudice." If you haven't, oh well, you haven't.

But if no excuse is necessary for not being up on the "high culture" canon ("high culture": for lack of a better term), there is still no excuse for not being up on the "pop culture" canon. Failure to have kept up with that canon is now the acceptable location of cultural shaming.

In short, the proper response to those 50% is not to joke with them about not seeing "Hamlet" or the like—the proper response is to shame them as an earlier generation of professors would have shamed those who exposed their ignorance about the classic canon of literature and art.

(I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is yet another joke. Who can tell, after all, when Shields starts talking like this, just how serious he is actually being?)

1 comment:

Joseph Hutchison said...

Perhaps Shields is kidding. The original post mentions "shock" but doesn't claim to have shamed. It's a shame that close reading is disappearing so quickly from venerable venues like Facebook....