Philosophical Investigations, episode 2: American 'Culture'

And we’re back. I’ve been thinking recently, during my time out, of my United States of American culture. Or maybe its absence.

‘Culture’ of course is broadly defined and in multiple ways. I suppose in this thread I’d like to take a rather more narrow sense of the word, that is, at the risk of narrowing ‘culture’ to a term itself perhaps more nebulous, when we say ‘culture’ in terms of ‘art’. What in terms of art unites Americans as a nation? Does it?

Do Americans relate to each other in terms of literature, visual arts, music, and so forth, in the way it seems the nations of Europe do?

What constitutes American culture? It seems currently that the most popular medium of entertainment here is watching television shows. Can television convey the same kind of value a good novel or play does? Is there any benefit in TV other than the usually light entertainment of the best comedy series?

I’ll go somewhere with this eventually, I swear.

TV Brought us TV Shows! Tv Shows brought Star Trek! Star Trek brought us good feelings all around.

A better question is, what ever happened to the Europe that produced great art and literature? It seems to me they take pride in what they no longer do. Not that Americans are better, but at least they don’t pretend they are.

Take music. One can only praise Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, etc. for so long before wondering where they’ve all gone. People who like classical music don’t listen to 20th century composers like Schoenberg or the late Stravinsky. Why? Academics say it takes time for people to appreciate music, but that’s nonsense. People loved Beethoven and Wagner in their lifetimes. It’s been 70 years since Schoenberg lived and most people still find his music hideous.

Or take poetry. How many non-English majors can name a poet that came after T.S. Eliot? How about after Auden? Sure, we know modern poetry is all about free verse, but what major poets have you heard of lately? Academics talk about how brilliant this or that fragmentary poet is, but that doesn’t make anyone enjoy his poetry. It’s like they believe that if they say something is good long enough, that will make people like it.

I don’t mean to blame Europe (or America) for a society that no longer supports real art. Nonetheless, Europe no longer produces the art to justify its claims at “culture.” And it’s a little depressing to know that you live in one of the first generations since the Middle Ages of which this is true.

I think that a couple of hundred years from now, there will be classics praised that hailed from this era. It seems quite possible that, say, Harry Potter will be one of the things remembered for a long time to come. Pippi Longstockings? Anybody know that Astrid Lindgren was Swedish?

There are still great things produced, the main problem is, I think, that nowadays it’s far easier to get your things into the world - which means that all the good stuff has to do elbow warfare with all the bad and so-so stuff.

As for American culture, I think it’s too much of a mish-mash of various cultures to have any grand thing in common. But from studying literature I CAN say that something that will always define you people is the whole “search for self/displacement” issue. I swear, it is everywhere. Along with rape (sometimes of cows, thank you Toni Morrison for telling me about that FOUR TIMES IN TWO CHAPTERS), murder, slavery… can’t a story be a modern classic without involving a guy having his genitals hacked off? -_-;; Seriously.

The whole “where do I belong? Why am I in this place which I don’t feel right in?” question seems to be a red thread spun through all American literature, from the journals of John Smith (which he wrote years after the events transpired, when he was back and safe in England and could look back on only the things he wanted to be remembered for :stuck_out_tongue: Yeah, tie your very much alive guide to your arm and use him as a shield when the Indians attack. MY HERO!) and onwards. <I>Light in August</I> is a prime example.

Of course, this is something that’s pretty universal in today’s society. The search for a place, I mean. Not hacking off body parts of people. What I mean is that it seems to have always been there in the American literature. Looking at classics from other places, it’s not so much of a theme (disregarding things like <I>Heart of Darkness</I>). Look at…

<I>King Oidipus</I>, Sofokles (400’s BC), Greece. “I’m the king of this place and some prophecy said I’d kill my dad. Obviously I didn’t, he died of natural causes! Whaddaya mean I was adopted? Yeah, the guy at the crossroad that I killed, the last king? … aw shit. 'Scuse me while I stab my eyes through.”

<I>Journey to the West</I>, based on Chinese legends from who knows when, (written down in the 1500’s), China (duh). Tripitaka may fall down and start crying and whining whenever something goes wrong, but he never questions why he has to spend several years going through China to India, all the while assaulted by demons who want to eat him, and being insulted by his disciples.

<I>Whatever by Jane Austen</I> (late 1700s-early 1800s), England. You’ll never see <I>any</I> of her characters wonder about who they are and what they’re doing.

<I>Things Fall Apart</I>, Chinua Achebe (1958), Nigeria. The main character Okonkwo lives in an African village just before and during the first time of the arrival of the white people. He’s perfectly at ease with his place in the world and when things start “falling apart” he never hesitates on what to do about it.

Okay, I’m just grazing the tip of the literary canon here, but my point stands. I’ve read a lot of American ‘classics’ lately, both prose and poetry, and you can never escape the feel of alienation.


I guess I can just blame the fact that we’ve been focused on novels past Emily Dickinsson.

And ah, yes, I do like studying literature, immensely even. It simply fails to never give me reason to get sarcastic about it.

How many people do you know who actually <i>read</i> poetry? Outside of school, that is. I don’t know any. I know lots of people who <i>write</i> poetry (crappy or otherwise), but not one who’d ever bother to pick up a book of it. I sure wouldn’t, and I actually quite enjoy poetry. If people don’t read it, how are they supposed to like it?

Watching a movie is easier and takes less time than reading a book, and why read poetry when you can watch pretty things on TV instead? Or, for that matter, turn on the radio. Lyrics are poetry too, are they not? There’s simply no demand for good poetry anymore; people capable of producing it either remain unknown or turn to some other medium instead, if their goal is to reach out to people.

As for music, tastes have changed and we have all kinds of nifty new instruments and high-tech-stuff now. They didn’t have much to choose from back in Beethoven’s days, did they? Neither to produce nor to listen to. Maybe if Bach had been born today he would have become a pop musician instead.

you hurt me in my head why whyyy

Because you neglect your holy duty to use question marks.

There is plenty of American culture, it just revolves around different things. It all depends on how you define culture. Culture is not limited to fine arts and music and other trite abstract and subjective boring irritiation. Culture involves mindsets, attitudes, the way a society works, what is acceptable and why. Culture is the fabric of society, so all societies have culture. Culture is the ideological foundation of a society. When we look at the culture of arts of other countries like what was mentionned with Bach and the rest, we’re discussing the culture of an older Europe, a Europe that is not the same today. Therefore it is not entirely appropriate to say it is a French or German culture, but I believe one must specify that it was the culture at the time. And even when you say that, it is not accurate for you to stereotype the culture of the time to particular artists and that then oversimplifies and idealizes the world at the time. The world was more complex and detailed than a handful of skillful composers or writers.

Your question doesn’t have to do with culture, but where is the American art scene. The American arts scene is mainly limited to Hollywood with minor artists in various small liberal regions like Laguna Beach. These small regions have their own sense of culture because of what makes their art artistic and what it is supposed to represent. American culture in general is one which theoretically is supposed to encompass it all.

And to answer the earlier question about poets: Seamus Heany.

And to answer the earlier question about poets: Seamus Heany.
Yeah, Seamus Heaney isn’t bad. That poem about the Celtic girl being executed tends to appear in every anthology, and I like his translation of Beowulf.

This is emblematic of an important development in modern culture, at least, I assume it’s modern. It seems nowadays that we have a number of different sects, maybe these are better said to be our “subcultures”, each devoted almost exclusively to their particular area of interest within the greater sphere of ‘art’. I personally think Star Trek the original two seasons is one of the better shows in the history of TV–it dealt like nothing else with actual… ‘literary’ themes, like of much of classic science fiction did, and continues to do to a lesser degree today. Authors like Ray Bradbury went beyond genre, but it seems there is a lesser willingness to do that today, in both writers and readers.

This kind of genre-loyalty keeps our society in general from having a common ‘canon’ to which we all can relate, and I think it’s harmful, if not to literature itself, then to our society.

I agree that the Europeans today, atleast the British and the French, haven’t produced as much as they used to, if at all. I read Waiting for Godot (1953) for the first time a few days ago, and it occured that it was the most recent non-American play or novel I’ve read in probably 6 years, maybe more. But I also think that the Europeans of today at least have better access to their artistic history and/or a greater desire to be part of it. I could be totally wrong.

However I think the theme of “why are we here, wtf are we doing” isn’t special to America. If anything, it’s been the strongpoint of the French and Biritish for at least 100 years, especially the existentialists from Nietzsche to Sartre and Camus, and Beckett too.

We read that and some other Morrison books (Blue Eyes, I think) in high school. One of my friends complained about all those books. It was the 6th or so book about a black woman getting raped we had read in the past 4 years. To quote him, “I’m tired of reading about black women getting raped by their dads. I want to read about old, dead, white men!”

'Tis a shame though. All the novels we read were “modern classics” and “multicultural.” I think we had one token Classic of Western Literature or Great American Novel a year, discounting plays.

Yes, I agree on that. I was trying to make a point with starting with John Smith though, as his work was done and published in the 1600’s.

Point taken. Although recently I did detect a current of absurdism running through “Prometheus Bound”.


984, I know what you mean, although in my formal ‘education’, the focus of my literature classes, seems to have been “American Indians and the fucking desert.” This held true throughout my grade-school days, but had a brief break when I went to a Jesuit high school for two and one quarter years.

In public high schools atleast, the focus has been shifted even further away from the ideal study of the greatest books by the greatest writers toward the mediocrity pushed by the authorities of ‘multiculturalism’. This is outright harmful to kids. I’ve recently developed a new policy of always reading what I understand to be the best novel of an author first as a result of an incident with Charles Dickens–reading Hard Times before any of his other novels. While it has its nice parts, the experience after the first few funny chapters is a bleakness I’ve only found a rival to in the film The Last Temptation of Christ–except without the sublimely beautiful ending that rewards all of it. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to read a pre-Woolf or Proust novel in the next few years. I’m afraid our education system is doing this on a larger scale with children, and they have been for some time, apparently, from the first paragraphs of T.S. Eliot’s old lecture “The Aims of Education.”

To clear up any confusion, when I say multiculturalism, I don’t mean to say that we should only be reading dead white men, but I mean the particular “Multiculturalist” political policy, the salad bowl model as opposed to the synthesizing melting-pot that at least still gets lip service in the US and which I think is the preferable mode. I hear Multiculturalism the official law in Canada… ouch.


In regards to the sense of the word ‘culture’ that I’m talking about here, I think it can be taken for granted that culture builds on itself. The current culture of Germany is certainly distinct, even at this early stage of globalism, from those of France and Italy, the whole of (western?) Europe generally distinct from other geographic areas. The culture of France for instance, has obviously been building from the time of the Lascaux cave painters to Homer and Sophocles, Vergil and Ovid, Petrarch and Dante, etc. etc. It’s finally gotten to the point, atleast in recent history where there is such a volume of old masterpieces lying around that its literally too much handle, and maybe this is why we’re experiencing the breakdown of the canon. In the end, Gustave Flaubert, who owes more to his French predecesors than to the non-French masters, is much more a part of the French experience today than he is in America or even England, and new French writers will owe more to him than… Eng…lish… writ…ers… it wasn’t the best example…

I think they might like Ed Poe more over there though, who knows.

Yeah. We had some Injuns and the desert too. I didn’t hate reading new novels, and I didn’t hate reading “multicultural” stuff. It just irked me that that was ALL we read. I actually went to a rather good private school, but our English education was absolute shit. Any poetry we were exposed to was either modern free form, a Shakespearean sonnet or two, or maybe an Emily Dickinson poem. We might have thrown in Blake’s Tyger into the mix too.

The novels were always published after 1970 and usually involved some minority; the only novels we read bordering on true classics were the Great Gatsby (hated it), Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, Huck Finn, the Odyssey, and Lord of the Flies. That’s a shitty list if you’re looking for comprehension. (As a note, we read Great Expectations in 8th grade, hated it).

The best part of my English education was the plays, but even then we were probably deficient. There was at least one Shakespeare play every year from 6th grade on, a couple of Tennessee Williams, Medea, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Enemy of the People (Ibsen?), and Death of a Salesman.

But fuck. The English department got rid of Canterbury Tales the year before my class would’ve read it because they felt it was “no longer applicable to modern day,” so no exposure there. There was no exposure whatsoever, even a basic introduction suitable for a college prep high school, of Bacon, Swift, Hemmingway, T.S. Eliot, classic Greeks, Milton, and a bunch of other authors I SHOULD know but don’t because I was never introduced to them nor were their names ever even mentioned.

In this case, the education shouldn’t have been focused solely on the dead white men, but it shouldn’t have been only about black women getting raped either. It should’ve provided a basis to learn about a great multitude of writers, both old and new. Bah.

How can you hate Great Expections >:(

It might not live up to the beliefs you had about it before reading it

Americans relate to each other incredibly well because of TV and the Internet. Think of how many white Suburban kids identify with black urban culture. Hell, I have a Japanese exchange student roommate who identifies with black urban culture.

And then there’s the problem of what to relate to. When I speak of relating to each other, I mean in a meaningful way, in trying to understand the mysteries of psychology and philosophy common to almost everyone but hidden under bogus pretenses of violence and hedonistic abandon and therefore destructive. “Black urban culture” is for all intents and purposes absolute bullshit, as are most of the modern American subcultures, while some not outright harmful only passive and useless. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say of DMX barking like a dog, “Yeah, that’s truth.” If I do, it will be one of the funnier events of my life.

Not to drag out this thread’s predecessor, but in “relating” to eachother through popular internet and television programs, I would assert that the common American is not even relating to himself.

I am sorry, I would like to contribute, but I am quite discombobulated by so many polysyllabic words.

Strangely enough, I do agree with you to a large extent about the lyrics you find in rap music; quite frankly, they’re ridiculous. But I still like rap; it’s a unique style of music that is definitely a part of our culture, and though some people unite because they can surprisingly relate to the lyrics, other people unite under the music because of a love for the sounds, or simply to dance. That’s the main reason why I enjoy it. In any case, as an original part of our culture (Americans did invent rap, so in terms of the artistic aspect of culture, it’s definitely American culture), I’d say it brings people together. You’d be surprised to see how people can respond to it, even if they DON’T listen to it (Or don’t admit they do), it’s pretty crazy.

‘Subcultures’ are kind of ridiculous, too; I’m thankful to have never lived in a place where such cliquish things existed, but I guess they do. I think people can really unite under popular culture in any medium, be it music, TV, current events, entertainment news, anything. I use this kind of stuff to segue into all kindsa crap when I talk to people, and most people I care to become good friends with? It totally happens. :stuck_out_tongue: It sucks that these things can also serve to divide people, too, but I don’t think it’s the fault of our ‘culture’, I think it’s a fault of the people. I don’t have too much to base that on, as I’ve never really seen the negative side of all this crap in full effect, but I’d imagine it has to do with their interpretations of what they’re given. You can play video games and still have a social life. You can listen to emo without being a whiny-ass bitch (I think? Right? Someone prove me right :P). You should be able to enjoy whatever you want without having to worry about being persecuted by other people, and throughout history, that’s always been the roots of discrimination. I doubt that it’s any different today.