Discussion: Cultural Stories

Today, since I don’t have an update for you, I have a discussion question, and I’d like to hear your opinions in the comments.

By the way, there’s one rule for comments here and that is that while you can respectfully disagree with anything, please do not attack other commenters. We’re just not going to get into that here, and those comments will not be approved. One helpful guideline: You will probably not have to use the word “Trump.”

So here’s the discussion thesis: Until now, the Bible, the Iliad and Odyssey, Greek myths and the like constitute our cultural stories; the bedrock myths and parables and yarns that everyone knows and we use to illustrate social and moral situations.

Given that, by and large, no one reads serious books anymore, the state of education is… what it is… people are increasingly unable to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds, serious works of culture are being consumed by a smaller, and distant, elite, our attention is being increasingly fragmented into smaller and smaller bits of images and feelings, and among all this, works of popular culture are becoming more complex, massive in scope and universal, is it true that:

In 50 years, our shared cultural stories will consist of references to Star Wars, Marvel and DC superheroes, and perhaps long-running TV shows like Game of Thrones.



4 thoughts on “Discussion: Cultural Stories

  1. Interesting topic, hadn’t thought of that at all. I guess my knee-jerk, instinctive response would be to say that, although people don’t read serious books anymore writ large, that doesn’t *necessarily* mean that there’s an overall dumbing down of the interpretation of art and media. For instance we know that many now-canonical writers like Shakespeare were unknown during their time and later became christened by subject matter experts who knew what they were reading, why it mattered, and were able to introduce Shakespeare’s work within the pantheon of literature and has come to define it, in some ways. So there’s likely heretofore unknown works, say, plays, movies, music, literature, etc, that may later become canonical and help shape and redefine culture.

    And just because it popped it my head before I hit ‘send,’ one more additional thought: Literature and theatre largely developed from what technologies and/or means of artistic expression were available at the time, and often reflect specific ideas or ideologies that were dominant. So, maybe with the help of Cinema-with-a-capital-C or the kind of Very Serious Television we’re seeing these days, it’s not such a bad thing to have our cultural stories defined by the visual arts, because they reflect what was in the zeitgeist at the time of its production, the cultural norms it either points to or rejects, and the continued progression of media technology.

    Anyways them’s my two cents. What a great idea for a topic, I didn’t even realize I had an opinion about this until I read your paragraph. Good stuff!


  2. It would seem that this is a bit redactive as people still do crave long narratives. Case in point, any serialized drama like Westworld or GOT. You could say reading is on the decline then again I would posit that many people might not have read as much in a long time before the internet came around. Reading crap yes, but reading…
    Just watching the tv as in the 50-80ies isn´t the height of civilisation either.
    I am not saying everything is great but let´s not underestimate people.
    Uninterested people have been consuming dumbed down material before and smart people will always want to learn more.
    By the way, you may have omitted all other cultural bedrock from Asia and Arab countries to just name the ones I know.
    So don´t give up hope yet!

    Also, Trump!


  3. Chewy topic. I just junked an overlong reply about the enduring appeal of stories not being tied to their initial popularity, which would seem to be the reason for Star Wars/Marvel/DC/GoT being put up as potential future touchstones. Rereading the initial post, I think it’s simpler to say that while those things might be the biggest splashes right now, the tilt of popular culture towards servicing niches and fanbases rather than creating wide-appeal, four-quadrant, everyone-will-appreciate-craftsmanship-and-content storytelling has resulted in even the biggest things leaving far more of society untouched. The Walking Dead may get more viewers and attention than most anything else on TV but its audience is under 20million people; that’s less than Murder She Wrote roped in 30 years ago. Maybe a nighttime soap like Dallas is a better comparison, as both have long narrative arcs. TWD has the boosts of a more energized base, of internet recaps and business-page respect … but far more people don’t bother with TWD than did with Dallas – and they’ve got their own niches to tend to. On top of that, interconnected franchise films and serialized TV are easier to create a bubble of excitement around when they’re in progress; the skills of creating cliffhangers and (sometimes) portraying character change aren’t necessarily the same as maintaining interest after something is conclusively over. (Hey, remember Lost?) Guess what I’m babbling about is that it’s not only attention span that is fragmented, it’s also audiences, which limit the societal reach of the large franchises (whose benefit from being The Big Current Thing droops as time passes.) In today’s long-tail culture, a Terminator or a Shawshank Redemption can embed itself into public consciousness instead of the giant films of their years – say, the comparatively irrelevant Beverly Hills Cop or The Santa Clause.

    Don’t know whether the heightened difficulty for *any* pop art to serve as enduring stories everyone holds dear is a better thing than even SW/GoT/DC/Marvel not being able to do so. Maybe I’m defining culture too broadly and should be considering subcultures. As for people’s shortened attention spans resulting in emphasis on image and feeling, maybe the next generation is going to produce someone editing the Great American GIF.


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