The Big Issue : Edition 507
THE BIG ISSUE 18 – 28 MARCH 2016 13 It was a fun time. It felt cheeky to be reading Like a Virgin alongside Chaucer, as though democracy itself had made its way through the sandstone cracks of our oldest, most elite institutions. All things, not just books written by august dead men, were considered “text”. Academics permitted themselves hours in the company of tabloid news shows that would now be “deconstructed” with the force once reserved for the great philosophers. More than 20 years later, such investigation has become customary. Inside the university, comparative readings of culture continue and the world outside the university has also naturalised this way of doing things. Orchestras play with pop stars and presidents appear on comic talk shows. Heads of state make jokes about popular culture and popular culture certainly gives its opinion on heads of state. If you are quite young, it might be odd to think that there was ever a time that did not permit this mutual interest in the popular and the grave. If you are middle-aged or middle-aged-plus, it might be embarrassing for you to think that you ever made the distinction between the trivial and the grand. Orif,likeme,youareabitofa grump, you might think that the blurring of these lines didn’t turn out quite as well as intended. Back when I was a kid, I relished this opportunity to measure the great against the merely adequate. I found it fun, freeing and not a little instructive to apply, say, a Marxist reading to music videos or to see soap opera as part of a tradition we could trace back to Ibsen. But, over time, I saw that there was less of the Ibsen and the Marx and much more of the music and the soap. Without the complex thought to give these relatively simple things reference, all context was lost and we just ended up in endless tutorials banging on about Madonna. Over the years, this empty gravity has moved from the university to popular culture. Much of what I view and read reminds me of those days where we were looking for meaning in places we previously did not. I see news stories and talk shows that discuss the politics of reality TV. I read passionate essays that urge entertainment reporters to ask female celebrities less about their dresses and more about their views on international relations. This is the problem when you permit nothing to be trash: everything becomes disposable. When we are no longer prepared to own that there is anything that is just a bit of frothy, empty fun – and we convince ourselves that every moment of broadcast or internet opinion has a serious impact on the world – we risk not knowing a truly influential moment when we learn of it. A democratic approach to the culture is good, theoretically. But participation in democracy occasionally requires that we go back and consider difficult old ideas in order to understand their newer, frothier manifestations. “Suddenly, students of the humanities were encouraged to write serious things about Madonna. We took to this like a duck to orange sauce.” RAZER Good Theory, Bad Praxis PHOTOGRAPHSBYJAMESBRAUND A HUNDRED YEARS ago when I was at university, a peculiar new influence had claimed the attention of my youngest lecturers. The term “postmodernism” can denote a great many things, but one of the habits of the age it began to describe was that of academics taking fairly frothy material and treating it in a substantial way. Suddenly, students of the humanities were encouraged to write serious things about Madonna. We took to this like a duck to orange sauce. This was the decade when the trivial became aggrandised, when the lyrics of a popular song were analysed with all the care hitherto given to a sonnet. There was no longer, in the human sciences, any distinction to be made between low and high. And we undergraduates came to firmly believe, in the new branch of scholarship known as “cultural studies”, that everything was equal. » Helen Razer (@HelenRazer) is a writer who attended university a mere few decades ago.