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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Hey ho, hey ho

When Jesse Jackson led some Stanford students in the chant, Hey ho, hey ho, Western Culture as got to go, the world got a little dumber, a little crasser. There was no wit here (unlike the remark attributed to Gandhi: a journalist [probably apocryphally] asked him what he thought of Western Civilization, and he was reported to reply "It would be a good idea.") The context was a Eurocentric reading list for a Western culture course at Stanford, but what the world heard was "Western Culture has got to go." Not a course of that name, but the thing itself.

Any kind of music, poem, painting, architecture, is associated with the culture which produced it. So everything is tainted from the outset, because culture is an evil thing. All known cultures have invaded other people, been misogynist, etc... 'The exceptions are a few held out by Western people as examples of the trope of noble savage.] Where Benjamin says every document of civilization is a document of barbarism, this is exactly what he meant. But isn't there a kind of fallacy here? Or several fallacies? Since everything is tainted, we are left with the actual products of the tainted civilizations and cultures that have produced them. We won't have any actual cultural products that we can love any longer, except those of the past five years, maybe. We must live in a perpetual present, where works go out of date really because of their tainted legacies. I love bebop, but it was very male dominated & a bit elitist to boot. You can play this game with everything. More powerful, influential cultures spread their influence wider and created more complex forms, so the more culture there is associated with a given language, the worse it will be.

Of course, people on the right reacting to Jesse Jackson share one significant thing: a belief that culture / civilization are good proxies for political positions. Nobody in the culture wars of the 80s cared about culture at all. They just saw it as a good stand-in for politics. It is easy to see why literature is particularly vulnerable, because it is made of words. There is no pure literature, because words are soaked through with meaning. Even the most die-hard partisans of poetry which destroys meaning only read poetry in languages they know.

[The other joke from this period was that the Duke English department was a group of people who hated one another but were united, at least, in their common hatred of literature.]

Now, conservatives below the age of 70 don't even care about the Western Canon, even as a proxy for other values. We can almost be nostalgic for the old style conservative.

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