Friday, June 10, 2005

Terry Teachout: Culture in the Age of Blogging

Terry Teachout has been blogging for a couple of years now: he writes About Last Night.

Terry is based in New York, where he is drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary, but he writes about the other arts, too -- books, ballet, painting and sculpture, film and TV, whatever happens to catch his eye or ear. He is disgustingly productive, turning out more published words in a week than many writers do in a year.

One of Terry's recent essays in Commentary is entitled 'Culture in the Age of Blogging', and it's well worth a look. (I do try to keep up with Terry's output, but there are limits to what one can read, so thanks to Maud Newton for the link.)

Terry begins by pointing out that the blog phenomenon illustrates a circumstance which has been apparent for some time now, namely that there is no longer a common culture. He is speaking of the United States, but the same is true in the UK.

I was pretty sure that I had written something about this change in society myself, somewhere along the line, but I can't find any trace of it, so maybe it's just one of those pieces that I composed in my head and never actually wrote.

Anyway, Terry's point, which I agree with, is that once upon a time, say in the 1960s, there were mass-circulation magazines such as Life and Saturday Evening Post which were read all over America. These both reflected what was then a common set of assumptions and life-styles, and also created and reinforced those common assumptions and life-styles.

Before long, however, these mass-circulation mags were replaced by a thousand and one smaller magazines which dealt with tiny aspects of life: Budgerigar Breeders Gazette, Boob-Fancier Monthly, and so forth. In other words, things began to fragment. What was true of magazines was true of the other media too. Instead of just CBS, NBC, and ABC, we got cable. Instead of just one hit parade, we got top-twenty lists for every sort and kind of music. And so on.

This process, it seems to me, is even more pronounced and dramatic in the UK than in the USA. For example, when I was growing up there was only one TV channel -- the BBC. Then we got one commercial channel (late 1950s); then we got BBC2 (about 1963?). And today, even on my modest satellite setup, I have several hundred channels. (And you know what? I sometimes find it hard to find anything I want to watch. And I miss those German channels that I used to get before I went digital.)

So there it is. In my youth, everyone watched the same TV shows. Audiences of 20 million in a nation of 50 million people were not unknown. Everybody talked about the same programme on the bus and in the office or the classroom. There was, in the sense that we all shared a common expeience, a common culture. And that common culture extended, of course, to our concept of what was right, what was wrong, our view of religion, and our views of how political discussion and business should be conducted.

All that has been swept away. Not by the blogs, of course, because they are brand new, but by the steady and almost exponential increase in the number of media, by the vast influxes of immigrants with their different ways of doing things, and by the growth of the travel industry, which has opened people's eyes to the fact that not everywhere in the world is the same.

Today's world, at least in the developed countries, is dramatically different from that of 50 years ago. That may be a statement of the blindingly obvious to some of you, but unless you've lived through it you can't possibly understand just how different things are.

Terry Teachout's article traces the stages in the development of this change, in the American context.

In doing so, he is obliged to refer to a matter that I touched upon yesterday, in the Blue Rondo review, namely whether there is or there is not such a thing as high art, which is appreciated only by the intellectuals and aesthetes of this world, and which is innately superior to the vulgar forms of entertainment which please the masses.

If I understand his argument correctly, Terry believes that, whichever side of this debate you feel inclined to support, the battle seems to have been abandoned. Instead of slugging out a Kulturkampf, Americans have instead chosen to gather around them, both literally and metaphorically, those who share their tastes and opinions and politics and religion, and have got on with their lives while ignoring, pretty much, those who have different opinions. And -- they've started blogging.

Not that Terry is an unqualified admirer of the blogs. They have, he says...
...their own built-in limitations. Chief among these is a tendency toward superficiality. While a blogger can write at any length, few seem inclined to post the kind of full-length essay that is the stock in trade of an intellectual magazine like Commentary. Most favor brief, suggestive postings that imply more than they state, and they no less typically prefer hit-and-run assertion to detailed argument, verbal slugfests to coolly reasoned refutations. Moreover, for all the contempt in which they affect to hold the mainstream media, too many bloggers remain in their thrall, complaining about what the media do wrong instead of figuring out how to do other things right.
Terry Teachout's piece is a consistently absorbing essay, and if you're interested in how blogging fits into the greater scheme of things it would repay your time.

One final thought on the common culture thing, more relevant perhaps to the UK than elsewhere.

In 1961 the British Prime Minister appointed a Committee under Lord Robbins to consider the provision of university education in the UK. This Committee decided (among many other things) that there were four principal aims of a good university system. The fourth of these was 'a function that is more difficult to describe concisely but that is none the less fundamental: the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship.'

In subsequent years, whenever new universities were founded (and there were quite a few of them) it was frequently the case that the Robbins Committee's four aims were incorporated into the university's charter, as the official description of what the university was supposed to be doing. (Why think for yourself when someone else has done it for you?) And it is worth remembering that UK universities are almost entirely funded by the state.

So we have a situation today in which many, perhaps most, UK universities have it as one of their official aims that they should be bringing about the transmission of a common culture. But at this point I will bet you a substantial sum of money. Go into any one of any of these universities and ask the man or woman in charge what they are doing to bring about the Robbins Committee's fourth aim. And I bet you that the lengthy, reasoned and detailed reponse that you receive will be along the following lines:

Er, well....

(Apology: first posting of this piece referred to the gentleman as Terry Teacher. Now corrected. The eyes are not what they were. Ditto the powers of concentration.)


Brenda Coulter said...

Quick, Mr. Bookman--please edit your post before anyone else notices that you have suffered a temporary brain glitch. I'm sure you do know this, since you read him regularly, and I hope you're not going to smack yourself on the forehead too hard when I remind you that the Great Blogger's name is Terry Teachout.

Noah Cicero said...

Just read Teachout's essay. He forgots something important as most people in the media forgot. he forgots the non-voter. Forty percent don't vote for president, and the in between elections only 35 percent, I assume some people vote for president because of the hype around it.

In the media and in literature the non-voting population is never represented in any form. My question is why? Are we not people?

Thinking too: His is totally right about how America has broken up into a million subgroups. But in America the subgroup that is in control is conservative Christianity which isn't even twenty five percent of the population. it is just that the rich people chose them to be their puppets, and the christians fell for it because of the Christian belief that to be rich is to have less vice and sin.

Also blogs getting dan rather out is crap. Dan Rather is a loser bozo parasite, he was crap thirty years ago and is still crap where ever he sitting right now.