I recently bought a book of essays, partly because I had heard lots of good things about it from people whose opinion I value, but also because I had realized in the past weeks that my choice of books was becoming a bit narrow, featuring only younger female authors who write, in some way or another, about social injustice and systemic oppression.
So in an attempt to diversify my input I grabbed the book and started reading. Unfortunately I soon felt a certain uneasiness bubbling up inside of me, realizing more and more that I found the book and its whole aura of traditional intellectual paraphernalia a bit dusty. Trips to cemeteries in order to visit a long gone (male) literary icon, the praise of obscure poetry by long gone male poets, fancy dinner parties in New York penthouse apartments to celebrate the arrival of another male writer – the inspirational spark, the voice that would have made the whole thing relatable to me in any way just didn’t speak up. And I couldn’t stop thinking: hadn’t I heard that kind of stuff somewhere before?
I nonetheless continued reading (I hate not finishing books I started!), all the while trying to figure out why this book somehow bothered me. And then it came to me: I had read these kind of stories, these types of anecdotes, over and over again during my literature studies, and more recently, after having finished them, was enjoying a completely different sort of reading. I had left the traditional literary canon that had shaped most of my course syllabuses in university behind, and didn’t want to look back.
I don’t want to take anything away from the book’s author—an accomplished and praised writer — or literary value, but I just couldn’t shake the impression of a certain literary conservatism in the essays that seemed to be in line with a very traditional literary canon.
Amanda Hess and the Dawn of a New Freshness
In bright shining contrast, there’s the video series “Internetting with Amanda Hess” I recently discovered and that exemplifies a new, mega fresh take on cultural criticism and shows what a new cultural canon could be looking at. Her analysis and criticism of contemporary internet phenomena don’t take themselves too seriously all the while being brilliant (you might be able to tell I’ve rapidly become a big fan). Technology doesn’t have to be everyone’s prime interest, but by looking at our society’s internet life and behaviour that shape our lives on a daily basis, she seems so much more relatable to anyone who doesn’t spend their evenings alone reading poetry from the 19th century (not that I’m against that).
I firmly believe that everyone has their own particular interest and that this diversity of interests is crucial to any society that values art and the criticism it enables. But I’m also a firm advocate of opening the cultural canon, the elect compendium of what has been and is still considered a ‘valuable’ contribution to academic and public discourse. We need fresher ideas, more women, more people of colour, more queers and all sorts of stories we haven’t heard yet, with less dusty idols and more touch points as one of its main criteria. We’ve heard enough of the same old expressing itself in the ever same idioms and repeating the ever same clichés. Why the Romans? Why always the Greek? Do we really need to give the word to Aristotle again, desperately trying to prove that his oeuvre is still in any way connected to our lives today (an influence, that in my opinion can be debated), while failing to mention for example that he wrote some pretty misogynist stuff? Roman emperors who doubled as poets or writers, as much as their contribution to history shall be valued and appreciated, have about as much in common with my contemporary situation as a pear and an apple — you can compare them, but you know that it won’t get you very far. Wouldn’t other voices be better fit to speak to and about us in this age? Humanities, and in particular philosophy, that have always claimed the arts (and more) for themselves, tend towards a certain arrogance or entitlement to cultural authority that brings with itself a certain kind of dusty seriousness.
The literary canon
Public opinion and the selection of who we get to hear, see and talk about on a public scale might have shifted in the past 20 years due to the internet, however, a certain kind of public discourse and canon seem to still be in place. Despite the immensely important role academia plays in , that can’t and shouldn’t be disputed, its contribution to such a canon that is often still fairly conservative and limiting, especially in Europe, is not a small one.
Even though art and the many forms of critical thinking and cultural criticism it displays, form an important critique of systemic processes and their evil villains, it is not free of its own pitfalls, especially when it is being institutionalized in the form of academia. Many people tend to draw a line between capitalism and academia, suggesting that academia — first and foremost humanities and arts — is a force that keeps capitalism and all the horror it brings along in check. That might be true, which doesn’t mean that capitalism and its gnarly processes haven’t infected this field as well.
In most cultural and academic circles, everything has to be known and everyone has to show that everything is known. While being asked to pick a specialization, one is better off knowing everything else pretty much as well. And cultural criticism can, in certain circles, be as conservative as pearls and crocheted tablecloths (I’m apologize for this generalized view of certain accessories’ symbolism). While addiction to smart phones, constant news feeds and digitalization–often depicted as somewhat ‘dangerous’–are being criticized with the same old narratives of loss of culture, intelligence and social abilities, we’re encouraged to be on constant news alert (the ‘right’ one) and to want to know everything right now, instead of leaving some things to the unknown and a lack of curiosity (because, you know, sometimes you just don’t care, and that should be okay). This way, we can integrate it in the next conversation we have with someone that’s deemed worth knowing that we know. Dialogues can become shortly timed monologues, recommendations can only be given, never received, and humour — if present at all — can never be silly. It’s the perfect implementation of the marketplace of ideas.
This might be why the discourse of culture, the contribution to as well as the criticism of it, seems to be undergoing a similar fatigue as that of politics – both share a similar appearance of elitism and „old men’s club“ from time to time, purveying difficult access and fierce competition. And again: humour is mostly scarce in the dusty halls of ‚proper‘ conduct and ancient icons. It’s this new anti-intellectualism that gave us Trump and his ludicrous entourage, so we should not ignore it or laugh it off.
Academia plays an immensely important role, providing independent research and comment on our society, there’s no doubt about that. However, if we want to tackle anti-intellectualism and corporate mutiny, we have to make academic and public discourse more approachable, relatable and, well, just a tad more fun. Because, to speak with Hani Kureishi, “[i]f we open the ‘canon’, we also open our minds.”
The never-ending story of Madame Bovary
One example of this I always have to think of in this context is the never-ending story of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel that countless students of literature have to deal with at least once during their studies. I personally had to listen to praises of Flaubert and ‘his’ Mme Bovary more than a few times during my time as a student in Germany and each time I had to ask myself: do we need another essay on Mme Bovary and Flaubert’s literary genius, or had we better look at something that speaks to women’s situations today?
If an exposed female ankle is the most shocking part of a book — as shocking it might have been at the time to book was originally published — it can hardly come as a surprise that young students today have a hard time relating to this scene, let alone why it is so important. Or as Arundhati Roy put it: „If there are still institutions of learning that want their students to remain innocent of the myriad new ways of looking at old histories, at our fascinating present and our uncertain future, God help those young people.“
Society’s ankle angst of the 19th century might be transferable to the still persisting fear of women’s bodies, minds and voices, but isn’t it time to crank it up a notch and focus on more timely stories? There’s certainly no shortage of pain points, literature or discourse to choose from.
There are voices like that of Nina Baoudouri, who doesn’t only offer a glimpse into more recent female struggles, but also a great insight into the overlap between the French and Algerian culture and its historical complexity. Instead of middle-class women’s fatigue she touches the topics of rape culture and a troubled cultural identity. Or La femme qui fuit by Quebec author Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, in which she attempts to understand why a woman decides to abandon her husband and children to be able to breathe again. Let’s read more Jasmine Ward, who chooses to look at the poor and marginalized and writes magical books that speak to our world’s current situation in an astonishing and thought-provoking way.
The list is endless.
The courage to be silly
Education, knowledge and experience are vital to being a good observer, writer and critique, no matter which field one is in. Nevertheless, I find the learning process, the process made transparent, not only more approachable and intriguing, but also more entertaining. Amanda Hess’s short videos show a great talent, intellect and curiosity to understand what’s happening in this as well as the virtual world (as if they were still separate), while conveying a beautiful sense of humour and portraying the quest itself.
There will never be enough critics or analysts in this world to fully grasp our daily human output — may it count as art or not — so there should at least be a diverse a canon as possible.
There still is a perceived dichotomy between the mainstream and the underground and both domains have been equally criticized as well as fetishized. But the lines have become so blurred that now more than ever it’s time to rethink those categories stemming from the even more ancient dichotomy of high culture versus low culture – terms that mean nothing anymore, if what one chooses to look at is talent and innovation.
When I was working on my thesis on Laurie Penny’s feminist essays (that I highly recommend to everyone!) in 2015, I was shocked to learn that neither my professor — the head of the English department and Oxford alumni — nor any of the other students I presented my ideas to had ever heard of Laurie Penny, who had established herself as one of the leading queer-feminist voices of Great Britain and the world wide web. She had just published her fourth book the year before, sparking discussions all over the web and international media. She managed to speak to a new generation of feminists and activists, showing that dissent instead of eternal repetition and reproduction of the old can be a vital and massively powerful tool of cultural observation. Which is why I find her work so extremely important — it’s zeigeist in its rawest form.
Knowing my audience then and there in that class room, I quickly crossed out the word “bitch” in my notes that popped up in some important quotes several times. The combination of a young author that had decidedly established herself as a blogger, not an academic, and the topic of cybersexism were enough for one day, I figured.
This kind of cultural conservatism and non-diversity doesn’t only reek of ages past, but is also quite boring. Not to sweep everything under one rug — there’s quality and then there’s, well, weird stuff that makes you wonder (and not in the good sense). In the 20 past years, the internet has provided us with more text than there was ever before since the invention of the book press in the 15th century and a lot of it is weird, ‘shocking’ and sometimes dangerous. It has nonetheless democratized the publication and consumption of information in a way that has given a voice to those who had previously slipped through the cracks of academia and other cultural institutions that have shaped public discourse and society as a whole for centuries. It has given us Laurie Penny, Amanda Hess and so many more.
The anti-internet hysteria
The constant flood of text and information can be overpowering, I have to admit. But if tuning in to the net and publishing what’s on one’s mind is what some people need to get their brain juices flowing or simply to decompress, than the only thing that stands between them making it public on the net and us not having to consume it is clicking on it. But all too often, a certain type of anti-internet hysteria and fear of technology is accompanied by a dismissive attitude, evoking that there is (or should still be) such a thing as a ‘high culture’ – reading serious (printed) books of old poetry in ivory towers – and a ‚low culture‘ — technology, internet, silliness.
What we desperately need is a solid education in ‘social internetting’ (cf. Amanda Hess again) that not only acknowledges that the internet is here to stay, but that it can be a great tool of public information and education, if we just know how to do it right. Instead of telling students not to quote Wikipedia due to its ‘unofficial’ status, we could teach our youngsters more about the great crowd-sourced (in other words: group) effort it represents and that the concept of open source is a valuable one to have. As Kathy O’Neill pointed out in her op-ed for the NY Times, “academics have been asleep at the wheel, leaving the responsibility for this education to well-paid lobbyists and employees who’ve abandoned the academy.”
The consequences of a singular canon
During my time at university, classes in my field of study were mostly made up of 80% women, but when it came down to a discussion, men were the ones making up 80% of the talking. While one could argue that this is due to a lack of female course participants willing to participate in the debate, my personal experience was rather that certain male conversational behaviour led to fewer women wanting to be cut short or — obvious through the smallest remarks — not being taken as seriously as they should’ve been. It’s hard to argue with someone who calls themselves a Marxist, has read the most obscure yet highly praised and must-read (mostly male) philosophers and seems to have buried their sense of humour or self-irony long ago, especially if you like wearing whacky, brightly-coloured clothes and make jokes on a regular basis.
Even though I realize that every form of public talk, may it be a presentation in a meeting, a job interview or contributing to a discussion, poses some form of challenge to most people and is often accompanied by a certain self-doubt one’s own ideas and opinions, I still vividly remember my personal insecurity when speaking up in my courses, trying to formulate an opinion that would withstand criticism. Most of the time I was just hoping that no one would think I was a total know-nothing who wears slightly too much colour and uses misplaced humour. This fear considerably decreased when most or all of us in the classroom were women. Culture can be awfully colourless at times.
Next time I wear my brightly coloured tracksuit jacket (that I love by the way!) or I see Amanda Hess internetting, I’ll make sure to remember that I can wear bright colours while wittily articulating an opinion.
And since we’re here I’m just going to admit it: I never enjoyed reading Madame Bovary, not one single time.