Important Documents: What Qualifies as a Cultural Phenomenon and Why?

In my previous Persuadable post, I commented:
In any case, I have always considered literary analysis that insists that all literature have an IMPORTANT MESSAGE to be trite to the nth degree. Well-fashioned prose has done more to keep the world turning than any so-called IMPORTANT bumper sticker.
Of course, then I immediately thought of all the great documents with important messages that have influenced the world and reportedly changed people. This is the problem with making big claims! I did qualify my claim by sticking to fiction and narrowing my criticism to bumper stickers. But any message-oriented piece of writing raises the same issues: How much impact do words have? What influences people in the long-term? Can the written word change the course of history?

On the one hand, historical documents--like the Declaration of Independence--are just that: documents. That is, they document great events. The document may then become great in its own right.

Then there are documents like Marx's Communist Manifesto and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, purely philosophical texts that enter a community of debate on a particular subject.

Yet, many historical documents and philosophical treatises have died natural deaths (until resurrected in a graduate paper). Why a particular document or treatise doesn't disappear into the scrap heap of history is something people keep trying to figure out from Malcolm Gladwell to Hollywood studios. Of course, if we could all figure out what separates King and Rowlings and Meyers from every other hoping-to-be-published-writer, we'd all be rich.

So what makes texts stick? What makes a particular text matter more than the others?

One possibility is historical success. How memorable would the Declaration of Independence be if the American experiment had been replaced in a few years with a British reincarnation? (Who knows?!)

Another possibility is the author's bio. In one of the better scenes from Lady in the Water, Vick Ran confronts the Lady (while his sister is out of the room):
VICK: Change doesn't happen, the way you say it's going to happen, without dramatic events to accelerate thinking. I wrote this thing. It might take decades or longer to create a reaction, before it anchors in the consciousness.
He continues, pointing out that the only way for words to change a culture so abruptly is for an event to occur that locks the words into the culture. In a heart-breaking undertone, he asks:
VICK: Am I gonna die, because I wrote this?

Still, there are martyrs whose philosophical views haven't been remembered, and martyrdom doesn't address what turns Stephen King, overnight, into a popular culture icon and leaves another writer struggling in obscurity.

The writers would likely say, "It's the writing!" People in my graduate seminar claimed it was the evil corporate publishing companies forcing their views on everyone, but although evil corporate publishing companies can make money this way, they rarely make legends. Disney claiming that the third Pirates movie was a "cultural phenomenon" before it even came out didn't make it true.

What fellow students in my graduate seminar often missed was the possibility that culture moves in more than one direction. By its nature, academic language tends to utilize either/or dichotomies. At one point, I pondered aloud why there has to be a dominant culture and a counter-culture. Everyone chuckled at my absurdity. I could only shake my head: no one is more bound by academic terminology than a bunch of academics.

To me, terms like "dominant," "counter-culture," and "liminal" simply describe events that we witness. But the terms are not true in the absolute sense.

Consider mental diagnosis. If you read the DMV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), you realize that a person does not have a mental disorder in the way that a person has cancer cells. Although I will allow that there may be a neurological component to some disorders, as far as the DMV (and numerous insurance companies) are concerned, the diagnosis is based on the witnessing of various behaviors in various settings.

I'm not, at the moment, challenging the validity of the DMV, only pointing out that language in this case is a short-cut for stating that a set of behaviors has been witnessed and reported in various settings. I realize that all language operates in this way, but with a mental diagnosis the short-cut often implies the opposite of what it really means. A child does not have ODD in the way a child has a virus. A child portrays behaviors that have been categorized as ODD. ODD is not the cause; ODD is a label for the effects.

In a similar way, academic language often describes effects of culture. That doesn't mean that the culture is actually composed of neatly delineated hierarchies or compactly circumscribed sets of outsiders and insiders. 

Likewise, literary analysts of the type I've described often put the cart before the horse. Because they are wedded to the idea of sociological trends that can be streamlined and managed through the application of language (x preceded y), they imagine that (elite) texts are the instigators of change. They ignore the possibility that words may reflect culture and events rather than create them. The change may already be occurring (the idea that elite texts precede change is so engrained in our culture, I occasionally encounter people who behave as though an event that precedes its written account is somehow automatically false. If it wasn't written down first, it couldn't possibly have happened!)

I personally feel the whole thing is cyclical: events create documents which reinforce events. After all, Marx and Smith were responding to something.

Likewise, an interest in vampires preceded Meyers (as many people have pointed out). That interest also preceded Buffy. Then the entire zeitgeist became reinforced until it saturated the culture.

My ultimate point is that trying to BE the change or phenomenon is unlikely to guarantee success (I'm going to make people think!!!). That's why bumper sticker philosophy seems so pointless to me: If I put enough stickers on my car, I will change YOU (although I think the real thought process here is, If I put enough bumper stickers on my car, I will make YOU understand ME). It is far wiser to simply write the thing one cares about and hope it meets the culture's needs.

Philosophy without context is rarely effective. And philosophy at the expense of context doesn't get very far. I can make profound commentary about anything if I'm pushed to it--car manuals, telephone books (yup, that's the power of an English degree!). But absent a community of thought (non-fiction) and an actual plot (fiction), that commentary will never be more than a party trick. (I made you think!!! Next, I'll make you disappear.)


a calvinist preacher said...

In miniature, what makes a YouTube video or blog post go viral?

The same phenomonon is happening w.r.t. Rowling.

But with others, there is a still deeper resonance that causes it to endure - as in Tolkien (or Austen).

How would you define this difference, and what do you think is it's source?

Kate Woodbury said...

I'm old-fashioned, so I actually go along with the idea that some writing is better than others--

Or at least some writing has more oomph to it than others.

I know people who find Tolkien's prose rather difficult. I admire it because it communicates so much so effortlessly and crisply. He just writes well. More importantly, though, he writes material that has heart.

C.S. Lewis once argued that myths are the only plots that can survive being told badly because their "oomphiness" isn't based on the writing but on what they are.

(Okay, he didn't use the term "oomphiness.")

Likewise, I think stories and novels that last--though they usually have at least competent style--also have the stuff that keeps myths and fairy-tales around. Not the magical devices and wise wizards necessarily--but the depth (that doesn't seem like depth) that underlies the plot and characters.

Of course, this is where literary analysts get hung up. They have enough aesthetic sense to comprehend, "This story or novel is bigger than the sum of its parts," but not enough commonsense to avoid the reductio ad absurdum. And of course, academics have a tendency towards literalism anyway.

Because this type of depth just can't be gotten at by writing profoundly or introspectively (I am now going to write deep thoughts!). In order for a story or novel to last it has to be fully cognizant of the complications of the world and fully aware of the story it intends to tell but it also has to be impossibly dumb about how it tells that story as if the writer doesn't know what he or she is doing. The writing lacks self-consciousness.

Dumb Art.

So Rowlings' first books might last--but not her last ones in which she got too self-conscious and tried to make too many people happy by explaining too much.

On the other hand, I don't think Meyers ever gets self-conscious and although I think Twilight was mostly successful because it DOES access a primitive mythic part of its readers' psyches, I don't think the series will last past a few decades. There's some oomph--just not enough.

Sayers was almost too conscious of what she was doing, but her mysteries have lasted (lots of oomph); however, her more self-conscious plays have not.

Another way to say this is that stories and novels that have lasted all seem to leave the same impression that great dancers and singers and painters do--the writers made it look easy.

a calvinist preacher said...

I'm not sure that the author of such a piece cannot be cognizant of what he or she is doing, only that it cannot be obvious to the reader/viewer that the author is conscious of it. We must be allowed to focus on the art without being distracted by the artist.

But what is that "oomphiness" of which you speak? I think it is a quality of resonance. Austen's stories endure because (1)she's a gifted wordsmith who allows us to focus on the art; and (2)the stories resonate with all who share the human condition across the ages.

You can take the plot of the Odyssey, change a few things around, and have O Brother Where Art Thou? and the plot resonates with 20th Century English speaking North Americans just as the original did with Greeks nearly 3,000 years ago.

Tolkien, in the various characters, also creates a picture of human beings that still makes sense to us, as does Austen, as does Homer. And in those portraits that resonate with our own experience of life, we also learn - or relearn - something of ourselves, just a touch of wisdom.

When I think, for instance, of what made the Swallows and Amazon series click for me, it's that my brothers and I and our friends were able to run around with our imaginations in similar fashion (we were in NM at the time, though, so not much by way of sailing). We could see ourselves reflected - and my children could see themselves reflected - in the stories. It resonated.

Kate Woodbury said...

So many ideas--so little space! I ended up turning my "comment" into the latest post.