Thursday, August 21, 2008

Filling in the gaps

We all learn about pop culture in such a haphazard, piecemeal way. What we encounter in our formative years -- necessarily the sources of the standards we use to judge everything else we encounter later -- depends on where we happen to live, the people we happen to associate with, the tastes of our parents and peers, the random twirling of the television and radio dials.

One of the joys of having a vocation or avocation involved with popular culture is the opportunity to fill in those gaps, for yourself and for others. There's a palpable sense of depth and knowledge that comes from knowing where the pieces of your pop culture past fit on a larger map.

Today at lunch we were talking about the canon in the context of the battles over cultural literacy that took place in the eighties. I'm a great defender of the canon as an evolving collection of artistic standards, a cloud constantly growing and changing shape, an environment where we can place any work we can think of in relation to others over time. But because its purpose is expressed in the last phrase -- to serve as a multifaceted set of standards against which we can measure other work and ultimately our own work -- the kinds of canon lists that proliferated during those debates defeat the purpose. They present the canon as complete and closed, or at the very last as the work of aliens of ineluctable genius.

The canon should be an invitation for us to contribute, to find out where our talents fit in the universe of human accomplishment. It's valuable precisely because it protects from relativism, guarding against the reduction of creative excellence to mere taste or opinion. But it's dangerous to the extent that it's used to emphasize the vast gulf between the masters and us mere mortals. When we fill in those gaps and get that deep sense of where our scattered experiences fit into the vast starscape of popular culture, we should understand that the world we're exploring starts right at our front door -- and that all we have to do to be a part of it is take a single step.

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