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    Mother's Education, Other Thoughts

    The Restless Ones

    January 20, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]S[/dropcap]ome of what was covered in chapter four compliments a reading of one my favorite, life-changing books {for me, anyway} by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Chapter Four of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes is entitled Popular Culture and the Restless Ones, and I think we can all agree that whatever words one uses to describe current culture, restlessness should be in the mix.

    The Restless Ones

    And it’s an insatiable restlessness at that:

    If one is relying on popular culture to stimulate excitement, one will gradually require greater and greater levels of stimulation to achieve the same level of excitement.

     

    Defining Terms

    There are a few concepts that are foundational for thinking this through. In this chapter and also those to yet to come, Myers mentions three optional forms or types of culture, high culture, folk culture, and popular culture. In regard to high culture, Myers writes:

    High culture has its roots in antiquity, in an age of conviction about absolutes, about truth, about virtue. However corrupted it has become over the centuries…its essential features make it capable of maintaining and transmitting more about human experience in creation, and about God’s redemptive intervention in history, than its alternatives.

    As far as folk culture goes, Myers says that while it is

    simpler in manner and less communicable from one folk to another, [it] has the virtues of honesty, integrity, commitment to tradition, and perseverance in the face of opposition.

    He offers up negro spirituals as one of our country’s best examples of such a culture and explains that folk culture

    has the capacity to limit its extremes, since it is the expression of the values and aspirations of a community.

    Finally, he contrasts these with popular culture which

    has some serious liabilities that it has inherited from its origins in distinctively modern, secularized movements.

    [snip]

    Popular culture … presupposes the absence of a community of belief or conviction.

    Now we have some common definitions of the three culture options. They should be useful when I quote Myers from here on out.

     

    Redeeming the Time

    In reading this book, I keep coming back to how much of the issue of culture revolves around the usage of time. Myers begins his chapter by quoting sociologist Leo Lowenthal writing about “the vital question of how to live out that stretch of life that is neither sleep nor work.”

    I have begun to examine my own life again, now that the baby is sleeping through the night and the feedings are spreading apart again, asking the question of whether I am frittering away the precious “spare” minutes and seconds that are neither work nor sleep. I have a desire for my life to be rich in the intangible, permanent things. And when I say “my life” here, I mean the life I am building in the context of my family.

     

    Farms or Factories?

    Myers talks a little about the poor, especially those who, as a consequence of Industrialism, left family farms to work in factories in crowded cities instead. This didn’t just result in a general loss of human dignity, but also a loss of folk culture. This is poverty in the truest sense of the word, for the poor ended up with a depraved and hopeless culture, meaning that they now had no wealth at all, neither on earth nor in heaven, neither tangible nor intangible.

    Myers writes:

    Factories introduced an uncommon level of tedium to the lives of workers …

    If these workers had been in the villages and small towns from which they came, they might have relieved the tedium by enjoying the pleasures afforded by activities rooted in folk culture: barn dances, play with extended family, traditional music, storytelling, hunting and fishing. But those traditional forms didn’t fit in the city … Such activities were not just entertainment: they were part of a way of life that did not survive in the cities …

    Working on a farm can be laborious, but at least it allows interaction with living, growing, changing things. Working in a factory {especially prior to any significant forms of automation} was deadly dull by comparison.

    I have to emphasize that last part: farming can be backbreaking work, but it is still humanizing work. I think that perhaps why workers were so easily replaced by machines later on is because they were acting as machines in the first place. It isn’t simply the repetitive motion, though I am sure that Henry Ford developed a method that used men as tools, making them no better than slaves. It is also that there is no wisdom required to work in a factory. A farmer can know each chicken {my grandma often tells me about my great-grandfather, whom I never met, but he just knew when one of his chickens had quit laying, which is to say he knew just who he was going to eat for Sunday dinner} and act in wisdom and skill. He can become a better farmer with practice and experience. But the factories offer no growth except perhaps into management for those who happen to be a bit assertive. Other than that, they offer the hopeless despair of living life as a one-trick pony.

     

    New and Shiny

    From its roots in early industrialized society, popular culture inherited two attributes that still characterize it: the quest for novelty, and the desire for instant gratification. The quest for novelty is not simply a search for new distractions; it involves the notion that a new thing will be better than the old one.

    Myers quotes C.S. Lewis to explain this. Apparently, Lewis believed that “the dominance of the machine in our culture altered our imagination.” Lewis wrote:

    It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy.

    I couldn’t help but think of the recent election in connection to this. I met someone who voted for Ron Paul in the primaries and Barak Obama in the final election. Before you brush this person off as insane, let me assure you that there was one common tie. Both candidates represented to this voter something other than the status quo. Because both men symbolized something new and different, they both received his vote.

    It mattered not that one couldn’t get two more opposite candidates.

    The idea embodied in these seemingly inconsistent votes was simply that the new, the different, change, if you will, was inherently better. Being new equalled being better to the extent that the actual beliefs or voting records of either candidate were ancillary issues.

    I loved the quotes from Lewis sprinkled throughout this chapter, most especially this one:

    “How has it come about,” C.S. Lewis once asked, “that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation,’ with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanance’?”

    Which, naturally, brought to mind our search for a classical education {which focuses on permanent things}, which is to say that we are opting out of John Dewey’s education-as-a-means-of-social-change methodology.

     

    Lost in Rock

    Myers brings up rock n’ roll music as “popular culture’s most dominant idiom.” In one of the previous chapters he mentioned how certain groups have gotten caught up in, for instance, the issue of backmasking {this was written in ’89, remember}, while ignoring not just what is being said forwards, but also the culture of rock. However, Myers hasn’t actually defined or thoroughly described this “culture of rock,” and so I find myself feeling a little lost.

    I have questions about rock n’ roll. It is much easier for me to examine lyrics and say “this is bad” than to dig through its culture {with which I am almost wholly unfamiliar}. I do know that last time we were with the Browns, there was some sort of Christian music channel that we had on on their TV {this sort of cable will play songs and have a picture up, like the cover of the album or something}. A song came on by a CCM artist named Plumb. I commented that in her photo she looked mean, and someone there at the time replied that a lot of CCM artists are like that, and try to look like rockers.

    I can’t help but think that this conversation is somehow connected to that issue of the “culture of rock” but I’m not sure what that means. I also find myself asking the question of whether a church’s rock-type worship band is a symbolic embrace of rock culture?

    Of course, Myers himself points out that many old hymns actually use the tunes of drinking/pub songs. He seems to think that using rock music in church is somehow different, but I fail to see the distinction, even though I much prefer traditional hymns and quieter instruments myself.

    Maybe the key to this is in the last sentence in the chapter, which is a great way to end this post:

    [T]he difference between the two forms [{high culture and popular culture}] is not simply a matter of class or taste, but reflects different ways of understanding creation and one’s place in it.

     

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    4 Comments

  • Reply Laura A January 23, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    I really liked your paragraph about farm work being humanizing, as opposed to factory work turning you into a one-trick pony. (There are good reasons, I suppose, that few people are farmers now, but that’s a point for another day.) I think of motherhood somewhat the same way. It can be hard work, and in out present society it can be isolating work, but it still has a dignity that makes it worth the effort.

    That is, if we don’t fritter away all our time on the internet!

  • Reply Mystie January 23, 2009 at 12:11 am

    “Unfortunately, I believe, it can lead to the temptation to fritter time without realizing it, which is what I end up doing.”

    *exactly*

  • Reply Dominion Family January 21, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Let’s see. Would your husband’s book tie into this discussion and could we do a study on it next?

    One of the interesting things about the Internet is that it works well with small snippets of time which is all a mother usually gets. Unfortunately, I believe, it can lead to the temptation to fritter time without realizing it, which is what I end up doing.

    Also I love the CS Lewis quote about stagnation and permanence. It is one of my favorites.

  • Reply Willa January 20, 2009 at 5:28 am

    Great post. I haven’t read the book but have been very interested in the discussion.

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