Wednesday, April 17, 2002

It's always amusing to watch academics grappling with pop culture. They have a shamefaced look about them like kids skipping school to raid the candy store in the mall. The amusement of course is that they have just as much right to be there as anybody but have to say that so very loudly to shore up their collective courage. Check out a guy named Paul A. Cantor at as he tries to justify his own excursion. It's the usual approach: a statement of his "serious" credentials, a feint about pop culture being just fun that actually resolves into "Well why shouldn't we study it?"; emphasizing that y'know Shakespeare was kinda popular; and then back to the High Culture. Cantor actually spends far more time with the ancient Greeks than anything resembling popular culture so he never really makes his case; in any event the value or not of writing about, say, Gilligan's Island can only be shown by actually doing it.

But Cantor tips his hand when he says, "Getting our students to 'read' popular cultural critically may well become our task as teachers in an age increasingly dominated by the mass media. If students can learn to reflect on what they view in movies or on television, the process may eventually make them better readers of literature."

In other words, the only point of all this is so students can read literature and what do you want to be that he's not talking about Elmore Leonard or Stephen King. The popular culture stuff is only a sugar-coating for the real deal that of course you'll need Cantor as a guide. Does this really work anyway? Does referencing or even showing The Searchers help students understand Greek notions of vengence when the film might actually be almost as strange to many students when Westerns have been sickly for a few decades now. (This isn't even getting into whether a Western might actually mislead students by making too familiar what might be a pretty alien concept. The Greeks may have built the foundation of our culture but they weren't us.)

Even more offensive is that statement that Cantor will have to be the one "getting our students to 'read" popular culture critically." He is talking about students that are already intimately familiar with full-assault satires like The Simpsons and South Park; who make hits of such genre-twisting films as Being John Malkovich, The Matrix and Memento; who read Naomi Klein and The Onion; who listen to Rage Against the Machine, The Coup, White Stripes and other stuff off the Top 40. The students are plenty critical, they just don't have to name-check Plato to do it. Certainly familiarity with the literary canon helps--you can never have too many tools and besides much of it is, well, fun--but some kinds of critical thinking may be of limited use. One of the key insights of the Situationists was that oppositional stances are always co-opted so the forms of opposition must always change. (I've heard they were enthusiastic readers of Clausewitz.)


Proof you can't always trust a reputation is the Peter David run on The Incredible Hulk. I've heard many people speak of this with reverence and I have to admit that David is usually a genuinely funny writer. But I just read most of the issues from 400 to 441 and this barely tolerable nonsense is certainly no cause for fond memories. At first it's somewhat amusing (well not really but go with it) to see how David twists and turns so that a fight occurs in every issue, regardless of whether there's any conceivable reason for one. It's like he's decided the plot is only life support for fight scenes. But then the whole thing just becomes tiresome, especially since the whole series is unfocused and rambles from one story to the next with characters all running together (remember The Hulk is the big green one). There's only a very few flashes of David's usual humor though maybe that's made up by the stories that tackle serious themes because they're pretty laughable. The whole thing is made irredeemable by a string of third-rate artists who can't really grasp the idea of the grotesque as they strive for realistic settings but create characters that look like bodybuilders about to explode. As a result the artists just look like amateurs who learned to draw only from other comics and not even the good ones. (A reply in the letters defends this as "their style" but y'know Ed Wood had a style too but that doesn't mean we have to take it seriously. A more likely cause is the artist-run Image which had launched about three years earlier and seemed to specialize in similar adolescent imagery.)