This summer I am giving myself a crash course in ballet because I don’t think there is a bigger pleasure than discovering a whole exciting field one knows nothing about. Two posts ago, I already commented on the lack of sufficient introductory texts and the role of men as ‘male ballerinas’ (this is a tag used on the internet). Yesterday, I watched on YouTube the Paris Opera Ballet, dancing Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide (1832), which is the first Romantic ballet (or classic, as we call it today). It is also the ballet that placed the ballerina centre-stage for good, thanks to the marvellous talent of Marie Taglioni, Filippo’s daughter. I was enjoying enormously Aurore Dupont and Mathieu Gaino’s performance and I thought to myself, ‘this is really weird–why has this specific branch of theatrical performance survived for 180 years already?’ And ‘will it survive 180 years more’? What am I doing watching this and not, like everyone else, Game of Thrones? How can contemporary culture accommodate both Sylphide and Daenerys Targaryen?
This is a very clumsy way to reach the issue I want to raise today: the increasing difficulties to understand what truly matters, culturally speaking. If anything matters at all. I’ve been writing yet another text defending the importance of studying popular fictions using the same level of commitment we apply to the artistically ambitious, and I realize that a new problem is emerging.
In a context in which the Humanities are always struggling to survive it seems safer to rely on the classics and on the study of any cultural manifestation that seems most likely to endure the test of time. I realize that those of us in Cultural Studies have complicated matters very much by demanding that the present is studied with the same interest as the past, for I firmly believe that there is no sense in not teaching students and not researching our own living experience. Having said that, and seeing this summer each new chapter of Game of Thrones, season seven, summarised and discussed on the front pages of many international newspapers, I have started wondering what exactly is going on. Mainly in terms of the hunger for texts universally shared, beyond the classics. Also in terms of what we do, both in traditional Literary Studies and in Cultural Studies to help texts survive beyond the time when they were created.
For convenience’s sake, I’ll argue that Cultural Studies started having a considerable impact on how we study contemporary culture, without a capital C, around 1990. I know we can go back earlier, even to 1950s pioneers like Raymond Williams but the point I am making is that for, roughly, the last 25 years Cultural Studies has grown to be a fully established discipline (at least in Anglo-American universities). Let’s suppose that in a perfect world nobody insists any more that studying Virginia Woolf is relevant but studying J.K. Rowling is not (remember, please, that according to Ian McEwan Woolf was a novelty in the 1970s English university context from which he graduated). Now, consider whether academic analysis of a popular text actually contributes to its survival for the subsequent generations. My answer is no: right now, nothing guarantees the survival of any text, whether classical or popular, much less academia. This is because of our extremely short-range cultural memory.
The case study I have in mind is the TV series Buffy, Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). You may not know about this but Joss Whedon’s series is, arguably, the most popular text among academics devoted to the study of popular fictions. There is a thriving field of Buffy Studies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffy_studies), a label that, while informal, is well-known. The journal Slayage of The Whedon Studies Association was launched in 2001 (http://www.whedonstudies.tv/slayage-the-journal-of-whedon-studies.html) by academics David Lavery and Rhonda V. Wilcox. They were also editors of the first collective volume on Whedon’s series, Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2002), though the first academic articles appeared back in 1998. An MLA search throws 301 entries for Buffy, including MA and PhD dissertations, peaking in 2013 with 38 entries (34 for 2004, right after the series finished). A recent book by Patricia Pender is titled I’m Buffy and You’re History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism (2016). It’s final chapter is “‘Where Do We Go From Here?’: Trajectories in Buffy Studies”.
Whedon, of course, reacted positively to this attention, back in 2003: “I think it’s always important for academics to study popular culture, even if the thing they are studying is idiotic. If it’s successful or made a dent in culture, then it is worthy of study to find out why. Buffy, on the other hand is, I hope, not idiotic. We think very carefully about what we’re trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we’re writing it” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160305034153/http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/16/readersopinions/16WHED.html?ex=1198213200&en=292c3c27d77f61ac&ei=5070). The problem, however, is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is already, excuse me, a fossilized text. By this I mean that it is already a text older than our undergrad students.
What those of us in Cultural Studies are discovering is that there is a huge difference between studying a ‘living’ text–being issued/broadcast as we study it or very recently–and a text you need to introduce, whether this is Great Expectations or The X-Files. You may be raising an eyebrow now, as there has been a recent mini-series of The X-Files but I believe this has only proved the inability of Chris Carter’s text to remain ‘alive’. In short, after more than 25 years of Cultural Studies what we are learning is that very often popular texts have a shorter life span than the academic interest they may raise. La Sylphide is alive–and please, remember this was conceived as commercial entertainment–but who knows whether Game of Thrones will be remembered in 2027?
Does this mean that a) Cultural Studies has failed in its mission? and b) that the only way to save its project is by teaching/researching ‘living’ texts? No, this is not part of my argument. Even using the traditional methodology of conservative Literary Studies, which prefers its authors and not only its texts dead (or ‘fossilized’), we face the same problem: twenty years is part of living memory for most academics currently employed all over the world, but it is a whole new generation as regards the students sitting in our classroom. We sound old-fashioned, quaint and uncool whether we teach Rushdie’s Midnight Children (1981) or The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003), and whether we use Literary or Cultural Studies. For it is all about fossil texts.
All of us interested in contemporary culture are, like surfers, trying to catch waves to sit “on top of the world” as The Beach Boys used to sing, hoping that the texts we favour have survival value. Often, when I write about a specific topic I wonder whether my choice is already condemning my work to not even make the tiniest splash. This has always been a major critique of Cultural Studies: that we are not academics but a sort of cultural journalist working on ephemeral texts and producing short-lived analysis of the latest hip text. The joke, of course, is that academic work on any canonical author is beset by the same problem: nobody cites work published before 1990, whether this is on George Eliot or on Tarzan of the Apes (if, that is, anyone published on Burroughs before 1990).
So, in the end, the difference between high and popular culture within academia is no longer down to the binary trivial/serious, as we used to be told (or believe), but short-lived/long-lived, and at all levels. The trend is actually being reversed, if you know what I mean: living authors and ‘living’ texts are cooler to write about than dead or ‘fossilized’ ones. I very much wanted to write my doctoral dissertation about J.G. Ballard back in the mid-1990s, when he was a hot academic property still to be explored and very much alive. Would I recommended today a student to choose Ballard, who died in 2009, for his/her PhD? You tell me… Likewise, the monographic course on Harry Potter that I taught three years ago made perfect sense in 2013-14 when the original readers were sitting in my classroom. Now it is beginning to sound stale, which is why I’m already planning an elective on Game of Thrones, if Martin ever finishes his saga, A Song of Ice and Fire.
So, to sum up my argument, the revolution that Cultural Studies started back in 1990 by inviting academics to study living authors and all kinds of texts beyond the strictly artistic, did not take into account ageing. Both the ageing of academics with cultural memories stretching beyond several generations of students, and the ageing of the contemporary texts of any kind, which is much faster than it used to be 100 years ago. This means that all of us working on the contemporary face an impossible situation: we need to keep up with the latest developments in the field that we have chosen to study as the bottom of shared memory drops. Students, besides, have on the whole little interest in texts produced before their year of birth. I can hear the conservative academics who never tried to catch the 1990s ‘new wave’ smugly reply to my post: ‘I told you so, stick to the fossils’. But, then, if Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is now becoming fossilized or already a fossil, just imagine what Walter Scott, who died in 1832, the year The Sylphide was first performed, sounds like.
I’m not watching Game of Thrones because, although interested, I’m not passionate about it. Also, because, after the fiasco of Lost, I’d rather wait for stories to be over before I see or read them. I really would like to teach an elective and I hope that Martin is done soon, but if he finishes, say, in 2025, which might well be, the TV series might be ancient history by then… A strange situation.
As for how contemporary culture can also accommodate La Sylphide, perhaps the best I can do is argue that in this ugly 21st century only classical ballet (and perhaps photography) insists on providing some beauty. Enjoy!!
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