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The idiot box no more?


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#1 dirac

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 10:18 AM

A writer named Steven Johnson is getting lots of notice for a new book called “Everything Bad is Good for You,” which posits the thesis that popular culture is becoming more sophisticated and making people smarter. Malcolm Gladwell reviews it for The New Yorker:


http://www.newyorker...50516crbo_books

Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture.



Gladwell actually seems to be taking this stuff seriously (wouldn’t have happened in the old New Yorker, with Dwight Macdonald on the case). However, since I don’t watch “The Sopranos” (became disillusioned after the first season), “24,” or any of the other shows that are presumably making its viewers brilliant, it may be that my own mental processes, nurtured for the most part on “Star Trek” reruns and “Dynasty,” are just not rapid enough. Thoughts?

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 10:39 AM

Yeah, TV's been just great for culture.

Think of how much it's improved discourse.

To say nothing of fabulous attention spans.

And the ability to seperate fact from fiction from stuff that just sounds sexy.

Why, thanks to TV and pop culture we're better citizens with a more informed, thoughtful democracy than ever in the best of all possible worlds.

I would have never guessed.

#3 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 11:15 AM

BANG!

#4 carbro

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 11:29 AM

Mr. Johnson discusses his thesis with Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Scroll down to the third segment.

#5 GWTW

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 11:38 AM

A few random thoughts:

There definitely is television of artistic worth being made today and in the recent past. I actually think that the episodic nature of the medium enables television series to replicate some of the great trimphs of the novels of the 19th century. That said, there really aren't that many shows that have achieved that triumph - and it goes without saying that Survivor isn't one of them, and honestly neither is Seinfeld.

The writer/s seems to be confusing an ability to be 'smart' with being 'clever'.
It's ridiculous to define reading as an explicit exercise - of course, reading a scientific text which imparts "crystallized knowledge" is explicit, but surely it would be redundant for every middle school chemistry class to rediscover the periodic table. I know that the present educational 'thing' is for hands-on, experiential education, but IMO that's just a whole waste of time. In any event, I don't see how reading a literary text can ever be regarded as imparting crystallized knowledge - oh, well, maybe if the student is reading the Cliff Notes while downloading some really cool ringtones onto his cell phone.

Regarding videogames as logic-solving puzzles. Sure they are, but so are Risk or Clue. Those board games which require as much problem solving skills as any video game, but you do need to concentrate for slightly longer and you have to interact with other people and not give up when it looks like you're losing!

#6 dirac

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 11:48 AM

Thanks for that link, carbro. It also contains a helpful link to Steven Johnson’s blog, where he responds to good reviews and bad ones. Here’s a quote (from him):



We don't have a lot of opportunities in culture to tell a story that lasts a hundred hours, but that's exactly what we're taking in on The Sopranos or Lost or Six Feet Under. I feel totally confident that those shows will stack up very nicely against Madame Bovary a hundred years from now, if not sooner.



#7 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 11:52 AM

And a good discussion on the issue from someone not particularly impressed (one of his bad reviewers)

http://blog.stayfree...n_johnson_.html

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 11:57 AM

Every time I've read this argument (and it's been made hundreds of times by now) it's struck me that the writer is, at heart, miffed that he or she isn't considered high brow and sees as the solution the elevation of his or her taste to be considered high brow. I find it tiresome.

Two writers who deal with popular culture as well as high culture that I can think of off the top of my head -- I'm sure there are more -- are Gia Kourlas, who writes regularly in Time Out New York, and occasionally in the New York Times, and Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker (who has a blog The Rest Is Noise . They are so comfortable with themselves that they don't have to argue. They just write. Both appreciate popular culture and high culture. Neither confuses the two, nor wishes to eradicate one at the expense of the other. Why waste time running around screaming that "The Simpson" are too just as good as "Madame Bovary" so there?

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 12:10 PM

Actually, "Madame Bovary" isn't really a good example. Substitute "The Faerie Queen."

#10 Herman Stevens

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 12:29 PM

I love "Seinfeld" to the extent that I could quote phrases from the show, and remember which Jerry girlfriend was which. However people who consider this kind of stuff as "complex narrative" blahdiblah just because the lines are better than "Bonanza" should perhaps take a look at a book.

Of course TV commercials have been working towards this kind of hip referentiality, too, so as to hook smart 13-year olds (and those who stay 13 years old, intellectually).

This kind of cultural commentary is just a form of narcissicism. ("Look mom, how smart I am!") It does have a long tradition by now, however, if you consider all the exegesis wasted on Beatles lyrics. I've never understood why people can't let silly fun just be silly fun.

BTW we ditched our TV long time ago. Life's too short.

BTW2 I vastly prefer L'education sentimentale to Mme Bovary.

#11 Helene

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 12:43 PM

I'm hearing a lot of "yeah, right," but I'm not hearing substantive arguments against several of his theses, at least as Gladwell describes them:

1, That there are two types of learning, and there are ways in which popular culture strengthens one type of learning in particular ways. He does not argue that one is superior to the other, just that each is inferior in some aspects that the other is superior.

1. That new, complex video games encourage complex problem-solving skills, including determining what the multi-layered rules are based upon through experience and observation. (He doesn't mention that many of the video games as well as board games we played as children are available online, to be played with other people from all around the world, on demand.)

3. That engagement stimulates part of the way that non-engagement doesn't. That one either has a scientific basis, or it doesn't.

In a multi-cultural world that is linked in ways through communications, economics, and artistic endeavors to an extent that was inconceivable even a generation ago, I have no doubt that understanding a quickly changing environment is a critical skill. And in the current world economy, where employment in the US, Canada, and Europe is increasingly skewed toward services and information, lack of this skill is an economic disadvantage.

Gladwell has delved into many areas where he and the authors he reviews have challenged widely held assumptions to see if they stand up to scrutiny. I don't think this is as a degredation of the The New Yorker's purpose at all.

One thing that I appreciate about both Alex Ross and Malcolm Gladwell is that while they both hold high standards, they don't believe that goodness and greatness is limited. They see abundance of both.

#12 dirac

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 01:00 PM

A quote from the blog Leigh linked to:


Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Johnson defines quality, intelligent television as that characterized by complex narratives; multiple and multi-dimensional characters; and open-ended storylines. In other words, the best TV is like Shakespeare. This, I find truly bizarre, because if TV can teach us anything (and I think it most certainly can) it's not by being a substitute for literature, but by doing things literature can't do.



#13 bart

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 01:14 PM

I hope you guys will stick around for those of us who are (a) slower readers/ digesters/ responders; (b) prefer to wait for the arrival of the magazine in the mail rather than read it electronically; and © find this a fascinating topic that requires extended thought. Thank you, Dirac, for the topic.

#14 dirac

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 01:21 PM

Do chime in when you're ready, bart.

#15 Estelle

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 01:37 PM

Actually, "Madame Bovary" isn't really a good example.  Substitute "The Faerie Queen."

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Alexandra, could you explain why you find that "Madame Bovary" is not a good example ?


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