Comment Of The Day: “A Sudden Impulse Poll On Cultural Literacy”

To all of those waiting to have their Comments of the Day posted, all I can say is that I’m sorry, and that I’m having trouble getting my own posts up lately. The languishing COTDS will appear in unpredictable order, but they will appear.

Extradimensional Cephalopod had, as usual, fascinating observations to convey on the question of the importance of cultural literacy I raised based on a reference to “Alice in Wonderland.” I don’t agree with his position–some cultural scaffolding is permanent, and must be—but it’s well worth pondering.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “A Sudden Impulse Poll On Cultural Literacy.”

Incidentally, a majority of those answering the main poll recognized the quotes, which cheered and surprised me. As for the complaint that the second poll was limited to parents, that was the point. Do parents pass along cultural touch points like Lewis Carroll? Do the schools? That poll was for parents.

I’m eventually planning to write an article about this sort of thing. It’s essentially a concern that we’ll all end up like Ozymandias. (Cultural references can help compress concepts into easily transmissible packages, for better or worse, case in point.) For now, since I don’t have much time tonight, these somewhat disjointed thoughts will have to do.

Is the ultimate fate of all classics to become footnote? To a large extent, yes. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb would put it, fame is in Extremistan. For comparison, Mediocristan is the domain of physical properties, which often follow a normal distribution (e.g. most people are average height, and there are fewer and fewer people at heights that vary more and more in either direction from the average). Fame, however, doesn’t do that. Necessarily you have many people who are known by few and the people with the most fame are few in number.

My perspective on this issue is that everything in civilization is a scaffold. It exists to help us to get to the next place, hopefully a better one, and then it is taken down. This includes even memories, since memory is a resource that culture uses and we only have so much memory to go around, at least in our day-to-day lives. What we remember must have some functional benefit, even if that function is nostalgia. We can learn about the past, but only inasmuch as we enjoy it or as it helps us create the future. Its value is considerable, but can be concentrated more efficiently than having everyone know all the esoteric details of it at all times. Anything about the past that doesn’t help us or make us feel anything can be temporarily forgotten until such time as it becomes relevant again (hopefully before it’s too late for us to use that remembered knowledge).

If you take a bus to work, and the bus breaks down after you get there, you don’t teleport back home. Humans didn’t go extinct when their ancient ancestors did. The past doesn’t need to stick around after it’s gotten us here. As someone who is preoccupied with archives, I think we should always have access to the past if we need it, but if we have a good foundation then we can do periodic sweeps and pick out what’s relevant.

The process of taking down a scaffold is not instantaneous. We retain bits and flecks of the past in their original form (though fewer over time). More importantly, though, the concepts forming the foundation of the present evolved from the concepts of the past. It’s definitely important to study history to know how this evolution works, to have some ability to predict and influence the future. After all, the foundation of the present is merely the scaffold of the future. However, the ideas of the present will live on in the future to the extent that they need to. Timeless stories and jokes will adopt the new fashions, the obsolete ones will remain in museums, and new ones will enjoy their time in the limelight.

If there are any concerns about the fading of the past I neglected to address, please let me know.



Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Childhood and children, Comment of the Day, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Family, History, Literature, Popular Culture, Quotes

13 responses to “Comment Of The Day: “A Sudden Impulse Poll On Cultural Literacy”

  1. Some, or most, things in the past are a scaffold, others – and I would argue that Alice in Wonderland falls into this category – are not scaffold but “baked” into the structure, and it becomes important to understand that these things are not only how and why we are where we are at the present moment, but are still part and parcel of daily life. Losing that corporate knowledge, and understanding, of such things is where all else starts to go awry and, among other things, we live out Santayana’s usually misquoted statement that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Though [Edmund] Burke’s quote, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”, is actually more apt.

    • I agree completely, Phillip. This is especially true of unique minds, perspectives and voices, like Carroll.

      • Thanks, Jack!

        My point here was that we shouldn’t be too worried about a specific work surviving as long as the important ideas we value it for continue. Of course, if those values continue, there will always be people interested in preserving the original work.

        The scaffold being taken down doesn’t refer to the information being lost so much as it will be archived, while the next generation learns the things that were built from those previous works.

        Unique ideas will remain in the public consciousness as long as they remain unique. At some point they may be replaced by something just as good. If they were the first of their kind, they may never end up being displaced, but there’s no reason for people to despair if they can’t create something that occupies one of those seemingly permanent spaces.

        Does that make more sense?

  2. If there are any concerns about the fading of the past I neglected to address, please let me know.

    I brought out some criticism here and here.

    • You have to be prepared to overhaul a foundation in favor of a better one if the original turns out to have negative side-effects. The rationality community has a saying: “Not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is necessarily a change.” Having a foundation is better than not, but relying on the foundation staying the same is worse than being able to change it to a better foundation when you find one. That’s why I say the foundations are scaffolds. (Though they weren’t designed to optimize the replacement process, and so they are rather poor ones.)

      Broad generalizations follow:

      The problem with liberalism is, as you say, it tries to remove all the barriers between people and what they want. The problem with conservatism is that it keeps barriers without questioning them. Neither group knows how to perceive concepts to judge their effectiveness, so they evaluate the concepts based on a) how much those concepts directly interfere with or contribute towards their ideal world, or b) how much success those concepts have had in the past. Both of these criteria approximate the ability to judge what will actually result in a more desirable future, but neither is an adequate substitute for being able to understand the effects of implementing the concept.

      I use perception mindset, of which most liberals and conservatives know not, and perception allows me to at least attempt to avoid their mistakes. Liberals and conservatives don’t believe any other way than theirs will work, so they assume I must be just as wrong as their rivals, because I use neither way. This is why I am not a conservative as you are, and this is why I appear as a liberal to you.

      Does that make sense?

      • Wellll… of the two, conservative traditions have proven they can work. Liberal, or better, progressive ideas not so much.

      • Having a foundation is better than not, but relying on the foundation staying the same is worse than being able to change it to a better foundation when you find one.

        At the very least you (seem) to agree that a foundation is necessary. As you likely know from reading what I write I see the Culture Wars as a symptom of radical differences in how intelligence operates and how people define predicates which are, I suppose you’d agree, the stuff of foundations.

        Another way of beginning to approach this important and difficult topic is to attempt to imagine a culture, a civilization, without *foundations*. Obviously impossible. Therefor, the entire problem turns on what sort of predicates one holds to. And this depends on what *world* one sees. Thus, a great deal depends on man’s ‘imagined world’, or as Richard Weaver proposes: Man’s metaphysical dream of the world.

        Now, one must face a certain fact. I will attempt to spell it out. Men (people) have lost a sense of their ‘metaphysical dream of the world’. They do not know what *world* they are in. They do not know where they *are*. Why? Because of the exercised interests of powerful players. If you define *the world* and control the definition of it, you also control everything, essentially, related to how to live in that world, what to do think see and believe. Consider in this context The Great Stereopticon (Scroll down to mid-page to read a 3 paragraph excerpt from Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences). It can only be described as it is: the Great Stereopticon is a perception-modification machine.

        It is s complex topic, a very difficult one but thoroughly necessary and highly relevant, to come to have a perspective that is capable of *seeing* what is going on in our present. The next order of questions follow from that. Not the other way round! Therefor: the platform within ideation, within perception, within the consciousness of an intelligent living being, and certainly one who lives in accord with the essences of Occidental valuation, is to achieve seeing. These are primary and essential categories that infuse all Occidental ideation, originating obviously with Platon and Aristotle, and to immerse oneself in such ideas, to live and breath them, to elevate them to a supreme level, is in my exceedingly and nearly agonizingly humble view what we can only mean when we refer to Conservatism. Conservatism must in fact conserve something! and therefor one must define conservatism as against this other thing we refer to generally as ‘liberalism’.

        When you speak of being able to change it to a better foundation when you find one, I hope that you have some actual structure that stands behind the assertion. I would like to know what it is because, often, I do not receive definitions in your writing.

        But I think I can fairly say the following: it has become a project of Modernity to undermine the *foundations* as I have just defined them, above. It has become a revolutionary project. I start at the end and work backwards: the end of this *project* is the destruction of human intelligence. It is the destruction, through undermining of various types, of the capacity to intellectualize. It has to do with the reduction of man to a sort of machine. A biological machine within a larger machine structure. OK, so that is the end. That is dystopia. That is what is *foretold* and what is *foreseen* and I do not only mean through religious revelation: it is intuited by many. And it is seen as the future manifests itself in our Present.

        If you (you-plural, meaning he she you me us) want to talk about these real things, then let such a conversation begin. But you don’t! You talk about surface and little more. Conservatism, as I will define it, means getting down into the very basics and arriving at decisions through application of value.

        So, talk to me now of these New Foundations! 😉 You will flounder. [late 16th century: perhaps a blend of founder and blunder, or perhaps symbolic, fl- frequently beginning words connected with swift or sudden movement.]

        In order for there to be a ground for (truly) ethical decisions, there must be a basis within structured intellection. As far as I can tell this could function as a sort of absolute statement!

        The problem with liberalism is, as you say, it tries to remove all the barriers between people and what they want. The problem with conservatism is that it keeps barriers without questioning them.

        I propose that your sentence, your encapsulation, is slightly defective but only because you have not, and do not seem to interested in truly and accurately defining, the real topics that are being discussed. It is true that liberalism — especially the hyper-liberalism of the Americanopolis [wicked me, wicked me] — is that function of the machine that seduces people into materialistic and sensualistic immediacy. For example E Michael Jones has written that *you-plural* will sacrifice all your values, your nation, your children, your God, your future, if you are allowed to engage in all the pornographic levels of sensuality that now permeate every venue in our culture.

        The Left especially (according to Jones) has agreed to surrender a politics of (real and substantial) value if the citizen and the subject of politics can carry on as it now is. And the world of business is heavily involved in the same, as is obvious. Sexual hysteria and political/emotional hysteria appear to have causal connection, don’t you think?

        In any case, the mind and consciousness that can examine these things must be an informed mind and a responsible mind, not a seduced weak-willed hysterical and brattish pseudo-intellect that seems common in our present. Thus again (as I say somewhat polemically, as per normal!) that we need a clear definition of what is meant by conservatism. (And American ‘conservatism’ is a bad– a cruel! — joke).

        It all hinges on definitions of value. It is an act of valuation. It takes a serious and responsible mind to think these things through.

        Well, that is all for now. If you have not thought of signing up for my 10 Week Email Course I suggest you take the opportunity today. You won’t regret it! 😉

  3. PennAgain

    the second poll was limited to parents, that was the point. Do parents pass along cultural touch points like Lewis Carroll? Do the schools? That poll was for parents.

    Disagree (if it were a percentage poll, I’d be on zero).

    I was the luckiest kid I knew to have all the recommended children’s books chosen for me by parents and teachers, as well as access to great libraries (the Main, NYC), plus blocks of 4th Avenue “Used” bookshelves to choose from at 25 cents a time, Nevertheless, some of the very best reading came from birthday or odd-day presents from an unmarried cousin, a polyglot who found translations of stories and folk tales from a different country each year, and hand-drew a map to go with them; two friends of my parents, one of whose sons was an actor – thus came plays, poems, recitations — including the entire libretto of W.S. Gilbert for me to read aloud and eventually learn to play most of the music to; and the other who either deliberately (as I like to think) or by not knowing my actual age brought books her own kids were reading, several years beyond my reading level.

    The gifts from an elderly, grateful patient of my father’s were especially treasured. She was a transplanted Englishwoman who had lost ]her home and her life’s library in the Blitz. She was replacing the books one at a time (and I think, paying dearly for volumes I came to realize later were original editions). As she could locate them, she read them once more and then passed them on people she thought would appreciate them. Thus I received, and learned to respect, many well bound and illustrated editions of popular authors as well as classics — even the fiction of that era in England included detailed background of rural or city life, focusing keenly on nature and raw detail, and later on, war-time adventures. From the latter came an understanding of abandonment, loss and death that has, as they put it, done me yeoman service ever since. I have forgotten many of the stories but deep in my mind is implanted the feel of those books and the suspense or anticipation of turning those pages.

    I do agree, therefore, with E.C.’s scaffolding image. I built a giant one with all the stimulant to knowledge and imagination I could hold. Education and experience and each different culture I lived in (including those in my home country) built the rest. At two different points in my life when I came home after living abroad for some years, I found I huge chunks of substance from the past destroyed: books, papers, photographs, music, correspondence, special occasion markers, address books, Playbills, notes and writings, memorabilia, concrete proofs that I had ever existed, except for the documents I carried in my passport case.

    My memory (such as it is at 78) alone survives. And memory, as we know, is altered each time we touch it. The “esoteric details” as the Marine Mollusc From Outside Our Space-Time Continuum puts it are in what I write, very very slowly. The more I write, the more I remember. And once I write them, I can put them out of mind entirely and just as It suggested, retain the cloud of the memory to use when and if necessary.

    • Yikes, I’m sorry that your collections were destroyed. I know that can be quite depressing.

      I’m glad you were able to collect so much culture over the years, and that you’re writing about it now. The more we can save, the more we can draw from.

      • PennAgain

        Thanks, E. C. I may not have gotten seriously started if not for Jack’s Ethics Alarms and, as I try to remember to say, its commenters. You guys (that’s a generic term for you all, y’all), coming from so many different angles and knowledge bases, force me to confront my own cemented opinions and, when I have the energy to dig into it, find unexpectedly common ground. I enjoy it, even when you make me crazy. I don’t regret as much as some of you the absence of the occasionally hard (and too often frustratingly soft-headed) arguments from the left-leaning lads and ladies since that’s what I’ve been surrounded with most of my life. That was mental comfort food; this is spicy cuisine!

        I had more to say, but you’ll have to excuse me for now — I need to fill out my mail-in ballot.

    • PennAgain

      And thank you also, Michael, in case that was for me. The way the threads are laid out, sometimes it’s hard to tell what reply followed which comment.

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