Sunday, November 07, 2004

Jay Mechling’s essay, “An American Culture Grid, with Texts,” doesn’t sound like a page-turner, but to American literature teachers and American studies scholars like me, it certainly is. The title brings to mind a story in The Chronicle I read a few years back about the trouble scholars have with titling their scholarly works. The more artful titles sound better because they’re catchier, but the problem is that if the titles aren’t descriptive, they’re hard for researchers to locate (and for librarians to catalog, presumably). So, I guess Jay Mechling wasn’t taking any chances. Don’t let the title fool you.

He begins with a wonderful anecdote he brings in from Gregory Bateson’s 1979 essay, “The Patterns Which Connect.” Bateson tells of the time the computer programmer is at the end of his rope in trying to calculate whether a computer could ever possibly think like a human. Finally, the programmer poses the question to the computer itself and after hours of processing, the computer finally returns the result: “That reminds me of a story…” The allegory is meant to remind us “to think like a human being is to think in terms of stories.” That reminds me of Elie Wiesel’s statement, one of my favorite of all time: “God created man because he loved the stories.” People think narrative-ly. This happens with students a lot—they can’t make an argument. It always turns into a story.

And…but…so…Mechling wants to point out that culture isn’t so difficult to understand because t’s just a collection of stories. No “fancy definitions” are required when we think in terms of stories. So though this idea may seem simple, it really isn’t. Mechling’s “working definition of culture” emphasizes putting “the social act of interpretation at the center of knowledge.”

Mechling’s wanting to have a less formal definition of culture is important because it reflected a trend of the “intellectual paradigm” of the time (the late 1980s), where theorists in many disciplines agreed that “meanings emerge only through the act of interpretation, a collective act ‘determined’ contextually, rhetorically, institutionally, generically, politically, and historically” (this idea came from ethnologist James Clifford).

So Mechling’s less formal idea of culture as a collection of stories is important, he says, because it “directs our attention towards those theorists and critics who put human narration at the center of their study of culture.” Here, he refers to Geertz and Clifford in anthropology, Richard Bauman in folklore, and Yi-fu Tuan in geography.

Another reason Mechling thinks of culture as a collection of stories is critical is that doing so expands our idea of what can be a story. Bateson says “stories must have relevance and context […] they must cohere internally […] and with each other.” Mechling agrees and agrues that if we use stories in the study of culture, then we “approach any behavior or artifacts of behavior and ask ‘what is the story which this small text is a part? A handshake is a text to be located within its story” just as any other artifact. It’s interesting to think it of this way, and he’s right. The idea isn’t over simplified at all. From the handshake we move to the larger elements of culture to the more expected elements.

The study of culture through its stories also works because “location” is important in stories. This is important to my work! Anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace “distinguishes between two models of culture, one that sees culture as a mechanism for ‘the replication of uniformity’ and another that sees culture as a mechanism for ‘the organization of diversity.’” Wallace prefers the idea of the “organization of diversity, since he sees the way culture is an organization of people with “private cultures” (or what Mechling calls “their own ‘stories’”) brought together in the “public culture.” So what is interesting is that Mechling says “this means people need not ‘believe’ the public stories so long as they are able to act ‘as if’ they believe those stories. This is where “we find the ‘mythologies’ of the civilization, the grand, relatively enduring, public stories that seem to provide the largest ‘symbolic canopies’ for events within the culture.” To exemplify, Mechling cites Ronald Reagan’s reference to the “western pioneer myth” when he spoke to the country after the space shuttle exploded—Mechling calls that “an example of American mythology used to repair damage to our ‘sacred canopy’ by the failure of our technology.”

What’s interesting here, I think, is the idea that we don’t necessarily have to believe the myths of the public culture. It’s a poignant idea at the time that I’m reading and writing about Mechling, when it was bittersweet to learn that the majority of my countrymen and women seem to want to persist in bombing the shit out of Mideastern countries that our president profits from, making laws based on fundamentalist Christian dogma, and (specifically) flocking to the polls to prevent gay people from marrying each other. The majority of people accept voting for a president who can’t form a coherent sentence, who can’t define a simple term that he must use in making decisions that affect our lives and potentially our deaths. Apparently, the public culture is one I completely do not understand. What Mechling says is that one may be more an adherent of one of the private cultures and not even believe in those public culture myths … as long as we go along acting as though we do. I guess acting as though we do means just continuing to live in the U.S. and forgetting that a monkey runs the free world. Hmmm….(writing this will test the hypothesis that his second presidency will eradicate free speech: friends, if I disappear, or if my $2 in assets disappear in the next days, you’ll know why.)

Back to Mechling’s definitions of culture: Keeping in mind this “narrative approach to culture,” we are reminded that “there is a contest of stories in the public sphere.” So this follows naturally from what I said above. Mechling stresses that “Culture is not a matter of consensus but of conflict.” That’s an important idea. No collection of white men gathers in a room every year to define American culture. Instead, “the dynamic of culture lies in the contest of narratives in the public realm. And because it is a contest, power matters. Some people’s stories have a better chance of becoming the official public stories than do others.” Mechling goes on to discuss practical applications of this idea. So whenever we see conflict around us, we can think of it as a quarrel between two stories. Mechling says, “Battles over the architectural redevelopment of a neighborhood, for example, are contests between two or more stories the neighborhood wants to tell about itself.”

Another idea Mechling brings in is Levi-Strauss’s notion that “a myth (any story for our purposes) derives its meanings from both its diachronic and synchronic structures).” What? I have read and defined these words 100 times, but I never can distinguish them. One means structurally and the other means over time….but which is which? Mechling uses the analogy of a piece of music. If we discuss the melody, he says, then we refer to the “diachronic structure” because it’s “the temporal sequence of the notes,” and that’s where the meaning of the song lies. Similarly, in literature diachronic would refer to plot and character. On the other hand, a diachronic structure of a song involves its lyrics—or the part of a story where we see actions by the characters.
Moving right along, though, Mechling finally takes his grid out and shows it to the world. His point by organizing literature in terms of elite, popular, and folk status is to show that determinations about the status of its elements change, depending on the tides of the culture.

Mechling spends some time distinguishing among elite, popular, and folk cultures. Elite culture is what most people think of when they think of university study. In this case, “stories […] are told by people enjoying relatively higher levels of income, status, power, and education” for audiences like themselves. These are the people with “the resources to create institutions” like schools, libraries, museums, ballets, orchestras, so that these elite art forms can be shared. When people describe elite art forms, they use the terms “excellence” and “quality.” “Authorship” in this form is extremely important, so copyright is an issue, and “a text in elite culture can lose all its ‘value’ if proven to be a forgery.” Value has to do with the “culture’s judgment of creativity.”

In contrast, popular culture is the entertainment of the masses, the middle-class. Mechling says in “this realm, relatively anonymous makers produce stories mass-produced and conveyed hrough public media for consumption by mass audiences.” Rather than valuing originality, in this form, “convention and formula [… make] authorship rather irrelevant, and many makers of mass-mediated culture work under pseudonyms.” The terms used in elite culture, “excellence” and “quality,” don’t apply here, though I would argue that Mechling is too judgmental in this case. The quality and excellence of products for the masses may be different. He goes on to say that the emphasis instead is on valuing each product as “new,” improved,” and “advanced.” That sounds like consumer culture!
Now, folk cultures appear “in the relatively small, face-to-face groups in American society.” hese are the more traditional art forms, “forms and contents that define the meaning of life” for whatever group is at hand. Authorship here is not important at all because it is unidentifiable—or as Mechling says, “we might say that the ‘author’ of a tradition is the folk community itself.” The productions might be “jokes, legends quilts,” and “the contents and values of the stories tend to be traditional and conservative.” Unlike in the elite and popular cultures, the value lies in “the process of creation,” rather than in the product.

The interesting part comes when we try to add other American texts (with the definition of texts opened to include any American cultural artifact). When we do, we see that the texts move across the grid, between and back-and-forth between columns over time. Mechling explains, “The examples multiply. Elite culture ‘borrows’ constantly from both the popular and folk realms, as in Andy Warhol’s painting […]. Popular culture has a voracious appetite for materials it can convert to marketable commodities, borrowing elite art to mass produce ‘art-prints’ in poster form for every person’s wall, or borrowing adolescent urban legends to make teenage horror films.” Also, “children’s folk culture […] is filled with parodies of adult popular and elite culture.” When we see how these texts might move in the grid, we can see “the interconnectedness and dynamism of culture.”

The way Mechling sees it, the grid really ought to have four dimensions. The third dimension "introduces the notion of pluralism, of many cultures participating in the public contest between stories.” Here he’s talking about “gender, ethnicity (and race), social class, region, and age.” So it may not be enough to put “soap operas” on the grid under popular culture. We may have to ask questions in terms of that notion of pluralism before we can understand how the text fits in the grid.
The fourth dimension is “mythologies, the relatively enduring stories that run through the grid, connecting disparate cells into one coherent story.” This dimension allows students and teachers of American studies to make connections among cells by using “basic myths in American civilization.”

The grid is useful, as I mentioned before, because a whole course, a project, class session, or just the interpretation of a single text can be based on the grid. In the latter case, “The student begins with a single text, a sort of cultural puzzle, and the assignment is to interpret the text in all its contexts. The grid helps locate the text as a form of discourse within a certain realm of culture, but the grid also leads the student to consider if and how the text moves. How is the text ‘determined’ by certain conventions, and where does it appear in the contest of interpretations? What have gender, race, class, region, and age have to do with this text? In short, what ‘story’ makes the best sense of this text and how is that story related to other stories?” Mechling ends with the point that the grid “encourages comparative cultural studies” because it would be easy to compare documents “from other cultural contexts” as well, given the open nature of the structure.

I found Mechling’s article to be incredibly useful. It made me rethink what I’ll be doing in class Tuesday in American literature. The grid makes so much sense. Talking about what onstitutes elements of the culture is so arcane, most students simple glaze over at the most basic of conversations (a suspicion I confirmed with the midterm). Maybe this will concretize the information!

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