Saturday, 5 July 2014

In which I belatedly experience the cultural products of the 1980s: Introduction

Photo credit: Paul Williams

As you probably know, I had an interesting childhood. Through some combination of overprotectiveness and underdeveloped taste, they ended up producing a young adult who was constantly in situations where he hadn't seen or heard or experienced some bedrock cultural thing that seemed to have been a big part of lots of other people's childhoods.

For instance, until I was fully out of university, I had either never experienced or never heard of:

  • Paul Simon's Graceland
  • Michael Jackson's Thriller video
  • Guns 'n' Roses/Aerosmith/Van Halen
  • Elvis Costello
  • Tears for Fears
  • Peter Gabriel
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Alien
  • Die Hard
  • Grease
  • Blade Runner
  • Twin Peaks
You get the idea. This list didn't take very long, but it did take some internet research because of the Cheneyesque nature of attempting to list things you don't know.

Now one of the good things that came out of this (and out of being left-handed) is that it set me up to see culture as optional. One of the core differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals seem to conceive of culture as arbitrary (which it is) and conditional on the vagaries of time and place. Whereas conservatives seem to think of culture as a fundamental, unshakeable truth through which we live our lives (which it also is). So liberals think of cultural participation as fluid, voluntary and democratic, whereas conservatives think of it as fixed, mandatory and a matter of natural law.

From there it's pretty easy to see why conservatives would be made uneasy by a man wearing a dress, or a woman keeping her name when getting married, or two men choosing what colour to paint their bedroom. Because those are things that our culture didn't used to include, and now they do (sort of) and that means culture is changing. Which is disconcerting, if you think of culture as the right and proper way for things to be.

Anyway, so I didn't see a lot of films growing up and now I feel that it's important for people to consciously engage with and construct their own culture. Not out of whole cloth (because that would be impossible) but by choosing from among the obvious and the not-obvious options in the world. (Another side note: when I was younger and primarily concerned with distancing myself from the mean idiots I went to school with, I thought for instance all TV was bad. I read Neil Postman and was a terrible snob. Now I am not concerned with that; instead I am concerned with forming and maintaining friendships, and understanding how people comment on what's happening in the world by creating popular art about it. So I have watched The West Wing and Buffy, which are the two best shows, and would like to retract everything I said in college about TV being awful. It isn't. Well, some of it is, but everyone knows that.)

My plan, then, is to write about some of these cultural touchstones as I experience them. This will let me combine the goals of experiencing them, doing cultural analysis, and doing more writing. Feel free to suggest things in comments as we go.