Now are our brows bound…

More terms to use in our discussions on art.  I’ve been reading a book by Susan Jacoby called The Age of American Unreason.  It’s an extended and Jeremiad written with a nod to Hofstader’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.  As a personal and autobiographical reflection, the book devotes some elegiac passages to the passing of what Jacoby sees as an important aspect of American life during the twentieth century, certainly one that shaped her own perspective and that of her generation:  middlebrow culture.C4090-452

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    Definition?  I want to keep it short and not seek out relevant passages to quote.  Let me offer what I hope is one vivid illustration instead.  Perhaps if you are over forty you will remember a family that invested in the series Great Books of the Western World.  No?  How about Encyclopaedia Britannica?  American middlebrow culture in a nutshell.  Not a pejorative, clearly.  But a characterization–the middlebrow–that conjures up a complex network of associations, some making us smile, some making us wince.  Jacoby does a nice job of setting up a useful context for experiencing a wide spectrum of connections and implications.


    Cannot help but raise the question of how we define highbrow and lowbrow, then, I suppose.  But I don’t want to take time to do that either.  Maybe you could offer something relevant in your comments.  I’m writing this post because I wonder if, now, there is such a thing as no-brow culture.  Perhaps we could say that this is part of the postmodern condition.  No longer is there a sense of hierarchy in how we distribute our appreciations or exercise our competencies or apply our creativity.  Is this development (if we’re willing to go with it) an illustration of democratization in action or something not remotely idealistic, utopian or welcome?  I would like to unpack further my thoughts about this by engaging comments.C4090-451



    55 Thoughts on “Now are our brows bound…

    1. Turff on June 16, 2008 at 9:37 am said:

      Have any of you seen the movie Idiocracy? I saw it only on the recommendation of a friend, as it appeared to be not really my cup of tea. Having watched it, I was sorta right, but at the same time, the question of how many layers of irony were actually present in the movie continues to nag at me. I’d be curious as to the opinions of others that have seen it.

      I really not trying to hijack the thread, Marc. I really do thing this may tie in with your point.

      Out of curiosity, is the presumption that the middlebrow culture has emerged? I would be more likely to believe that its more of the disappearing middle. We owned a set of used (= outdated) World Book encyclopedias. We also bought a used Commodore 64 while I was in high school (I was thrilled to get it). I’d have to think we were probably part of this mid-brow demo to which you are referring, if I understand you correctly.

      Assuming a trichotomy does exist of this sort, it would be interesting to evaluate what if any effect the emergence of the internet had on statistical disbursement among the groupings.

    2. I know I came out of middlebrow culture. And I think in general you can link it to the middle class, though wealth was never a guarantee of highbrow tastes.

      Jacoby’s idea of middlebrow culture has everything to do with the idea of finding ways to bring “the fruits of culture” to the “people.” It came out of the proliferation of lecture societies in the nineteenth century. Publishers offering a series of affordable “classics” might be another example. Concerts on the radio. Subscribing to the Book-of-the-Month Club. Playhouse 90. Part of middle class aspiration was the aspiration to acquire familiarity with and perhaps even a proprietary relationship to the “best that is thought” or the “best in artistic achievement,” etc. Jacoby asserts that for the most part the aspiration was genuine (though it received its share of scorn and ridicule both from above and below), born out of a sense of acknowledgement of there being “fruit” out there worth having. Many a young person carried that background into college and it served them well, operating as a compass for navigating the world of learning and reading, guiding acquisitions and discernment, etc.

      If in fact a shift to the no-brow has occurred, it means there is no longer a set of consensual priorities across the culture as to what constitutes the “fruit” or how one obtains it or why one should. It means any Oprah can set herself up like Kurtz at any point along the stream, establishing herself as some kind of cultural godhead, dictating sensibility and priority and offering herself as a gateway, a direction and an answer to our now less specific and nagging sense that there must be “something better” out there to enrich our lives.

    3. jeff on June 16, 2008 at 3:39 pm said:

      Ooooh, yes. This is all ringing true to these ears. We were maybe a step down … middlebrow aspirants? We couldn’t afford the REAL Brittanica, in other words, so we got the poor man’s equivalnet, which I can’t recall the name of right now. My parents also subscribed to the “great books” club. But not the leather-bound versions. I seem to remember a lot of “condensed” versions lining the shelves.

    4. Turff on June 17, 2008 at 8:15 am said:


      Your latest comment reminds me of something my mother attempted several times in my teen years. She decided we needed a better appreciation for fine dining/manners/dressing up/something, so she would periodically prepare a “fine dining” meal, that she probably slaved over for hours. On these specific nights, candles would come out, the white tablecloth would go down, and the napkins would be cloth as well (this occurred at no other time). She would put out a rather confusing array of silverware and extra glasses (that we the underage were mostly forbidden to use), and expect us to arrive at the dinner table in dress clothes. You can imagine how this went down with my brother and I (not well). We were expected to use the best of manners, arrive on time, and eat properly.

      I feel slightly guilty remembering the evening she made Cornish Hen. My brother and I were getting along amazingly well that evening and were fed up with the acculturation my mother was attempting. You may add to this the fact that we had never previously seen or heard of Cornish Hen until it arrived at the table. Between the two of us, we arrived at what was possibly the height of our respective comedy careers, all at the expense of my Mom’s efforts and those chickens cut down in the flower of their youth. It was bad enough that even my father (a staunch defender of my mothers attempts to educate us) eventually succumbed to laughter and joke telling. As I recall, my mother never was particularly amused.

    5. Turff on June 17, 2008 at 8:42 am said:

      This in my email this morning…

    6. marc on June 17, 2008 at 8:55 am said:

      Reader’s Digest condensed books; that’s what we had. And World Book Encyclopedia, even receiving a number of the yearly supplements. The “classics” book club sponsored by Doubleday with the fake leather binding. I joined, also, the Doubleday regular book club before I knew there was a Book-of-the-Month Club. And once I knew of it, I developed the nagging feeling that the Doubleday club was “lower” brow in its choice of offerings. Funny how you pick up on such things.

      Maybe low, middle and highbrow have not gone away. What I like to call the no-brow may be an additional category and not necessarily one that falls within the hierarchy. Instead, maybe its a new variation or commentary on the notion of “brow” itself.

      We’ve been watching many of the reality shows built around dance competitions, lately. And in all of them, the programs put across the notion that dancers are people who have “moves,” who “take it to the next level,” who have “technique.” There is never any talk from the judges or the dancers of realms of expression in any way apart from or beyond what any and all (in the audience?) can immediately grasp and appreciate. Being in J Lo’s latest video or dancing on Broadway or in ballroom competitions is what a dancer does. Why do the producers scrub the product to be free of other more complex reference? Or do they? It might be the case that more “highbrow” dancers or judges wouldn’t be caught near these kinds of shows. True. But does that explain it entirely?

    7. Yes, commerce still can profit from our middlebrow aspirations. Won’t you sleep more soundly at night knowing you have a nice edition of The Canterbury Tales on your shelf that you can dip into whenever the spirit moves you? I also would fantasize about dying early and my children “discovering my legacy” through my book collection, dipping into Dubliners and that translation of Balzac or Lacan’s Ecrits, chuckling over Gertrude Stein, filling their down time with words, stepping through the portal into that mysterious, heightened realm they knew I had made my home away from home. Etc.

      Sort of links up with the Cornish Hen story, I think. My kids sometimes humor me when I try to foist my preoccupations on them, but they also cautiously view me as hopelessly maladapted, in a light-hearted comical way, of course. It’s especially perplexing to them, I think, since I don’t use my precious highbrow veneer to achieve some material end. It’s not part of my job. Not “what I do.”

      The Cornish Hen story also makes me think of how portrayals of middlebrow aspirations lend themselves so easily to effecting pathos, as if we are at our most tender and vulnerable at those moments, open to all scorn and ridicule from either above or below.

      To be no-brow is to no longer lend yourself to pathos. Is that a good thing?

    8. Certainly Jacoby would argue that the middle is disappearing. She would assert that it had already begun disappearing by the time some of us were born (early Sixties). She might blame it on television to a certain extent and changes in secondary and college education philosophies. By the time we came along, she might argue, the encyclopedias on our bookshelf were merely replicas of replicas of some remote impulse, some decaying cultural energy, like a faint echo. Available there on the shelf, certainly read and consulted at times, but stranger and more enigmatic as an entity, less forthright in unfolding the full depths of its secrets. We gaze at it there in mute curiosity. We flip through the pages as we would flip past the channels.

    9. I think we had New World, as well. Kind of a dark burgundy color? And I remember the yearly supplements, as well. I was particularly enthralled by the 1976 edition (the Bicentennial!). I remember spending hours in the corner, flipping through the mostly black and white but OCCASIONALLY color photographs. I would attempt to draw them in my sketchbook. I also loved the Guinness Book of World Records (the 1970s edition with the yellow cover and the picture of the babboon on the front).

      My mom would experiment with “fancy” meals, as well, complete with cloth napkins, etc. That must have been a late-70s, early 80s fad or something.

      I still think we were a bit too redneck to be full-blown middlebrow, though. My childhood was full of basement car repairs, cows, growing tomatoes and beans and corn, tractors, hunting for grasshoppers in the back yard, dirt bikes, go-carts, speedboats, fishing, etc. etc.

    10. I, too, harbor fantasies of my kids suddenly “discovering” the magic of my book and movie collection. Sigh. Not gonna happen.

    11. I, too, loved the Guiness Book of World Records. Talk about “information.” I think our obsession with the “information” out there on the Internet is just a love of dipping into the Guiness Book of World Records writ large. As a useful reference, the Guiness Book was almost as comprehensive as the Ripley’s Believe It or Not series. Almost. Ripley’s, of course, had the advantage of extending through numerous volumes. But thanks to those two sources, I was one well-informed kid. Vital information on the Internet is too scattered in comparison.

    12. Middlebrow roots:

      My father bought “us” a stereo back in 1962ish for Christmas. The hi-fidelity LPs he bought to start us out were definitely middle-brow: Great Marches, Overtures, etc. But they were my gateway indeed to the world of high-brow. I fell for that promise, and that has made all the difference.

      We had the Britannica—my father was a first-class middle-brow provider—and all the annual updates. I discovered that it too was a gateway, as I watched the first Masterpiece Theatre producion, The First Churchills, and read all the biographies of the dukes and earls clashing onscreen.

      I’m in the middle of the day here at GHP, trying to get ready to go talk to Daniel Byrd’s Ed minors, so I don’t have a lot of thoughts straightened out. Later.

    13. marc on June 17, 2008 at 1:37 pm said:

      It does make you wonder what the cut-off point was for content. Jacoby offered the observation that, in general, the middlebrow had little to no interest in what might be called literary high modernism (Who WAS afraid of Virginia Woolf, she wonders at one point…). There were certain titles you would never see in the BoTMC, for instance.

      Music’s interesting to think about. Middlebrow is connected with a piece’s general familiarity, I think. Could you define a difference between a middlebrow Mozart collection and a highbrow? Or is the very idea of having a “Mozart collection” highbrow? Or would one have to have at least six different interpretations of the Jupiter to be highbrow? Is the fact that I relied on “the Jupiter” for my illustration a sign that I’m still a touch middlebrow in my exposures and knowledge (I could have cheated by just throwing out a number under…what…40 might be a safe cut-off).

      Is there a no-brow in music? Let me mull it over…

    14. jeff on June 17, 2008 at 2:13 pm said:

      I think today’s kids are in a completely different place. For us it was all TV, some big movies here and there, music on the radio, and whatever was on the bookshelf. (And, for me, comic books, as well).

      But with my kids, there’s something very different going on. Social networking. Tweets. IMs. Limewire. Google. Facebook. LifeCasting. Text Messaging. YouTube.

      All teens have narcissistic tendencies, but now we’re enabling that to the nth degree through modern technology.

      It worries me that REAL CONTENT isn’t making its way into their brains. Even though our middle-brow upbringings were filtered, at least our encyclopedias and TV organized the world for us in some way that was comprehensible and, most of all, not centered in any way on US.

      There is real power in the tools these kids have today. But power to do … what, exactly? Update their emoticon? Why should anyone care what mood Sally is in, this afternoon? What is Sally going to DO?

      Middle-brow culture served as kind of an “into to the life of the mind,” or “Finer Things 101.” Where do our kids get that today? Do they even care about that? I see no evidence of any sort of investment in those things in my own children, much to my chagrin. Not that I haven’t tried.

      Maybe it’s good, in a way. Maybe our kids will be free, at last, from the “anxiety of influence” that has all but paralyzed our generation. You won’t be intimidated by Shakespeare if you don’t know Shakespeare. Right? Maybe our kids will use these powerful tools to create online animation, e-publish their memoirs, generate music … the possibilities are limitless. And they will be unburdened by what we have called “culture.” There’s something appealing in that.

    15. Kindergarteners and sociopaths are unburdened by culture. Lest we forget.

    16. jeff on June 17, 2008 at 4:45 pm said:

      I tend to side with you on this point, Dale. But I’m trying to take the optimistic view of things.

    17. I have held up posting so that I could gather my thoughts. This is a subject that is rather sensitive for me. I grew up in an environment in which anything remotely approaching middle brow, much less high, was looked upon as “snobby” or “not for people like us.” (Which translated to “rich people.”)

      I had no such BotMC. All I had was a library card and a bike. When I was about seven I was given my great-grandmother’s encyclopedias when she passed away. They were of no publisher of merit and were horribly out-dated. I’m not sure by how much, but I do remember looking up Walt Disney at one point, who was listed with no date of death.

      When I was about ten, I saved up my allowance to purchase “The Big Book of Basic Knowledge,” a several thousand page tome that I had seen advertised in with the coupons of the Sunday paper.

      PBS and NPR were things that I watched or listened to in secret for fear that someone in my family would once again say I was a “funny kid,” which even then I knew translated to homosexual.

      That is not to say that I don’t have my share of affinity for the low brow. I also grew up with television as my babysitter and surrogate parent. I can quote more lines of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” than I can of Shakespeare. The Johnny Cash folder on my iTunes is about three times the size of the entirety of my “classical” collection. And I know more about cartoons than any person should.

      My rather long-winded point is this: middle brow, high brow, whatever, culture is more accessible than ever, if you care to go looking for it. But that’s just it, kids today–no, people today–just don’t care about accessing it. I had to work really hard for my cultural appreciation because it’s WORTH appreciating. Looney Tunes take on a whole different level if you study commedia dell’arte. “I Love Lucy” is pitch perfect Aristophanean Greek comedy.

      People just don’t care anymore. The middle and the high brow are not dying out, they are being systematically irradicated. We are in the midst of a cultural holocaust and hardly. anyone. cares.

    18. jeff on June 17, 2008 at 9:11 pm said:

      O this is the tale of our castaways
      They’re here for a long long time.
      They have to make the best of things.
      It’s an uphill climb.

      The first mate and his skipper, too
      Will do their very best.
      To make their shipmates comfortable
      In their topic island nest.

      No phones!
      No lights!
      No motorcars.
      Not a single luxury.
      Like Robinson Ca-ru-so
      As primitive as can be!

      So join us here each week, my friends
      You’re sure to get a smile
      From seven stranded castaways,
      Here on Gilligan’s Isle!

      No, I did not Google that. That’s from memory, folks.

      And need I point out … this is the theme of the CLOSING credits. After the show is over. When I should have turned off the TV and gone on to other things.

      How many hours, my friends? How many hours?

    19. “So now it’s time to say goodbye
      To Jed and all his kin.
      And they would like to thank you folks
      For kindly dropping in.

      You’re all invited back again
      To this locali-tee
      To have a heapin’ helpin’ of their hospitali-tee.

      Hilbilly that is.
      Take your shoes off.
      Set a spell.”

      I feel your pain.

    20. I saw that Cyd Charisse passed away today. In my opinion, one of the sexiest women EVER.

      Would the best of the MGM musicals of the 50s be considered “middle-brow?”

      This quote caught my attention (a reader was referring to “The Band Wagon”):

      “This was smart and sophisticated musical comedy of the 50s, an era when New York adults still set pop trends and before American culture became corrupted and dumbed down by television. It’s not just nostalgia to say they don’t make them like they used to.”

      But maybe we’re just “old farts,” waxing nostalgic?

    21. I always knit my brows over the whole “middle-brow” thing, which seems to suggest that there’s something condescending or false in offering high culture to the masses. My position has always been that there are works of art and music, et al. that represent worthy worldviews, and dare I say it, better ways to live life.

      As to whether the children are not now seeking the better path, I cannot say, embedded as I am in the midst of kids who have gone into full sponge mode. I know my own child, while he’s not exactly sneaking Dad’s Shostakovich string quartet CDs, is nonetheless aware of and open to these kinds of things, and actually does have a taste for Shostakovich that he developed on his own.

      At any rate, I often am struck by the fact that I live that life the middle-brow thing was supposed to teach us to desire. (As do all of us here, actually. If we were invited to dinner at the White House, chamber music to follow, none of us would be exactly panic-stricken in an Apple Annie kind of way, if my reference makes any sense.) Am I therefore an object of scorn or curiosity?

    22. marc on June 18, 2008 at 9:02 am said:

      So, is to be no-brow to be unbound by obligation to “culture,” free of the anxiety of influence? Would the no-brow see low, middle or highbrow pursuits as just a general expression of people’s enthusiasms. Love of opera equated with collecting thimbles or with seeking the excitement of monster trucks or with the commitment to hoarding newspapers? “It’s what you’re into.”

      The proliferation of options available for kids today means more ways to congregate, sneak thrills, tip-toe behind authority, and snicker over bodily functions, which is what kids have always done. To be no-brow is to be content with how this proliferation can reach you and contain you with no gaps or interruptions, no temporal differals, no wider cultural context.

      Part of the charm of the young is how they can take up some interest or enthusiasm for nothing, for the sake of some inner drive for inner distinction, for a sense of difference, and then share that nothing with others. I am tempted to say that such all for nothing pursuits used to be linked with middle and high brow imperatives, which added to the sense of difference and distinction. But perhaps now the all for nothing aspect can be realized sufficiently in whatever ironic twist gets applied, in a few “getting the joke,” no need for true cultural stakes anymore, no need to tolerate such absence. Media makes all real enough as it appears. No need to twist into a beyond.

    23. marc on June 18, 2008 at 9:19 am said:

      Again, middlebrow not a pejorative. Middlebrow means active disbursement of cultural treasures to a wider audience in order to gain profit or educate or realize some social or institutional goal. Connected with bourgeois drive to “self-improvement” or “bettering oneself.”

      In this disbursement, someone is having to make decisions and choices about what to send out. (Who to invite to speak at the next book club meeting.) It is the act of filtering or choosing that really constitutes whatever the middlebrow truly is or was. Mortimer Adler did it with the Great Books. Oprah has taken upon herself the role today. And is there a difference? What does Oprah want? What did Adler want?

      A better educated, more culturally competent body politic?

    24. jeff on June 18, 2008 at 9:45 am said:

      Marc has hit upon something here:

      “So, is to be no-brow to be unbound by obligation to ‘culture,’ free of the anxiety of influence? Would the no-brow see low, middle or highbrow pursuits as just a general expression of people’s enthusiasms. Love of opera equated with collecting thimbles or with seeking the excitement of monster trucks or with the commitment to hoarding newspapers? ‘It’s what you’re into.'”

      I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but with my kids, I think this really is the way they see it. It’s kind of like what Bloom put forth in “The Closing of the American Mind.” Everything is seen as relative. “It’s what you’re into.” Opera, thimbles, necrophilia, Mozart, whatever.

      So if Mortimer Adler isn’t the filter today, then who or what is? I personally don’t see a filter. It’s all “viral.” Whatever catches the imagination and gets forwarded in an email or linked to. We do it here, in fact. All the time.

      So the center is everywhere and nowhere. And there’s a lot we can say about that. What that means to “middle brow” culture, I do not begin to know.

    25. Furrowed brows.

      Jacoby has an interesting perspective on Bloom and how his perspective came out of his teaching experiences in Chicago. She also makes a welcome distinction between “cultural conservative” (Bloom) and “cultural conservationist” (a progressive who doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater).

      It’s always a challenge to talk about these matters without appearing to have taken up a reactionary agenda.

    26. marc on June 18, 2008 at 2:11 pm said:

      To hearken back to a reference Dale made a while back to Raymond Lulle(y), what does it mean when the Palace of Memory has 24-7 unmediated electronic access? In other words, you no longer need some system of organization that will work within the limitations of and in accord with the nature of human memory: the sense of much being gone but at least some things being left behind to hold together symbolically what needs saving. With our current relationship to access, who needs the older (archaic?) relationship to culture and its treasury of memorable objects?

      You have placed the themes to Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies and

      Green Acres is the place for me.
      Farm living is the life I see (need?)
      Land spreadin’ out so far and wide.
      Keep Manhattan but give me that countryside.

      New York is where I’d rather stay.
      I get allergic smelling hay.
      I just adore a penthouse view.
      Darling, I love you but give me Park (Fifth?) Avenue.

      (Da da da da da)The chores.
      (Da da da da da)The stores.
      (Da da da da da)Fresh Air.
      (Da da da da da)Times Square.
      (Note: Did I miss any? Also, I now know that Times Square at the time of the show’s airing was not exactly a haunt of New York’s hoy ploy–an error in songwriting.)

      You are my wife.
      Goodbye, city life.
      Green Acres, we are there.

      in your Palace of Memory (perhaps not willfully but through repeated exposure…still it’s there) as a way to hold together a number of emotions, memories, states, undefinables, etc. Culture–low, middle, high brow–is how we organize our precious items that we rely on to re-present so much. Not to mention the erotics of remembrance. With total accessibility why build shelves for storage. Computers have made us believe we can store everything. We don’t need distillations or re-presentatives anymore. No-brow?

    27. jeff on June 18, 2008 at 2:41 pm said:

      Green Acres is the place TO BE.

      Farm livin’ is the life FOR ME.

      (Yes, I am shamed that I know the theme lyrics to far too many late-60s early 70s sitcoms).

    28. jeff on June 18, 2008 at 2:53 pm said:

      Yes, I often wonder why my kids still come home with lists of state capitals to commit to memory. Ummm … Google, anyone? Mapquest? Wikipedia?

      With so much info available to us 24-7 at the touch of our CELL PHONES, it seems we should commit brain energy to … something else.

      I’m thinking of my grandfather. He was illiterate. His memory, however, was AMAZING. He could tell you what happened on a certain day in 1936. Since he could not write anything down and store it, he had to memorize everything PERFORCE. Couldn’t take a list to the grocery store. Had to remember it. His power of retention was FAR greater than my own.

      So I suppose our brains are malleable, to some extent, based on some of the research I’ve seen here and there. If there’s a SAVINGS in one area (we no longer have to memorize certain info), then maybe that frees up some “brain space” to use for other things?

      Like what?

      But what concerns me is that my kids are so overwhelmed with readily accessible info that it’s all just noise to them. That’s why it boils down to, “it’s just whatever you’re into, man.”

      There are just all these CULTURAL MEMES floating around out there in the etherspace, hoping to become viral. (Fresh air! Times Square!) How many hits did our page get? What are the ratings? Are we listed? Did they un-friend me?

      So … Are we back to Darwinism?

    29. I have a friend with a son in third grade. She absolutely refused for him to learn the multiplication tables. “Pointless memorization,” she called it, “When anyone can get their hands on a calculator within five minutes these days.”
      Just because we don’t NEED to know it, does that mean we shouldn’t? That’s not rhetorical.

    30. Terry on June 18, 2008 at 3:35 pm said:

      When I was teaching school at Newnan High School (this was when Dale was still in the classroom and Marc was a student) a few students in my U.S.History last period class broke into the theme from the Brady Bunch right before class began. (“Here’s the story of a lovely lady”) No I don’t know the words but the tune rings through my head. So here I am trying to teach about U.S. History and they are dreaming of watching the Brady Bunch.

      I definitely grow up with a touch of the low brow listening to Mitch Miller and Lawrence Welk on the new stereo. Fortunately I had older brothers who changed that quickly. By my mid 30’s my music collection (records as we called them then) included about an equal amount of classical and modern rock.

      Not being as in touch with kids a I used to be I hesitate to make any assumptions just based on what I read on the Internet. But with all the video games, tv game shows and other viewing on about the same level, one has to wonder where the creative spark is to come from. But then Marc has suggested Shakespeare presented as World Wrestling.

    31. Online Darwinism = Survival of the “Phattest”

    32. jeff on June 18, 2008 at 8:26 pm said:

      Here’s the story
      Of a lovely lady
      Who was bringing up three very lovely girls
      All of them had hair of gold
      Just like their mother
      The youngest one in curls.

      (No Google cheating … from memory … and, yes, I can quote the whole damn thing.)

    33. re: not memorizing multiplication tables

      The answer to your friend is “because it’s faster than a calculator.” It’s certainly faster than accessing a calculator and then performing the operations.

      The more overarching answer to her shortsightedness (and to the state capitals) is that although it is entirely possible to live a functional life without knowing what the capital of North Dakota is, or even the capital of Georgia, or even the name of the county next door, it is nevertheless a more circumscribed life. When we name things, we know things. [Marc will now argue this point.] It is better for us as individuals and for our society if we have the broadest possible picture of our world in our heads.

    34. But who, then, decides what’s WORTH knowing? With the world always changing, do we know the right things? Are we emphasizing the correct bits of knowledge? Where is the “middle brow” filter?

    35. marc on June 19, 2008 at 8:48 am said:

      Pardon me for pausing for a moment. This never happens: I am poised to learn someone’s presuppositions of my presuppositions. This rarely happens. Dale, I feel very unsubtle. What point will I argue? I actually agree with the idea “when we name things, we know things.” That seems epistemologically verifiable to me. My notions of “knowledge” might, ultimately, rely more on contingency and indeterminacy than yours. For me the mirror of confirmation has a big crack in it; but as a convenient rule of thumb, I can go with it. Tell me what you were thinking of. This could change everything (about what shelf I sit upon in your Palace of Memory).

      As for not learning multiplication tables, the mother’s assumption is that the human mind works like a computer and if you free up space in the memory you can use that space for something else, something more…useful. Here’s an instance were the mind as computer rubric causes clear faulty decisions to be made. The mother is also assuming the child will possess some kind of intellectual autonomy years before he can even begin to entertain such a thing. The truth about learning is that so much needs to be acquired before the mind of the child is even beginning to learn how to think about context. That’s why it is so heart breaking to a parent (some parents) when they see their child stubbornly rebelling against some learning challenge. Down the road when they acquire a sense of context, it will be too late; they will not have the needed tools within reach. Then they learn regret.

    36. What marc said.

    37. Terry on June 19, 2008 at 12:14 pm said:

      “When we name things, we know things.”

      I would have to take issue with this. Maybe we are just talking semantics here, but naming things does not give us any knowledge of the essence of that thing, whatever it may be. Granted naming things is useful, in fact essential in manipulating our way in the world. It is like having a map of the terrain. But to truly “know” things involves experiemce. Just as if I told you what a strawberry was, you would still not know the texture, taste, etc.

      I realize this is not the context in which you made that statement, for I agree we should learn as many names as we can, for it increases our ability to function in the world. But it does not necessarily give us “knowledge”.

    38. I’m going to ask the question Jeff asked. How do we decide what is worth being learned. I feel confident in speaking for all in this group when I say that we are people who can appreciate learning for learning’s sake. (You don’t NEED to know your multiplication tables, but it makes you a better person.)

      However, I would also venture to say that ll of us here possess knowledge that we would never EXPECT anyone else to have:
      “…’til the one day when the lady met this fellow.
      And they knew that it was much more than a hunch.
      That this group must somehow form a family.
      That’s the way they all became the Brady Bunch.”

      So where is the line? Is there a line? Who decides where the line is? I know I certainly couldn’t decide you have to know your state capitals, but you can get by without Mozart. Every person should know Shakespeare, but who really needs the Pythagorean theorem?

      Who decides? It it school boards? Heaven help us if it is. Is that what “No Child Left Behind” was supposed to be all about?

      Perhaps a corollary to our ongoing “What is art?” discussion is the question of “What’s worth knowing?”

    39. Here’s why the whole “name it/know it” high-brow thing is important. It’s as if the gentleman (and those of his ilk) were suddenly being attacked by cruel overmasters who are attempting to subvert his culture, when in fact he is simply ignorant of the great Western tradition to which—I am willing to bet my lottery winnings—he gives lip service whenever inveighing against gay marriage.

    40. jeff on June 19, 2008 at 2:38 pm said:

      “We are unable to locate the page you requested.”


      The whole “naming things” conversation is of interest to me. By naming something, do we claim some type of ownership of it? Do we limit it? What does it mean when we say “God,” versus “Goddess” versus “Jehovah,” versus, “Ground of Being,” versus “Great Mystery.” ?????

      By naming something, do we put a frame around it that limits/amplifies/changes the way we think about the thing that is being referenced?

      Is naming something equivalent to knowhing that thing? Maybe we know LESS about it when we have an over-reliance on the shared cultural reference, which possibly PREVENTS, in some way, a more direct access to the thing being named?


    41. marc on June 19, 2008 at 3:26 pm said:

      “What’s worth knowing?” It gets my vote.

      I don’t KNOW how to develop an energy source to replace fossil fuels.

      If there’s someone out there who does KNOW how to do this (I’m setting aside all possible paranoid scenarios involving cover-ups), things should be different. No one really KNOWS (yet…optimism) how to do this.

      We’d like to hope there’s at least one person out there who KNOWS enough physics and chemistry to find a solution. We assume the solution will come from people who KNOW physics and chemistry.

      I don’t KNOW Paris. I wish I could say I did. I could, in fact, say I did, but I certainly would be proved wrong by someone. Would the one proving me wrong have to KNOW Paris? If not, what would she have to KNOW to prove me wrong?

      I could truly believe I KNOW Paris, and then be proved wrong. What made me believe I KNEW Paris, and what would it take to convince me otherwise? It is also possible that I will not be convinced though all around me may come to be convinced once I have an exchange with the person who KNOWS I don’t KNOW.

      What is the relationship between experience and knowledge?

      I know at least 15 ways to callesticate a blue tragmera. Only half of them involve actually making a marviatona. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them you don’t have to use a marviatona. You can pluckate. You can find a plaxu of gleech and use it to partially callesticate.

    42. marc on June 19, 2008 at 3:37 pm said:

      I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies and television to KNOW how to kill someone in a very painful and humiliating way. I have pretty strong confidence in my knowledge in spite of never having had the actual experience. I don’t KNOW what it’s like to carry out such an act, but I KNOW what to do.

      I do not know how to build a permanent shelter. I do not know how to make the earth render up its fruits season to season. I do not know how to make covering material and then from it fashion garments. It may be that only the survivalists know stuff truly worth knowing.

    43. Terry on June 19, 2008 at 7:43 pm said:

      As I said in my other comment I think we are dealing with semantics here, especially with the words “know” and “knowledge”.

      I was using Knowledge in the more esoteric sense, as in the ultimate knowledge of ourselves and life. I don’t believe that can come from naming things and in fact naming things may actually be a hinderance at this level.

      This harkens back to Jeff’s question:

      “By naming something, do we put a frame around it that limits/amplifies/changes the way we think about the thing that is being referenced?”

      Surely we gain information by naming things, but are we at the same time limiting how much we can learn from things by naming them?

    44. jeff on June 19, 2008 at 8:34 pm said:

      marc said:

      “I do not know how to build a permanent shelter. I do not know how to make the earth render up its fruits season to season. I do not know how to make covering material and then from it fashion garments. It may be that only the survivalists know stuff truly worth knowing.”

      Come with me on the Appalachian Trail this August, my friend.

    45. turff on June 20, 2008 at 9:28 am said:

      I’m not sure how this fact fits into this whole “dilution of culture” conversation, but I just missed this entire dialog until just now because my news reader decided to not tell me there were comments being posted here. I have much to say, but must wait until I am not on the corporate clock to do so.

    46. marc on June 20, 2008 at 1:10 pm said:

      If ultimate knowledge in the esoteric sense cannot be put into words or if words somehow reduce the experience, each of us is alone in our possession of this knowledge; there is no satisfactory way to share the knowledge with someone else. Which, I suppose, is existentially valid. However, what if our experience of others is intrinsic to our experience of ultimate truth? And to what extent does the experience of ultimate knowledge take place in a consensual reality? A shared reality implies some way to interact with items we have in common with others. And what if we include words among the items that belong to consensual reality? What if my experience of ultimate knowledge orbits around a word shared with another? Is that a somehow diminished ultimate experience? Am I too co-dependent? Est-ce qu’il y a une example de la mauvaise foi?

    47. jeff on June 20, 2008 at 3:37 pm said:

      This is an interesting point to me. To what extent does our language (in this case, English) reflect or contain or amplify our cultural values? Does a Frenchman approach the world in much the same way as an Inuit? To what extent is that worldview shaped by language?

      It’s the old saw about an Eskimo having 96 words for snow (which I understand is actually not true).

      What kinds of words do we have now that we did not have 20 years ago? Are these words cross-cultural?

      I agree that we do share a kind of “consensual reality.” But the fact that we all “buy into it,” does that make it somehow REAL? Couldn’t it just be a convenient, shared delusion? Just a kind of useful short-hand for navigating the world?

      The map is not the territory. But some maps are probably better than others. It depends, I suppose, on where one is trying to get to (or if, in fact, a person even has a destination in mind at all).

      And, most importantly, what does all of this have to do with “middle brow?”

    48. Regarding the question of relevance: “I do not seek; I find.”–Pablo Picasso

      I have been biting my hand so as not to say it. I even double-checked the definition and convinced myself for a while it wasn’t the appropriate term, but this last bit of sophistry–“I agree that we do share a kind of ‘consensual reality.’ But the fact that we all ‘buy into it,’ does that make it somehow REAL? Couldn’t it just be a convenient, shared delusion? Just a kind of useful short-hand for navigating the world?”–makes me cry, Solipsism! If consensual reality is a convenient “shorthand” as you suggest, it also implies, given the meaning of the word “shorthand,” a longhand version that an individual might undertake in the private sweat of his den or cubicle which somehow more accurately approaches the “REAL.” But then to undertake such a scrupulous project on one’s own means to sacrifice the ability to “get along?” Does reality lie in our attempts at a solitary inner grasping? I might argue that to posit such a ultimate reality beyond the reach of our convenient social shorthand is really an assertion of solipsism–a suggestion that the only “reality” is contained in one’s mental constructs, in this case a construct that asserts an ultimate beyond as a last heavy weighed anchor for one’s awareness.

      Can no-brows have an exchange like this? Would they see it as worth having?

      Psychoanalytic observation: the “reality beyond words” theme has returned a number of times in our exchanges, as if the current always carries our little rigs to the same rocks. What’s that about?

    49. Marc said:

      “a suggestion that the only “reality” is contained in one’s mental constructs.”

      Marc, you should know me better than this. Internal, mental “constructs” are certainly NOT reality. They are “inner metaphors” in the same way that “consensual reality” is an “outer metaphor.”

      What we experience, inner and outer, is related to the Real, and swimming in the Real, and is an expression of the Real. It even IS the Real. BUT to try and CONTAIN that (“What is Real”) through definition or description, whether inner or outer — already in that instant you have moved a step away from It. You have limited It.

      “Consensual Reality” should not be mistaken for REALITY ITSELF … and neither should your “mental constructs” be mistaken for such. These are just useful, and perhaps personally meaningful, analogies.

    50. Two things:

      When I asked the “knowing” question, it was only in this sense: A man lives by a simple stream in the forest. One day he decides to follow the stream. After many days he emerges onto the strand and sees the vast ocean before him. He points, dismayed, and cries, “Heresy!”

      From today’s Writer’s Almanac:

      Of The Terrible Doubt Of Appearances
      by Walt Whitman

      Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
      Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
      That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
      That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable
      May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills,
      shining and flowing waters,
      The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be
      these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and
      the real something has yet to be known,
      (How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me
      and mock me!
      How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows,
      aught of them,)
      May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they
      indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and
      might prove (as of course they would) nought of what
      they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed
      points of view;
      To me these and the like of these are curiously answer’d by
      my lovers, my dear friends,
      When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while
      holding me by the hand,
      When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and
      reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
      Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am
      silent, I require nothing further,
      I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of
      identity beyond the grave,
      But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
      He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

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