Monday, April 21, 2008

Cultural Literacy

I was out to breakfast on Saturday with my business partners and it came out that neither of them had ever seen "It's a Wonderful Life". When I recommended that they should watch it they wanted to know why. I told them that they needed to watch it for the same reason I have to watch "Frisky Dingo". Stick with me here for a second.

In the past there were these seminal movies and books which entered the culture to such an extent that it's just expected that you know the plot, or the classic lines so that people can reference them and build up a sort of cultural short hand. So that when "The Simpsons" does its version of Citizen Kane they can do it all in 22 minutes and still have time for a guest appearance by the "Ramones". That's the point of watching a movie like "It's a Wonderful Life".

"Frisky Dingo" on the other hand represents kind of the extreme end of that trend. It seems that for my generation, media is so fragmented that rather than having these broad cultural touchstones, each clique adopts some show or internet meme as their own and uses that as a short hand for communication. So here in the office you have this bizarre short cartoon that appears on "Adult Swim" as the default media that ends up being short hand for all kinds of jokes, opinions and even culture.

Now I know that using lines from TV shows as short hand for communication has been around for a long time. I grew up saying "That's good stuff Maynard". Without ever knowing who Maynard G. Krebs was (of course I know now). So I don't think this is necessarily a new phenomenon. But, I think the groups are becoming smaller and smaller. To take an extreme example when Freud came up with his Oedipus Complex he could use that as a short hand because EVERYONE (or at least everyone who could read) had read Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus. But now when I say, "Is it an ironic doom?" Virtually no one will understand what I'm saying, but the five guys at my office will laugh like crazy.

Welcome to You're "Doom!"


Blogger Alberta said...

Amen, brother! I've never experienced more of the modern cultural literacy phenom than when I was in the U marching/pep band. It's probably the most extreme example of "micro culture". Many of the expressions had no basis in common media experience, just in common experience since we generally spent so much time together doing the same things. It can be pretty disconcerting to outsiders, just ask my dh!

1:57 PM  

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