Culture and Personal Experience

by Mark English

A busker. A real musician, this one, with an acoustic guitar and a small amplifier, operating on a (by then) relatively quiet city street corner late the other night.

You know how it is. You hear a song that is vaguely familiar, and you want to identify it. You Google a couple of keywords or phrases from the lyrics. Dice, loaded from the start, exploded in my heart. Mark Knopfler’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Everyone I subsequently asked about it knew it better than I did.

The busker’s version sounded more like the cover by The Killers than most of Knopfler’s versions. The lyrics were driving it. (1) What you don’t get from my busker or The Killers, however, is Knopfler’s accent, and the glottal stop replacing the ‘t’ of ‘heart’ in ‘heart attack’ for instance. (Juliet says: “Hey, it’s Romeo! You nearly gave me a heart attack.”) (2)

The classicist and poet A.E. Housman said that good poetry makes the hairs on your chin bristle if you recite it while shaving. He had developed reliable mechanisms of aesthetic judgment based on bodily responses, apparently. My hairs – and tear ducts – are hopeless judges of quality. I can react emotionally to the most embarrassingly simple musical triggers: just about anything emotive which is not sickly sweet. Even national anthems. Any good anthem will bring tears to my eyes. With films I am a little more discriminating, but still very vulnerable to emotional manipulation.

Full disclosure. There is for me a complicating factor pertaining to the song – an old friendship with an actual Juliet. No doubt this fact influences my responses but not, I think, in a decisive way. I have talked to others with similar romantic instincts to mine and no links to real Romeos or real Juliets and they respond to the song very much as I do.

The Juliet I speak of claimed that she didn’t have a name at all before she was five – she was just “Baby” (or the equivalent in Serbo-Croatian, her parents’ language). Apparently, when she had to go to kindergarten, her older sister chose her name. Yes, from the Shakespeare play, which she was studying at school.

Of course, the downside of actual romantic attachments is the emotional wear-and-tear, especially relating to jealousy and the fear of betrayal (or bitterness about past betrayals). I am aware that it’s all too easy to sentimentalize reality, and songs and movies can encourage the process of emotional wallowing. But films and songs which deal with themes of love and betrayal can also have positive effects, sometimes providing a broader perspective – reassuring us that others have experienced the same thing, or worse – and so a measure of comfort.

I know that certain Eastern religions warn people off emotions like jealousy. One old friend of mine – a Western devotee of an Indian guru – was forever blaming herself for feeling jealous about her absent boyfriend (who belonged to the same sect). I used to try to convince her that it was fine and natural to be jealous. And I think it is. It’s part of the deal.

Jealousy is not wrong in a moral sense (as she thought it was). But it’s certainly tough to deal with. The way I see it, it’s just part of the price you pay for an intense emotional life.

Knopfler’s song is light and funny, but also serious in its colloquial way: “You promised me everything… Now you just say: Oh, Romeo, yeah, I used to have a scene with him.”

The song is particularly interesting for its cultural references, which include Shakespeare’s play, of course, and also Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story (which was itself a reworking of Shakespeare’s narrative). The phrase “a place for us” fits a famous song from that musical, the melody of which incorporates phrases from works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. But the film Romeo and Juliet, which Franco Zeffirelli directed, and music from that film (composed by Nino Rota) are also being alluded to, I think. Such historical and cultural allusions are rare in popular works today. The song “Zombie” (by The Cranberries) was considered unusual twenty years ago for making a reference to 1916 (the year of the ill-fated Easter Rising). We are increasingly cut off from communal memories.

You can deal with love and loss and nostalgia on a number of levels. There is nostalgia as a theme in songs or movies. Then there is the level of personal experience. And personal memories, of course, are often intertwined with particular songs or films, whether or not they deal with nostalgia as a theme.

This last point touches on an important issue: our radical dependence on culture. All our complex experiences, including romantic attachments and even our very sense of self are, in a real sense, not only socially- but culturally-based. And the nature and quality of these experiences is partly determined by the nature of the culture which has created and which sustains us as human beings.

A culture – like a language, which is arguably the central component of a culture – is a pattern of influences and interactions which may be analyzed synchronically (i.e. as it exists at any given time) or diachronically (historically).

So I end with two claims. The first (pretty uncontroversial, I think) is that contemporary Western culture has become progressively disconnected from its history. Our cultural memories are failing.

One sign of this I have alluded to: the network of connections reflected by popular culture is losing its deep, diachronic dimension. Another relates to naming practices. Increasingly, given (personal) names lack any deep cultural (or familial) meaning or connection with the past. Even corporate and business names have become more fluid and subject to fashion than ever before.

My second claim is more controversial and involves value judgments. It is that these trends involve an impoverishment not only of the culture but also of our personal experiences – because the latter depend on the former in so many respects.

Those who have experienced some of these changes may feel a generalized sense of unease or loss, the loss of a particular kind of historically-rooted cultural belonging, of culturally-mediated continuity; a kind of nostalgia for a time – not so long ago – when the links to a shared past were still operational.

But, more than this, I am claiming that the very quality of our personal attachments is being adversely affected by these cultural changes. We rely on this diachronic (or historical) cultural dimension in order to function satisfactorily in a social way, and the stability or depth or meaningfulness of our personal relationships is being compromised to the extent that the culture in which we operate is cut adrift from its own history.

NOTES

  1. https://youtu.be/NtmorUXAwiI
  2. Here is Knopfler and friends performing the song (with lots of instrumental embellishments) at a London concert.

19 Comments »

  1. Mark,
    I don’t disagree with much of your analysis; but you write as if there is something we can do about it. I would certainly like to know if you think we can, and if so, what.

    The Post-Modern condition is an historical gestalt in the West, just as Modernity was before it. In the wake of its dissemination, enhanced by various new technologies, we are not talking about a localized fad or reactive aberration among a given social group. It is everywhere and every one is participant in it.

    Our educational systems, having become political battlefields, are failing its students; in the US we have a president who believes Andrew Jackson was very upset about the Civil War; our entertainments are shot through with misleading anachronisms while directing our attention to fantastic futures where whole cities collapse in massive explosions; It is the end of the world as we know it, and apparently we feel fine.

    I study culture in order to learn to live with it. I am often saddened by its trajectory; but ultimately it’s about understanding. If there is a solution here, I be happy to hear of it. Most that I’ve seen or heard so far seem to rely on a change of consciousness without any plan of how we effect such. I fear the future will become history in much the same way it always has – a drunken walk through a dark forest.

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  2. Mark: Your anecdote seems to undercut your main claim. A play written over 400 years ago is still being alluded to in subtle ways by street musicians. That’s cultural continuity for you. To which can be added the wonderful “West Side Story” and the Zeffirelli film and the Baz Luhrmann film and “Shakespeare in Love”.

    Here’s another instance. I recently saw “High School Musical” at my teenage granddaughter’s high school (she was working backstage, her first experience of theatre). The story is a rerun of the “Romeo and Juliet” plot, or as they prefer it, “Juliet and Romeo”. With of course a happy ending. And an understanding that it is a spoof of a classic. Multiple layers. I’d not heard of it before seeing it. Looking it up just now, I see that it is a Disney hit film.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_School_Musical

    One indignant critic called it “A schmaltzy little piece of obvious fluff that’s directed in truly horrendous fashion and populated by cardboard characters who spit out simplistic platitudes and breathy pop tunes.” An accurate description — he just missed the whole point of it as a spoof. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t like that sort of thing, but it too is an example of cultural continuity, isn’t it?

    Alan

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  3. Mark, you have done it again. You have written a winner.

    So I end with two claims. The first (pretty uncontroversial, I think) is that contemporary Western culture has become progressively disconnected from its history. Our cultural memories are failing.

    Yes, I agree with you, and this is a dangerous loss. One of the reasons is that it has become fashionable to disown our history as if it were some dirty, disreputable thing. We unashamedly apply the lens of presentism to a past that we are mostly ignorant of and then congratulate ourselves on our evident superiority.

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  4. Who remembers what the Birkenhead Drill is?

    Just a few hundred km down the coast from where I live is the site that HMS Birkenhead floundered. The ship struck an uncharted rock and quickly started sinking. The captain ordered his men to stand fast in their ranks on the deck while the women and children were put in the lifeboats. They stood in their ranks as the ship sank so that they would not swamp the lifeboats. This is the origin of the famous “women and children first” convention at sea.

    The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers. As a survivor later recounted: “Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice.”[3]

    Just before she sank, Salmond called out that “all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats”. Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore.

    The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure, or were killed by sharks.

    More than three quarters of the crew and passengers died.

    This amazing calmness and heroism echoed throughout the British Empire and gave rise to the tradition of women and children first, i.e. the Birkenhead Drill.

    This is just one small example of the powerful way the past and its culture shapes us for the better, though sadly, this tradition is being forgotten. But not by everyone. After Sully Sullenberger landed his plane on the Hudson River, he stayed aboard until every other person had been rescued. He was true to the spirit of the Birkenhead Drill.

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  5. Hi Mark, a rather personal piece where I agree with much, and would rather not distract on smaller points I might disagree.

    “Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story (which was itself a reworking of Shakespeare’s narrative). The phrase “a place for us” fits a famous song from that musical”

    The song you are referring to here is one that almost always got to me.

    What you discuss at the end reminds me of IIRC Durkheim’s discussion of anomie.

    I wonder if one of the causes is simply the speed and scale of connectivity, which does not allow for much sense of continuity.

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  6. So I end with two claims. The first (pretty uncontroversial, I think) is that contemporary Western culture has become progressively disconnected from its history. Our cultural memories are failing.

    This statement ties in nicely with Dan-Ks’ essay about self-madedness. As our cultural memories fragment we are free to construct new memories and new identities. Is this a good thing? I seriously doubt it. Our cultural memories have always been selective. This means that we preserved the memories of all that was best, most heroic and admirable. These memories then shaped and directed our present behaviour in beneficial ways.

    In all our actions we are confronted with the dilemma of choosing between self interest or communal interest. Acting in self-interest provides immediate and tangible benefit. Acting in the communal interest provides a larger, delayed benefit to more people. Our cultural memories were a strong incentive to act more for the communal interest than for self-interest. The Birkenhead Drill was a thrilling and inspiring example of this.

    As our cultural memories fragment the centre of our being becomes increasingly ourselves and others become merely instrumental to our own being.

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  7. ejwinner

    “I don’t disagree with much of your analysis; but you write as if there is something we can do about it.”

    Do I??

    “I would certainly like to know if you think we can, and if so, what.”

    Who is the “we”? Obviously small groups can do things (especially in relation to the education of their children). Whether larger groups (movements, regions, countries) can successfully resist these trends and chart alternative courses in the longer term I don’t know. Trouble is, most countries or political or religious movements which are currently resisting are not models anyone in their right mind would want to follow.

    “The Post-Modern condition is an historical gestalt in the West, just as Modernity was before it. In the wake of its dissemination, enhanced by various new technologies, we are not talking about a localized fad or reactive aberration among a given social group. It is everywhere and every one is participant in it.”

    I see cultural forces as massively powerful and they *are* closely tied to technologies of communication (which we can’t really control). But I’m wary of these labels (modernism, postmodernism).

    Also, you’ve got to look at what’s happening in countries which are not culturally aligned with the US and Western Europe.

    “Our educational systems, having become political battlefields, are failing its students…”

    Agreed.

    “… our entertainments are shot through with misleading anachronisms…”

    Anachronisms have a long and distinguished history. I’m reminded of a clock striking the hour in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But I take your point.

    “I study culture in order to learn to live with it. I am often saddened by its trajectory; but ultimately it’s about understanding. If there is a solution here, I be happy to hear of it. Most that I’ve seen or heard so far seem to rely on a change of consciousness without any plan of how we effect such.”

    One thing I’m certain of is that attempts at social engineering have unintended (and usually bad) consequences. As you suggest, I think the best we can do is to try to understand what’s going on, and learn to live with it.

    That said, there is certainly scope for improvements in the education system.

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  8. My second claim is more controversial and involves value judgments. It is that these trends involve an impoverishment not only of the culture but also of our personal experiences – because the latter depend on the former in so many respects.

    I agree with your second claim as well. My previous comment addressed this issue.

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  9. DB,
    I wonder if one of the causes is simply the speed and scale of connectivity, which does not allow for much sense of continuity

    It is hard to see why that should be the case. That is simply something mechanical, an enabler for other and deeper forces. We need to consider what those forces are to reach a better understanding.

    Tim Wu, in Attention Merchants, gives a better explanation. His thesis is that modern business is harvesting our attention on an industrial scale. Our attention is increasingly fragmented by the overwhelming demands on our attention and it focuses us more on the present than ever before.

    He begins by saying
    This book explains how our current state of affairs came to be. It is the consequence of the dramatic and impressive rise of an industry that barely existed a century ago: the Attention Merchants. Since its inception, the attention industry, in its many forms, has asked and gained more and more of our waking moments, albeit always, in exchange for new conveniences and diversions, creating a grand bargain that has transformed our lives. In the process, as a society and individually, we have accepted a life experience that is in all of its dimensions—economic, political, social, any way you can think of—mediated as never before in human history. And if each bargain in isolation seems a win-win, in their grand totality they have come to exert a more ambiguous though profound influence on how we live.

    And continues
    Ultimately, it is not our nation or culture but the very nature of our lives that is at stake. For how we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.

    He points out
    It was William James, the fount of American Pragmatism, who, having lived and died before the flowering of the attention industry, held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. At stake, then, is something akin to how one’s life is lived.

    Our life experience is what we pay attention to and that is fragmented and captured in the present by the overwhelming and conflicting demands of the attention merchants.

    He concludes
    If we desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.

    By “reclaim[ing] ownership of the very experience of living” we learn to see the present in a deeper way, that is connected to and informed by the past, and is a gateway to the future. The whole purpose of the present is to move into a better future.

    Martin Seligman and John Tierny address this question in masterly fashion in their article We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment(https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/opinion/sunday/why-the-future-is-always-on-your-mind.html)

    They say, quite amusingly
    A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain

    The attention merchants are capturing us in the present, fragmenting the sense of who we are. But our consciousness demands a unified self. Thus we are constantly reassembling our ‘self’ from the fragments of our attention. Therefore the sense of who we are is a floating and poorly defined one. We become self-made in the sense described so lucidly by Dan-K in his marvellous essay, but not self-made in a good sense.

    When I walk or run with my dogs in our dangerous neighbourhood I whisper the mantra Respice, Adspice, Prospice, because to stay alive, I must continually be aware of the threats behind, around or in front of me. But it is also a good mantra for living one’s life in a deep(respice), full(adspice) and hopeful(prospice) way.

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  10. Alan

    “Your anecdote seems to undercut your main claim. A play written over 400 years ago is still being alluded to in subtle ways by street musicians. That’s cultural continuity for you.”

    But my point was that the song was old and that, as I put it, “such historical and cultural allusions are rare in popular works today.”

    There are still many echoes from our cultural past, sure. I am suggesting, however, that they are fewer and weaker, and that this hollowing out process has changed the character of our society for the worse.

    You give other instances to make your (optimistic) point. But I was more or less assuming that most people would accept my point about the way we are progressively cutting ourselves off from our past. I was not really trying to make the case here, just pointing to a couple of indications from popular culture and naming practices. And suggesting why such changes might be expected to affect the way we experience things, including personal relationships.

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  11. David

    I didn’t know Richard Thompson’s work, but I had a bit of a listen. Having written a few music-themed pieces here and dealing with comments, usually from people with more musical knowledge than I have, I am learning quite a bit.

    You’re right about folk music. It necessarily connects to the past. It’s been exploited (I use the word in a neutral sense) in various – and very different – ways, of course. It has played a big role (more so during some periods than others) in Western art music, and made something of a comeback in the late-19th and early-20th centuries with composers like Bartók, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. Outside of that tradition I am most familiar with its use in more or less political contexts, e.g. its use by nationalists (cultural and otherwise), and by civil rights activists and the political left in America and elsewhere. And the influence on pop music, of course.

    As a schoolboy, I was force-fed traditional songs and sea shanties by a very uninspiring choir mistress. Despite those experiences, I still respond to (some) songs in the traditions you mention.

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  12. Labnut

    Thanks for the kind words. We seem to be more or less on the same page here. I’ll reread your posts and may come back later with a quibble or two.

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  13. dbholmes

    “What you discuss at the end reminds me of … Durkheim’s discussion of anomie.”

    I am probably more influenced by Saussure than Durkheim, but I have a lot of respect for Durkheim and a number of his key ideas do seem to me to be valid (and useful).

    “I wonder if one of the causes is simply the speed and scale of connectivity, which does not allow for much sense of continuity.”

    And this is largely driven by technology, isn’t it? No going back…

    Feel free to question minor points, by the way. Sometimes side issues are the more interesting (and revealing) ones.

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  14. Mark,
    I’ll reread your posts and may come back later with a quibble or two.

    Please do. The differences are often the most interesting.

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  15. That said, there is certainly scope for improvements in the education system.

    Is there?
    We have a teacher, a blackboard, some chalk, serried ranks of desks and a cane. What more do we need? This model has survived for a thousand years because it works. Our finest minds graduated from this system.

    There is this myth that if only we had a better educational system we would produce finer minds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fine minds will survive any system and fine minds need the challenge of overcoming difficulties. Accomplishment is an amalgam of intelligence and knowledge, tested in the trial of competition and tempered in the furnace of challenging circumstances. The result is a tough, durable alloy of intelligence, knowledge, purpose, determination, perseverance and principle. All our intellectual monuments are constructed from this alloy.

    And in case you wondered, I still lovingly caress my slide rule 🙂

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  16. There are still many echoes from our cultural past, sure. I am suggesting, however, that they are fewer and weaker, and that this hollowing out process has changed the character of our society for the worse.

    No-one has produced a convincing counter-argument.

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  17. labnut

    “In all our actions we are confronted with the dilemma of choosing between self interest or communal interest. Acting in self-interest provides immediate and tangible benefit. Acting in the communal interest provides a larger, delayed benefit to more people.”

    But things are not quite so simple, and I think Dan Kaufman’s latest piece helps make it clear why this is. For one thing, our motives and the driving forces of our thoughts and actions are not necessarily open to introspection. Also, great harm is often done by people who think they are acting in the communal interest.

    “Our cultural memories were a strong incentive to act more for the communal interest than for self-interest. The Birkenhead Drill was a thrilling and inspiring example of this.”

    I agree that such traditions as you describe are very positive, but there are also many bad cultural traditions. On the whole though, I’m with you.

    “There is this myth that if only we had a better educational system we would produce finer minds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fine minds will survive any system and fine minds need the challenge of overcoming difficulties…”

    Fine minds are a social creation. From what I know of the educational status quo in Western countries, I despair. Difficult subjects are being abandoned and replaced with far less valuable material. In fact, in many cases it looks to me more like indoctrination than education.

    In Asian countries, it tends to be different, I think. They may go too far with the emphasis on competition etc. but on the whole I think the outcomes are better, both for the individual students and for the long-term benefit and prosperity of the countries involved.

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  18. Hi Mark, the side issue is small and irrelevant enough to the main subject matter that I’ll wait for now.

    “And this is largely driven by technology, isn’t it?”

    Yes, though of course times do change and it is possible people might choose to form communities that are more closed and so recreate a cultural linearity.

    ………..

    Hi Labnut, your and Mark’s responses made me realize that “driven” would have been a better word than “caused”.

    It’s funny but I kind of spotted the needless time-wasting quality of Facebook and Twitter early on, one reason I hate both, and now it’s being shown that they are intentionally trying to waste the time of others by capturing attention. Outside of this intentional issue, I was also wanting to highlight the fact that just by having global and instantaneous access to information, that will tend to break down any local, linear concept of culture.

    Although I agree that we are largely forward thinking creatures, it is all about attention and believe that can be stuck on dwelling on the past or the present.

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