on context

I don’t think there is anything more important to our understanding and appreciation of history, literature, art, philosophy, and beyond, or anything less taught, than cultural context.

Writer’s Reminder: This is a blog. Forgive the rambling and forgive any incomplete arguments of which this post contains many.

I’ve read a bit about how our higher education institutions came to isolate disciplines and can only assume a trickle-down effect explains the same in primary school; our current understanding of university “disciplines” is essentially the result of defensive maneuvering on the part of the liberal arts against the onslaught of the hard sciences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sociology, for example, exists as a liberal art thanks to the, at the time, newfound fear that biology or physics might come to better explain society than the humanities. Specialization, the academy believed, would be key to preserving humanities’ domain in academia.

This is not an argument against specialization. And it’s not an argument against science. It’s just an observation that perhaps the frequent funerals we’re having for the humanities are the direct result of the aggressive push for such in the not too distant past.

The distinctions between academic and artistic disciplines are implicitly reinforced everywhere you go from an early age; you memorize historical dates and learn about historical figures in history class, you talk about craft and technique as well as historical art movements building upon each other in art appreciation class, you talk about words and language in English class.

There are also any number of other cultural norms which we internalize from an early age; going to a museum is a leisure activity, in the same way as watching a film or reading a book. Going to the movies is a chance to escape, to be entertained. Learning and research are something relegated to school. Once you’re out, you’re done.

What happens then, when we go out into the world?

Take museums to start. I spent countless hours wandering through museums starting at objects bereft of meaning before I began reading, really reading about art and artists. I’ve written before about some easy ways I’ve found to appreciate the work of minimalist artists but I’m an aggressive proponent of contemporary art as idea, not object. Without the appropriate context i.e. the historical milieu, the artist’s motivations, etc., the art of many (read: most) contemporary artists would be indecipherable. But we’re not taught to think about the context of an artwork, not really. And we’re taught that museums are what we do on our day off. That museums are something we visit to look, just look, at art.

Film and literature are not particularly different. If you were raised exclusively on film and writing from the 21st century (as many are, at least outside of whatever you were forced to read in school), you’d have a difficult time getting used to the pacing and action of work created half a century ago. And if we’re talking film you’d have a difficult time getting used to the now-primitive technology of the really, still recent past. It’s completely natural. I remember vividly the first time I sat down to watch (read: suffer through) Citizen Kane. Watching what many critics still call the best movie of all time is an excruciating (and futile) exercise if you know nothing about film, it’s history up to that point, Orson Welles, the historical context of the film, and any number of other important elements. The power is in all of these things together. It’s not in the film alone, the story alone, the director alone.

Another thing I think about a lot is literature in translation (although this really could be extended to how we read literature in general). Globalization is a wonderful thing. But reading translated work, work from cultures and places which to most of us are unknowns, is more complicated than we typically acknowledge.

I recently finished Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes. Abe was a well-known Japanese author writing around mid-century and The Woman in the Dunes was first published in Japan in the early 1960’s.

The short story relates the tale of an amateur entomologist who, while on vacation, stumbles upon a village in the dunes. Finding himself in the remote location late in the day, he accepts the offer of a villager to stay the night in the home of a woman only to find to his surprise, his departure will not be quite so simple.

From an American perspective, and perhaps indeed from the perspective of others, the book reads like a fable. The man soon finds that the woman with whom he is staying never leaves, cannot in fact, as her home is in a hole surrounded by sand and she must spend all of her days digging and moving the sand around in order to preserve not only her home, but the structural foundation of the village itself, and the villagers intend, it seems, for the man to stay with the single woman to help her in her Sisyphean task.

From a personal perspective it also reads like a more forthright Kafka, the light-hearted manner in which Abe treats his rather unfortunate characters through some rather ugly instances is familiar, but the moral seems more plain: life’s meaning is found in mundanity, we must learn to be content with simplicity, stop wishing for something more, and we will find the meaning of life. It’s existentialism to a t and to me, in all honesty, it was boring.

But the book takes on another level of meaning when read through the lens of Japanese culture and history. To a Japanese reader infused with a culture which places primacy on the group as opposed to the individual identity, the village and the villagers begin to make sense; even should the woman grow tired of her lot, she will not leave as one  person among many responsible each in their own way for the safety of the village. The man, perhaps, is meant to learn something from that, he’s meant to learn that both in relationship to the villagers and of course, in his relationship with the woman.

David Mitchell in his analysis of the book also pointed out the Japanese sense of “dropping-out.” Japanese society, which seems to thrive on keeping everyone in their place and knowing where everyone is at any time, has prompted a large number of disappeared people, people who simply go off the grid, drop-out, as a way to escape the constant keeping of tabs.

I didn’t need to know anything about Japanese culture to read, or perhaps, even enjoy Abe’s story. But knowing something about Japanese culture, knowing something about Abe himself, adds immeasurably to an appreciation for the work, as well as what I can take away from it.

Why don’t we talk about these things when we’re reading Dostoyevsky or Proust?

All literature is not the same. Neither is art. Neither is music. The list goes on. We should stop pretending it is. We should stop teaching it like it is.

When we as humanities scholars, or teachers, or workers, bemoan our culture’s general disinterest in the liberal arts, or when we in the contemporary art world acknowledge our insularity, or when  we as cultural critics attempt to understand our culture’s lack of interest in facts or desire to know the truth, we need to start acknowledging the ways in which our institutions and our systems are contributing to this. It’s awful hard (read nearly impossible) to change people’s minds once they’re grown up.

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