Plan for the Day
- Vocabulary for Cultural Studies
- Asimov’s “Cult of Ignorance”
Vocabulary for Discussing Culture
These are important terms to know when talking about culture. Sometimes we (English professors) use different terms interchangeably, but the definitions below are good for our purposes in this class. They might not be the exact definitions your fields adhere to, but, knowing there are slight differences, allows you to (re)consider how a person from a certain discipline comes to knowledge.
- Ideology: prevailing cultural/institutional attitudes, beliefs, norms, attributes, practices, and myths that are said to drive a society. Members of a culture (or subculture) aren’t devoid of ideology. Take a look at the OED Online’s 1st and 4th definitions.
- Hegemony: the ways or results of a dominant group’s (the hegemon) influence over other groups in a society or region. The dominant group dictates, consciously or unconsciously, how society must be structured and how other groups must “buy into” the structure. For example, the former Soviet Union was the hegemonic power influencing the communist countries of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
- Systemic: (adjective) pertaining to an entire system, institution, or object; something ‘systemic’ cannot be removed from the system.
- Rhetoric: the ability to perceive the available means of persuasion (Aristotle), or the ways in which meanings are conveyed.
- Epistemology: “a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.”
- Genre: literary or other textual products “with certain conventions and patterns that, through repetition, have become so familiar that [audiences] expect similar elements in the works of the same type” (Dick, p. 112).
- Illusion: “false or misleading representation of reality.”
- Privilege: (as a verb) to grant something a special right or status; to value something over another. An economist privileges a worldview that believes individuals make decisions based on maximizing self interest.
- Ambiguity: “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention.”
The last word, ambiguity, is extremely important for this type of class. Unlike assumptions of other disciplines, we’re not searching for material to plug into an equation. Most answers will be contextual–they will depend on the situation. Not all ideas are black and white, but we often absorb information from speakers that, rhetorically, present ideas as black and white. You should be ready to leave class with more questions than answers. That doesn’t mean you leave saying, “what was that all about?” Instead, you leave being able to ask smarter questions. A more informed person and one able to deal with ambiguity, will be able to ask smarter questions.
Introduction to Cultural Studies
How to think about science fiction from a cultural studies perspective. First, let’s figure out capital ‘C’ and lowercase ‘c’ “C/culture.”
- Culture: “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group” (dictionary.com’s 5th definition).
- Capital-C Culture is important to consider when identifying overarching prevailing values, beliefs, characteristics, etc. of a group. However, big groups–like nations–are often made up of a variety of cultures.
- When you make an argument about culture (big-C or little-c), make sure you qualify it with “prevailing,” “regional,” “majority,” etc., but prove it with an example.
- American Culture–visit this link, but the links below are just FYI. I want you to consider what comes to your mind when you hear any mention of these subcultures.
- Business Culture–this refers to the practices and shared assumptions of members of a profession and even of a specific firm. When you think of workplace cultures, what comes to mind? Consider the following:
- Dress code
- Management style (hands off, micromanagement, seniority, high or low turnover)
- Communication (formal, informal, e-mail, memo*, text)
*Memo is short for “memorandum”. This form of communication has nearly been supplanted by e-mail…but you might see them in file cabinets.
- Below are (long expired) job ads for Technical Writers. Can you read a difference in the firms’ cultures?
Take a look at the OED Online’s 6th and 7th definitions. (Must sign in through Atkins Library if you’re off campus.)
It’s important to repeat the definition of Ideology: prevailing attitudes, beliefs, myths, and ideas that seem collectively to guide individuals in a society. Ideology is often invisible. When you hear the word in popular media–usually on a news show–the speaker often claims something is “ideological” when they mean “biased” in general. No one is devoid of ideology because members of a culture absorb “prevailing attitudes, beliefs, myths, and ideas…collectively.”
Simply put, studying culture. Having a cultural studies lens means one looks at ideas, values, movements, and society in general as being mediated be prevailing characteristics of a group (often on a large scale). This approach attempts to find (or read) the meanings of artifacts (ideas, technologies, and texts—including literature, film, music, etc.) as products of the cultures from which they come.
I often use the example of culturally (or socially) constructed technologies and sciences. There’s a social demand for new science and technology. Of course, initial reasons for researching a science or developing a technology can change based on how consumers use the technologies in ways not intended by inventors. Normally, though, there’s a demand that gets fulfilled. For instance, humans like to communicate over long distances; therefore, the telegraph, telephone, and radio were invented. Humans want individual, instant communication; therefore, the cell phone was developed. This next one might seem too simplistic, but it follows the above pattern perfectly: people want to live, live longer, and live well, so medicine–vaccines, pain killers, fever reducers, etc.–is developed.
No artifact or idea is created in a vacuum—meaning, devoid of external influence. Scientists, engineers, authors and the materials they create are products of the characteristics of their culture, which includes the culture’s moment in time. Although we can’t identify universally essential features of each individual, we can argue (and support) what appear to be prevailing values of a culture. Unlike analysis that aims to “unlock” meaning based on an individual’s life (e.g. psychoanalysis), a cultural studies perspective interprets individual and group actions as primarily influenced by culture. People don’t like to hear this because it emphasizes that we’re really just herd animals. [Here’s what psychology tells us. Look familiar?]
Although there are other types of interpretations of science fiction (and fiction in general), we’ll be privileging a social science fiction approach. One thing to remember is that, in the Humanities, we don’t consider any one discipline having THE answer. Instead, we arrive at answers based on the questions we ask, which are mediated by our disciplinary epistemologies. Cultural Studies is inherently interdisciplinary because it borrows methods of interpretation from a variety of disciplines: History, Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology, and others. In this class, when we focus on science fiction (which falls under the broad category speculative fiction), we’ll mostly it from historical and cultural perspectives—time period and society, respectively.
Isaac Asimov’s “A Cult of Ignorance”
The great Isaac Asimov is a major figure in science fiction. He wrote more than science fiction (he was quite prolific), including popular press articles of which “A Cult of Ignorance” is one. Unfortunately, when doing cultural studies analyses, we often uncover bad or unsettling aspects of our culture. Many people deride cultural studies for this, but it’s important to understand that not everything about our system has benefited everyone else. Fortunately, because American culture is based (in part) on freedom of speech, we’re free to critique the system without fear of repercussions…that’s a system I’m glad to live under!
But Asimov doesn’t think Americans think critically enough. In fact, in 1980, he told us we didn’t read enough, so we couldn’t possibly have a right to know because we put no effort into knowing.
Consider the following themes of Asimov’s short article:
- What might be contemporary examples of this? Consider the anti-vaccination and COVID-19 quarantine protester crowds.
- For further information, beyond the scope of this class, check out evidence that the public trust in higher education has fallen.
- Who are the elites? What’s the difference between economic and intellectual elites?
- Right to know
- With great rights come even greater responsibility…
- What’s Asimov’s point about the public’s assumption they have the right to know?
- Credibility and trust
- What are credible sources? Who are credible people?
- How might you rank the following people in terms of credibility?
- Uber/Lyft Driver
- Hedge Fund Manager
- Asimov claims reading scores have dropped, but he doesn’t provide any evidence
- The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been tracking reading (and math) scores since 1971.
- This NAEP graph (pdf) shows some improvement for particular age groups, but is it significant improvement, or does it look pretty much the same since 1971.
- Drop in magazine readership
- Consider Asimov writing in 1980…the internet wasn’t in anyone’s home, so newspapers, magazines, and network (not cable) news was how people got their information.
- Although debatable, one could get news information from more media these days (although not necessarily in-depth reporting), there are a good portion of Americans who don’t read books.
- Ignorance vs willful ignorance
- Consider “ignorance” in the non-pejorative sense to mean “not knowing.” We are all ignorant in that we don’t know everything. I’m extremely ignorant on nuclear physics, organic chemistry, fishing, among other things.
- The problem is willful ignorance or celebrating your ignorance as a badge of honor. Willfully ignoring the facts because they don’t fit one’s worldview is beyond ignorant; it’s just plain stupid.
- “true concept of democracy”
- Asimov is claiming at the end of his article that, without striving to learn, without having an educated citizenry who doesn’t celebrate their ignorance, we don’t have a true democracy or rule be the people.
- Oh well, what does he know. He’s just a scifi writer.* It’s not like he can predict the future…
*For those of you who don’t know my, this bullet point needs to be read in a sarcastic tone.
Why not trust the experts? Also, what’s wrong with highway signs having pictures instead of words?
The Declaration of Independence
I wanted to include this because it’s a foundational document, and we mainly focus on the beginning paragraphs: “When in the Course of human events…” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Go to the National Archives copy and search “Indian” (use [Ctrl]+F for Chrome browsers). Compare that result with the John Gast painting I linked to on the American Culture page.
- What perspective does the quote about “Indians” mean in relation to Gast’s painting?
- How about the perspective of this teacher commenting on the Bicentennial in Dazed and Confused (1993)?
Move on to May 20th’s page/activities when you’re ready. Don’t forget, you have a prompt to Canvas to reflect (and post) on.