There’s no reason to trot out the old cultural chestnuts

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Screenwriter Tony Tost is spooked by how a living, breathing cultural memory is seeming to evaporate:

My pet theory is that the reason so many younger Americans have apparently no awareness of singers, movies, TV shows, or writers from before their teenage years is because their parents (my generation) have been over-indulgent in letting them only access culture that’s directly marketed to their age group. Streaming technological delivery systems probably contribute to this: for a lot of families there’s no reason to trot out the old cultural chestnuts because the newest freshest thing is right at their fingertips.

So it’s no wonder younger folks don’t have any cultural memory or taste for aesthetic adventure. In pre-school their parents played the most recent kids’ music in the car for them instead of the older music the parents actually wanted to listen to. And at home the kids only watched kid-centric youtube channels or superhero or Pixar movies instead of suffering through dad’s weird favorite old movies. So when the kids hit elementary school, they only have ears and eyes for whatever was being marketed to their age group that year. The same thing carried forth to junior high, high school, and beyond. So at what point would they have discovered who Akira Kurosawa or Billie Holiday or even Robert Redford might be? Every step of their development they’ve been trapped in the pre-packaged bubble of the new.

I think we deprive our kids if we don’t make them put up with listening or watching things that only the adults really like. Older and adult art forces them to get out of their comfort zone and deal with a little ambiguity and thematic density and encounter shit that wasn’t manufactured for their immediate effortless consumption. It might even make them develop what John Keats called “negative capability,” the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” With older art, they have to find value and pleasure in something that wasn’t necessarily made for them. I think that’s healthy as hell. And because it’s not happening very much anymore, I’m afraid we’re producing emptier, more fragile, less intellectually and aesthetically adventurous adults.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Any country, like ours, with a youth cult erases its past. The Boomers deleted the culture of their parents and grandparents, and their successor teens continued the process.

    Now we have White kids in rural Ohio playing Negro rap loudly on their car radios.

  2. Kirk says:

    I’m not so sure this is at all accurate.

    How much of that “culture” these kids are exposed to is really derivative crap that’s merely reinterpreted rehashings of older stories…?

    Seriously; how many “new’ stories are there, out there, which are actually restatements of the original Shakespeare?

    I think the bigger damn problem is that there’s nothing original out there. How much rap is resamplings of older work? How many books and TV shows are merely the latest versions of older dreck?

  3. Graham says:

    I’m torn on whether or not I buy this.

    On one hand, there appears anecdotally to be a reasonable amount of truth to the theory that technology has made every cultural era, at least every recent cultural era and most available inputs from pre-technological ones, more available than ever before and available in a giant melange from which young people can pick and choose.

    Truths here include the very fact of availability. Although the web seems to be constricting again in favour of proprietary content, controlled streaming, and rights management, and ownership or hard copy media are getting harder to obtain compared with the height of the CD/DVD era, still artistic output is available en masse more easily than ever through the technology.

    Also, there does seem to be a little tendency among the more imaginative young to pick and choose things like pop music willy nilly across the decades, such that there seems to be less of the old phenomenon of people only really identifying with the “music of their youth”. The latter was very much true of boomers and Xers as I have known them, with exceptions for those whose tastes ran to things other than pop music on the whole.

    SO all that might be true, a bit and at least for one large-looming area of culture and for a subset of youth.

    On the other hand, even for music one sometimes encounters the sort of time-locked young people the author is identifying. Perhaps it seems worse because they are not compelled to it by the limitations of technology and available media, as for long was true. They have access to more and only the cognoscenti go looking. Perhaps because the music is crap. [I am prepared to assert that unsupported, as I am somewhat an outside to popular music and not particularly attached to that of my own youth. At least, my criteria for the assertion will not just be nostalgia. As Kirk notes, the start of the assertion that it is crap would include its extreme derivativity. Derivativeness?] Although I’ve enjoyed music from the past decade and some, on the whole its the equivalent of the worst pop rubbish of the 60s. Plus the performances of some artists fit Derbyshire’s description of “the sort of entertainments the more decadent sort of ancient despotism would lay on for the coarser kind of barbarian conqueror”, or words to that effect.

    In other media, like television and movies, I find the case more persuasive. Again, technology playing a role. The limitations of broadcast TV and the amount of available content kept quite a lot of old material in circulation through the 80s and even into the 90s. We were familiarized with it not only by parental guidance but by the very environment. Old movies were everywhere. A&E in the 80s aired historical programs from the 50s like Victory at Sea and Twentieth Century. [Don't get me started on what has happened to specialty cable channels.]

    So technology has played a complicated role. It makes available a lot of the old all the time, but it makes so much more content, so much more available, and the ability to choose the old is overweighed by the ability to avoid it. Or the inability to wade through the sheer volume of material.

    I think we are at a turning point though. My impression is that corporate streaming services of all kinds, skewing toward their own new content and lowbrow 3rd party content, is starting to let the old material fade away again. And by old I mean pre 2000. The end of hard digital media is putting paid to the glut of ancient content released in the boom years of the 1990s and 2000s. The emphasis on reality content has completely taken over cable television.

    It’s a peculiar aspect of the end of history that we no longer have common culture within nations, or between generations, even as we start to have a sort of global content melange. Or maybe it’s not peculiar at all.

    Apropos of all that, remember when, regardless of the pop stars of the day, North America’s New Year celebration always included the late Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians? That, and similar things, managed to unite the decades from the 40s through the 80s regardless of how much else happened. These things were not replaced.

  4. Graham says:

    I don’t mind that there aren’t new stories. There really aren’t any.

    What I mind is that the capacity to retell them well and with interesting new takes on themes, new characters, new specific plots and settings, has deteriorated. The rot was long in coming. American high and middle brow fiction postwar already seemed to be a handful of male Jewish [and at least one WASP] writers bemoaning their youthful sexual escapades and/or waning libidos, or female writers horrified by the darkness of suburban life. Boooring. Latterly, it is dominated by the sort of thing that gets the Oprah seal of approval. Or sheer word play and technique for its own sake.

    Genre fiction, which used to retain narrative energy and setting, has gotten really crappy. Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction appear to have died in the last ten years — whinier, more juvenile, more derivative of its own last flowering in the 80s-90s. With some exceptions, perhaps, but the trend is there.

  5. Bruce says:

    John Michael Greer’s Weird of Hali series is the best cozy Cthulhu in a world of decreasing resources ever. Otherwise, yes. SF and Fantasy today are in a slow patch.

    Internet porn killed highbrow pornish novel sales, and I don’t think they will come back. No great loss, not much there anyway. But we are in a golden age of nonfiction short essays! Reading Slate Star Codex is like reading the Fabian essays as they came out. Steam-powered printers then, Internet now. Of course there’s crap, the Internet is a great place for kids to be lousy.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    If the classics are forgotten, then aspiring writers can steal from them with impunity. Focus on what’s out of copyright for a little extra legal safety. Update it in superficial ways while retaining the essence intact.

    The key is to steal only the good stuff. This way the cultural achievements of the past are resurrected, and we get the royalties.

  7. Graham says:

    That series looks interesting.

    I have recently been on Gutenberg Australia, reading through large chunks of the complete works of Robert E. Howard, HP Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Achmed Abdullah among others.

    It was an interesting exercise. Sometimes their various writing styles seemed cringeworthy, especially when HPL got all flowery, or Abdullah got a little simple, but overall as good as anything around now and better storytelling. Maybe I’m giving bonus points for being early innovators of the forms, but still.

    I also discovered anew with Howard that for all I like Conan stories, his Kull stories were better written and more thoughtful. I discovered for the first time that his historical fiction was actually his best written and best conceived material. That was interesting. I also realized just what a proto-SJW he was in his use of female characters, but you can’t have everything. And I’m being a bit facetious- not a true SJW, but he you can see the makings of a Joss Whedon in the creator of Belit and Valeria.

    I also realized that for all HP Lovecraft has been correctly described as, shall I say, strongly holding some common racial views of his time, a much larger body of his work seems to express vicious contempt for inbred rural white people. I’m not sure modern leftists actually read this stuff before condemning it.

    At any rate, in my earlier post I am probably being a bit nostalgic for the 80s and 90s and early 2000s. But even so.

    Political thrillers seemed more original, to have more varied settings and characters even when from the same author. Now it seems everything is part of a 20 book saga. In some cases, authors from those eras still milking it, in others just the way people write now.

    Historical novels seemed to flourish even if in the hands of a few writers like Colleen McCullough and Steven Pressfield, Bernard Cornwell, Manda Scott, and others whose names escape me but there was a lot of pretty good GReco-Roman and medieval stuff coming out. Some of these are still writing, but they have ceded some place to hacks on the shelves.

    I’m not sure how to explain what I’m getting at with SF/fantasy. Criticisms like too many multi-book series, too long individual volumes, and stock characters have been increasingly problems for a long time. And it’s not just an SJW problem in the content either. There’s something cheaper, more simpleminded, more derivative, sometimes even of authors’ own early works. Plus milking the same concept over and over again and appalling length. I think here of Harry Turtledove, toward his later work David Drake, and others whose 70s and 80s and early 90s work I would consider major genre achievements. Turtledove deserves to be considered a core founder of alternate history as a sub-genre. I would say he went off the rails after the first couple of books each in his WorldWar and Civil War sagas, at the latest.

    I’m always relatively open to explanations involving my own aging out, but I’m not buying it here. Stack Pressfield or McCullough or a few others from 1985-2005 against historical writing now, and they’d kick its ass. Even Diana Gabaldon, a forerunner of the the sort of thing one sees now, was Shakespeare by comparison.

    Anyway, I’m ranting now. I do also agree on the web — for all the crap out there, it is even now a vehicle for reams of good stuff and it has been since some selected early blogs. There’s been a kind of flourishing there.

  8. TRX says:

    “Howard … proto-SJW”

    Just because he had some female characters?

    They were hard barbarian Amazon warriors, scarred and experienced in their trade, not 90 pound waifu with grrrl-power mojo.

  9. TRX says:

    “who Akira Kurosawa or Billie Holiday or even Robert Redford might be?”

    So? I’ll be 60 in a few months, and while I’ve seen their names and professions go by in casual conversation, I wouldn’t recognize any of them or any of their work. I didn’t grow up stuck to the Boob Toob, so I’m not up on popular entertainment trivia. And further, I don’t care.

  10. Graham says:


    ““Howard … proto-SJW”

    Just because he had some female characters?

    They were hard barbarian Amazon warriors, scarred and experienced in their trade, not 90 pound waifu with grrrl-power mojo.”

    Fair enough, and criticism largely accepted.

    Perhaps I would have been better to note how surprisingly progressive Howard was in his use of female characters, with a small p on progressive indicating a low level of ideological meaning. I was more struck by it in this recent reread than I ever was before, back when I thought nothing at all of it but rather took his material for granted. It is not the conventional reading of his stories and I hardly think it is noticed by feminist literary critique, and yet it seemed obvious to me this year. He was way out in front of his genre in this way. Except maybe for ER Burroughs to some degree.

    But you’re right to make the distinction you make between what Howard did and the sort of thing we’ve seen evolve in superhero comics and the Whedon-verse in the past 20 years or so.

    One thing Howard didn’t do was create magic-powered pixie girls or nerd boys of destiny. His female characters like Belit and Valeria could be dimly plausible in an age like the Hyborian, and to anyone aware of things in our own history like female pirates. Or terrorists. And they did do the homework of training and fighting rather than being born with the Slayer Powers. Similarly, his wizards were usually or always grim old men who had clearly pored over mouldy scrolls for long lives to get where they were. No bespectacled adolescents.

    He did make Belit and Valeria both very much at the top of the barbarian fighting skill set, as though an extremely personal enthusiast for the idea of the ass-kicking female warrior beatable or ‘tameable’, if at all, only by Conan, and really only on terms of very equal equality. And having Conan instantly and instinctively regard them as equals. Not entirely implausible for a barbarian from a hill tribe, but avant-garde thinking for the 30s writer and audience and not too much consistent with gender roles in some of the hill tribes we see today.

    You’re right it doesn’t make him Whedon, or even William Moulton Marston. But it did read a bit as though he had some of the Marston in him.

    On a level that struck me as more convincing if less vivid, he also was fairly forward thinking with a number of his lesser female supporting characters, some of whom were even drivers of the narrative in his stories. I think offhand of the Vendhyan princess in “People of the Black Circle”, and the villainesses in Red Nails and whatever was the story in which he and some random rescued girl ended up in a city of drugged up people who were like eloi for some resident monster. Can’t recall the title. And actually it seemed like quite a few others. They have the glorious notion called “agency”, they manipulate events and direct or perform actions, and have motivations they are pursuing.

    As for HPL, I was being a bit more facetious. But seriously, when he bangs on about secret swamp cults with vague links to voodoo, and he does throw in a lot of snide comments about mixed race peoples, the enemy itself inevitably turn out to be vastly more ancient Cthulhu cults with nothing to do with West African religion, and to be multiracial in their allegiances rather than all about those minorities. And his language about isolated backwoods white people, and assumptions about their morals and social practices, is worthy of any progressive critique of our own time. It was weird reading those stories again.

    I need to graduate to Thomas Ligotti. But I haven’t yet tried his work.

  11. Graham says:

    Also TRX:

    I think you hit on something interesting with your last point as well.

    I think, with the caveats I put up earlier, that there is something in this loss of common culture argument. But you have offered us the flip side. There were always people with low connections to all that and still are.

    The way I might begin to reconcile the two patterns is this:

    On one hand, mass culture or even culture in general is no longer held in common to the degree it used to be, enabled by trends in technology and how much content is available, by what means, and with how much archival content. On the other hand, the pop culture of the immediate moment occupies, again driven by the technology, far more cultural, social, and personal/mental space for far more people more of the time than once it did. And it’s harder for a young person to grow up with limited exposure to it, where once, even in the 1970s, it was pretty controlled by current standards.

    I find, at any rate. It seems harder to escape and there is more media being put out more of the time by more means than ever before, and current pop culture is hard to avoid and still use the media. I’ve lately been seeing an ad for a new feature on one our news networks [I want to say Global TV] in which a young woman named Tamara Khandaker comments that the world moves too fast and offers to interpret everything in the otherwise crushing news cycle [I'm really not feeling this experience that seems to be so traumatic for others] including specific emphasis on pop culture. I half expect endless features interpreting the cultural significance of the latest athlete or rapper spousal beating. The sort of thing one would once never have heard about, never cared about, considered insignificant, or even thought unsurprising.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that as recently as my own youth, there was more going on in peoples and kids’ lives than consuming international and national media and pop culture, and using technology to do so. It seems like it requires more of an act of will and a decision to cut oneself off completely to achieve the level of disconnection one used to be able to get easily.

  12. Kirk says:

    Referencing the Howard/female character thing…

    One of the abiding frustrations I’ve had with most “strong female characters” in the majority of modern “literature” is that the authors never seem to grasp that what they’re doing with them is as unrealistic as any of the other crap they constantly whinge on and on and on about.

    90-lb waifu heroine kicking ass? LOL… Sure. Not gonna happen. She might, realistically, be a bit of a threat one-on-one with an unknowing and unprepared opponent, but the reality is that even 30-40 lbs advantage in a fight is an uphill climb that she’s going to be hard-pressed to overcome. And, the idea that said 90-lb waifu is going to take down a trained male that’s over twice her size… Oh, dear God; ain’t happening. Even with a skill differential where she’s twice as good as he is, the sheer difference in mass alone is going to result in her getting the worst of things. I’ve seen that play out in training multiple times–Mass is an advantage you simply can’t overcome, no matter what gendered pronoun you might use.

    It’s like a 130-lb male trying to deal with a 270-lb Samoan; the results are just gonna be embarrassing. Watched that one play out in real life, one time, between a guy who was able to win a bout with the local Olympic-level Judoka, and one of our Samoan drunks. Leverage and knowing how to use it don’t do much for you when you lack the mass to do anything with it, and our martial-arts expert, who was rated in several different disciplines, basically wound up dangling off the arm of the Samoan that he’d tried to use to flip him. At that point, it turned into a rodeo, and he wound up being beaten up by a building, a railing, and whatever else was handy. He should have let go of the Samoan’s arm, at some point, but for whatever reason… He didn’t. Grappling, as a technique, is generally not what you want to use in such a situation. I think he panicked, though…

    The other thing about “strong female characters” that they get wrong is that they somehow think that those characters are going to still be identifiably female in outlook and reaction. News flash: Men aren’t like they are because they’re male, it’s mostly down to the roles they have to play in life. Your hard-ass killer outlook is not going to be “gendered”–The real female killer is going to have more in common with her male counterpart than she is with any other sort of female character, and yet they keep writing such creatures as nurturing, motherly, and more feminine than anyone else. It’s purest Mary-Sue BS, because a caring, nurturing loving sort of woman ain’t gonna be the sort to pull the trigger in the first damn place. A hard-ass is going to have more in common with other hard-asses than with their traditional “gender stereotypes”. But, they keep on writing them as if they would be women first, and hard-asses later on. Doesn’t work that way–Not if they’re still going to be identifiable as women in outlook and behavior.

    In other words, roles and duties have more effect on behavior than the gender BS. You have a female pirate captain, the more important thing about her is that she’s a pirate captain, not that she’s a woman.

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