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So, here’s the thing.

Today, I ran across two articles, on subjects at least theoretically completely different, that in fact claimed things I think are pretty much alike.  The first of them is this one, posted in the comments by Mike Fisher:


This is about religion, and the sentence that struck me the hardest was this one, right at the beginning:

>>>Even if some of the people who are born to religious parents defect from religion and become secular, the religious genes they carry (which encompass other personality traits, such as obedience and conservativism) will still spread throughout society…>>>

The second comes from today’s Arts and Letters Daily, and you can find it here:


I’m having a harder time finding a single sentence that sums up my problem with it, but we could try this one:

>>>Check out the best-seller lists, even in the exalted New York Times. See what Oprah’s reading. Glance at the Amazon top 100. Look around on the airplane. The common reader—by which I don’t mean the figure evoked by Dr. Johnson and Virginia Woolf, but the person toting a book on the train or loading one into his iPad or Kindle—the contemporary common reader reads for pleasure, and easy pleasure at that. Reading, where it exists at all, has largely become an unprofitable wing of the diversion industry.<<<

These things may not sound similar, but for me they have a distinct similarity in their reasoning, and it’s one I’ve seen other places on nominally different.

In the first article, for instance, the writer tells us that there are “other” personality traits that correlate to “religiosity”–“conservatism” and “obedience.”

But is this actually true of religious people in the US today?  Worldwide, maybe–I don’t know enough about the rise and spread of Islam, for instance, to tell–but American religious people seem to be “conservative” only if we use the world in the contemporary political sense, and not in its original meaning of trying to conserve something that already exists or exists as a tradition.

I’m not sure we could get to obedience at all.  The phenomenon I was talking about yesterday–what I call American folk Protestantism because I don’t know what else to call it–is the result of the opposite of obedience.   It’s a movement started by people who simply refused to swallow what their mainstream denomination churches were telling them and struck out on their own to do religion the way they personally thought best.

“Conservative” Christianity in America today is neither conservative nor obedient.  It is radical and defiant, and many of the individuals who comprise it retain their commitment to it at great personal and professional discomfort. 

Standing up for “conservative” Christian principles on a college campus these days can run you afoul of restrictive speech codes, get you tried in campus disciplinary courts and even get you expelled.  Standing up for those same principles in professional programs can get you barred from the profession, not just removed from the program.

And yes, there are indeed cases of all of those.

But the other thing such a statement in such an article does is to imply that the opposite is true of the groups outside the one the article is examining.

If “conservatism” and “obedience” are personality traits related to religiosity, then “liberalism” and “independence” must be personality traits related to lack of religiosity.

And I don’t think that’s provable either. 

The wider culture in the US is largely socially liberal.  The socially liberal college student has nothing to fear from his college’s orientation sessions or speech codes or civility protocols.  He is in tune with all his professors, and especially the ones at selective, elite schools.  He can enter any of the “helping professions”–teaching, social work, nursing–without having a single one of his preconceived ideas challenged.

There is no way to tell if a secular college student is thinking independently and liberally, or just going along to get along, with his “social liberalism” being just “upholding the status quo.”

And I fail to see how people who “accept evolution” just because science says so are being any less anti-intellectual, and anchored to dogma, than the people who accept creationism the same way. 

And those people do exist.  They exist more abundantly than anybody wants to admit.  I keep running across them in Internet forums, passionately “disproving” creationism and then wailing heartfeltly that they don’t actually understand evolution, but they wished they did.

The second article assumes that “high culture” is “hard” and challenges our assumptions about ourselves, while “popular culture” is easy and lets us wallow in unchallenged preconceived ideas about ourselves and our society.

But that doesn’t seem to me to be true, either.

For one thing, I doubt if most of the books we now consider part of the “high art tradition” were in fact difficult in their time.  To the extent that the Iliad or the Odyssey are difficult, it’s mostly because we no longer live in that time and place. There are assumptions about thousands of things–the relationships between men and women, the nature of marriage, the social status of actors–that we no longer share, and may be unaware that anybody ever held.

My students sometimes have a problem with that when reading Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.”   The poem is nearly undecipherable to anyone who does not understand that it was once customary to arrange marriages between families without really caring much if the bride wanted to match, or even if the bride and groom had ever met. 

Browning’s intended readers, however, would not have had that problem.  They knew how those things worked.  Browning was a popular writer in his time, not a “difficult” one.

But the bigger issue here is whether or not contemporary high and popular art conform to the article’s assumptions–that high art challenges our prejudices and assumptions and forces us out of our “comfort zones,” while popular art is all about easy escapist diversion that we never have to think twice about.

I think I can say, with perfect accuracy, that the present run of contemporary “literary” novels represents some of the most predictable and intellectual  hackneyed literature ever written. 

There is nothing in any novel by Jonathan Franzen, or Ann Beattie, or Cynthia Ozick that will cause the least intellectual, emotional or political discomfort to any denizen of Cambridge, Ann Arbor, New Haven, or Palo Alto.  All the residents of suburbia will be, at best, living lives of quiet desperation, all religious people will be either stupid or crazy, all popular culture will be corporate homogenization, all death will be painful and meaningless.

The other side of the coin is the idea that popular literature is about wallowing in narcissistic self-congratulation, never having any of our beliefs or values challenged, and never influencing the reader to change his or her life in an attempt to make it better.

But this is exactly what the people who love Harry Potter–the adults, now–say they are doing with that series.  And they say it consistently. 

What’s more, it’s what I have myself done with all kinds of literature, some of it popular and some of it not.  My guess is that the impetus to do that–to use fiction in whatever form as a template to see what else you could be but what you are–is an integral part of why anybody reads any kind of fiction, ever. 

Very few of us are truly and wholly satisfied with who and what we are. Very few of us don’t have a little place at the back of our heads going “do something else, be something else, get the hell out of here.”

I do think that we are all of us–high culture types and low; secular and religious–less likely to read things or watch things or listen to things that we don’t like, or don’t agree with.  That’s why so much of our public discourse is useless these days.  Each side builds straw man arguments because it has to.  Neither side is reading what the other side says.

That said, though, I think that there is at least as much to jar sensibilities in a good “popular” novel than in a “literary” one–hell, I should’t put it that weakly.

The best of Stephen King covers a wider range of human beings in a wider range of situations than anything any high art writer has done in decades, and maybe in the last century.   It is, of course, possible to read King while ignoring all that and just paying attention to the monsters–but the books aren’t really about the monsters, and never were.

Sometimes I think we’ve gotten to the point where we no longer write social analysis.  Instead, we outline the world the way we want it to be–religious people are stupid and conformist! secular people only want to screw and murder at will and not have to answer to God for it!–and say we’ve done a study.

The weather is miserable, and I need tea.

Written by janeh

February 1st, 2011 at 10:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Transgressive'

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  1. Its much too hot here for serious thinking. But the first sentence that Jane quoted annoys me. I doubt that religion is a gene.

    And I’d call conservative and obedience survival traits for a society. What worked yesterday will almost certainly work today and tomorrow. We do not want to continually reinvent the wheel. Hence conservative in the sense of being slow to make changes is a useful trait.

    As for obedience, do you stop for red lights? My computer works because the people who assembled it followed orders.


    1 Feb 11 at 2:11 pm

  2. I would differentiate between obedience on the job and obedience to ideas. If you don’t follow procedures in assembling computers, you’ll lose your job putting them together. But what goes on inside your head is yours alone, and if you follow those procedures your brain can go wherever you want it to.

    I’d also wonder whether it’s true that conservatism is as useful as it was 100 years ago. Things change much faster now, and what worked when I was first working full-time (mainframe computers with keypunch cards) is as dead and gone as the dinosaurs now.


    1 Feb 11 at 2:43 pm

  3. I’m not sure that distinguishing between obeying ideas and obeying instructions on the job is very useful. It’s still obedience. And the usefulness of conservatism in the sense of slowness to change depends enormously on the type of change and the wisdom of the person decided whether or not to accept it. Objects and technology and social norms change more rapidly perhaps than political systems, but I doubt basic human nature changes much at all. We’re adaptable to an extent, but there are limits both in the amount of change we can easily tolerate, and the rapidity or the amount of force involved in producing change.

    And none of this is absolute. We are all somewhat selective as to who and when we obey others. We welcome change in some aspects of our lives, grudgingly accept it in others, and reject it totally in yet others(although possibly hiding this if the cost of dissent is too high).


    1 Feb 11 at 4:18 pm

  4. I’d have said the connecting point of the two passages was how much both called to mind Luke 18:11. SO comforting to be able to explain what’s wrong with other people.

    As for a “religious gene” which explains both offering up captured enemies to Odin and forgiving those who persecute you, I have my doubts, but to identify a religion which insists on the brotherhood of man and takes little account of earthly power and riches as “conservative” is ludicrous. Such doctrines are inherently revolutionary. Even 19th Century Britain and America, with a solidly Christian establishment, kept sparking unsettling people like Beecher, Wilberforce, Helms and Booth.

    Liberalism in the modern American sense, with its emphasis on compulsion, state action and procedure is a different story. Not too surprising that its strongest supporters are government bureaucrats. The campus scene is all too familiar to those who watched late Soviet or current Chinese Communist officials call all those who really wanted to upset the system “counter-revolutionaries.” Academia has had its “revolution” and doesn’t mean for there ever to be another.

    Which is not to say, pace MaryF, that there is not a point to conservatism–both the Burkean conservatism of modesty and Kipling’s conservatism of principles from “The Gods of the Copy-book Headings.” I just say it’s not inherently connected to religion. A church may be conservative, but certain religious doctrines just aren’t.

    As for the High and Popular cultures, clearly the point of modern literary novels is not to unsettle the literary establishment, who have already found enlightenment, but to shake up the hoi-polloi–and the ungrateful wretches aren’t reading it!

    More seriously, if you’re actually looking for “the best that has been thought and said” or some serious comment on the human condition, first it’s worth remembering that these are not the same thing. You can write very well while saying very little.

    But it’s also vital–and why I sometimes throw around the word “snobbery” in this context–to remember that the best are the objective–the “pearl of great price.” If you’re really pursuing the finest writing, art and music, then you pursue them everywhere–in the pulp magazines as well as the subsidized journals, the paperback covers as well as the museums of modern art, and the film scores as well as the concert halls. And they are what they are–not what your colleagues, or even your professors say they are. It’s a lot safer–much more conducive to a successful career–to look for great work only in certain places, and to deviate from the critical concensus only in the approved ways.

    You will, of course, miss most of the great artists of your time, and and be no help to those trying to find and appreciate them, but at the end of the day you’ll have been unhelpful from a tenured position at a prestigious university, or with a regular magazine column–from either of which you denounced the petty conservatism of those who didn’t listen to you.


    1 Feb 11 at 6:59 pm

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