The Age of High Culture

The cov­er story for this quarter­’s Intel­li­gent Life is an art­icle arguing that, con­trary to most recent opin­ions, the pop­u­la­tion isn’t, in fact, becom­ing dumber and we are at the dawn of an ‘age of mass intel­li­gence’.

This quote from Ira Glass, the cre­at­or of This Amer­ic­an Life, gets to the core of the argu­ment quite suc­cinctly.

“When people talk and write about cul­ture, […] it’s apo­ca­lyptic. We tell ourselves that everything is in bad shape. But the oppos­ite is true. There’s an abund­ance of really inter­est­ing things going on all around us.”

It’s an inter­est­ing art­icle and one worth read­ing, but I do have some qualms. The argu­ment itself—that we are in an age of mass intelligence—is essen­tially unsat­is­fy­ing and left me hungry for some­thing a bit more… sub­stan­tial. The art­icle is, as the above quote alludes, first and fore­most about cul­ture; not intel­li­gence. And can we really equate high cul­ture with high intel­li­gence?

To (ab)use an example used in the art­icle: when the Oprah Book Club (or any oth­er book club, for that mat­ter) recom­mend­s Anna Karen­ina and sales of the book con­sequently flour­ish, does this neces­sar­ily mean that the pur­chasers under­stand the book? Are the masses inter­pret­ing the nov­el as a par­able of inner con­flict and are they sym­path­ising with Tol­stoy’s dis­dain for his Rus­si­an aris­to­crat­ic peers? Or are they read­ing it as just a tra­gic love story—a Rus­si­an Romeo and Juliet, so to speak? Essen­tially: do they really under­stand the nov­el, or are they just enjoy­ing it? (Both are very fine reas­ons to read any book, but are vastly dif­fer­ent.)

Dis­clos­ure: I did­n’t enjoy Anna Karen­ina; the above state­ments may con­tain gross gen­er­al­isa­tions; and I don’t believe that the popuation is get­ting dumber, but would hes­it­ate just as much to say it’s get­ting more intel­li­gent. Rather, ‘high’ cul­ture has been com­mod­i­fied and is now avail­able to a much wider audi­ence. This, in itself, is not a bad thing.

1 thought on “The Age of High Culture

  1. Ian

    Your ask: “does this neces­sar­ily mean that the pur­chasers under­stand the book?”

    The ques­tion really is “are the pur­chasers going to read the book?” I believe they do not. You are right to think that “high” cul­ture has been com­mod­i­fied but the com­modi­fac­tions I feel are not appre­ci­ated and are taken for gran­ted.


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