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.

    Ian

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