Beyond New Releases: Appreciating Culture as Tradition, Part 1

A few years ago, when I taught Freshman Composition at a community college, I went searching for information online about WWI. My students were reading The Great Gatsby and I felt that they would benefit from understanding the horrors of trench warfare as part of the context of the novel. The first result that Google gave me when I searched for “WWI” was a spelling correction: “Did you mean ‘WWII'”?

I thought it a striking sign of our culture’s knowledge about World War One that when I went to find information about The Great War, Google assumed I had made a mistake. Surely I was interested in WWII, the exciting war with well-defined villains and heroes. What this incident suggests is that our culture seems to be increasingly disinterested in its heritage, so much so that Google has decided that it is much more likely that a person searching for WWI made a typo than that they actually were interested in the first great war of the 20th Century.

This example of what we could call “presentism” comes from history, but it extends throughout our culture. In general, American culture maintains the belief that what is new, fresh, and modern is better, more important, and more valuable than what is old. In popular culture this means that Halo 3 is assumed to be better than Halo 2, color films are better than black and white, newer movies are more entertaining than old, and newer books–ones that address contemporary issues–are more interesting than older books.

As with any cultural frame of mind or practice, it is important for Christians to question whether or not presentism is honoring or dishonoring to God. Specifically, does a privileging of what is new in our purchases and use of time reflect an understanding of history and culture that is consistent to what we find in the Bible and is loving to God and our neighbor? One way to approach this question is to look at some of the institutions and ideologies that have helped shape this view of tradition in our society. Two of the institutions which I believe have contributed most to this issue are consumer culture and technology.

In recent years, more and more American Christians have become concerned with social justice as an essential aspect of living faithful lives for Christ. Now that the “communist threat” and the Cold War seem to be safely behind us, Christians are more comfortable taking a critical look at the capitalist economic system. While this movement is good, if our criticism stops at social justice, I do not think it goes far enough. Perhaps just as important as taking care of the orphan and widow and curbing the inhumane effects of globalism is an awareness of how capitalism, or more specifically, consumerism affects the way we think about our world and how that ideology fits with the Word of God and our nature as creatures created in His image. In the case of cultural artifacts–music, TV shows, films, books, magazines, video games–it is important to understand how the institutions set up to create, produce, and market these items shape the our expectations and tastes. The primary purpose of creation, production, and marketing (for the vast majority of artists/companies) is to make a profit. I’d like to highlight just two realities about the way a consumer culture affects the creation and appreciation of cultural artifacts.

First, it is (in general) in the best interest for producers/publishers/distributors to push new products over older products because it results in more sales. If I already own the Beatles’ “Revolver,” Halo 1, and Star Wars: A New Hope (the non-“special” edition), then I have no motivation to buy additional copies of these products unless the artists come out with sequels or newer, “better” editions. So it is in their best interest to put their efforts behind new products (albums, games, movies) and to discourage people from holding on to or being satisfied with their old products.

Second, this also leads to the attitude that artists need to produce, whether or not the production will be good, so that there is something to sell. I would wager to guess that most of the poorer-quality works in our culture are a result of this mentality. Take any given summer when sequels to successful movies and adaptations of TV shows are released in hordes to the big screen; or the fact that almost any video game which is successful must receive a sequel, even if it makes no sense in the storyline and will result in a sub-par product (Bioshock 2, in all likelihood); or a TV show which should have ended seasons ago, but continues because it used to be well-written. Again, this cultivates in our society the expectation that newer is always better.

I didn’t point out these two realities about culture in a capitalist society to suggest that capitalism is evil, but to encourage us as Christians to honestly look at how our culture affects us. The privileging of the new over the old and the pressure to create new works regardless of their quality contribute to a belief that these artifacts are consumable goods, items designed to be used, thrown away, and replaced. Much of our media is devoted to just this idea through entertainment news shows and magazines, advertising, and reviews.

There are two reasons I think Christians should reject a consumerist view of cultural artifacts. First, it is not loving to our neighbor and it does not honor the way God has made us as creatures designed for culture. Our neighbor in this instance, I believe, is the artist(s) who created the work and the culture it was created in. Since works are always created within a culture, they allow us to understand that culture (at least in part) in a unique way; they give us the opportunity to see how people distant from us in space and time understood God’s creation. If we only “consume” works of our own time and location (21st Century American culture), then our understanding of God’s creation and our place in His redemptive history becomes myopic, and our ability to love the people outside of our worldview is dramatically hindered.

Second, the example of culture we have in the Bible holds traditions and works of people from the past in high regard. While they are perhaps not meant to viewed as normative, the way older cultural artifacts are treated by the Isrealites does suggest that there is something good and healthy for a people in remembering and delighting in poems (Psalms), stories, and architecture from another era. Song of Solomon was not just popular and important the week it was first recited; it had/has lasting meaning and value, despite the fact that the further the Isrealities were from the date it was written the harder it was for them to understand the context and the more competition there would be from other, more contemporary poems. In a like manner, I believe it is important for us to have an understanding of our own cultural as a history, tradition.

Tommorow in Part 2, I will demonstrate how society’s increasing dependence on and trust in technology has  contributed to the belief that what is newer is always better and more worth our time.

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  • Carissa Smith

    In response to the first bolded question, I quote G. K. Chesterton: “Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise [in the sense of ‘the vote’]. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” (from Orthodoxy)

  • Now that is a great quote.

  • Ah. I get it, Alan. This is why you love Salinger so much: because he hung it up before he got stale!

    Really, I think it all depends on the reason for privileging new cultural produce over older cultural produce. If my primary reason for engaging a cultural product is to examine it as a product of contemporary culture, then privileging the New over the Old is absolutely requisite (take for instance CAPC, which is built on an examination of contemporary pop artifacts rather than what was cool in 1968 or 1740). If my goal is to engage canon, then spending any time new product is a waste of time, energy, and resources. If my priority is to engage quality product that convey worthwhile ideology, concept, training, beauty, etc., then the privileging the new product is just as bad as privileging the old.

    And so, you’d either have to make a case that engaging cultural product in search of quality is The Way to Go and other readings are either illegitimate or, at least, not as legitimate or you’d have to just presume that the reader of this article has quality in mind from the outset. (Though that may not be the case as we’re on a site dedicated to Pop Culture, good or bad. In it’s own way CAPC pushes its readers to privilege the New by posting the majority of its articles with a goal toward discussing what’s current—for example, I’m tempted to see Up so that I can read and interact with the article discussing it.)

    It also depends on what medium of product you’re referring to as well. Let’s pretend that one’s goal really is to seek after quality product. In certain media, new may not mean better but old certainly means worse. Take for instance comic books. The last decade has been almost a golden age for the medium, with books of quality and depth being produced at a rate faster than I can purchase. This was not the case before 1995. There were occasional worthwhile reads, but so far as picking up a random book and hoping it would be transcendentally good, you’ve got a much better chance post-millennium. The same held true for movies before 1930 (and really even before 1940). The medium was too new and the true auteurs would not feel comfortable until the techniques had been broken in a bit.

    As far as your elevation of tradition goes, I don’t buy it. I’m dismissing your evidence as the things that the people were supposed to be recalling throughout the generations was inspired by God. That’s a whole lot different from elevating something for all time that was merely inspired by man.

    Here’s my problem with the priveging of tradition: the stuff you’re seeking to privilege is merely the new hot stuff of a prior generation. Sure some of those pop-culture hits of yesteryear fall by the wayside, but the only stuff that lasts is a subsection of the stuff that was popular. Chesterton is not quite correct when he says the most obscure of all classes are the dead who we remember only through tradition. Even more obscure than them are the dead who were never pop-culture celebrities in the first place. Though he doesn’t deserve the recognition, Charles Dickens will be remembered for all time, solidly entered into the canon of literary tradition. A host of better writers, however, will be lucky, in a hundred years, to even be granted a footnote.

    Tradition, when not ordained by God himself, is just nostalgia and sentimentality dressed up as respectable. Tradition is a ghost and a phantom. There’s no substance there. Not in tradition as tradition anyway. Sometimes, I’ll grant, tradition gets lucky and intersects with quality and value. But the thing of it is: tradition was never about assuring and preserving quality. Tradition is wholly concerned with something else.

    Folk culture.

    What tradition does is build a sense of community. Not real community, but a sense of it. And sometimes out of that sense grows real community. Tradition is valuable sociologically because it gathers disparate personalities and histories and unifies them under a common banner. Of course, Christians don’t need this because we are united in something much greater than a set of culturally codified rules (i.e., tradition). We are one in Christ so the additional bonds of extra-curricular traditions are really little more than clique-makers. I don’t have time for them myself, but I can see the allure to others.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • Alan Noble

    I’m not sure if it’s the effect of having the article split in two, or if I just didn’t clearly explain my point, but I certainly do not want to merely reverse the hierarchy of new/old. My goal was never to elevate tradition, except maybe to the point where it is accepted as valid and valuable in cultural discourse.

    In other words, I was trying to identify an ideology (the treatment of cultural goods as consumable and a myopic privileging of what is new simply because it is new), explore the basis of that ideology (in this first part of the article it covers consumerism, the second part discusses technology), and consider whether or not this ideology is valid and good.

    Certainly I accept that works that enter into “tradition” are typically what were “new” in the past, are shaped by current cultural concerns, and can be of less quality than newer works. But I would say that these issues are secondary to the larger and more widespread problem of disregarding or dismissing our cultural tradition outright.

    I’m not sure if that responds to everyone’s comments. If not, I’ll wait until the next part is published to see if anything is clarified by that.

  • Yeah, I should just accept that an article like this is not directed at me and live with it. But, really, I just want every article to be directed at and critical of me.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • Alan Noble

    You’re right Dane, I’m sorry. Let me try again:

    @the “Dane” You sir are wrong and your accusations are absurd. Please cease from your foolishness immediately and never darken my blog post with your misreadings again!

  • Melvin S.

    I love you alan…

    “First, it is (in general) in the best interest for producers/publishers/distributors to push new products over older products because it results in more sales. If I already own the Beatles’ “Revolver,” Halo 1, and Star Wars: A New Hope (the non-”special” edition), then I have no motivation to buy additional copies of these products unless the artists come out with sequels or newer, “better” editions. So it is in their best interest to put their efforts behind new products (albums, games, movies) and to discourage people from holding on to or being satisfied with their old products.”

    I didn’t take immediate notice to this when it dealt with music, games etc. because many of the games that I play usually have AMAZING sequels, and I never really noticed a reduction in quality as second generation products were made. but now after a bit of recollection, It makes sense.

    The one product where I do see this happening is cars. Everyone here has noticed those hybrid classic/new cars that have been going around right? They’re american cars that try to include the capabilities of new cars but they have the look of a classic car,(Newer Ford Mustangs,Dodge Challengers, Camaro’s…)and they’re selling like HOTCAKES! I have a particular friend who is shopping for a new vehicle and at the moment he very much in love with the New Dodge Challenger. I personally think the car looks awful, it reminds me of something from The Jetsons, but I analyzed the cars specs and the specs of it’s classic counterpart and found that an older challenger is not only cheaper, but faster, and MUCH more durable than that of the newer challenger.

    After I took all of my data and verified it, I presented it to my friend, and he blew it off, he was only interested in the vehicle because it is considered the “New Age Musclecar” a muscle car for this generation, if you will, and he wants something that represents this “New” generation of ours,(with a tag price of over 60,000).

    Quite Honestly, I know why these cars are made. The baby booming generation is almost to the age of mid life crisis, and what better way to act like a 20 year old again than with a NEW car that reminds you of the car you had in high school? Pretty smart marketing on GM’s part, or not, aren’t they being bought by Fiat?

    All in all, Alan I have to agree with you, this infatuation with the new is beginning to dishearten me. It’s very rare to find good quality anything anymore, and when you do, people disagree with you.