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Friday, October 1, 2010

Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature

As one currently undergoing a dissertation in medieval lyrics, I may risk arriving at this topic as an intruder if not simply as a lost wanderer. I'll readily confess I share with most of you the comparatist's pleasure in leaping disciplinary boundaries, but in this case the initial impression of bridging two radically different bodies of knowledge, not to mention sensibilities, is misleading.

It is a fact rarely acknowledged, and more rarely given its full theoretical due when fundamental critical issues are discussed that the vast majority of human cultural production is in a very real sense popular. I am not thinking only of the fact that Louis L'Amour outsells Ezra Pound or of the unthinkably enormous audience for television. Diachronically as well and over the face of the earth, those art works which are "popular" in the sense that they are accessible to every member of a given society or subculture and which are, in fact, consumed virtually universally dominate the field without any doubt. The Enuma Elish, Greek tragedy, European mystery plays, the contemporary dramatic cycles of the Urhobo people of Nigeria: each of these performances consists of a poetic verbal text and a public spectacle witnessed by the community as a whole. Today we have football rituals, television, and background music in the supermarket, but we also have a category of high art, elite art, serious art, art-art.

This division is perceived by some with pride and by others with pain. Among those hurt by the withering or diversion of the mass audience are Flaubert who lamented "We all lack a basis," Artaud who was sufficiently infuriated by the alienation of art from society as a whole that he idealized the Tarahumara and the Balinese and, for Europe, proclaimed first "no more masterpieces," and, later, "all writing is pigshit." Most attempts to address this split have been sociological, focusing on conditions of production or reception to distinguish one type of art from the other.

This is not, however, the only division I mean to examine. Popular culture has very often been regarded as primarily as “mass culture,” the art produced as a commodity under modern capitalism. Only occasionally do articles on oral literature (what used to be called primitive or tribal literature) appear in the pages of the Journal of Popular Culture. Nonetheless, few critics who have expertise on science fiction also discuss Homer or materials gathered by anthropologists. Indeed, the problems of definition can be vexing. Is the popular identical with the oral? What place do both occupy in the corpus of literature as a whole? Surely answers to these questions will go far to defining the role of popular literature in the academic world.

This project was originally motivated by the observation that, while oral literature and popular literature seem to have a great deal in common, critics show great respect for Homer and civility at least for texts gathered by anthropologists, but often dismiss popular texts about which they have thought very little. These attitudes are triggered by the use of sociological criteria for the definition of popular culture. The result is either the old elitism (which has no difficulty considering thinking the popular as that which doesn't measure up) or a contemporary enthusiasm equally unbased in theory. I mean to critically examine some of the ways in which the popular has been defined and then to seek non-sociological criteria by which to define the place of the popular in the structure of literature. These criteria will indicate the close relation between popular and oral literature. I shall then suggest what implications popular texts have for our general speculations about the nature of literature. I shall be speaking very generally and tossing out references to a great variety of texts, many of which would not normally be classified as popular. Nonetheless, by the end of my remarks, I hope to have corralled all of the reluctant data into coherent regions mf not satisfying pigeonholes.

I shall first justify my project by pointing out difficulties inherent in some of the criteria for definition that have been commonly used in the past. First, in defining popular or oral literature literacy has often been used as the essential threshold from one to another. While this notion had some credibility at a time when the majority of most populations was illiterate, it is untenable today when a great many people practicing traditional oral art are also literate. Even Parry and Lord found a fluid interplay between oral performers and published versions of their songs. It will never be possible to determine whether Homer could read or not; it is enough to know his texts were generated by a system that works for the illiterate. The makers of medieval romances may well have translated written texts, but they often performed before largely illiterate audiences. Onitsha market literature and turn-of-the-century Midwestern newspaper verse, while produced by individual authors who were literate, clearly have "popular" and even "oral" characteristics.

Further, social class has often been used to identify popular from what in this context might be called courtly literature. But the oldest examples, from tribal texts to Aeschylus were performed before general audiences, while today rock and roll and television are consumed with equal satisfaction in slums and suburbs. Clearly a better definition of the relation between popular and high art is needed. If the distinction between high and popular art is unclear, that between the oral and the popular is even more problematical. I have been collapsing the two, accurate enough on the basis of accessibility to all, this is, but they are far from identical. Did McKinley Morganfield, upon leaving Stovall's Plantation to become Muddy Waters in Chicago pass from one genre to another? If so, why are the recordings made by Alan Lomax so strikingly similar to those on Aristocrat and Chess?
With the passing of old notions of Volksdichtung arising spontaneously from the masses (and Parry to assure us that some singers were very good indeed and others altogether mediocre), individual authorship seems invalid. Pay can hardly work either, as all societies compensate their artists to one extent or another. Political criteria would obscure the likeness between Chinese revolutionary opera and Broadway shows.

Is there any way to bring the rich but confused series of examples I have compiled into orderly relation? To answer this question, I think a brief excursus is necessary about the poles around which much discussion of literature has revolved since Romanticism. Many critics and theorists, and not a few poets, have built their barricades around positions basically defined by the continuum of tradition and innovation. Some have aligned themselves with the romantic impulse to privilege the novel (Wordsworth when young, Pound, Shklovsky, Artaud) or the "neo-classical" emphasis on tradition (Pope, Arnold, Curtius, Leavis).
Similar polemical positions characterize the popular/elite art controversy. Some celebrate what they perceive as popular specifically as tradition-challenging (Bakhtin, Leslie Fiedler) while others attack it as destructive of all culture (Max Horkheimer or Leo Lowenthal for whom popular culture is a useful source of information but which in itself is spurious, the very counter-concept of art).

The simple fact is that these disputes dissolve when one realizes that every instance of language and certainly every literary artifact is at once conformist and nonconformist — if it were not the former it would be incomprehensible and the latter is necessitated by the fact that every context and occasion is different so no utterances can be exactly equivalent. This does not deny the reality of the two poles: the most ordinary of good mornings can approach total repetition while Lautgedichte and John Cage's random compositions approach total unpredictability.

The fact that theories of art have been built about each end of the opposition, though, is suggestive. Even though the most self-conscious claims for the innovative are fairly recent, an injunction like that in Geoffrey of Vinsauf that the poet must "rejuvenate" the language indicates the antiquity of the idea. The reason that plausible and impassioned cases have been made for both tradition and innovation in literature is that each is necessary. Defamiliarization can only occur on a background of familiarization. The sonneteer must have an audience with a set of assumptions before he can manipulate those assumptions.
None of these remarks, though, alters the fact that certain genres are more highly conventional than others. There can be little doubt that popular literature (and I understand the oral literature here as well) is more predictable. This has been frequently noted and, indeed, constitutes the grounds for most of the attacks leveled against the popular for being boring, repetitive, artless hackwork. In fact, those who champion certain works of popular culture often try to demonstrate that their choices are acceptable by standards of irony, innovation, and the like.

I would claim an equal aesthetic function for highly iterative patterns. Repetitiveness, or reliance on extreme conventionalization, produces a familiarity to the words in precisely the Shkloskian sense of automized or algebrized language. The forms of popular literature clearly use the same linguistic formulae repeatedly (they are thus particularly easy to parody), television programs possess a discourse quite their own; many traditional mysteries, romance novels, and pornographic texts clearly use and reuse verbal material with obsessive regularity. This is, of course, the very characteristic on which Parry, Lord and their followers founded the notion of the oral. The principle of "economy" provided the criterion for discerning what is oral from what is not, and economy relies on a fund of formulae recognizable.
The child obviously learns the verbal cues which identify the genre of fairy tales at a very early age. An oral literature sort of economy is characteristic of medieval romance regardless of the degree of "orality" or literariness of conditions of its production or consumption. Extreme forms of this conventional repetitiveness include the many Native American Indian songs from the Plains groups which consist of the sane brief phrase (often meaningless) repeated for hours or church liturgy which is enacted weekly for centuries without change.

This familiarization which, it seems to me, has a claim equal to that of defamiliarization as a basis for the aesthetic text, appears not merely in aesthetic discourse. It is evident also in larger descriptive clich├ęs, in turns of plot, in the thematic materials retailed through the work. This point is so obvious it scarcely bears documentation, but, contrary to Shklosky’s claims, here it is quite clear that the repeated structures do not fade and disappear due to their automization, rather they are underlined again and again specifically to imprint them in the mental programs of their consumers.

Probably the most persistent repetitions in Homer are the descriptions of battle and sacrifice, obviously central cultural components for the Greeks. In medieval romance the Christians defeat the Saracens in order to validate the dominant ideology just as on television Jackie Gleason used to embrace Audrey Meadows and their differences dissolved at the end of their half hour, and motion picture and television alike regulations required that the police must get their man. In this way both marriage and the social order will be perpetuated.

Apart from situation comedies, similar highly conventionalized patterns occur in romance novels, pornographic texts, and fairy tales. Liturgy represents an extreme example. The repetition of comforting codes is surely a more common pattern in imaginative production than the more familiar Romantic concept that art brings a critical perspective, pointing out contradictions, tensions, and problems.

Much myth of considerably greater antiquity uses a very similar sort of sympathetic magic leading to happy endings through narration — this is, for instance a common method of shamanistic healing, and one practiced no less in our own society than among the Crow Indians. Certain critical discussions of popular culture under capitalism have centered on this function of culture as a replicator of ideological givens (for instance, Dorfman and Kattelarts How to Read Donald Duck or Eco’s discussion of Superman in The Role of the Reader).
But these partisan views are questionable before the example of tribal societies which inculcate ideology even more rigorously but toward ends more easily romanticized (as in recent mythologizing about Native American Indian). The critics of direct cultural transmission generally take little notice of the official art produced in socialist countries which seeks to fulfill the same function. Indeed the classical Chinese opera and the modern revolutionary opera are at one in the formal sense of using strict and highly repetitive conventions to teach and reinforce ideology. This is, indeed, the old Horatian ideal, upheld by E.D. Hirsch in our day of instruction as a function of literature. We can glorify the ideals taught in Balinese shadow theater, appreciate those of Homer, but rarely have sympathy for the ones that arrive daily on our television sets. Be that as it may, the fact must be recognized that the formal method practiced in each case is the same.

Once it is granted that these carefully designed highly repetitive structures do not disappear, it remains to describe what they do. For one thing, they construct myths. Eco speaks of the myth of Superman in a way that is formally correct according to Levi-Strauss’s notions of myth. That myth exists extratextually in that it is derived from a group of texts and is not confined to any single one among them. The mythic character comes not from specific similarities with Oedipus or any other model but from the formal structural repetition which creates a body of expectations and which expresses a set of values. Thus, every television show is susceptible to reading as myth. Viewers vary rarely treasure the memory of an individual show, and stations almost never rebroadcast great shows from a series (as distinct from random reruns); rather what is enjoyed is the myth generated by many shows. What Eco calls the iterative scheme in Superman is according to him "that on which most famous authors have founded their fortunes” (he mentions mystery writers), and this is only partly because audiences enjoy having their preconceptions confirmed, and are comforted when told that all that they had believe about men and women, about parents and children is true.

Beyond this ideological message, there is clearly a pleasure in encountering the same ideas, the same words, the same characters again and again. The consumer delights in his own initiation just as academics at scholarly meetings enjoy hearing certain terms, certain names. This recognition reinforces our own sense of belonging, entirely apart from whether we agree with the utility of the concepts or with the authors cited. It is quite clear then that this pleasure in repetition is not peculiarly the property of the naive — it is the same when we enjoy our own competence whether to converse in French, to spot typologies in a Biblical text, or to discuss the merits of a new shortstop.

This sameness has a further function as well. As Shklovsky seems inadequately to have realized, familiarization is what allows the possibility of defamiliarization. Alteration of convention is an essential part of convention itself. Information may be more densely packed into a text when there is a highly regular structure so that a mere mention of a single word can trigger reference to a whole body of earlier texts. This is similar to the way in which Pindar uses myth and also to the way in which school students communicate with single slang words or even raised eyebrows which carry abundant meaning based on previously established codes.
Whenever a convention appears, it is instantly subject to numerous tropes: it is reversed, used ironically, turned upside down, and inside out. Each of these may then become a model which the next writer will twist about another turn until often the origin of the convention is lost, in the way that the origin of Bob Dylan in Dylan Thomas has vanished for most. To select one point along this path of transformation and to applaud its “originality” is to ignore the larger pattern that provides context. In fact every detail is preceded and followed by greater or lesser variations, for only in this way does human culture develop.

In spite of the fact that this simple descriptive fact confounds the very opposition of innovation to convention, it is nonetheless true that texts vary along a considerable spectrum of predictability. Great works and worthless ones occupy every stage of this continuum, so convention can be no criterion for value. The worth of the conventional, however, has been so neglected these last few hundred years, that their use is obscure to many modern readers.

First of all, conventions and readers’ expectations play an essential role that in all language (indeed in all cognitive processes), allowing an increase in semiotic density by making more details significant. Just as a code of sound changes in prefixes and suffixes adds meaning to nouns and verbs, a code of variation in convention allows a greater quantity of data to be expressed in every word. Then, there is the simple pleasure of repetition itself, familiar to every parent who reads to toddlers, but equally a factor in the universal popularity of mindless television. The highly conventionalized forms of writing have distinct characteristics: they tend to express themes that transmit received ideas, they are generally very clear and readily accessible, and they are likely to use paratactic structures. The function of such texts, often written off in this era of the Romantic individual genius, deserves further investigation.

Any reading of literature that fails to consider the highly conventionalized forms in oral, popular, and mass culture will be willfully ignoring the vast majority of human artistic production.

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