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Our Changing Cultural Vocabulary
by Marc Jampole
IT SEEMS as if it were only yesterday that America first saw the heart-rendering TV commercial in which Mean Joe Greene, a professional football player from the 1970s, throws a jersey to a young boy who offered him a Coke. The commercial, first introduced in 1979, makes all the lists of Top 10 or Top 25 American TV commercials of all time.
A recent TV spot parodies the Mean Joe commercial of decades ago. In the new spot, Joe throws his jersey to a housewife, played to soccer-and-bake-sale-mom perfection by sometimes raunchy comic actress Amy Sedaris. The camera angle exaggerates the difference in size between the characters much more than the original spot did. The housewife tosses a bottle of Downy laundry detergent to Mean Joe, looking sharp and very buff for a guy in his mid-60s. When Mean Joe lobs his jersey to her, she smells it, makes a disgusted face and throws it right back to him.
A great spoof.
TV commercials have parodied TV shows, movies and other art forms for decades. And parody or travesty sometimes enters into the occasional revival of an old ad concept like the resurrections of Mr. Clean, Joe Isuzu, and Charlie the Tuna, which are all cases of a TV commercial making fun of itself.
But this laundry soap commercial may mark the first time we’ve seen a television commercial that pays homage to a commercial for a different product.
What does it say about our cultural vocabulary when to understand and appreciate a television commercial, you need to know about a 30-year-old television commercial for something else?
Cultural vocabulary comprises the quotes and images of literature, the visual arts, entertainment, current events and other cultural phenomena that people need to know to understand the cultural references that abound in the mass media, the popular arts and general conversation. Our cultural vocabulary consists of many artifacts:
- Real and fictional people, such as Adam & Eve, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Pascal, and Don Quixote.
- Events, e.g., Hannibal crossing the Alps, the Battle of Waterloo, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon.
- Phrases, e.g., quotes from poems, books, movies, and songs, anything from “No can do” and “Let’s get it on” to “To be or not to be,” from “Four score and seven years ago” to “I have a dream.”
- Inanimate objects, e.g., the Bible, the Holy Grail or a Super Bowl ring.
- Archetypes, e.g., the henpecked husband, the genius who is inept with women, the good prostitute, the cop who can’t follow orders, the stupid or buffoonish strongman, the evil businessman, the evil stepmother, the bumbling leader and the tragic young lovers. These archetypes are often embodied in people or characters who enter the cultural vocabulary: Archie Bunker, James Bond, Hercules, Stepin Fetchit, for example.
The concept of a shared cultural vocabulary is related to yet different from that of cultural literacy. Cultural literacy comprises the knowledge of general history and of great works of literature, music, art, and philosophy essential to be a good citizen. Too often conservative critics present lists of what constitutes cultural literacy that focus almost exclusively on the traditional works of white European males. More progressive critics will include the works of non-Westerners and women and of newer art forms such as film and graphic novels. These critics — both conservative and progressive — all postulate cultural literacy as proscriptive: Here is what you need to know.
Cultural vocabulary takes a different approach, one that describes instead of prescribes, by defining the cultural vocabulary as the body of information that most people in a culture share. Whether or not we should have read T.S. Eliot is not relevant to a description of the cultural vocabulary; what counts is that in 2014 a business magazine such as The Economist will cleverly reference Eliot’s “The Waste Land” by opening an article with “April has been a cheerful month for the Affordable Care Act...”
Those like E.D. Hirsch and Harold Bloom who construct lists of great literature and other cultural artifacts with which every culturally literate person should be familiar must frown dyspeptically at the symbolism of a TV commercial becoming as much a part of our cultural heritage as Huckleberry Finn or the founding of Jamestown. I’m sure that Bloom’s prescriptive cultural vocabulary would exclude Mean Joe Greene throwing a jersey or Mikey liking a dry cereal.
THE ARGUMENT concerning what constitutes cultural literacy and therefore should and should not be part of the cultural vocabulary goes back centuries. In Greek times, critics argued whether the low art of pottery carried the weight of painting. In late medieval times and the Renaissance, the argument was between Latin versus the vernacular. For the past two hundred years, the argument has been about the relative merits of high and low culture, between serious novels and potboilers, literature and comic books, Beethoven and the Beach Boys. In all these instances, critics have argued about the relative merits of high and low (or popular) art.
But a television commercial is something different from both high culture and low culture. It represents commercial culture. Its makers intend not to edify nor to amuse, but to sell a product, service, or idea.
Commercial culture has a history that may be as long as that of either high or low cultures, thanks to the fact that those who pay for propaganda are usually those who control the social order. The cultural dictators of all ages, especially the conservative ones, have tended to warmly embrace commercial culture. The Aeneid, a piece of propaganda purchased by the Roman Emperor Augustus, makes all the lists of the cultural essentials. I think one can make a compelling case that the psalms were works of pure propaganda meant solely to influence public opinion: King David (or the writers he hired) created our beloved psalms to improve public opinion about his actions, which was at a low after he had used the armies of Israel’s enemies to take over the country and then sent his best general out to die so he could cavort with the man’s wife. English literature students still read early Irish poems, which were little more than paid political announcements for Irish chieftains. We see print and poster advertisements by Toulouse-Lautrec, the Russian Constructivists, Depero, and other visual artists hanging in art museums all over the world. Every serious film buff lauds the technical aspects of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films, made for and financed by the Nazis. Many commercial works have managed to make it into the exalted cultural literacy pantheon of authoritarian critics of all ilks.
Before the advertising of products and services began sometime in the 19th century, virtually all works of commercial culture were either masked as entertainments or part of a liturgy. Nowadays, commercial culture will sometimes mask itself in movies which have as their sole purpose the selling of merchandise, e.g., movies about comic book heroes that spin off action figures, costumes, masks, toys, clothing, book marks, calendars, coasters, decorative boxes, jewelry, jigsaw puzzles, mugs, napkins, note cards, pens, tote bags, trays, lunch boxes, and other branded merchandise. But more often than not, commercial culture today involves a naked sales pitch. That our cultural vocabulary so quickly consumes the naked sales pitches of “where’s the beef” and “can you hear me now” reflects the crass materialism of the age.
The development of the mass media of advertising, and then of film, radio, television, video games, and the Internet has led to commercial culture playing a far great role in determining our cultural vocabulary than before World War II. We can see the hegemony of commercial culture everywhere: the enshrinement of commercial or decorative artists such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons in our pantheon of the visual arts; the widespread tattooing of Coke and other brand logos on body parts; and the widespread interests in celebrity culture (which I define as a preoccupation with the commercial transactions of people who are famous for no reason except perhaps for being wealthy). All represent the hegemony that commercial culture has achieved.
That hegemony shines through the recent ending of the TV series Mad Men, which, like the end of the first season, asserts that commercials are an art form by setting up situations in which the protagonist Don Draper transforms the discontents of his life into seminal TV commercials — at the end of the first season, his memories of his family, now fractured by his infidelity, becomes the Kodak “Moments” commercial; the last scene of the last episode of the series shows Draper, having found peace through transcendental meditation, dreaming up the wildly popular “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coke commercials. The sublimation of real life into art has a long history — Dante, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, the list of authors whose works are at least partially autobiographical seems endless. With Mad Men, we see commercial art imitating life in a work of dramatic art about commercial art.
THE ELEMENTS of our cultural vocabulary come from many sources — works of high, low and commercial art and entertainment, news events, history as taught in elementary school, scientific discoveries, ethnic groups and other subcultures (such as urban Afro-American culture, college students or tattoo wearers) and other countries. From a bubbling cauldron of new and recycled cultural artifacts constantly emerge pieces of shared language that penetrate the consciousness of virtually all members of a society.
But while the bits of our shared cultural language can come from anywhere, the main mechanisms for sifting and shaping the cultural vocabulary have always remained firmly in the hands of ruling elites because of their control of the channels of distribution and dispersion of information and knowledge. During medieval times, for example, the church decided which of the thousands of Greek and Roman manuscripts monks would study and therefore copy and save. A political deal with a Roman emperor led to the widespread influence of Christianity on the cultural vocabulary of the West and the disappearance of the many rites and deities of Roman religious practice. Royalty of all kinds, from kings to emperors to Rajas, have promoted and suppressed literature and visual arts. Until well into the 18th century, the writers and artists who repeated and amplified myths and legends were either part of or supported by the ruling elite. Church and government have controlled education in most cultures.
The development of the printing press and capitalism transformed the ownership of communications vehicles, as commercial enterprises joined religions, aristocracy, and government as the sieve that sorts our cultural ephemera to determine which will remain part of our vocabulary and which will disappear. Society’s wealthiest tend to own most commercial media, from newspapers to large websites, which means that the owners of the prime commercial means of transmitting cultural artifacts all come from the same social class and tend to have the same basic values and interests. In undemocratic societies, the commercial media tends to ally with the government. In a democratic society, the commercial media tends to be owned by those who have greatest access and control of the government.
It was, for example, a combination of public schools, text book publishers, movie producers, popular novelists, politically-motivated historians, and politicians who promulgated the positive cultural myths surrounding slavery and the Confederacy once held throughout the United States. It was the combined efforts of all these gatekeepers of values and cultural imagery that enabled the dissemination of these false myths that predominated during the late 19th and 20th centuries; e.g., that plantation life was pleasant for slaves, that freed slaves were not prepared to act independently, and that the mediocre butcher Robert E. Lee was a great general who fought the United States only reluctantly. It has taken the Civil Rights movement and several generations of truth-telling historians, revised text books and mass entertainments such as Roots and 12 Years a Slave to begin to right the misperceptions about the Old South — to change our collective understanding of slavery and the cultural vocabulary we use to characterize it.
That the ruling elite tends to have the most to say in what cultural artifacts survive and remain part of our cultural vocabulary does not suggest any grand conspiracy theory. As C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite, G. William Domhoff in Who Rules America and others have noted, ruling elites share the same values, attend the same schools, play golf at the same clubs and serve on the same boards and associations. A conspiracy isn’t necessary for class action.
TECHNOLOGY PLAYS TWO ROLES in the process of creating cultural vocabulary from the enormous and chaotic ocean of imagery and information that confronts us. From the development of the printing press to the explosion of social media, new technology has always tended to speed up both the creation and the discarding of temporary pieces of cultural language. For example, the twerking fad of the late summer of 2013 lasted much less time than the hula hoop fad of the 1950s. While technology allows for a faster dispersion of information, it also fragments the mass market into literally thousands of sub-markets, each of which develops and speaks its own language, with its own jargon, each phrase of which could break out into the mainstream for a few weeks, or for centuries.
But technology isn’t just a vehicle for transmission; it is also responsible for the creation of a growing part of our cultural vocabulary: the selfie; the “nerd”; the ascension of Steve Jobs to a position equal to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in American business mythology; calling our thought processes “software”; asking someone to put something back in its original place by saying “go to default.”
FROM ALMOST the beginning of human culture, artists in all genres and for all purposes have used pieces of cultural vocabulary in their works. But in all case, the artist shapes the cultural vocabulary to his or her own purposes. For example, Odysseus’ wiliness is heroic for Homer, treacherous for Virgil, and bombastic and legalistic for Shakespeare; in James Joyce’s hands, the character of Odysseus is transformed into a self-abnegating Jew in turn-of-the-20th-century Dublin. Botticelli’s Venus is a Christian neo-Platonist symbol of divine love, whereas Titian’s Venus revels in the sensuality of the real world and Paulo Veronese’s embodies the civilizing effects of love. Select virtually any cultural icon that has been around more than a few hundred years and you will be able to find different versions of it throughout literature, art, pop culture, and even history. In a sense, the artist “cannibalizes” the cultural icon by spinning the shared understanding of the icon with his or her own meaning.
Mass culture chews up images and concepts quickly — be it fictional characters like Robin Hood, Mr. Spock or Jason Bourne; historical figures such as Napoleon at Waterloo or Washington crossing the Delaware; sayings like “where’s the beef?” or “I’ll be back”; real incidents like the Spitzer prostitution scandal; fictional ones like movie plots; or new products, especially strange ones. Situation comedies, comedy sketches, TV commercials, spoof movies, newspaper headlines, news programs, comic strips, catalogue captions, advertising slogans, postmodern art, and book titles are just some of the communication forms that routinely cannibalize cultural references. One week, we’ll see hundreds of references to twerking and a few weeks later, they’ll be gone, only to be replaced by hundreds of references to 1970s race car drivers, thanks to the movie Rush. Most of this cultural phenomena is ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow. But you can still provoke a heart-swell with a reference to Moses and Lincoln, or a chuckle with an imitation of Richard Nixon.
Cannibalization of cultural iconography occurs primarily through direct reference or through imitation, parody, and travesty. James Joyce structures Ulysses after Homer’s epic, and a secondary character in the “American Pie” movies calls himself the “Sherminator,” referring to another movie in another genre. Over time, we expropriate and distort the content of a cultural icon, sometimes to the point that we cannot recognize the original, as when Robin Hood becomes an anti-tax conservative in the Russell Crowe movie remake instead of someone who takes from the rich to give to the poor; or when Martin Luther King comes to represent general service to the community in place of seeing him as representing civil rights and civil disobedience. We morph cultural icons, as when the Terminator and Joe Isuzu transform into good guys. We take them out of context and thereby change their meaning, as Andy Warhol did with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
The surest sign that an event, person, character or saying has permanently entered the public collective consciousness is that it has undergone a large number of these cultural expropriations over a period of years. It’s one thing for Johnny Carson to joke about the Mean Joe Greene soft drink commercial in 1982. It’s quite another to recycle the concept as a homage-cum-parody thirty years later to sell suds.
The longer a cultural artifact remains part of the cultural vocabulary, the more it changes from its original form and meaning, until finally it can mean anything to anyone. In a sense, frequent morphing of a cultural artifact hollows it out so it becomes an empty vessel that can be filled with any idea. Take the United States Constitution, not the document itself, but its cultural meaning as a holy icon that guides our society and sets our laws. In any given year, dozens of conservative, progressive and centrist writers invoke the Constitution, each to mean something completely different. Years of reinterpretation and misinterpretation by the news media, politicians, writers, filmmakers, composers, and public relations professionals have slowly hollowed out the concept of the Constitution, so that it can come to represent anything — and everything.
Another example is Martin Luther King. Our public celebration of King’s birthday displays a great ignorance of what he stood for. The media give us an overly generalized story and one quote about a dream. Politicians and writers mostly either refer to his legend without defining it or attempt to attach that legend into the beliefs of the speaker or writer. Even conservatives try to connect their ideas to King’s legacy. That’s the great thing about cultural artifacts that have been hollowed out: They can contain any idea one likes.
Making Dr. King’s birthday commemoration a day for volunteering distorts both Dr. King’s views and the good he did. Spending the day collecting for the poor, performing a charity show, reading to the elderly, cleaning up city parks and doing all the other things that people now typically do on MLK Day are all admirable, but this volunteering relates only in the most nebulous of ways to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers whom King enraptured and engaged in marches, sit-downs, boycotts, and mass arrests fifty and sixty years ago. Just as the news and marketing media transform King the social revolutionary into a mainstream American leader, so social action morphs into volunteering in ways that attend to social ills without addressing how to cure them. King becomes a fatherly figure who reminds us to help out others, a kind of Smokey the Bear of volunteerism.
THERE IS NO WAY to predict the content of our cultural vocabulary in a thousand years, although I imagine that a hundred years from now, the traditional part of it — Moses, Don Quixote, Abraham Lincoln, Biblical and Shakespearean aphorisms — will mostly be intact. The more recently a cultural reference has entered our cultural vocabulary, however, the more likely it will disappear. It is likely we will remain loyal to Abraham and Faust, but perhaps not to J. R. Ewing and Stephen Hawking.
It’s also safe to predict that for the foreseeable future, cultural ephemera will appear and disappear at an in ever-increasing rate. There are just so many inputs to our cultural vocabulary nowadays, including advertisements, television shows, movies, pop music, celebrity culture, and political scandals, in addition to works of high culture like serious drama, classical music, literary novels, and scientific advances. The mixing of cultures adds to the inputs: African, Latin, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and other cultural references seep into any Western culture much more readily and easily than during medieval times.
Beyond predicting the probable sources of change in our cultural vocabulary, we can’t say much about the future. For one thing, it’s possible that government and large organizations will exercise more social control in the future and freeze the development of our cultural vocabulary. Or perhaps somewhere today lives a woman or man destined to found a new religion and thus join Moses, Buddha, Mohammad, and Confucius as important religious figures with whom virtually every adult has familiarity. No one could have guessed in 600 CE that most people around the world would know something about Mohammad. Julius Caesar in 60 BCE was merely another scurrilous politician and the richest man in Rome, not the embodiment of empire and imperialism.
We can identify the processes by which our cultural vocabulary will evolve, but it’s impossible to predict what its actual contents will be in the future. In a thousand years, will audiences smile knowingly on hearing the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth? Will Odysseus still serve as a symbol of the clever and Isaac as a symbol of the pious? Will people still look at “Guernica” and say, “Yes, Picasso.”
And what about Mean Joe Greene, Joe Isuzu, and Mrs. Olsen? Will they still make people think of soda pop, automobiles and coffee in a thousand years? Will they have been reduced to their emotional essence and symbolize friendship, oily rascality and neighborliness? Or will they be as forgotten as Queen Blanche, Bertha of the Big Foot, and the other ladies of times past whom the 16th century French poet Francois Villon compared to the snows of yesteryear?
Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.