W. Robert Connor (Photo: Kent Mullikin)
am Spade? Linoleum? Cops and robbers? Neuromancer (the novel that coined the term "cyberspace")? Cyberspace itself? Vernacular architecture? The Maltese Falcon? Cheap prints at Boots the Chemist? Since when have these been part of the subject matter of the humanities?
Whatever happened to high culture?
The study of the loftiest cultural achievements is alive and well at the National Humanities Center. Chaucer and Yeats, Seneca and Shakespeare, Milton and Mozart have all been well represented. Increasingly, however, scholars in the humanities have recognized that they cannot do their jobs correctly if they do not pay attention to popular movements as well as high culture. Some of the best work in the humanities in recent years, in fact, has let us see canonical texts and works of art in a new light by showing how they relate to widely circulated material--pamphlets, songs, sermons, folk tales and legends--and to the settings in which people lived, worshiped, and gained a livelihood.
Would any account of contemporary America be worth its salt if it did not look at the movies, science fiction, television, and, nowadays, the Internet? We have to scrutinize these forms if we are going to understand our culture.
Students of the ancient world have been finding the same thing. The study of ancient Rome is especially instructive. The focus of scholarship in recent years has moved, as one eminent historian has put it, outward, downward, and later--away from the politically active elites of Rome at the height of its republic and early empire, and towards groups often neglected in earlier scholarship: women, slaves, freedmen, and the middle and lower classes including those living in the provinces. Many of the old clichés about the "decline and fall" of the Roman empire have themselves declined and fallen as the focus of historical study has broadened. There is no doubt that our understanding of Rome has improved as a result.
This issue of Ideas, then, turns to popular culture: the mysteries of Dashiell Hammett, L. S. Lowry's paintings of the British industrial north, cyberspace's effects upon all of us.
One of the best commentators on English and American literature, and a valued Trustee of the National Humanities Center, Patricia Meyer Spacks, has recently called attention to the twofold mission of the humanities and of this Center:
As usual, Pat Spacks has it right--we need to fathom
the cultures both of the past and of the present, and above
all we need to explore them in the kind of dialogue that can
take place especially well in a residential center such as
W. Robert Connor
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