Cultural Selection: Why Some Achievements Survive the Test of Time—and Others Don’tincorporates recent research into the nature of human memory, arguing that the “editorial function” of society is more often an accident of context than a recognition of genuine superiority. According to Taylor, the plays of Shakespeare are read and performed, not because they are inherently better than other plays, but because they both suited a particular niche at the time of their composition and have been presented to succeeding generations as something “important” and worthy of respect. Likewise, other works of art, music, and literature became classics when they were viewed by dominant social classes as embodying the values that justified their own hold on power.
Taylor’s perspective is shaped in large part by the discipline known as “cultural studies.” (Cultural studies analyze and interpret cultural artifacts in the light of the social ideology they contain.) The limits of Taylor’s own objectivity may be seen in his dismissal of traditionalists as acting “like a herd of incompetent automatons programmed by one mad white pig” and his statement that he seeks “to offer an interpretation of culture compatible with a more progressive social agenda.” It is never clear in Cultural Selection why an interpretation of culture need be compatible with anypolitical agenda, rather than with the facts, sound reasoning, or the best evidence available. Taylor’s answer is that an apolitical interpretation of culture is simply not possible. Any explanation of society or its achievements must, he believes, be colored by an author’s worldview, historical background, social class, and cultural assumptions. To Taylor, academic objectivity is an illusion, a mere pretense of impartiality that masks an inevitable desire to advance some particular political, social, or economic agenda.
At times, Taylor seems uncomfortable with the reductio ad absurdum that this implies. He notes, for instance, that even students who adamantly refuse to label one theory right and another one wrong “realize that this logic will not convince the police, and few of them try to apply it in their math classes.” In a well-chosen phrase, Taylor notes that “relativists are absolutists about relativism.” Nevertheless, Cultural Selection does not clearly distinguish the author’s own “moderate” relativism from the views of these extremists. Unwilling, for example, to draw a line between literature and popular culture, Taylor sees no contradiction in discussing Hamletalongside Casablanca, the Odyssey alongside The Terminator, and Ludwig van Beethoven alongside Marvin Gaye. Since any idea or work of art may come to be regarded as great by future generations, he treats all products of a culture as equally important and as worthy of serious intellectual consideration.
In support of this view, Taylor concludes, “Look at how most of us respond to our children’s taste in music.” His reasoning appears to be that, while artistic or ideological innovations may be rejected at the time of their introduction, later generations sometimes find great value in them. Thus certain tunes from the 1960’s that were dismissed as “noise” by the World War II generation came to be accepted as “standards” within a very short time. In much the same way, Taylor would have us believe, any idea or work of art may gain respect someday, if it fits the needs of a future generation. Scholars thus should not exclude any work or theory from their consideration since no one can know what our descendants will regard as great.
Unfortunately, Taylor’s own evidence undermines this premise. By calling the reader’s attention to shifting tastes in music, Taylor underscores the very distinction between high art and popular culture that Cultural Selection seeks to minimize. If, for instance, popular tunes and other transitory songs are capable of becoming classics worthy of serious academic study, then which popular tunes of the 1650’s, 1750’s, or even 1850’s are widely remembered today? An academic specialist in popular song may be able to name a dozen or two such pieces, but the vast majority of people will not be able to recall any at all. What people will have heard of are the works of Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Giuseppe Verdi, and so on, even if they recall no more than the composer’s names. No one doubts that there have been popular songs throughout history and that many of these were widely known in their own day. Nevertheless, what remains influential beyond a brief period is rarely if ever popular culture. What society ends up remembering are works sufficiently complex that they repay multiple performances, viewings, or study. The more levels of meaning in a work, the more likely it is that it will survive not...
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