Thursday, 10 January 2008

Don't blame the Arctic Monkeys

Another very interesting comment from Dan on my post about the sixties. He suggests that there's a 'law of crowds' involved:

both culturally and knowledge-wise, the world has becoming increasingly crowded, and increasingly connected.

In terms of learning and knowledge, this has meant that (and I can't remember where I heard this quote, but I paraphrase) it was last possible to be a generalist at the turn of the 20th century. Now you're either a tiny ant helping maintain the academic hive (walking in journal stacks *really* brings this home to me!) or you're accepting the loss of meaning and pissing about with symbology.

I have to confess to being quite sceptical about the idea that the sum of human knowledge is increasing exponentially. The size of academic journal stacks has a lot to do with a particular way of framing learning as the production of knowledge, where "knowledge" has become a commodity. (As I've been arguing, this goes a long way back into the history of the university.)

Even if we accept that knowledge is something which can be meaningfully counted - and I don't - it would seem clear that vast amounts of knowledge have been destroyed in the last few centuries. The loss of languages, and therefore of much of the local ways of seeing and the stories which went with them, is only one of the more obvious examples.

In my own case, I find it humbling to think about how illiterate I am when walking in the countryside, compared to my ancestors of only two or three generations back. I can give you my take on the differing trajectories of Keats' nightingale and Shelley's skylark, but I couldn't tell the song of one from the other.

There's another point which comes through from Dan's post:

Culturally, the same problem exists. There's a loss of belief in the whole point of creating culture because there's just so much of the stuff: archaeological layers, vast fields stretching as far as the eye can see. One can imagine how the Arctic Monkeys might think picking up titles from old movies and music from old artists was just the way the game's done now. I hate the word, but, um, its all pastiche, and that's maybe OK.

Having said that, in the realm of the acoustic guitar singer-songwriter, I'd never think there'd be anything able to move me much again, but then I saw the Channel 4 funded film Once, and now have the music, and by God its wonderful.

The anxiety over the sheer amount of culture easily becomes entangled with the anxiety for constant, radical innovation, generally recognised as a feature of the arts in western societies since the Romantic era. Again with the scepticism, I don't see why something should have to be new to be great - so it's good to hear Dan's example of being moved by something that isn't necessarily pushing at any boundaries.

My observation that the sixties have an unusual hold on our imagination is not intended to damn the unimaginativeness of the Arctic Monkeys, or anyone else. Rather, I'm interested in whether this is evidence for the significance of the years between 1958 and 1974 as a historical moment, the like of which we haven't seen since. Perhaps there's no great need to look for evidence. The claim is hardly controversial - but I'm curious about the conflicting accounts of that moment, and some of the less explored possibilities underlying them.

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