Sunday, April 27, 2014

Puzzling over value #7 The Modernists: Excellence or Elitism?

This is going to take some untangling so to start the thread:


Excellence or Elitism

In his most excellent “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” a book that should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to teach literature,  Jonathon Rose, coming to the end of his narrative, quotes John Carey. In “The Intellectuals and the Masses” Carey “argues that the fundamental motive behind the modernist movement was a corrosive hostility towards the common reader.” (Rose p.392)  and Rose sets this in the context of ‘the centuries-old tensions between the educated classes and the self-educated’. (p393)

Anyone who has read Pound’s criticism, will know his arrogant dismissal of the Mob, but as Rose proves, the “mob” Pound was reviling was becoming far better educated. In 1870 education was made compulsory in Britain, by the beginning of the 20th century the schools had introduced a new generation of working class readers to the classics of English literature  and they were buying the shilling editions of the everyman library by the millions.  

“If most American magazines were printing free verse,[Eliot was complaining of this in 1917)  America could hardly be the philistine wasteland portrayed by Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Menken. In fact the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic was becoming more affluent and more educated. That growing audience could support an ever-expanding corps of writers, artists, critics and academics: they could earn a living by rejecting the mass audience and writing for coteries of sophisticated readers.  The modernists were among the first authors to carve out that market niche, and to secure it they had to become ever more innovative, complex and difficult-partly to frustrate imitators, partly to appeal to the exclusivity of readers. That is why mass education, even mass higher education, never produces a ‘common culture’, however noble that dream may be. Whenever the masses are educated up to a given level of culture, elite audiences and intellectuals will have already pressed on to the next and more challenging level". (p.436)

There is an undeniable process built into the structure of any society. Rose again: ‘If knowledge is power, then power wealth and prestige depend on preserving inequalities of knowledge. Anthropologist Mary Douglas notes that the drive to maintain differential of information is present in all societies: “Ethnography suggests that, left to themselves, regardless of how evenly access to the physical means of production may be distributed, and regardless of free educational opportunities, consumers will tend to create exclusive inner circles controlling access to a certain kind of information.” (qtd 395).

However, Rose, following Carey, seems to  imply that the modernists did this deliberately.

‘The inaccessibility of modernism in effect rendered the common reader illiterate once again, and preserved a body of culture as the exclusive property of a coterie.‘ (p.394)


I haven't read Carey, but  I’m not sure either of them is right. 
More to follow.

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