Pitfalls of lacking a high/low culture divide

I made a jokey tweet (…that is entirely true) about my lack of high/low culture divide. (Specifically: “I think you would be alarmed if you knew how often, “Sir Mix-a-Lot’s identical twin brother does not like big butts, and cannot tell the truth,” is my IMMEDIATE response to philosophical conundrums and logic puzzles. My high/low culture separation is nonexistent, basically.”) And some stranger came along and said, “And yet weirdly, you say that almost in a tone of self criticism, as if it were a /bad/ thing. :)” So first of all: good use of emoji to indicate tone in a medium not well-suited for that, stranger, well-done, I get that you are being extra-friendly.

And generally, I am in favor of this trait of mine. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t only select friends for it…but it’s strongly, strongly correlated with the people I’m closest to. The last person I talked to about Debussy, for example, is also the person who got “Hooked on a Feeling” in my head for the last 48 hours and counting (…THANKS). Another dear friend inspired me to write her a story because she loves classic space stories and mid-twentieth century British literary fiction, so I got the peanut butter and the chocolate together for her, since I like them too. It’s just…an ease of conversation thing, an approach that makes it easier not to have to signal conversational turns because we’re all up in those things together. But here’s what I mean about signaling conversational turns when I haven’t figured out whether someone shares that trait yet:

There’s the problem of someone thinking that a low culture reference in what they intended to have as a serious conversation is automatically a joke. Example: someone wants to talk about writers who handle family relationships well or interestingly. They bring up A.S. Byatt and we talk about her works for some time. Great. If they think I’m changing the subject or not taking them seriously if I mention Lois McMaster Bujold (long series space opera), Fonda Lee (kung fu movie-influenced fantasy), or Hilary McKay (children’s), that’s not going to work, conversationally. It’s not going to help. I know that some of my friends who focus on genre get immediately indignant, defensive, and declare that people who have that reaction are being jerks. But I think they don’t necessarily mean to, they just…are trying to work from context they don’t have.

Here’s my example: when I was in my mid-teens, I had a cousin I loved very much, and she loved me very much, and I noticed she was laughing at pretty much everything I said. Not, like, hearty deep laughter. But polite laughter, baffled laughter. And I realized that we had diverged enough that she was trying to figure out what on earth I was saying, what would make me say the things I said, and the only thing she could think of was: she would never say any of those things except as some kind of weird joke maybe? And it was polite to laugh at people’s jokes? Therefore hahaha, OUT OF KINDNESS AND CONSIDERATION. So sometimes people are not trying to be jerks about breadth of artwork included in a discussion, they’re trying to get the context for what you are signaling. It’s a pitfall, not a conversation-ender, if you can manage to signal clearly that, no, you are still talking about the same thing they’re talking about. Communication can be achieved here. It just sometimes takes work.

The other end of the spectrum comes when people have past bad experiences with people trying to one-up and show off with how superior their tastes are. This is a crappy thing to do to people, but pretending no one ever does it won’t make it go away. So…if someone is trying to have a fun conversation about stuff they like, and you are trying to have a fun conversation about stuff you like, the trap comes in when they have been conditioned to read your fun as a dominance game over them, a way to show off how much better you are than them. And it’s useful to try to listen to the other person’s reactions carefully, to figure out when they’re being ignorantly dismissive for fun and when they’re protecting a bruise, where they’ve been smacked a bit before. (Sometimes, sadly, even literally.)

So yah: it’s easy to just dismiss the line between high and low culture, to look at some of the fruitful and amazing art that comes from ignoring or even gleefully trampling it. To say, nope, we want none of those divisions here. I’m on board. And every few years someone writes a manifesto about doing just that, as though nobody who came before them ever did, instead of practically everybody. But…if we can ever leap to “maybe this person’s context is different and it’s worth trying a little more communication to be sure” instead of “JERKS!”…if we can think of communication pitfalls instead of insurmountable problems…that seems worthwhile to me, when I can make it work.

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