Posted tagged ‘popular culture’

Art or just narcissism – should universities be places of refuge from popular culture?

April 22, 2014

One phenomenon of popular culture that suddenly erupted on the scene is the ‘selfie’. One can hardly call it a self-portrait, because that would suggest an artistic intention of sorts and an attempt to portray personality and appearance. Rather, the selfie is more of a casual capture of the moment, whatever that moment may be. It is everywhere: famously, Barack Obama and David Cameron shared the photographic frame in a selfie taken by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela’s funeral; and Ellen Degeneres provided some advertising for Samsung with her group selfie at the Oscars. And naturally you can wander through the pages of Facebook to see one of the selfie’s natural habitats. The onward march of the selfie has now even been recognised by the Oxford University Press, though not yet by its flagship, the OED.

Of course universities are not insulated from the world of selfies. Recently Bryant University in the United States asked students to stop taking selfies during graduations. And apparently the University of Alabama has tried to stop students from taking selfies in any setting at all ‘because it [is] immature and made them look bad’.

Universities sometimes have a difficult relationship with popular culture. There is often an instinctive suspicion of anything that has caught public attention in a sudden wave of enthusiasm, perhaps on the understanding that if it’s caught on too fast across society it will dumb down the academy if it enters there. While not every trend deserves academic recognition, some do. Charles Dickens was, in his day, part of popular culture, as was Shakespeare. The selfie may not generally be today’s manifestation of Rembrandt or van Gogh, but there is no need to get all worked up about it. In fact, I would love it if there were available for viewing today a collection of selfies from, say, 1914. Actually, if you look hard enough, there are.

Looking for something to study? Try something more unusual

February 12, 2011

If you thought that learning about zombies at university was somewhat off-beat (see my last post), here are some other academic courses you might consider.

1. The Simpsons and Philosophy. This is taught in a special programme at the University of California, Berkeley. Here’s the course synopsis:

‘The purpose of The Simpsons and Philosophy DeCal is to provide students with a unique introductory look into a number of varied academic areas of interest using The Simpsons as a tool for further understanding.  From philosophy to religion, from science to politics, students will explore a number of different world views and how The Simpsons engages in such discourses.  By taking this class, students will come to appreciate how The Simpsons can lead to better understanding of, well, pretty much everything.’

2. The Science of Harry Potter.  This is offered at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and ‘examines the magical events in J.K. Rowling’s books and explains them through the basic principles of physics.’

3. Philosophy and Star Trek. You can take this at Georgetown University. This course is ‘an introduction to certain topics in metaphysics and epistemology philosophy, centered around major philosophical questions that come up again and again in Star Trek.’

So what should we say about these and other similar programmes? Are they just rubbish? Are they examples of popular culture undermining genuine scholarship? Or are these legitimate examples of academic analysis and critique? In fact, should we study popular culture to understand more about society?

I won’t be reading this one

October 15, 2009

How many autobiographies should a self-respecting celebrity publish? Well, if you ask Katie Price (otherwise known as the ‘glamour’ model Jordan), at least four. I gather (and not from personal knowledge, I can assure you) that this oeuvre has just been published. And why is it newsworthy? Because some of the major book chains won’t be stocking it, taking the view that, well, three was enough. I have made a half hearted attempt to find out what this one is called, and did a search on Amazon, but gave up trying to work it all out. Still, I have been able to discover that Jordan wants Julia Roberts to play her in the hoped for (by her) Hollywood interpretation of the work. Bless her.

I suppose I should come clean and admit something: I have met Katie Price, one to one. It was right here in DCU. She was appearing on the short-lived Dunphy chat show that went out from the Helix, and I sometimes wandered over to meet the guests in the green room. And I’ll own up a little more: I had absolutely no idea who Katie Price was and, armed with such ignorance, actually rather liked her. If I can put it this way, she was rather dignified in a slightly pitiful way. Maybe I would come away with the same opinion of, say, Britney Spears, whose autobiography (if that’s what it is, and please don’t feel the need to tell me) I also won’t be reading.

I try not to look awkwardly at popular culture – if I am to be the accessible university President I want to claim to be I need to know something about it – but yet I cannot work my way into the mindset of those who think that Hello magazine is worth whatever the amount of money is you have to pay to get it. But more to the point, I cannot believe that the destruction of a person’s life that almost inevitably follows on the heels of unwarranted celebrity is something we should tolerate so easily. There is something odd about recognising celebrity in a person when you would be hard pushed to say what, objectively, the celebrity status is based on. Maybe it’s worse than odd, maybe it’s nasty. We build up such icons because we know, really, that they make good targets, not least because we don’t have to temper our indignation at them with second thoughts about their talents.

If the current economic troubles cause us to reconsider what kind of society we are, this might be a good place to start.