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    They eat off of you / You’re a vegetable

    Phooey (phoois, phooit…). I saw this FoxNews story on a recent Michael Jackson conference at Yale, but I was still munching over a way to say something useful and funny about it. As always, Alice in Texas proves the simplest ideas are the best:

    FoxNews: panelists discussed how pedophilia allegations have fed into false stereotypes about gays.

    Alice B: Do people no longer have phone directories to read?

    It’s a shame that the people studying pop culture in the academy do such a horrible job at it, because in my experience in college, it was really valuable. In a modern poetry class I took sophomore year, I asked the professor about including Madonna (Erotica had just come out) in my final paper, and his response was, “You may include a section on Madonna, as long as–I don’t know how you anticipate doing this with the work of such a thoroughgoing vulgarian, but I wait with interest to see–you really think you’ve found a way to ground her in the traditions of American poetry.”

    And he meant it. Whenever we conferred about the paper, he took pains to make sure I was focused on the old stuff of proven, lasting value (Dickinson and Eliot) and showing how I thought it illuminated what Madonna was doing. For that matter, we also, in tenth grade, took a break from reading Chaucer and Beowulf and Pepys’s diary to do one of our assigned five-paragraph themes on a work of contemporary fiction. “Good junk,” our teacher called it–Updike, or whatever. The idea was to take the principles we were learning to apply to the foundational or great works and see how talented authors right now were still using them in a lesser but meaningful way. But we did it once, and then it was back to…I don’t know, Party Patches, or wherever we were. On most educational issues, I’m slightly to the right of the average convent school nun, but I do think that it’s good to work artifacts of popular culture into lessons sparingly. The continuity of Western civilization is probably the most valuable lesson of the humanities/social science part of education.

    But of course, that’s not the way researchers approach it. Most of the pop culture studies material you see involves closed readings, with only other pop culture or current events for context. The interpretive framework is almost invariably based in cultural studies, the poison seeds of which were germinating when I was in college. The idea seems to be to reassure students that they can just kind of glance at what’s around them and see everything they need to know to understand art and the mysteries of life. Because, you know, if there’s anything kids in their late teens and early twenties won’t do without being shown how, it’s navel-gazing.

    Just one thing from the article that did make me chuckle:

    Jackson “in many ways is the black male crossover artist of the 20th century,” said Seth Clark Silberman, who teaches about race and gender at Yale. “He has grown up in front of us, so we have a great investment in him, even though some people today may find his image disturbing.”

    Some people may find his image disturbing? Sheesh. You know, if anyone out there has a list of people who are not disturbed by Jackson’s current image, please do me the kindness of forwarding it to me so I can stay the hell away from them.

    3 Responses to “They eat off of you / You’re a vegetable”

    1. Mrs. du Toit says:

      “a list of people who are not disturbed by Jackson’s current image…”
      Hey, cool. Another in the collection of “Shortest books in history.”

    2. Amritas says:

      “Shortest *books*”? A pamphlet, perhaps.

    3. Sean Kinsell says:

      Okay, kids, you’re scaring me with this talk of multiple pages. I was thinking of a list of maybe five mental patients scattered over the lower 48, maybe one of whom answers only to the name Muscles and refuses to eat anything but rodents.