I was on the phone with J.R. Taylor recently, discussing this and that—music, movies, general what-not and what-have-you. Near the end of the conversation he said something that gave me pause.
“You and I are dinosaurs,” he said.
Part of it had to do with growing older in a business increasingly dominated by the young, but more specifically, he was talking about the way we write.
Both J.R. and I are of a certain class of, I guess “geek” is the word, who will regularly resort to making film, musical, historical or literary references to clarify a point or make a joke. References—obscure or obvious—are a form of shorthand. If you catch them, they save a lot of time and tedious explanation, and make you feel smart. If you don’t, they should work like a big electric sign telling you to put in a little effort, look something up, maybe even learn something in the process. It may not be anything worthwhile, but still.
This can be done well or poorly. They can be used as commentary, or simply to prove what a clever boy you are. In the latter case, they just get in the way.
Of course everybody uses references—just read newspaper accounts of a police shoot-out. They reflect how we perceive things. Being geeks, however, the references we cite may now and again be more obscure than, say, a Simpsons quote or some SNL catch phrase. This isn’t something we do to be big smarty-pants—these are simply the terms that make most sense to us.
Here’s an example. When Darius McCollum was all over the news for obsessively borrowing subway trains, I couldn’t help but drop in references to Kurosawa’s Dodes ka-den whenever the story came up. It made perfect sense, and it made a point—even if not everyone got it.
Time was, you could drop in, say, a reference to Kurosawa, The Green Slime, The Mentors or Knut Hamsun and count on the reader either getting it or looking it up if they were interested. Look at some of the greatest authors of the 20th century—people like Joyce, Pynchon, Gaddis—reference after reference! References within and atop other references! Part of the joy of reading came from trying to track them down. I learned more about history, science—even the Tarot—from Gravity’s Rainbow than I did in 17 years of school.
This no longer seems to be desirable, or even viable. Nowadays, references, no matter how well they’re employed, are wicked and terrible things. They hurt babies and make people feel bad about themselves. Readers, the thinking goes, shouldn’t be exposed to anything they don’t already know—which apparently isn’t much.
A couple years ago. I was with a group of people in their late 20s. For some reason the question arose: “Are there any songs with the name ‘Harry’ in them?” I immediately suggested “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” It seemed obvious.
There was dead silence in the room. They all stared.
“Oh, c’mon.” I said, “I’m just wild about Harry, and Harry’s wild about meee…”
They continued staring.
“One Froggy Evening? You don’t remember it from that, even?”
A few shook their heads. Nobody else responded.
“Okay,” I began, “you know the cartoon frog who’s the WB mascot…?” It seemed an awfully roundabout way to get to “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
It was very disheartening. Later that evening, just as a test, I asked Morgan to name a song with “Harry” in the title.
“I’m Just Wild About Harry,’” she offered without a moment’s hesitation.
“Yeah,” I said. “Now, where do you first know that song from?”
“One Froggy Evening.”
“So I’m not being unreasonable, and I’m not losing my mind.”
It should be noted that Morgan is not a geek by any means. And she wasn’t that much older than the people I’d been talking to. But she’s smart, she’s aware of the culture and her memory stretches back more than 18 months. What’s more, if she encounters a reference she doesn’t understand, she either asks or looks it up. That’s how you learn.
(Here’s another test. If you’re talking politics, try mentioning Chuck Schumer’s behavior at the Waco hearings and wait for the silence.)
As we were talking, J.R. brought up another interesting point in connection with this.
“When the Internet first took off,” he said, “I just assumed that everybody was going to be hip.”
It would make sense, at least in terms of pop culture. Instead of reading, tracking down rare movies or spending too much time in used record stores in order to learn about these things, now all the information you could ever want was right there. Everyone would know everything.
But it didn’t work that way. In fact, quite the opposite happened.
I’ve long been of the opinion that there’s no such thing as American culture. What there is instead is a mass of subcultures, hundreds and hundreds of subcultures—bowlers, lawyers, porn addicts, model train enthusiasts—each with their own language. Post-Internet, the generalized geek subculture to which I’ve belonged for much of my life has splintered into a million sub-sub-sub-subcultures, each more insular and annoying than the next. Suddenly the giallo people were isolated from the kaiju eiga people. The polymath—geek or otherwise—is becoming a thing of the past. Cultural memory grows shorter and more limited. References start making peoples’ heads hurt.
The next day I told Morgan what J.R. had said about us being dinosaurs. She disagreed.
“We are getting older,” she said. “But that’s not the problem. You’ve just been dealing with stupid people.”
She’s right, you know. But as Kant said about Pete Puma, “It’s like tapping your foot to wind.”
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