Cultural Mystification & Reading


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Thread: Cultural Mystification & Reading

  1. #1

    Cultural Mystification & Reading

    While trying to answer why it is that classical art is so unattractive to a lot of people, John Berger coined the term 'cultural mystification'...

    Mystification is defined by Berger as being the process of explaining what might otherwise be evident. Mystification of the past is often caused by a fear of the present and the desires of a privileged minority to shape perspectives among ordinary people, therefore depriving them of the simple joy of their own interpretations.

    Berger goes on to explain the effects of mystification. He states, as
    the effects, that works of art are made “unnecessarily remote” and subject to outsider influence. In short, that there is too much context given to paintings, robbing us of the childlike ability to interpret things on our own. That knowing 'about the thing' is unnecessary and potentially distractive because context has no relevance to personal study and knowing the facts surrounding it -- what was intended, what was meant, what the 'truth' is -- can deprive us of the freedom to interpret it differently and actually get value from it. The painting (or, in this case, the book) is not a 'relic' but a 'language' of its own, and the 'language' can vary between individuals freely without ever being 'wrong' or 'right'.

    For example: Let's say you are given a book and told by whoever lent you the book that the author incorporated satanic symbolism and that the text in question was written right before they shot themselves drunk. How would knowing this shape your perception of the story?

    Compare this to, if you are given the same book by your mother on her deathbed and told it was the book that 'taught her everything she knew about men', how would that shape your perception of it? Would it improve it? Would it hurt it? What if you didn't understand it on the terms your mother said she did? What if it said NOTHING to you about men? Would the book, in that case, fail completely?

    Compare both of those to...simply finding the book in a library and opening it with no knowledge at all. In this latter case, we have perhaps the least contextualized, most 'purest' form of reading...though still imperfect, as we can potentially create our own mystification through assumptions based on things like the condition of the copy, the section of the library, the way the first few words 'appear' to us.

    When Berger discussed this in the seventies, he was primarily talking about how things like television and printed critique's habit of explaining the 'meaning' of paintings and the ability for the screen to manipulate a painting through focusing on different aspects, adding context through voiceover, music, etc. can make any other interpretation next to impossible and therefore make vast swathes of art dislikeable. But that was, obviously, long before the days of Amazon reviews, social media, and so on.

    Question then: Is Berger's critique of cultural mystification correct for fiction as well? Should books be treated without context as much as possible, judged on individual meaning? Does knowledge about a book/author/time period actually 'matter'?

    Or, the counter-argument, does being aware of other people's opinions of the book actually amount to a good thing? Does knowing a book is X genre by X author and written under X circumstances for X reasons actually add to the reading experience, at least more often than not? Would a book like, say, Anne Frank's diary be better, worse, or the same if we didn't know all about Anne Frank first? Is science fiction made better (as a reading experience) from understanding science? If we are told a horror novel has a certain hidden meaning, does that make it more horrific, less horrific or the same?

    Should readers be free to interpret books entirely on their own terms or should they be aware of context of what they read? Assuming we agree that both are acceptable, which is more likely to lead to a better reading experience? Is a ten year old's interpretation of the The Hobbit equally adequate as an adult's? Is the interpretation of an adult who has never read a book before equal to another adult who knows all there is to know about Tolkien and his lore?
    Deactivated due to staff trolling. Bye!

  2. #2
    Too much thinking is bad for the soul...
    A man in possession of a wooden spoon must be in want of a pot to stir.

  3. #3
    Good thread!

    Even saying "this is a scary story" is potentially an act of mystification.

    I think over-contextualization can be bad. The book doesn't get to speak for itself if we are told the writer was happy/sad while writing it. I don't search for context until after I've read a book. One piece of context is what the writer thought of their own work, and that's not terribly important. However, learning about the author AFTER reading their material can enrich the experience retrospectively and is a very good idea.

    There is of course the argument that people don't write novels to chronicle "common knowledge" of the time. If the author references a dance that people won't recognize today, that's not their fault. One should become familiar with the culture of the time period and region in which a book in written for best reading experience IMO. (Anyway, I have a book to write.)

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by EternalGreen View Post
    Good thread!

    Even saying "this is a scary story" is potentially an act of mystification.

    I think over-contextualization can be bad. The book doesn't get to speak for itself if we are told the writer was happy/sad while writing it. I don't search for context until after I've read a book. One piece of context is what the writer thought of their own work, and that's not terribly important. However, learning about the author AFTER reading their material can enrich the experience retrospectively and is a very good idea.

    There is of course the argument that people don't write novels to chronicle "common knowledge" of the time. If the author references a dance that people won't recognize today, that's not their fault. One should become familiar with the culture of the time period and region in which a book in written for best reading experience IMO. (Anyway, I have a book to write.)
    I'm super conflicted about it because, on the one hand, it goes against basically everything I believe.

    I hate relativism. I find it an immense cop out to say 'everything is subjective' when we know society doesn't actually work that way and that objective truth isn't something you can opt in and out of.

    The idea of some internet person arguing that Orwell's books are actually an argument against socialism (as Republican talking heads in America currently love to do) drives me nuts because it is so deeply ignorant of the author's actual politics which, once understood, clearly demonstrate that Orwell, a lifelong socialist who fought fascists' voluntarily, was absolutely not arguing against leftism at all. But you have to take the context of the author into account to be able to completely argue that, because the text can be ambiguous as to what it believes. So that's an example of cultural mystification actually working well, then? Or, at least, well for some of us...

    But, at the same time, I can absolutely see the argument in reverse. If you're told a book means something, you will only ever be able to read it with that bias, and if you believe in what you are told enough then if you don't see what is 'supposed to be there' then the book will fail.

    I had this problem reading Lolita when I was told that it is essentially a horror story about an utterly unsympathetic pedophile who gets his comeuppance. That was not my experience reading it. Not to say I was oblivious to the protagonist's evil, but I did find him sympathetic at times, in an odd yet genuine way. On the other hand, I found the child to be mostly utterly unsympathetic and actually horribly manipulative and cruel.

    As a result, the entire book ended in a sense that I had missed the point somewhere, that I had no read something quite right, or had misunderstood the words, or that I was simply not on the same moral landscape as everybody else when it came to child molesters...an odd experience. Funnily enough, learning about Nabokov and his intent with the book partially vindicated this concern, because it seemed his intent closer matched my experience (though not exactly) than the notion that this was some irredeemable monster of a child molester. But, of course, in today's society, the intent of the author isn't necessarily that important anyway, especially if the author is from another time, so I can't say I feel great about the book overall even now.
    Deactivated due to staff trolling. Bye!

  5. #5
    Interesting thread.
    For instance, would I have liked that bit of action written by Hemingway if I had known it wasn't Hemingway? Would I think the Mona Lisa a great portrait if I hadn't been told so? Would I think Jackson Pollack painted scribbles? And which artist was it who signed the toilet? https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-...ed-art-forever

    And you can't help but be influenced by context. There's actually a Ted Talks on beauty where the speaker has you look at a drawing of a flower and then he tells you that it was the last thing drawn by a young girl with cancer before she died. He basically kind of postulates that the circumstances create beauty. Does this play a part in Anne Frank's diary-- that's a good example that was brought up. What about Bill Cosby's comedy which I used to love so much and now I can't stand to listen to. Also, is it possible to like Michael Jackson's music and also think he was a criminal. I do. It does take some compartmentalizing. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland too... and I really dislike the idea of being okay with the art itself and not the artist. But I know in these 2 cases I do. Carroll also came up with some math methods that we used at school.. am I supposed to reject them? It's just harder when it is art.

    I was doing a little light reading about the Dr. George Hodel who was almost certainly the Black Dahlia murderer and how his murders mimicked the art that he so admired by Salvador Dali and Man Ray. Hodel used to have gatherings where he would preach to his friends about true art being pain...I think he was well known to support ideas of Sadism. One of the journalists writing about how art influenced Hodel's murders said they realized while writing it how unsympathetic Dali's paintings of women are. He removes their humanity and turns them into disembodied parts and machery. I have a hard time looking at any of it now, I guess is my point. It actually seems pretty obvious now. Basically if nobody told me it was great art, would I have figured out earlier the soulless way he portrays women?

    But then again I had to read some books on feminism to realize that the "dumb blonde" in commercials or movies was also affecting the way people view and think of women. So there's this weird thing about how your culture can blind you about some things. I recently told my daughter that the USA is still very sexist against women and I had to show her examples and she bawled. I feel so bad. I didn't realize how the truth was going to affect her and make her realize that she is going to have to fight harder for credibility than she knew.... and actually that she has been fighting for credibility and winning but definitely fighting harder than her male counterparts and that will just get worse after high school.

    But then there is the other side of it where the art itself is such a strong image or written so well or manipulatively that it convinces people that it is okay because it is considered great art? Are we okay with Dostoevsky's characters killing people? Are we so okay about it that it allows people like Leopold and Loeb to somehow decide they are supermen? I'm going to write about Lolita below, but I was furious when I realized what top literary critics thought about Lolita and I thought "Surely not.. I've got to see if this has trickled down to anything." and I remember reading about a father who said that in the middle of reading Lolita he wondered if his daughter would delight Humbert as the great connoisseur of young girls that he was. The dad realized that he had gotten swept away in the story and had even started to see his own daughter differently. I'm saying this is not okay. This is not just art... this is flat out pedophilic erotica that is also art.... and in my opinion, not okay to be discussed as just art. And it's almost the controversy about this that makes it so famous and artistic to some critics.


    Is there a way to tag anybody on this site? No, huh?

    Luckyscars I don't feel better about what Nabokov said about his book. He wrote too many versions and most of his other writings are also about pedophilia. Too much in my opinion for it to not be about more than just challenging his readers. Lolita is probably the most challenging book of all time morally... which is why I think it is top or second of the list of great books. A list very influenced by A. S. Byatt, I believe. Of course he wrote the pedophile as the sympathetic one. But in my opinion the child is never the one at fault. There's a lot to talk about with Lolita. I think what is going on with that book is well beyond this conversation except that I think most people are influenced socially to like it or to think it's okay and also throughout the reading I think it is Nabokov's aim to make the reader sympathize with Humbert. So it's pretty complex. It's not okay, not for a second, in my opinion. I'm saying this, but I only read a bit because I accidently picked up one of the versions not called Lolita and when I realized he was talking about seducing a single mother to get to her child and that he was describing trembling with sexual desire while the daughter happily played without meeting him yet on roller skates...I'm angry that anyone says anything except that Nabokov beautifully writes complex erotic pedophilia and made people accept it in their mind somehow. And I don't know what was going on in his life... I'd think he probably did things that should put him behind bars. But hey, that's my personal opinion. But the whole thing makes me feel like everyone is being duped. Thinking the level of his art somehow makes it okay.... which is a related but different concept. Anyway, I don't think the level of writing makes it okay. I think it just makes him more of a snake.

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