Sunday, April 18, 2010

Culture, High, Low and Other

Pascal Boyer recently had a post, Cognition under the high brow, in which he posed the issue:
True, high culture does not occur in all human societies, it is a minority pursuit wherever it does, and there may be more important problems for cognitive anthropology to solve. But it is interesting nonetheless. Wherein lies the difference between the high and low registers? Is there any cultural variation in that difference? How does it translate in terms of cognitive processes?
He goes on to mention Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which he was unable to read, but nonetheless proceeds with caution, suggesting there might be more to the high/low distinction that the need of one group to hold themselves above another.
More interesting, and more germane to our interests, is the notion that appreciation of high culture artifacts somehow requires more “mental work” than that of lesser genres. For instance, a lot of popular music (in which we may include a lot of Vivaldi but not all Mozart, all Glenn Miller but certainly not Duke Ellington) strives for harmonic simplicity, for the repetition of identical harmonic progressions, for fewer modulations or departures from the tonal centre. By contrast high-culture Western music, e.g. Beethoven’ quartets or Chopin’s Etudes or all of Ravel, strives for more complex, unpredictable resolutions, fewer cadences, surprising harmonic progressions, variation rather than repetition, etc. I only mention Western works because they are more familiar to most of our readers. But the difference may well be more general.
A long and lively discussion ensued, with particular attention to flamenco: high or low?


  1. Ugh? I like the great photo image of the week, but i really don't think culture has anything to do with it. I like what i like, and i don't like what i don't like, and neither my likes nor my don't likes are predicated on cultural normification. Now, i might offer that i have had the access and exposure to a vast media, and i might have been educated to norms that are considered higher degrees by those that consider those things; but really, isn't high culture just low culture without the finger pointing???

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  3. I think it's a subtle and messy business. I think, for example, that bebop jazz is more complex and sophisticated than traditional jazz. Now, just how you map that distinction to high vs. low culture, that's a different matter. I've got more invested in the former than in any version of the latter.

  4. I've have assumed that high culture was an enabler for those forms of control its participants extend over others, and that the usefulness of its literature and forms were a necessary shorthand for lessons of the wise.

    A sufficiently large and prosperous society couldn't possibly allow its leadership to be entirely empirical.