Cultural Selection: Why Some Achievements Survive the Test of Time and Others Don't

Overview

Acclaimed literary scholar Gary Taylor creates a new paradigm for understanding cultural history. He argues that culture is not what was done, but what is remembered and that the social competition among different memories is as dynamic as the biological struggle for survival. Taylor builds his argument on a broad base of cultural achievements, from Michelangelo to Frankenstein, from Shakespeare to Casablanca, from Freud to Invisible Man. He spans the continents to draw upon Japanese literature, Native American ...

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Overview

Acclaimed literary scholar Gary Taylor creates a new paradigm for understanding cultural history. He argues that culture is not what was done, but what is remembered and that the social competition among different memories is as dynamic as the biological struggle for survival. Taylor builds his argument on a broad base of cultural achievements, from Michelangelo to Frankenstein, from Shakespeare to Casablanca, from Freud to Invisible Man. He spans the continents to draw upon Japanese literature, Native American history, ancient Greek philosophy, and modern American architecture.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this intriguing and complex scholarly investigation, Taylor (Reinventing Shakespeare), professor of English at the University of Alabama, argues that death is the foundation of culture because works of music, art, theater and literature considered to be enduring were created by those no longer living. Drawing on a variety of examples, he points out that cultural memory speaks for the dead and notes that what is remembered is selective and unpredictable. Among other variables, power struggles between groups, social hierarchies and the particular representation or interpretation of a cultural object or idea dictate what is passed down to future generations. Our cultural memory, according to Taylor, cannot be divorced from morality. For example, unless former president Richard Nixon is remembered for his attempt to interfere with the public's right to know, his attack on the U.S. Constitution would continue to threaten American democracy. Illustrations. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
Calling the current culture wars a battle over "the right to rule memory," Shakespeare scholar Taylor (Univ. of Alabama; Reinventing Shakespeare, 1989) advances a theory of cultural memory and the "Greats," and of how culture is "made."

Taylor's effort to take the culture wars onto less shifting ground carries his book back and forth between the humanities and the social and hard sciences as he searches for analogies and methodology. Instead of embracing a particular view of culture, say, the Bloomian (Harold and Allan) Western canon or de Man's deconstructed texts, Taylor's approach is to ask how culture actually originates, solidifies, and recapitulates itself. On the unarguable assumption that codifying certain works also entails forgetting others, he posits a competition, a sort of cultural survival of the fittest, among authors, editors, politicians, and consumers, who make up a society's memory cells and transmitters. But his metaphors of evolutionary theory and memory are too disjointed. His discussion of Elizabethan theater, mingling the Darwinian idea of genre "niches" with Stephen Jay Gould's revisionist theory of a "punctuated equilibrium" of evolutionary leaps, for example, is offered without consideration of other cultural influences or political and economic factors. Interdisciplinary excursions into movies (Casablanca), painting (Velázquez), or music (Stravinsky) leave many of his questions suspended in mid-air. He is also guilty of rhetorical overload, as when he identifies the Reformation and the Civil War as "editorial disputes." Only in the last section, when Taylor concentrates on discrete cases, such as the Vietnam Memorial or Nixon's posthumous reputation, does he truly plumb the rules and risks of a society's memory.

By switching gears (and analogies) as he pursues the origins of cultural memory, Taylor fails to make a coherent argument for a collective remembering society.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780756763725
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 1/1/1996
  • Pages: 325

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