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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cultural Literacy and Genre Fiction

I've been researching this concept called "cultural literacy" in preparation for my final paper in my pedagogy course. In doing so, I've come to an interesting "revelation," if you will. Science fiction and fantasy are part of our culture as much as something like math or English; they are unconscious elements present in all of us that sometimes make themselves known, and other times remain in the background, operating as little signals in the reaction center of the brain.

The obvious, though, is how science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy have consumed popular culture. As much as all the other elements that seem to make up the culturally literate figure (history by locale, basic science, math, etc., and all those things that make up our language, our thought processes, and our acknowledgment of the social, however minute or forgotten), pop culture as embodied by SF/F has consumed society itself.

Even if you don't want SF/F television or movies, you know about them. Even if you don't read Harry Potter or Twilight, you know about them, and you may even know about all of these things in some basic detail. You know, for example, without having read Twilight, that Meyers wrote a book about vampires and something resembling romance; you know that Harry Potter is about a boy wizard and wizard-like things; you know that Star Wars has the Force and lightsabers and Darth Vader; you know that Star Trek is about humans and some guy with pointy ears traveling around in the universe seeing nifty stuffs. We all know these things (well, almost all of us) in the U.S. (and Canada and the U.K., mostly likely), because they make up a part of who we are and how we communicate with the greater social apparatus.

John Scalzi said it clearly: SF (and you have assume even F, to a lesser extent) has mainstream acceptance. Whether or not it has any other form of acceptance seems irrelevant at this point. SF/F is a part of our culture, part of that cultural literacy that some older theorists have suggested allows every one of us to be able to communicate without confusing the hell out of one another.

And you have to think about that for a minute and bask in the amazing sensation of that feeling. Science fiction and fantasy have become so integral to the social landscape of the U.S. and other countries, that even Shakespeare is being challenged by the new social paradigm.

Having thought all of this, I have only one thing left to say: now what?

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  1. What do you mean when you say that even Shakespeare is being challenged by a new social paradigm?

  2. Just that. As much as Shakespeare is a part of our schooling, it is being supplanted by a new pop culture paradigm, a sort of new cultural literacy that seems to require people to at least have cursory knowledge of a lot of things in our visual/global culture. Shakespeare is a part of that, somewhat (he rides underneath, somewhere in the dark where those who can't remember Shakespeare at least can see the themes or stories he wrote, whether they know he wrote it or not, flirting with their television and movies), but he is not a visible figure to the general populace as he was a hundred years ago, or maybe sooner.

    He's being challenged by this rapidly changing, culturally dominating popular structure that demands attention (at any level). Science fiction and fantasy are a part of that structure, and are major components (the former more than the latter for film/tv, and the latter more than the former in literature).

    Is that clear, or do you need more clarification? (I'm not being snippy...I want to make sure I've explained myself don't take that as a snippy question...)

  3. Anonymous11:52 AM

    This is quite an exciting post! I've always been impatient with people who claim that SF and F are merely obscure hobbies for losers. It is untrue on so many levels.

    As far as your question of "what next?", I think you've already begun to answer that by posting about this topic. What comes next is to spread the word about this cultural revelation. I think when people realize how much SF and F have ALREADY invaded the public sphere, it will gain wider acceptance. In lieu of that, you can expect a link to this post at Up and Writing.

    Thanks for this one!

  4. Rachel: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

  5. Anonymous3:03 PM

    Interesting discussion though just being in a bookstore should demonstrate the prevalance of fantasy and sci-fi with the section being twice the size of all the others (and that doesn't even include the new vampire section). Clearly people are reading these books though all this really means is that fantasy is the flavour of the month and the comercial entities are catering to it. Next week watch the store rotate.

  6. Cassandra: If fantasy is the flavor of the month, then it's been the flavor of the month for almost a decade...if anything, you can only say that urban fantasy is the flavor of the month, and even that is still growing and broadening its horizons.