Academic writing is usually best when it takes a dispassionate attitude to its subject; when it reviews the several contesting scholarly opinions around a question, before judging the value of each of them. But sometimes a writer is given a question that allows him to write destructive criticism, and to champion the merits of one argument only. This present question is such a question. If one takes a supercilious attitude towards it then he might expel it at once by arguing that neither Matthew Arnold nor F. R. Leavis – men who sought the promotion of culture through the study of high literature and the reform of education – would have descended at all to study the subcultures of Goths and Trekkers.
These groups have produced no serious literature and they have done little to reform education. And so one can easily cement such a fierce attitude into a strong essay – though one that would sadly be very short and unmarkable! If instant dismissal is not appropriate, then a writer who has studied Arnold’s and Leavis’s definitions of culture can argue ceaselessly that neither man would have thought Goths and Trekkers a positive development for culture.
A short statement about definition. There are of course manifold definitions of culture. Many recent writers define culture in terms of mass-culture, within which all groups and subcultures belong. If culture is defined like this then Goths and Trekkers are both part of culture and can be said to expand culture by pushing it wider and making it more diverse. Arguments like this are possible; but they are not possible for our present question. In this essay one has to measure these groups against the definitions of Leavis and Arnold only; and leave aside the merits of any modern definitions. Let us then examine the definition of Leavis and Arnold.
Matthew Arnold famously defined culture as to ‘… know the best that has been said and thought in the world’. Someone who is cultured has learnt to perceive beauty, perfection, truth and justice through literature and art. In Culture and Anarchy and Essays in Criticism Arnold argues that culture is centered upon education: thus the expansion of culture is possible only if it is accompanied by an equal expansion of education. So: somebody who is highly cultured is also highly educated. F.R. Leavis had a very similar definition of culture.
Leavis argued even more explicitly than Arnold that there is an unbreakable bond between knowledge of the humanities and the acquisition of culture. As G. Steiner says ‘The commanding axiom in Leavis’s life-work is the conviction that there is a close relation between a man’s capacity to respond to art and his general fitness for humane existence.’ Despite the esoteric sound of these words they do say something vital about culture. The key word is humane.
Someone who has studied great works of literature tends to have better judgment and is kinder to his fellow man than people who have not. Leavis says ‘… thinking about cultural and social matters ought to be done by minds of some real literary education, and done in an intellectual climate formed by a vital literacy culture’. In short: a healthy culture and society depends upon a large number of its citizens studying and thinking about the classics. Leavis famously defined these arguments in his controversial Richmond Lecture – should we say polemic? – against C. P. Snow.
The lecture is Leavis’s proposal for the future of culture in England. Leavis wanted a small, economically weaker England that would be highly literate and cultured — instead of a huge commercialized and capitalistic society that would be less literate. Thus we see in Leavis, as in Arnold, a definition of culture as a society that knows intimately great works of art. According to this definition, any group that progresses culture must go beyond the culture that has gone before.
Do Goths and Trekkers then add to what we can learn from Homer, Shakespeare and the Bible? (This is a fair question if measured by the definition above). The answer must be no. The Goth and Trekker subcultures have not produced one serious piece of literature or music; even if one stretches Star Trek into some definition of art, the movies and show are not the invention of Trekkers, but the object of their devotion. Goths claim to have a passion for literature; but this passion has not created any literature of their own.
Likewise – even though it is not one of their aims – neither of these groups has done anything to reform education or our universities. We cannot study Goth culture from its literature, because there is not any. But we can examine some of the statements of Goth members to see whether there is any sign of culture as defined by Leavis and Arnold. The following article called ‘A Short Treatise on Goth subculture’ is taken from the internet. The author, Chameleon, says that Goths are defined by ‘a morbid sense of humor’, ‘appreciation of the darker side of life’, ‘tolerance of lifestyles considered weird by the masses’ and an ‘apolitical attitude towards society’.
Rus Haslage, the President of the International Federation of Trekkers, says that the philosophy of trekkers is that ‘…everyone is different, and it is those differences that make us special. And, it is those differences that make meshing our sparks even more beneficial to us all.’ In both these statements the common feature is vagueness of meaning and purpose.
Goths and Trekkers feel some solidarity with each other in their interest in the ways of the Goth or Star Trek; but there is no clear or precise thought about the identity and purpose of these groups. To be fair to each group neither claims to add to the wisdom that the great works of literature and art that the West has accumulated; but, if we judge this admission of non-achievement strictly according to the definition of Leavis and Arnold, then the existence of such groups has either no effect or a regressive effect upon culture.
P. Hodkins, Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture
M. Arnold, Culture and Anarchy
M.Arnold, Essays in Criticism
H. Jenkins III, Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching
F.R. Leavis, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture, (1930)
F.R. Leavis, Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope (1972)
G. Steiner, Language and Silence, Faber and Faber, 1967