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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 439-441

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Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition. By Richard Keller Simon. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. 1999. x, 189. Cloth, $40.00; paper, $15.95.

In the canon debate, Richard Keller Simon positions himself in complicated ways. While he holds that the "great books" tradition is anything but pedagogically outmoded, he at the same time insists that readers should consider popular entertainment with the same seriousness they would bring to the study of "Western civilization's" highbrow literature in a classroom setting. Simon's approach is influenced by decades of trying to hold the interest of media-savvy college students, steeped in so-called "trash" culture, who have enrolled in his literature survey courses. Not surprisingly, then, his book links the themes and narrative trajectories of "classic" poems, novels, and plays to such contemporary texts as Star Wars and Star Trek; "trash TV talk shows"; situation comedies like Friends and Seinfeld; the soap opera Days of Our Lives; supermarket tabloids; mass-market magazines like People, Playboy, and Cosmopolitan; and Hollywood representations of the Vietnam War. In one chapter, he discusses Madison Avenue's yoking of hegemonic "ideology and utopia" (78) in light of the West's history of "golden age" mythologies and utopian thinking (referring primarily to Sir Thomas More's Utopia), while in his least "literary" chapter, he locates the shopping mall in the long tradition of formal garden styles. [End Page 439]

Simon does not suggest that "all of the similarities between contemporary entertainment and the great tradition can be explained as conscious imitation" in the way that the film Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (4). In one nuanced chapter, "Playboy and The Book of the Courtier," he places the men's magazine in relation to "other forms of discourse on the human body with which it has important parallels—the nude in the history of art, for example, as well as such inquiries into sexuality and manner as Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization and Baldesar Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier" (102). Castiglione's sixteenth-century "courtesy book . . . is an animated discussion by a number of articulate speakers . . . loosely based on the model of a Platonic dialogue," and so inasmuch as Playboy magazine "is filled with stories, feature articles, advice columns, and interviews concerned with the art of living as a sexually active man," its relationship to Castiglione's text can be seen as dialogical. Given our current ability to reproduce images cheaply, which facilitates the magazine's inclusion of "pornographic illustrations and advertisements for consumer products," Playboy becomes "The Book of the Courtier adapted to the demands of American popular culture" (108) during our age of ever consolidating corporate capitalism.

While Simon acknowledges Marcuse's warning that "‘sexual liberty. . . [could be] harmonized with profitable conformity'" (108), he seems resigned to (or even dismissive of) this concern. A class critique of Playboy has been made before, in, for example, Laura Kipnis's groundbreaking sex-positive feminist essay "(Male) Desire and (Female) Disgust: Reading Hustler" (1992), but Simon seems suspicious of those academics practicing a more politically radical form of cultural studies than he, arguing that they miss "something extraordinary about. . . [popular entertainment] that we can only see when we approach it from the perspective of the great tradition of literature. Marx, Freud, and Foucault are not the only valuable sources for understanding a movie like Rambo; so too is Homer" (20).

This is not to say that Simon is of the William Bennett or Allan Bloom stripe of cultural conservativism. Not in the least. His position is one of compromise, though, as he is openly invested in preserving the "great tradition" itself, however sketchily defined its parameters. Trash Culture seems to founder most frequently when Simon links popular narratives to classic fiction. A little too often, his parallels seem attenuated (at best): the most telling case is his treatment of George Lucas's Star Wars movies. Simon's comparison of Star Wars with Edmund Spenser's The Faerie...


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pp. 439-441
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