Kate Middleton\’s wedding gown and Wikipedia\’s gender gap.

Kate Middleton\’s wedding gown and Wikipedia\’s gender gap..

 

I was surprised, in a way, to learn of the extent of the bias. After all, Wikipedia is the place where one can find all sorts of only slightly diluted corporate and personal marketing about more or less culturally recognizable objects and people. But I ought not to have been surprised, for of course Wikipedia only follows the cultural corrugations that have been so deeply grooved into systems of thought and judgement as to be invisible. They become evident, or more evident, and probably not for long, after disputes like this.

I guess that I and many others in my fields are more aware of the grooves (ruts) that trip us up and channel our valuations because of my academic (and in my case personal predilection). But that training produced critical thinking almost by accident. It used to be, say around 30 years ago, before New Historicism gained its name and when New Criticism still held sway (incredible to think that), that the study of literature and culture was really all about the study of cultural inevitability and the certification of value. With the philosophical, anthropological, political, and economic revolutions of the late 60s (particularly in France, where Anglo-British satisfaction didn’t go far), all the smugness of what literature is, what it does, what its value is (in some abstract way, as if it were a kind of arithmetic of the soul, comprised of Platonic forms rendered into words of unbearable significance), all this was put into question. Even the idea of “literature,” which is fairly hard to define, was questioned. (Sadly, this level of scrutiny has not been applied universally, and move outside of the key universities and into other areas and you’ll find not the fades of the New Criticism but vigorous existants; and not the absence of Leavis types and others proclaiming the virtue and essential need of literature for culture en civilization–as in Kulchur, that is–but its very real presence. Literature, outside of these institutions remains the shibboleth by which power enjoins its identity and separates out.)

So I was lucky–I went to UC Berkeley as an undergrad and studied with Walter Michaels; and as a grad student, I was able to continue working with those who would regard the interesting things about culture being not its timeless and perfect forms but the ways in which power, as a cultural modality, works. And this made me then think: Why on earth do we study the supposedly “great” works, many of which were utterly ignored (and for good reason: boring) and not the popular ones? Sure, the latter category may be utterly artificial, but that’s not my judgement and doesn’t really affect the ways in which people receive the commodity.

Kate Middleton’s dress, that is, merits a Wikipedia entry if only because there are probably tens of thousands, if not millions, of people actually quite interested in it. And it *does not matter* what the provenance of their interest is, nor the supposed “value” of the dress in some putative cultural idea or plausible future. It matters now.

The same can be said of her shoes, her every article: these are of interest because there is interest. If there are people who can write the entry and do so according to the stylistic and factual standards of Wikipedia, then yes, let’s have that.

And so it goes down the line. That this discussion is essentially an American one, is not surprising. I’d venture that it’s actually classic: a discussion about the value of a cultural artefact could really only take place in a milieu contoured by deep anxieties over its own cultural operations, and thus concerned over nuancing what counts as literature vs junk fiction (literature vs science fiction, say), films vs movies, vs TV; high-brow vs lowbrow. I tend to think this kind of cultural anxiety–that what “we” are is never quite enough to sustain the next generation–is particularly powerful in post-colonial environments. But, obviously, it’s not by any means special to them.