Cultural Capital

Key Art for THE AFFAIR Season 5. Photo Credit: Andrew Eccles/SHOWTIME.

My wife and I have been trying to finish the 5th and final season of The Affair, a show that has been very difficult to broach to our married couple friends.

For obvious reasons.

Many of them will flat out disregard the show, as even to be intellectually curious about the thing proves the point. To me, this is a narrow-minded view of the world. Engaging in true crime does not make one a serial killer, reading books about the Civil War does not encourage one to buy a plantation. And so on…

But I am secretly hoping that they never watch the show, and the reason for that had to do with what I said last night.

“Every time I watch this show, I feel like I am sophisticated,” I told my wife. “I feel like I know more than other people.”

Which was of course a horrible thing to say, but it is hard to deny the way that even the show leans into the idea of success and high fashion. Noah was a high school teacher who writes a bestseller, but lived in the shadow of his father-in-law, who has an estate in Montauk and is himself a novelist. In the fifth season, Noah’s book is turned into a movie, and he has to contend with his handsome doppelganger Sasha Mann, who is putting the moves on his ex-wife Helen, who worked for a time in design.

But just because all that is true does not make what I said any less disheartening, for the idea that some pieces of culture, and getting into the “in-crowd,” is worthy of praise, is very much undemocratic. It takes the and idea of “why can’t all this art succeed?” and turns it into an or of “If you don’t watch/read/listen to this, you are unenlightened.”

Yet still I cling, even when John Guillory almost single-handedly ended the argument of the culture wars in academia with his Cultural Capital in an elegant reading of “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” and its use in education.

Last summer I was on a cruise (the first and the last it seems) and onboard was a fairly extensive library. Yet what did I check out to read?

F***ing Ulysses by James Joyce. I wish I was kidding.

Seeing myself from the outside leaves plenty to be desired.

Now I have reached Spinoza and watched him die of lens grinding at an early age, and I am asking myself, “Am I reading modern philosophy because I enjoy it? Or is this something else?”

Let’s not kid ourselves: we only have so much time on this earth, and the idea that we could read it all is so blatantly impossible, that we do have a need for people to curate an experience that we can cut to quickly. That is the ideal of publishing companies.

But I think until we have an inner understanding of our motivations for approaching a piece of art, we’re never going to get what we really need from the thing.

And honestly the best moments of artistic enjoyment in my life came when I stumbled upon something that changed my way of thinking. Not Thomas Pynchon, but Karl Ove Knausgaard. Explicitly desiring to read someone because other famous people know of him is not sustainable anyway.

This is why, out of the Big Five of personality categories, open-mindedness is so critical to me. One must be willing to keep the intellectual door unlocked.

And so it comes back to my friends and not watching The Affair. Who loses out? The person who watches for the wrong reasons? Or the person who doesn’t watch for the right reasons? Perhaps both.

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