Thursday, 31 July 2014

Context is All

So I've been thinking quite a bit lately about how some things only work to their full effect because of certain bits of shared context in which they're viewed. They have merits in and of themselves, but a significant portion of the reason for them being the way they are, and consequently an important point for fully appreciating them, lies in their adherence to or subversion of certain expectations which people have of them or elements of them.

A potential example would be the opening of this blog post. It's fairly normal taken by itself, but could be viewed as odd in the context of me not having blogged for about five months. Seems like maybe I should've gone "Oh hey, looks like I haven't blogged here for a while, blah blah here's an excuse blah" instead of just going straight to my content as though I was still doing this relatively regularly like used to be normal. But I generally prefer to act like things are normal and hope that everyone else will follow on likewise 'cause they don't want to make a fuss. All the same I remain conscious that my apology for a lengthy absence may be conspicuous for its absence. And of course then I've maybe even subverted that a bit by posting on facebook that I find it really hard to title my blog posts, thereby indirectly announcing that I just wrote one.
Anyway, that's a fairly obvious example, requiring no more context than just looking at the dates on my posts. But other contexts are potentially more easily missed or lost over time. I'm talking about stories, specifically retellings of stories.

So the big example which always comes to mind, which originally led me onto this train of thought, is fairy tales and other similar children's stories. It's pretty popular lately to retell well-known tales with some odd twist. An example from when I was younger was a little book called The Stinky Cheese Man, an obvious parody of the Gingerbread Man. A more recent and well-known one would be Shrek, which plays around with all sorts of standard expectations of fairytales (Ogres are stupid and evil, the princess marries the handsome prince whose moral standing is automatically equal to his level of physical attractiveness, and so on and so forth). It's a very effective subversion of the standard tropes. The thing I wonder about though, is this: Now, Shrek is just a pretty popular children's film. Parents are likely to show their children things like Shrek, because they're often more interesting than the more traditional stories they parody. The issue though, is what if the parents consequently don't share those original stories with the children? Then the children won't get the full point of the parody, because they don't really know the thing it's a parody of.
Of course, I'm not a parent, so I can't speak from experience on points like this, but I have to wonder how much it's true.

Naturally, a similar principle can apply to things which become dated, with contemporary references or social commentary. This includes a specific issue I think I've mentioned before in a blog post - Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore, a parody of Victorian gothic melodrama novels, has lost a certain amount of its impact on audiences since most people don't read those any more. Another would be Dante's Divine Comedy, where the people Dante meets on his tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven include a lot of contemporary figures, or historical ones who were well known at the time, whereas now we need extensive explanatory notes to tell us who they are and we still don't get the full point of it because they're just random historical figures we're reading about - they're not a part of our own personal context of the world around us.
Other cases would be changes of values - anything from medieval times will entail a much greater emphasis on religion than most people experience nowadays, and relatedly moral codes of conduct, honour, law, etc. Reading them now, we don't understand why certain things were so significant then. However much authors may try to couch things in more contemporary terms to ease our comprehension of the people, their way of life differs wildly from ours in places.

There is a potential upside to this, though. While it's disappointing that some highly amusing comedy will become inaccessible to future generations, it's heartening to think that the reason for this is that the societal problems they satirise will become far less prevalent. For example, the comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me derives a large portion of its humour from pointing out the ridiculous nature of and flaws in racist views of the world. If in the future people become more generally tolerant of other races instead of being prejudiced against them they won't understand what is being mocked because it won't be a significant part of their culture. Similarly, while I can't think of specific examples, I'm sure there's a fair amount of comedy mocking misogyny, homophobia, etc.

On the other hand, judging by how relevant some of the humour in G&S still is today, it might take a while to reach that point. On the other other hand, that process may well be speeded up somewhat by the proliferation of the internet exposing so many people to each others views on a daily basis. Even if many of those views are insane.

I don't really have a single big, unifying conclusion to close this out. These were just a bunch of thoughts I had and maybe you found them interesting or maybe no-one even read them.