Donald Sassoon’s The Culture of the Europeans

For the past seven months I’ve been running a reading group on Donald Sassoon’s 2006 book, The Culture of the Europeans, working our way through its 1600+ pages; yesterday Professor Sassoon himself turned up at the University of Queensland to give a masterclass on the book, and what a class it was.

Donald Sassoon and Jason Jacobs holding The Culture of the EuropeansThe MasterclassProfessor Sassoon and Professor David Carter

When Sassoon began speaking it was clear that, not only did he have it all in his head, but that he was able to persuasively articulate its central themes and arguments in a time frame very much shorter than it would take to read the book! As one member of the reading group and participant in the masterclass said to me afterwards, it was a “tour de force” and the notes below only provide an impressionistic record of the event. A lot of the content will be very familiar to film and television scholars, but what is novel about Sassoon and his book, is the way he grasps all cultural production (with the exception of the fine arts) as part of a developing global market system across two hundred years. It is the range and reach of that grasp that made this masterclass so compelling. It was divided into two sections, 19th and 20th centuries but my notes roam between them. The session was chaired by Professor David Carter.

The session began with Sassoon introducing us to issues of sound,scale and value: the nature of silence and noise in relation to cultural events, the length of things, the way in which culture is fairly explicit about value (the programme of films at a cinema with ‘A’ and ‘B’ features), and the way in which 3hrs is fairly common as a standard length of menu (everything included) for cultural experiences one goes out to – a cinema programme, an opera, a play. The book is different: there are a variety of lengths of time available in their consumption. This was by way of introducing another central interest: how the cost of a cultural product and the way in which it is sold both affect the content. So the lending library and the video store are identical forms of cultural distribution: they are there for products we wish to consume only once.

Then there is music – there is no way for most people to listen to music, or any musical sound for most of human history. More recently it was possible to hear and sing songs at church. In the 19th century we seen music coming into the home. The hardware is an instrument – often a piano – the software is sheet music. Later this changes with the hardware a gramophone and software vinyl records. The human voice was ideal for that early recording technology, and the aria – originally a form designed to for the least talented performer in order to cover noisy intervals – at approximiately three minutes length was perfect. This 3 minute length has been remarkably stable despite the fact that there are no longer technological reasons for that limit. But recorded music and sound also changes the relationship between the live and the recorded

Since books were very expensive until quite recently lending libraries and the model of distribution and consumption these offer are very important. How can more than one person read the same book simultaneously? By splitting that book into volumes (about three is right on a production/cost model). then there is the series of installments where the narrative has to include an incentive to buy or borrow the next installment: the cliffhanger (Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes is emblematic here as it includes a literal cliff hanging incident. Maybe not the first, but fairly standard in that one installment ends on the cliff hanger, but the next begins with something completely different.) The page turner is a way of incentivising attention.

Translation and Adaptation: the 19th century translators were not faithful to the original – the accurate capturing of voice, tone and style were not important; instead translators would cut stuff that they thought boring, add and change things at will – they were adaptors. (Good example of the ‘Walter Scott novel’ actually written by one of his German translators, translated back into English by de Quincey who radically changed what he thought was a terrible novel: so we have a novel that could not exist without Scott, although he had no part in writing it, and one that is commonly included in the collected works of – de Quincey. Sassoon pointed out that The Culture of the Europeans was itself translated into Estonian in an edition that is 400 pages shorter than the English version – the chapter headings are all the same, but somewhere 400 pages went missing.

The internationalisation of culture led Sassoon to talk of national exports: the 18th century British internationalisation of Shakespeare as the main British cutlural export, the export of French drama the primary product being a generic object “the French farce”. The central ‘trick of the [cultural] trade’ the thing that makes culture advance is really very simple: a continuous testing of the market, with inevitable massive failure rates, where successes are repeated but, since cultural products are unusual in so far as uniqueness is a valued quality, a mechanism has to exist where what is repeated – the same experience – is sufficiently different. You may like Tolstoy’sWar and Peace and therefore want something that promises a similar experience, say Peace and War or something framed by the same consciousness (hence authors function like genres). Hence cultural experiences offer the same thing with incremental changes and differences all of which are continuously tested on a massive scale in the cultural marketplace. Culture also allows for the universalising of experience and this can have interesting results. For example, until the second half of the 20th century most Italians did not know how to speak Italian – it was only the arrival of a mass medium, especially television that began the process of the nationalising the Italian language. But the most popular shows on television were not necessarily Italian: were dubbed imports of, say, Perry Mason. (Sassoon tells me the Italians do not like subtitles and everything foreign is dubbed: the voice of Marilyn Monroe is far huskier in the dubbed Italian versions of her work.) There was an Italian defendant who pleaded the “5th amendment” to the puzzlement of the judge, until it was realised that the prisoner’s grasp of his legal situation was entirely informed by the American constitution as it was depicted in the show. So experience is nationalised and internationalised by culture in surprising ways, in ways that help produce local difference.

[The Zanzibar exception: in comparative history there is always one: here it is, Why are there no successful German novels in the 19th century? The conditions are perfect – developed literate cultural marketplace, center of distribution and marketplace in large city (Leipzig), national artistic exemplars (Goethe), generic track record (they innovated the Gothic novel) and yet they cannot export any German literature of note and have no international presence until the end of the century (Fontaine). The German market instead was busy importing British and French prestige novels.]

Success varies in the cultural marketplace: non-fiction success, say in textbook sales, is largely determined by elites – school principles, publishers bribing education ministers or otherwise lobbying the state and lending libraries. The latter function in a similar manner to television networks, distributing material that people want but also stuff that is “good for them”. The central problem being that it is impossible, outside the sanctions and threats of the school environment to compel someone to read something. They need to be given an incentive.

Sassoon noted that the most popular non-fiction books are ‘How To’ format, especially those concerned with cookery and dieting (How to Get Fat and, then, How to Get Thin), as well as biography and autobiography (which read like fiction).

1880-1914: revolution and change. The cinema: no real counterpart in cultural production. As gramophone use is dominated by music, films soon dominated by fiction. (Odd that Edison’s original list of the uses of recorded sound had music last – because of the poor quality – and recorded speech first – baby’s first words/grandpa’s last).

Radio as a new mode of distributing culture. Compare to publishing or newspapers: no state owned examples there. Newspapers sold on their bias. In US they adopted the press model of broadcasting, in Europe the state public lending library model. Here flow is an advantage as the worthy bits can be mixed with entertaining shows: this only works where there are few channels and creates a family and a nation while it exists.

Back to the discovery of cinema: “if you make a film you can skip bits. This is called editing.” The medium becomes modern because it can: introduces key dimension of modernity, speed.
Sassoon also speculated on the possible reasons for American dominance in cinema, beginning in the early 20th century (after say, about 1915): why is American cinema so dominant across the world? why do so many people in the world prefer it? – it cannot simply be market or industrial advantage (which in many places it did not have). Average shot length is about half that in Europe. [? check ref for this] Perhaps simply the fact that the national American audience, structured by waves and layers of immigration, already had a global character. The extraordinary diversity means that products are pitched widely, and you have to be across cultures in order to be truly successful. Then the global market selects that form of cultural production with a universal approach rather than local and national. [JJ: plus US idealist tradition gels with fantasies of achievement exemplified by goal-centered protagonists: the world should be this way (the way I want it to be)] Hence the national product had to appeal to what was in part an already global national audience; once exported this ‘national’ culture is absorbed by other nations, influential in their culture and then re-exported. Sassoon suggested that American dominance in this area may be coming to an end [can anyone there help as to the reasons why?] He also suggested that the reason European cinemas survive so long is WW2, with fascism clearing out local talents (who fled to the US) but those wartime industries in France and Italy taking advantage of the absence of US imports to build up their own. The problem is the post-war backlog of 6 years of American film: try making a European movie in 1946 and 47 and getting anyone to see it. One of the reasons for the extreme contentration on the national everyday in, say, Italian neo-realism.

Mode of payment.
Sassoon says this issue as central to current and future shape of cultural markets. This is a problem especially for screen based material since the moment of payment and the moment of consumption was separated in time. For a long time buying a television set is the major purchasing choice in relation to television consumption; continued subscription allows you access to a range of product, but there is, with a few pay-per-view event exceptions no equivalent of a theater or cinema ticket. Metered downloading and watching films and television through distribution systems such as iTunes may re-introduce to screen consumption an element of this, but Sassoon’s general point seems right. There was some objection that there is a “more direct” relationship between television consumption and paying money (e.g. advertising stimulates spending behaviour) but Sassoon batted this away fairly swiftly by pointing out that, at that level, everyone pays, but always at a different point from that of consumption: paying taxes to the state for public service material or for education (which is not metered: us higher education workers in the room temporarily thrilled to the idea that we might meter our time!); whereas other forms of cultural consumption are also indirect but not state based, such as advertising funded models of television industry. Of course the eventual fragmentation of the national television audience is a concern for national broadcasters and networks, but to some extent this is balanced by the opening up of a global market. If one’s share of the audience drops from 40 to 10 per cent that is an issue, but 10 per cent of a global audience swamps any national losses, which is why the international sale of television and its formats, as well as subtitled or dubbed TV DVD box sets is so significant. So to some extent the nationalising of culture is only of interest from a national industry perspective.
On the other hand exhibitions are different. To some extent they are like opera or theatre – key aspects of them are temporary (‘I saw Olivier as Othello on stage. You may see him playing Othello in a film, but I saw him and you cannot have the cultural experience that I had.’) and this matters – is valuable – in a culture where everything is recorded and retrievable.

For me the least convincing aspect of Sassoon’s history of the cultural markets has always been the sense that the value of culture is pretty much about power relations and status, as well as longivity (I guess similar to Hume’s ‘test of time’). The longevity and productivity of a product as a criterion: more people may read Ken Follett right now, but in the long run more may read Proust.That intellectuals need an excuse to like trash: we both like John Wayne, but I like Wayne for different, more complex reasons than you do… This kind of thing is just not enough to explain variations in the assessment of cultural value.

There was an interesting question about the relevance of museums to the process of universalising culture. S. pointed out that this opening up of elite spaces and objects (buildings, paintings, etc) was part of the democratisation of culture, that followed the pattern he had discussed earlier with opera. To some extent museums follow the ‘public library lending’ model: how to keep attention motivated (so children are encouraged to find instances of dogs in paintings in the Louvre).

Why were Jews so successful in the US film industry? Sassoon invoked an insider-outsider model, arguing that it is sometimes advantageous for a group to be close to dominant culture but not located comfortably in it; near it but just outside, and the resulting friction can be innovative and stimulating to all. He cites British fiction: where would it be without the Irish writers? That is a tolerated group – oppressed but not subject to extermination, not comfortable nor at home with the dominant culture but able to incorporate discrimmination as a kind of incentive. so the German Jews were strong in publishing, distant from traditional Hebrew teaching (compared say, to Eastern Europe: this led to a short riff on the absence of an equivalent to the Pope as interpretative authority permitting diverse interpretive behavior in relation to Torah and Koran) and, since publishing was a new industry, able to innovate and build without challenging long-standing family structures of business and commerce.

This has exhausted my notes: does anyone wish to add anything?

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