March 25, 2023


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Monoculture is back. I’m not referring to the concept, but the word — specifically anything related to HBO’s new series “House of the Dragon.” My inner word guru can’t help but notice that the word is everywhere in the stories about the Game of Thrones prequels.

The Observer reports that fans are taking to social media to celebrate “the seemingly (and stunning!) return of the monoculture.” Here’s The Independent: “It took only one episode — one scene, really — Let House of the Dragon prove that it rules a monoculture as adeptly as Game of Thrones.”

What these and more references have in common is that monoculture refers to what is desirable. This is an odd concept because since the word was adopted from French in the 19th century, its meaning has been negative. Monoculture is a condition not to be celebrated but to be avoided.

The original usage was in agriculture to describe the damage to the soil caused by overreliance on a single crop. Thus, a Kansas paper in 1884 lamented that “monoculture” of planting whatever is most profitable and then continuing “has produced unavoidable results” – the loss of arable land and epidemics in the trade. That’s what Fidel Castro meant when he used the term in 1965, when the media reported that the Cuban dictator had promised to “save his island from what Yankee capitalists denounced as a ‘monoculture'” – It means sugar. The same meaning is still common today.

But by the early 20th century, the term had been borrowed to refer to an identity that harmed not only agriculture but life more broadly. Thus, a 1914 article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts warned of social problems when industry became too powerful in a city or community: “[M]Where possible, monocultures should be supplemented with polycultures. Otherwise, the “moral and carnal sins” brought about by the “gathering of mankind” will prove irresistible.

British journalist William Beach Thomas had much the same idea in 1949, when he described a widespread fear that the virtues and pleasures of traditional English villages were dying out “to be replaced by a mechanized monoculture. “.

When it came to applying negative usage to culture, the biggest popularizer was the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who saw monocultures as part of what he strongly rejected as “cannibalism” in Western culture. In the 1961 English translation of his book World on Wane, this is stated as follows:

Humanity accepted a monoculture once and for all and was ready to mass-produce civilization as if it were a beet. The same dishes are served to us every day.

The usage quickly caught on—and not just as a metaphor for cultural flattening. In 1970 Volkswagen’s new leadership declared that “the monoculture is over,” announcing plans to diversify its offerings beyond the ubiquitous Beetle. A few years later, a federal court mentioned in passing that an executive “expressed his concern in writing” that a particular securities firm “is becoming a ‘monoculture’ that deals almost exclusively in bonds.”

By then, negative connotations are everywhere. “[W]”I want people to know that Salt Lake City is multicultural, not monocultural,” organizers of the Utah music festival told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. That same year, Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek proudly explained why his city is more truly diverse than New York: “People there want a monoculture. They want their children to be part of American culture. Here, Armenians will always be Armenians .”

The term quickly caught on as it described the dangers of growing digital connectivity. In 1993, Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki warned that increasing the availability of video would flatten the world’s cultural diversity: “The electronic superhighway promises greater homogeneity—in effect, a simplification of the planet. Five years later, MIT psychologist Kenneth Keniston, speaking to many, warned that the “information age” was creating a “global monoculture,” which he defined for “the de facto dominance of a single culture in all important fields”. world. “

For most of the 21st century, the meaning has not changed either. A 2004 article in The Guardian lamented the British government’s “willingness to allow a monoculture of pure English to develop in public broadcasting” – a stark contrast to the “diversity” of mainland cinema. The New York Times reported in 2018, based on the views of a former public relations executive at Google, that “many of Silicon Valley’s problems can be blamed on a monoculture obsessed with engineering and data.”

So, how has this perfectly reasonable socially negative term turned into a socially positive in recent years? Ironically, the answer seems to be…”Game of Thrones”. Media critic Alison Herman described the hit series in a much-discussed 2017 piece for The Ringer as “the last remnant of a monoculture, a dying, unique model. , with its own strengths and blind spots.”

Before (and after) “Power,” it was almost always ironic to call TV shows a monoculture. Since then… well, let’s turn things over to The New Yorker, which in its recent review of “House of the Dragon” called the show’s predecessor “one of the last sparks of American monoculture, the phenomenon Successfully brought millions of people together, all at once, to eagerly discuss a scene or detail.”

Game of Thrones was a remarkable moment for television. More notably, it made us completely reverse the meaning of a familiar word…and all the intrigue and dragons and gore we didn’t even notice.

More from Bloomberg Views:

• Could ‘Dragon House’ trigger a media merger? : Sarah Green Carmichael

• Reinventing “Game of Thrones” will be hard: Tara Lachapelle

• You should record “Game of Thrones” tonight: Stephen Carter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a Yale law professor and most recently the author of Invisible: The Story of the Black Female Lawyer Who Brought Down America’s Most Powerful Gangster.

More similar stories are available at Bloomberg.com/opinion



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