Encyclopaedic Fiction, Cultural Value, and the Discourse of the Great Divide
Recent postmodern work on cultural evaluation, such as Barbara Smith's Contingencies of Value (1989), argues that cultural value cannot be treated as an inherent or objective quality of cultural products. Instead, cultural value must be understood as "value for": relative, that is, to the identities and interests of particular cultural consumers and producers. Theorists (for instance, John Frow in his 1995 study Cultural Studies and Cultural Value) have employed similar relativist logic in their analyses of the putative "structures" or institutions that supposedly give shape to Western culture-as-a-whole: "high" culture, "popular" culture, "mass" culture and so on. This "postaxiological" strain of cultural theory undermines the real-world integrity of those categories by suggesting that they (the categories) are merely contingent effects of critical / evaluative discourse. Other archetypically "postmodern" arguments in literary and cultural studies have focused on charting or advocating both the demise of the modernist "great divide" between "high" and "low" culture, and its replacement, in cultural production and criticism, with more permissive and socially egalitarian modes of interplay between "high" and "low" culture. Some critics and critically aware cultural producers have treated these two projects as though they are complementary facets of a general "postmodern" turn. Yet contesting or reversing obsolete hierarchies of cultural value does not necessarily lead critics to contemplate the status of "high"/"low" categories themselves. A meaningful refusal of the logic of the modernist "great divide" would obligate critics and producers to reflect on the contingency of those categories and their own interests with respect to those categories. Juxtaposing an "encyclopaedic" modernist text renowned for its interspersion of "high" and "low" cultural elements (James Joyce's Ulysses) with a postmodern text that seems knowingly to do the same (David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest), two case studies illustrate the inseparability of readings or narratives that are couched in "high"/"low" terms from the particular interests of cultural producers and consumers.