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MARXISM, deconstructionism and Freadian theory--these frameworks for analyzing literature have their merits, but I have found a superior conception of cultural criticism.
I call it Albertism, the interpretation of popular culture. Its founder is my grandfather, Albert.
My grandfather's talent for seeing the real meaning of a story lies in his vast experience of the world, plus his ability (perhaps because of some memory disorders) to make extraordinary connections between events. I learned more about critical appoaches to art from this 76-year old man than I ever could from reading Jacques Derrida or Simone de Beauvoir.
My grandfather's analysis of the "Cosby Show," for example, is more accurate, insightful, and meaningful than any dedicated critic of art could want. He watches diligently, forms his opinions and then proclaims them to his audience--me, my grandmother or the family pictures on the coffee table--like a professor explaining slides to a large class.
On one slide, Bill is on the screen going through his usual assortment of contorted facial expressions. The laugh track is screaming, but my grandfather isn't fooled.
"If you laughed at a guy on the street with that disease, they'd arrest you," he says loudly, pointing at the TV screen with an accusing finger.
A Marxist would merely interpret Bill Cosby as the culmination of an oppressed minority which rises up, only to fall into the ruinous capitalist practices of Yuppiedom. My Grandfather bypasses the professional jargon with his simple, yet all encompassing vision of Cosby's influence on the American public.
"He could turn gold into schmutz and they would still laugh," says my grandfather, trying to warn the world.
THIS amazing grasp of the whole context of a show extends to an analysis of the actors as well. He claims to know many of them personally, or at least he knows all of their relatives.
He gives them pasts, such as "Tom Brokaw left his wife and three children to go and work on the railroad in Nebraska." He gives them family relationships, such as "Oprah Winfrey is the sister of a man who used to live on my block in Philadelphia in the 1950s." He also gives the shows a historical context, such as "when Art Carney was doing vaudeville, doughnuts were a nickel and a whole sandwich was a dime."
In short, my grandfather is a deconstructionist's worst nightmare.
Freudian theorists would have the best, and the most meaningful, nightmares about my grandfather's encroachment of their territory. These critics spend their entire careers picking apart literature to find hidden symbols of sexual repression. The snake in the Garden of Eden? A phallic symbol. Moby Dick? A phallic symbol. The Washington Monument? A phallic symbol.
My grandfather has them all beat. He doesn't tiptoe around the issue with complicated psychological talk. There is no Oedipal complex in his analysis, he just says what he means.
Bull from "Night Court"?
"He's a putz."
Marlon Brando in Casablanca?.
"He's another putz."
"He's the biggest putz of them all."
LITERARY criticism is a serious business, and it is growing ever more popular in academia. But its drawbacks are obvious. With all of the technical readings, the jargon and the warring factions of the "traditional" anti-traditional critics, Albertism might have a chance to survive. Besides, the condominium complex in South Florida where it all began is a lot more appealing than New Haven, where most of the other literary critics settle.
All we need to do is turn off the TV sets and stick books in the hands of our senior citizens and Albertism could be the driving critical force of the 1990s. That is, if people can remember it.
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