Meanwhile, on Amazon.com ... Image Source: Assyrian International News Agency.
On Amazon, someone gave the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known epic, one star. This was not one star for the quality of the translation in the Penguin Classics edition. It was one star for the story, because, as the reviewer put it, the epic was too "clichéed." The reviewer had seen it all before! And the epic's author, whoever he was, was trying to "do too much." Amazon:
I found it cliched and with many references that have not aged well. It is very derivative and employs most of the generic stock events from B-grade paperbacks. Also, most of the jokes will be lost on readers, as they refer to events that long ago passed into the historical record. However, probably the novel's biggest problem is its attempt to do 'too much'. A lot like the recent film Clash of the Titans, the author appears to have relied on introducing sensational mythical creatures in place of a well-fleshed-out storyline that engages with the modern reader.
The reviewer wrote the review right under the Penguin blurb, which states:
The epic dates from the 18th century BCE and its source stories are probably older. You can read it online for free here.Originally the work of an anonymous Babylonian poet who lived more than 3,700 years ago, The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the heroic exploits of the ruler of the walled city of Uruk. Not content with the immortality conveyed by the renown of his great deeds, Gilgamesh journeys to the ends of the earth and beyond in his search for eternal life, encountering the wise man Uta-napishti, who relates the story of a great flood that swept the earth. This episode and several others in the epic anticipate stories in the Bible and in Homer, to the great interest of biblical and classical scholars. Told with intense feeling and imagination, this masterful tale of love and friendship, duty and death, is more than an object of scholarly concern; it is a vital rendering of universal themes that resonate across the ages and is considered the world's first truly great work of literature.
The review is one of the Internet's unexpected fruits: the surprise of vast ignorance in a sea of knowledge, information and pure data. And this is not the ignorance of someone who could not be bothered to look up the Wikipedia entry. The information was right there, on the same page.
One of the original texts of the epic. Image Source: Derestricted.
On top of this, the reviewer speaks with real authority about the epic because he or she found it floating around anachronistically with everything else in online culture. Whether it is near pre-historic, derived from high culture, or low culture, it does not matter. On the Internet, all cultural objects are equal and cannot be differentiated by age or canon standing. Anything older than 24 months (or 24 seconds?) is in the same pot with material that is nearly 4,000 years old. This is the ultimate triumph of Postmodernism.
But hard core Postmodernists would likely cringe at this evident tangent into post-Postmodern life. The Postmodern attack on the artistic canon claimed to speak for silenced voices of cultural history. And Postmodernists at least knew what the canon was. This example is one step beyond that mindset, where the value of the canon, by itself or as an object of criticism, has been erased.
Along with the impact of technology, the Great Recession contributed to that process. A new narrative of cultural value appeared, in which something had to be 'worth the money' to gain traction. The recession marked a post-Postmodern turning point where values were not reappraised - they simply disappeared. Unfortunately, the attack on big banks and corporations did not make critics more virtuous, humanitarian and less materialistic, although they thought it did. Economic fears left people, post-recession, even more greedy than they had been before the bubbles burst. There is now a huge push to devote one's time only to 'what will pay.' In January 2014, President Obama dismissed art history as a discipline, hinting that it was unprofitable during a speech in Wisconsin. His aside played to a prevailing Millennial attitude that ignorance about the arts and humanities is acceptable and that professional authority in the arts and humanities is outmoded because it will not enable graduates to get good, high-paying jobs. Money flows to areas in the economy where we collectively place greatest value, in this case, technology, design, marketing, engineering and construction.
This attitude raises the question: can technology replace the authority of cultural scholarship? Even with algorithms subtly tailored to aid the online experience, to guide the Web user seamlessly toward larger understanding, online users labour under the burden of an illusion of knowledge. Only in the new Millennium would someone be arrogant enough - with clear information posted on the same screen indicating how wrong he or she is - to produce such a book review.
That is because the blurb from the publishers is no longer the authoritative summary of this book. It is merely one bit of text, juxtaposed with other bits of text (reviews), and online users pick the one they like best.
This particular Amazon review demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of information. Sometimes, a fact is just a fact. It is an authority in itself. It is not up for debate. It is not a matter of personal preference or opinion. In this case, the fact is that this epic is the source text for the myths which followed, not the other way around.
But on the Internet, personal opinion, and the social-networked reputation of the individual uttering the opinion, will trump facts, if enough online users take that opinion at face value.
The Internet creates false cultures of authority about information. It is good that amateurs have access to huge quantities of knowledge for the first time in human history. This is one of the most hopeful and democratic aspects of the Web. But dominant amateurism is a bad thing if every fact becomes a function of disputable opinion. It is a bad thing if the authority lending greatest weight to one cultural opinion depends not on informed judgment and knowledge; but rather, if cultural authority rests merely with those who have used a particular Internet forum the most, thereby creating the greatest dynamism in the online system.
If this Gilgamesh Amateur had written 400 equally hopeless reviews, would his or her opinion be worth more online than the isolated professional literary critic or cultural historian, who has spent years learning this information with care? Increasingly, because of the basic dynamics of social networks and the algorithms which respond blindly to upticks in frenetic activity, the answer is: yes, the Gilgamesh Amateur will become tomorrow's cultural authority. With the way the Internet is now developing, the Gilgamesh Amateur will eventually become the dominant arbiter of knowledge.