Symptoms of Culture

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Symptoms of Culture is a book about how to read. In fact it's a convincing argument for the value of advanced literacy, with an eye towards uncovering the hidden politics of everyday life.

Marjorie Garber

Reviewed by Matt Wray

Thursday, July 30 1998, 1:34 PM


Symptoms of Culture is a book about how to read. In fact it's a convincing argument for the value of advanced literacy, with an eye towards uncovering the hidden politics of everyday life. Those of us who think we are literate, who think we can read anything in our mother tongue, are given great pause by this book. We are brought up short by the realization that for alarmingly large chunks of the day, we don't know how to read at all. Or we forget. We forget that the signs which swirl around us all day everyday can and must be read. And not just read for what they have to say about themselves, but also what they have to say about the cultures we inhabit, which inhabit and inhibit us.

If these signs are important for what they tell us, they are also important for what they refuse to tell us. The themes of repression and repetition, and at times, recovery, animate this odd book. Garber, in the tradition of Freud and Barthes has given us a master lesson in reading the signs of everyday life. Too often these signs have gone unread, as if they had nothing to tell us, and had no stories to share. To argue as Professor Garber so effectively does that these signs are not only important, but are symptomatic of our cultural ills and anxieties, is not necessarily what distinguishes Garber's work. There are many other cultural critics and academics who ply this trade. What is new, what is unique, and what is lasting about Garber's work is the clarity, eloquence, and wit the author brings to her task. As with her other books on cross-dressing and bisexuality, Garber not only takes obvious pleasure in reading. She is a pleasure to read.

So, if you've ever wondered why it is that roman numerals always appear in the final credits of movies. Or if you've asked yourself where and how Jello fits into Jewish American culture; or if you've ever pondered why we fetishize Shakespeare the way we do, or what possible connection the Scopes Monkey Trial has to today's cultural politics and science wars, this book has the answers to these weird questions and more.

Routledge, 1998, Hardcover, 273 pp with Notes and Index 

Copyright © 1998 by Matt Wray. All rights reserved.
 

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