Christina Patterson: There's more to life than irony...

A generation brought up on Chaucer made sure the next would be brought up on Coleen

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"Cultures," said an academic called Professor Ellis Cashmore on Radio 4 this week, "are no better or worse than each other." Indeed. Cultures, for example, which offer a tasty smorgasbord of rabbits, beans and humans to whet the appetites of angry gods; cultures in which children who emerge from birth looking a little puny are left on hillsides to die; cultures which mark the emergence of a human infant with batteries of benefits; cultures in which politicians fawn over Wags. All much of a muchness. And who, after all, are we to judge?

Well, Professor Cashmore for one, you might have thought, given that he was taking part in a discussion on a topic which turned out to be his specialist subject. A visiting professor at Aston University, he lectures on "Celebrity Culture" and has written a book called Celebrity/Culture. Don't you just love that slash?

He's just one of a growing number of academics grappling with the knotty issue of Why We Are All (Except Academics, Obviously) in Thrall to People on the Telly. Last week, at the University of East Anglia, a gaggle of girlies gathered to share their thoughts on "Janis Joplin's Erect Left Nipple", "Britney's Tears" and "Kerry Katona as 'White Trash Mother'". All great fun, I'm sure, and certainly less taxing than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

It is, however, according to a few nasty spoilsports, slightly less fun for the nation's children. A report from the Children's Society this week expressed the less than surprising view that "superficial messages" in the media are causing children to judge success "primarily in terms of materialistic acquisition", and identified as one of the key factors "a preoccupation with celebrity". Research from the Learning and Skills Council yesterday came to much the same conclusion. A quarter of the teenagers who took part in the poll said that education was "not important" in pursuing their "dream career". And since their "dream career" was listed as "TV celebrity" or pop star, you can see why.

But since your chances of bagging your "dream career" are about the same as winning the lottery – a fact that you sort of know, from the evidence around you, even while the part of you that might otherwise pop into school from time to time, or even do some homework, is clinging desperately to your dream – it's probably not that surprising that your chief recreational activity, when you're not getting someone pregnant, is hanging around on the streets. A tussle over territory – your bit of Peckham or Hackney or Clapton – is probably as exciting as it's going to get. Though not, clearly, as exciting as hitting the cover of Heat.

So where did it all start? Well, with Adam and Eve, of course, (starring in How to Look Good Naked in the Garden of Eden), and with Barthes and Derrida, and with their representative on earth, postmodern word-made-flesh Terry Eagleton, who persuaded entire generations of undergraduates that there was no such thing as clarity, only the "seething multiplicity of the text", and that all types of art – high, low and mediocre – were created equal under God and the Holy Critic, and that "the history of pubic hair" (to use an example he quotes in his book, After Theory) was as worthy a subject of a PhD as Paradise Lost. A progression which, you could argue, is indeed a kind of Paradise Lost.

And so the products of this brave new world of intellectual freedom (one unsullied by nasty notions of critical judgement) went forth and multiplied and lo, they colonised the media. And they discovered that if the Almighty could see into the hearts, and homes, of ordinary people, then they could too, and so God the Father was re-created as Big Brother (which sounded much more democratic, but with a nice, Orwellian twist) and thus were our lives transformed. Anyone – and their clothes, sex life, bathroom and excrement – could enter the gates of heaven.

And so it was that a generation of middle-class, often privately educated graduates, brought up on Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dickens, made damn sure that the generations that followed would be brought up on Myleene and Jade and Coleen and that the dream would shift from one of any kind of achievement to a pure, clear fountain of fame. And that anyone who "had a problem" with this was an elitist and a snob. It's all about fun, for God's sake. It's all about irony.

The trouble with irony is that it depends on cultural references – cultural references that might possibly go beyond the little world of car-crash popsters, their hair extensions and handbags. Irony is the icing on the cupcake, the buckle on the Fendi Baguette. It isn't ever, and wasn't meant to be, the bread and cheese and wine.

In the progress of a culture – a civilisation, even, if one can still use the word without the dreaded irony – a decade is but the blink of an eye. It's the swing of a pendulum, and not the final curtain. If, that is, the people who run our media (whose children, incidentally, are not the ones who suffer from this blight) decide to wrest the pendulum back. It's not too late for our children – if the grown-ups get a grip.

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