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Flows of Reading

Engaging with Texts

Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, Henry Jenkins, Authors

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3.5 Negotiating Cultural Difference in the Language of 'Moby-Dick: Then and Now'

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley's Moby-Dick: Then and Now Project is exemplary in the ways it reconciles competing understandings of culture and the pedagogical assumptions that flow from them. As you watch the Act 1 and Act 2 videos, pay attention to the participants' expansive understanding of human expression. Consider how gestures, postures, inflections, swagger are expressive resources through which the artists communicate their meanings. When they speak about language, they are not simply talking about word choices and syntax; they are talking about the way language gets embodied through cultural practices. 

Rudy turns out to be a great observer of regional and subcultural differences, and this attention to cultural difference strengthens his performances. Wyn Kelley argues that Rudy's use of language shows "a rhythm, a beauty, a fluency" Melville would have recognized and respected, while Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is attentive to the "artful" use of language, whether in the 19th-century prose of the original novel or "the original slang language of the streets and the hood" (Rudy). As Pitts-Wiley explains, "We have to put great value on both of them and also have to seek the poetry of both." Pitts-Wiley recognizes a raw creative capacity in Rudy and the other young performers, and he wants to help them bridge oral and written expression: "You can flow it but can you write it." As Rudy explains, "You have to be able to handle the language right, but in order to be able to handle the language right, the language has to be right."

While the focus of the production is on a "great work" (as Arnold would have understood it), Raymond Williams would have recognized and valued the broader range of human expression. In this video, Williams explains how he approaches the study of literary texts in a broader context of human expression and with a focus on the ways everyday people communicate with each other.

Moby-Dick: Then and Now emerges from the attempt to respect and reconcile two very different cultural traditions—language and ideas found in one of the most respected novels in American literature and the language and insights from contemporary hip-hop culture. You can develop an appreciation of the expressive potential of both Melville's language and the street language, which may seem exotic or even barbaric to your ears. This account of the production process models a context where adults and youth can learn from each other, coming to see the other's cultural traditions through new eyes. We see this in the affectionate ways Rudy describes his respect for Pitts-Wiley and Ricardo describes his young cast as helping to make the language "fresh."
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