What is a Cultural Touchstone?

Given Jon Stewart’s recent announcement that he’s leaving “The Daily Show,” Comedy Central’s Michele Ganeless calling his show a “cultural touchstone,” and our continuing exploration of Star Wars, I offer you the above question. It’s a definition that can be surprisingly hard to find and pin down.

As a student of history, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the origin of the term ‘touchstone’ and its historic context. First used by ancient civilizations the world over, the touchstone is still used today to determine the purity of precious metal alloys. Soft metals, like gold, could be used to draw lines on the touchstone which would then be compared to known samples in order to determine the purity of precious metal present in, for instance, a coin. This would have been an important tool for merchants given the fact that in the ancient world, cities (even those under the same empire) would make their own coins. The touchstone allowed for trade between different cities, regions, and empires because regardless of where a coin was made, its value could be determined on the spot.

The term ‘cultural touchstone’ has been credited to Matthew Arnold in his 1880 piece “The Study of Poetry.” In short, Arnold suggested that in order to determine how much praise a new piece of poetry deserved, it should be compared to older poetry that still received the same high praise. An example he gives is comparing Theroulde to Homer. The former is sampled from a 12th century CE French epic and the later (as most know) is sampled from a 9th century BCE epic. While both deserve praise (according to Arnold), to compare Theroulde to Homer would be criminal because Homer has remained relevant almost 2000 years longer than Theroulde.

Arnold bases this ordering of poets based on comparing what others consider the strongest parts of the works, comparing similar passages. What seems to mark a truly great work is its age. How far ahead of its time was it? Does it continue to hold up and can it still be read today? The older works of known quality are the cultural touchstones which we compare all contemporary works. There is no one cultural touchstone for each thing, rather there are several of varying quality so that we might effectively judge (without overhyping or over-criticizing) any new work that comes out.

So is Star Wars a cultural touchstone? Almost undoubtedly. Since its release in 1977, Star Wars remains the quintessential science fiction movie, popularizing the space opera genre and attracting a fanbase that spans generations. This is an element in evaluating a cultural touchstone that I feel Arnold missed out on. A more modern interpretation of ‘cultural touchstone’ is a cultural phenomenon that simply links generations in a society. Continuing with our Star Wars example, there was the fan generation that grew up with the films. There was my generation which experienced the original trilogy before getting the prequels. And now there’s a generation that is growing up with all six of the Lucas films as everyone waits for the J.J. Abrams film. I’ve had five-year-olds in some of my karate classes ask me about Star Wars and what I thought of it.

Is “The Daily Show” a cultural touchstone? Debatable, but probably. Today, if someone were to start talking about a satire news show, it would be either “The Daily Show” or one of the shows created by former correspondents (Colbert, Wilmore, Oliver). And given its 17 year run, “The Daily Show” wins the test of time against those other three.

Is The Last Airbender a cultural touchstone? Debatable. While it has an outspoken and sizable fanbase, I have yet to see evidence of the show spanning the generational gap. What makes it possibly a cultural touchstone is its almost undeniable quality as a family-targeted cartoon. Perhaps in time we’ll find a more certain answer for this show.

So what is a cultural touchstone? The definition is debatable and tricky, but we know our examples when we see them.

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