Who's the most profound, perceptive analyst of modern culture that we have? Baudrillard, maybe? Habermas? Harold Bloom? Pah! Lightweights.
No, it's Dave Lee Travis. You heard it right, people. Opining on the reasons for the imminent demise of Top Of The Pops, ex-Radio One jock DLT had this to say (after some inevitable zaniness about kids with WiFi aerials in their heads):
"There's just too much stuff out there. Everything's becoming marginalised."
Now, like the best Zen koan, that's a seemingly meaningless, paradoxical statement that packs a powerful pipeful of truth. Everything is marginalised. We have no canon any more, no core cultural identity. You can't assume any knowledge on the part of your audience, which means that at every step you run the risk of patronising half of them, and shooting the conceptual ball way over the heads of the other half.
There's a bit in Ulysses where Deasy, the pompous headmaster, admonishes Stephen to be more prudent, noting that Shakespeare said "Put but money in thy purse." Stephen's response is to mutter the single word "Iago" under his breath.
Now, the joke only works if we know that Iago is a villain, so we shouldn't necessarily be taking advice from him. But how do we deal with this, if we don't know how much the reader knows? Stick with "Iago"? Maybe play safe with "Iago, the villain in Othello"? Or do we have to aim for the lowest common denominator, and explain that it's from "Othello, a play, by the playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who also wrote William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet"?
Of course, you can go to the opposite extreme. One thing I love about Eliot's notes for The Waste Land (apart from the fact that he can't remember which Antarctic expedition he's talking about) is that he kindly translates the Sanskrit for us; but assumes we'll be OK with the Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian. That's right. Eliot. He wrote Cats.
So where do you pitch it? The problem is, it's one thing to bemoan the lack of a cultural centre, another to decide what and where that centre should be. I'd be happy with, say, Shakespeare and Eliot and Joyce. (Sorry, make that "the Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941), who wrote Ulysses".) Whereas DLT's vision of what can unite us within a common, unmarginalised, cultural identity would probably be ELO and Snooker On The Radio. But who am I to argue with a mind and beard like that?