Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Majority Culture

Our Society
Mario Vargas Llosa: Haverty writes: “Vargas Llosa is pessimistic about the survival of literature, which is to say books that aren’t primarily entertainment or pragmatic. He’s pessimistic about how a society can live without coherent religious belief (although he himself can) and not fall into despair, about our abandonment of the concept of privacy. To put the inner self on public display in the way we’re expected to do is to revert to barbarism.”
Photo Credit & Source: The Irish Times

A book review article, by Anne Haverty, in The Irish Times looks at Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes On The Death Of Culture; I know that we heard this story before, but it is worth looking at it again, notably for those few of us—a minority within greater society—who truly think and care about such things. With T.S. Eliot’s elitism and deep-set melancholy resonating clearly, Llosa says we have squandered our great heritage, that we now live in a culture devoid of values.

Such is the power and influence of majority culture, a theme made clear in Haverty’s article about the Nobel Laureate’s (Literature, 2010) collection of essays in book form:
This is a book of mourning. What Vargas Llosa writes is a lament for how things used to be and how they are now in all aspects of life from the political to the spiritual. Like TS Eliot in his essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, written in 1948, he takes the concept of culture in the general sense as a shared sensibility, a way of life.
Eliot too saw culture decaying around him and foresaw a time in which there would be no culture. This time, Vargas Llosa argues, is ours. Eliot has since been under attack for what his critics often describe as his elitist attitudes – as well as much else – and Vargas Llosa will probably also be tarred with the same brush for his pains.

But we must be grateful to him for describing in a relatively orderly manner the chaos of hypocrisy and emptiness into which our globalised culture has plunged and to which we seem to have little option but to subscribe.
It’s not easy, however, to be orderly on such an all-encompassing and sensitive subject as the way we live now. On some aspects, such as the art business, Vargas Llosa practically foams at the mouth. The art world is “rotten to the core”, a world in which artists cynically contrive “cheap stunts”. Stars like Damien Hirst are purveyors of “con-tricks”, and their “boring, farcical and bleak” productions are aided by “half-witted critics”.
We have abandoned the former minority culture, which was truth-seeking, profound, quiet and subtle, in favour of mainstream or mass entertainment, which has to be accessible – and how brave if foolhardy of anyone these days to cast aspersions on accessibility – as well as sensation-loving and frivolous.
Value-free, this kind of culture is essentially valueless.
Bread and circuses
Vargas Llosa adopts a name for this age of ours coined by the French Marxist theorist Guy Debord. We live in the Society of the Spectacle. A name that recalls the bread and circuses offered to a debased populace in the declining Roman empire. Exploited by the blind forces of rampant consumerism, we are reduced to being spectators of our own lives rather than actors in them.
Should the Peruvian writer’s laments be ours as well? Yes, to some degree, in that there are some things that ought to concern all thinking and thoughtful persons. But my reasons for such concern might differ from that of this writer, who is no stranger to popular culture and cashing in on his fame. We are on a different track, and so it must be. Or is. My reasons have everything to do with economic hardships and social alienation, which often finds its faithful among the poor. Poverty does very predictable things to people, most of it deeds soul-numbing, a destruction of the potential of the future.

Spectacles and shows offer some comfort as a brief respite, a short breather, if you will, from everyday realities and hardships.They can never replace reality, but are a carefully staged presentation of it—hence, entertainment of some form. This has spilled over into other areas of life, and is certainly true for what is considered news today in its coverage of politics, business, crime and social issues. Much of it is derivative and partisan, with predictable sound bites; it does not require much attention and concentration to watch the news, such as it is. (There are some exceptional news organizations: PBS in the United States and CBC in Canada come to mind.)

It’s the way it is, most predominantly in the United States, but it is also certainly true in Canada and in many European nations. And the very people who can change things, with few exceptions, are happy about it, the way it is. The cultural gatekeepers have abandoned their posts, all-too-happy to feed “junk food” to the mob of a consumerist society willing to purchase anything. For this, they are handsomely paid. A steady diet of junk food, however, proves unhealthy over a lifetime of living; the operative word is balance. (Using this metaphor, I, for one, enjoy junk food sometimes.)

As it is often said, “Follow the money.” The wealthy business & political elites (and in some cases, the religious leaders) have created (and benefited from) a climate of despair and alienation, thus compelling people (notably the poor) to look to low-brow entertainment (and news) to forget their harsh reality, and, more important, to keep consuming their shoddily produced cultural products. Surely this suggests a culture in deep decline. But, who cares? It also ensures, for the producers of said cultural products, a continuing income stream, the money encouraging more of the same. To be sure, much of it is uninspiring drek.

So, all that is left is sex, and our societal obsession of it. It permeates all areas of human experience. In so many cases, sex—the desire for, the discussion of, and the artless dissection of— has replaced other once-important pleasures, including talk, debate, thinking and erotica. Is the art of conversation one of the lost arts?  On this subject, I would recommend the French-Canadian film, Le déclin de l'empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire), a 1986 masterpiece by Denys Arcand, a Quebec filmmaker. [see video clip here.] I would also recommend Arcand’s  Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions), Arcand‘s Oscar-winning 2003 follow-up film. [see video clip here.] The action is in the conversation; in the ideas put forth, in the memories of what was and could never again be.

The news is not all bad, lest this become a doom-and-gloom rant or a paean to elitism, which is not my intent. Such films are still being produced, but are rarer, little gems that do not have wide public appeal. After all, there is more money to be made from selling low-culture; and as long as this is so, it will continue unabated. Even so, it must be said that there are still some fine films, books, artworks being produced; moreover, there are the thousands of years of stored cultural artifacts—the history of ideas, if you will—that is accessible to anyone who has an Internet connection. (There are also libraries, museums, art houses, and the like—at times charging nothing—for those who want to see these up close.)

But it also must be remembered that information is not knowledge and understanding; and this can neither be purchased nor easily and quickly obtained. It takes discussion, engagement, listening and thinking. It takes lots of time and effort. I do not think this is the end of culture, as we know it, but part of another popular movement. (Some will call it a death spiral.)  Where it will lead to is anyone’s guess. There will always be a small minority who will retain interest in ideas that the majority do not care about, often for valid reasons. Such is the way it is.

For more, go to [Irish Times]