‘End-of-civilization’ theories always interest me, because they mark a recognition that a culture is in the midst of profound changes.
At the suggestion at the blog, Plato’s Footnote, I read an article by Mark Judge, in review of a book by Mario Vargas Llosa: ‘Star Wars’ and the End of Culture ( http://acculturated.com/stars-wars-culture/ ), which complains that the current infatuation with spectacular movies, threatens our ability to value the cultural artifacts of the past.
I have no interest in Star Wars *. So as to Judge/Vargas Llosa – well, we’ve been hearing similar critiques for more than a century – and surprisingly, taken on their own terms, they are all true. However they all share similar problems. First, their definition of ‘culture’ is obviously very narrow and class-dependent. It is true that the culture of the Bourgeoisie and of the Aristocracy that preceded them is intellectually more stimulating and more complex, and emotionally more enticing and more rewarding than the culture Modernity produced for the person on the street. But accessing that ‘higher’ culture requires education, patience, and desire for the good it provides. The greater number of people simply don’t have time for this – but they have cultural needs for stimulation and satisfaction that cannot be denied. One might criticize the avaricious nature of those who cater to those needs, or the cynicism implicit in many of their products. But it is narrow minded to claim that no one should do anything to cater to those needs.
This opens out into another problem with end-of-civilization theorizing. Despite that such theories are arguments concerning history, their narrow understanding of culture leads to a impoverished, blinkered view of how history, especially cultural history, unravels. for one thing, cultural artifacts are very dependent on the technology used to produce them -Joyce’s Ulysses, as cultural artifact, is more dependent on the printing press than on Joyce’s pen. This also means that certain artifacts can become outdated, or even disappear, as technology changes. Collectors, scholars, and museums do what they can to use current technology to preserve artifacts left over from previous technologies – but they cannot recapture the cultural gestalts that gave originally gave these artifacts meaning. We can certainly read War and Peace on Kindle, perhaps even in Russian; but while the text still resonates for those with the proper education, we have only a general sense of its impact in Russia when first published. I’ll try to explain this in terms of an art I have been interested in since a kid.
I have always loved films and was long fascinated with film history. This has led me to confront some difficult problems. First, the physical medium is actually quite fragile. One can find lists of ‘lost films’ on the internet, but these lists are actually incomplete, because they depend on traceable documentation that is itself incomplete.
Second, films rely heavily on the set of conventions expected from them, and thus on the cultural codes surrounding them, because, unlike literature, they cannot be re-imagined by the audience. A studio could produce a ‘remake’ of Chaplin’s Gold Rush, but this would not really be a remake, but a variant re-telling of the same story. (And yes, that means there is no such thing as a ‘remake,’ that word is a used as a publicity ploy.)
Because of this, in order to learn film history, one has to develop a considerable tolerance for allowing cultural codes of the past, even those no longer interesting, or even offensive. The most notorious example of this, controversial even when released, is Birth of a Nation. For me, the realization of the full implication of this came while watching A Bill of Divorcement, the drama of which depends partly on the decision by Katherine Hepburn’s character, not to marry, based on then contemporary eugenics theories (due to her father, she has ‘bad genes’ and must avoid reproduction!). Recognizing the artificial nonsense of this premise made me see the whole film in a different way. I realized the camerawork was static, the dialog stilted, the characters over-drawn, and much of the acting overdone – all of which were quite acceptable conventions for audiences in 1932.
Now, one can say that these are simply criticisms of films of any era, even one’s own. But what this meant to me was that I was losing the capacity for suspending such critical judgment for the sake of losing myself enjoyably in films from the past. Shortly after, a whole host of silent-era and early sound-era films became unwatchable for me. I still cherish a handful, that can still be regarded as well made, with characters we still relate to – especially comedies. But a lot of films I had previously enjoyed have become tiresome efforts to get through cultural icons I could no longer enjoy, for which I no longer have time.
I do think they have value; film history is important, especially for those who would understand the changes that have produced the movie conventions of our own day. But I have come to understand the lack of interest that young people have for films of the past. It’s not just the absence of color or of spoken dialog or of CGI. The old films belong to cultures they do not inhabit.
So this is understandable, and a trend not worth bemoaning. It’s simply in the nature of culture change over generations, and in the nature of us to change with it.
But there is a trend I would like to complain of here – the loss of articulation. In a culture that is healthy – that is, interesting, involving, participatory – cultural artifacts are not simply produced to be ‘consumed’ – that is, sat through uncomplainingly, experienced without challenge, absorbed without question. In a healthy culture, people living in it participate in cultural production by developing a means of articulating what there is in their culture that they like or do not like; of discerning and discriminating between levels of value and differences in kinds and qualities of satisfaction. This is the origin of the language of criticism and review, of discussions of aesthetic taste, and of the agreement in a given culture concerning which artifacts are to be most valued, disseminated, and preserved.
But what I hear and read from young people today, indicates a loss of this necessary articulation. The critically rich language of value seems now replaced with impoverished exclamations of sense stimulation. ‘Awesome!’ – ‘epic!’ – ‘too many feels!’ Young people seem less and less able to articulate their responses to their cultural enjoyments. If so, they are losing the ability to participate in the production of these enjoyments; they become as sheep feeding at the trough of slop poured to them by greedy entrepreneurs with no sense of artistic integrity, and no interest in quality, since all they need to do is tweak the right nerves in their audiences to free them of their wealth.
That, I think, is the real problem here: not the “end of culture,” but the transformation of contemporary culture into a market of inarticulate consumers and mean-spirited producers. That doesn’t mean culture ‘ends,’ but it does mean that young people will be living with the culture they have without knowing the kinds of enjoyment, the stimulations and satisfactions, of full participatory co-production and articulation. They can get as much ‘wow!’ as they can afford (they’ll always have to pay), but they won’t know what it means to belong to a culture they helped produce.
* A side-bar remark on The Force Awakens – its phenomenal success may prove an utter disaster for Hollywood in the long run. Studios will now be competing to produce ‘blockbuster’ films costing literally a billion dollars each, and will be expecting two billion in return for each investment – the market is not really rich enough for that. (Perhaps that will lead to a proliferation of more interesting modestly-budgeted films that are not so effects laden – but I doubt it.)