on notes on the death of culture

The spectacle is the effective dictatorship of illusion in modern society. – Guy Debord

Mario Vargas Llosaa’s Notes on the Death of Culture is a depressing read. It’s depressing because, agree or disagree with the mostly conservative Vargas Llosa, much of what he says is hard to argue with. Here are a couple of examples:

·         Distraction is the driving force of a society plagued by freedom and our desire to flee from it. We seek above all else to be distracted.

·         Much of what we call culture today is primarily defined by its ‘primary and transitory nature’ that “dulls our sensibilities and intelligence” (If this assertion is a bit harder to wrap your head around, I enjoy this quote from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle Volume 2. He is describing how he and his wife Linda often choose to watch the same mindless films or television for entertainment {sound familiar?}, and how stark a contrast truly great films inspired: “It was idiotic because this life gave us nothing, it only made time pass. If we saw a good film it stirred us and set things in motion, for that is how it is, the world is always the same, it is the way we view it that changes.” The idea is akin to any number of philosophers {I see you Aristotle} who argue we are most fully human when exercising our brains {those are my own words.})

I think a great deal of people would have difficulty arguing that our culture doesn’t at least seem less intelligent than it once was (although pining for the good old days is perhaps the least viable thing to do in 2017). And that’s the problem right? We can’t make an acceptable argument for why yesterday might truly have been better, why we might want to conserve some of the past, without being accused of arguing in favor of some cultural practice we have since exposed as unethical or in other ways egregiously wrong.

Vargas Llosa makes an argument that the difficulty we have defending any aspect of culture as good or better or more worthy is due in part to the un-foreseen consequences of the deconstructionist social movements ie., feminist theory, race theory, post colonialism, poststructuralism, et al mostly inspired by Adorno, Horkheimer, and all of our German critical theory friends with another nod to Foucault. It’s also due in part to our failure to develop any reasonable response or solution to the seemingly unstoppable dominance of capitalism and free market economics (no real help was offered here by our German critical theory friends unfortunately.)

If the book is troubling, it’s because even Vargas Llosa acknowledges the necessity (and importance) of anthropologists’ work to bring respect and value to previously ignored cultures, to equalize, if you will. He acknowledges the role contemporary, radical art has played (or can play) in subverting the system in order to de-stratify the means and methods of cultural production. And he applauds the life-saving and life-amplifying results of modern science (a good chunk of the book is spent speaking of the ways in which science has become a part of our generally undefined ‘culture’ in the 20th/21st centuries. Good or bad? You decide.)

But he also points out, persuasively, the flip-side of the progressive movements of the last 50 years; the essential equivalence, now, of expert and amateur, of challenge and comfort (you do you), and describes a world in which, because of our total faith in progress, we cannot even condemn the hoarding and continued creation of machinery capable of global destruction.  

Even progressives are beginning to see the bind that we’ve placed ourselves in as literacy rates decline in even an educated country such as the United States and this most recent election has made it all too clear the difficulty even the college-educated have in deciphering fact from fiction in an age in which all information is presented as equal.

I guess the question I’m more interested in, is not what the solution is, but if there is a solution at all?