08 November, 2014

Casualties of Culture

The Fourth of July is ever the holiday of those simultaneous inventions, gunpowder and printer's ink. For Americans, it is the day of celebration of the colonies emerging from under royal authority as a nation ruled by its people: a democracy. Across the pond, the day goes by without cultural significance for the British descendants whose ancestors were fighting one of many rebellions which the Empire saw intensify each subsequent century from the 17th, on. For most of my generation, it's gaudy flag prints on t-shirts and ripped jean shorts, beer in the cooler, beef on the grill and bags full of controlled or barely controlled instruments of color and destruction raining smoking debris down on friends and family.

A cold autumnal wind has now thoroughly ended my memories of a summer now passed in New York as to the north of us in Concord, Mass. the "shot heard 'round the world" is ringing no more in the ears of our revolutionary ancestors. And what of fall celebrations? Halloween is over, so I'm sick of sugar for a little while, and Christmas decorations are up at work, skipping over the harvest of Thanksgiving. As we are smacked with the grit of miniature shells of media explosions crackling along the ridges of our attention from screens and newsprint, the meaning of days set aside for cultural observances are moot. One forgets to look further into the absence before the next lovely distraction, the next brilliant explosion captures our attention - an Attention tattered and wholly abused, as that flag of Fort McHenry which Francis Scott Key saw from the HMS Tonnant - remember?


"Culture wars," a phrase I first saw along the stacks of a large and independent bookstore, a very liberal bookstore, was such a distracting explosion to my senses. Not a "war on culture," which would be too literal, but culture wars - battles featured in every stacked book, many of them new titles written and published in our very new but already worn out century. The battles are fought in the nebulous space that hosts the raging of our minds and want to know the Cause! Or bolster our confidence that we're on the right side of it all. A cultural battle is usually fought over a virtue we are defending or a vice we're upending as a society. And as in actual combat, both sides suffer losses.

T.S. Eliot's 1948 book, and subsequent 1962 edition, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture was published on the heels of the Second World War, a very fleshy conflict, but already taking the leap to distance one from witnessing the inhumane at firsthand by a drop of the utmost destruction from the old Enola Gay. Eliot's series of lectures attempt to define the difference between the senses of a culture, which are threefold: individual, group (or class) and whole society, as well as provides an exploration of regionalism in the history and modern creative facility of the European nations in the mid-20th century. Primary concern is over the transcendent quality of all the different senses of culture: culture, no matter at what level, is a particular, "evolutionary fruition, a structure elegantly expressed with literature and the arts," rather than having biological form. These structures are nonetheless living and require defending and protecting as civilization changes. They are organic jewels from elder ages and new changes may chance the disfigurement of their faces.

I read this book alongside George Steiner's T.S. Eliot Lectures from 1971 that were entitled (somewhat) affectionately, In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture. By chance I happened to have alongside these two "chatty Kathys," as my mother does joke, a piece of mostly late-20th century literary criticism with some personal essay by the writer Sven Birkerts called The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age"(READ: Digital), 1996. It was a 2006 edition with new foreword and afterword and I waded through the molasses-quality first half to get to the second half and its afterword in preparation of his personal/historical hindsight. I'll return to this later.

All 3 of these books are concerned with the probable (or evident by example) degradation of the cultural fabric of Euro-American society during the mid-to-late 20th century. By their estimation, the activity of reading (Birkerts), the transmission of culture (Eliot) and the beginning of a post-cultural phase (Steiner) are all due to a shift in values. Tracing a chronological trajectory, the values which were to become unacceptable to the Sixties generation were already values which had lost their intrinsic meaning at the turn of the century, thereby allowing for the vacuum to be filled by the subjective (and by elimination, only true) value of society: the liberated, modern, democratic, self-interested individual.

In Birkerts, this loss of intrinsic value is due to the rise of technology; in Eliot it is because of the advance of secularization i.e. loss of eschatological meaning/ontological bearing, and the loss of traditional education; in Steiner it is a mixture of the two with a few more culprits to boot - the atomic bomb, the conflation of Humanism with humane social conduct, the breakdown of economic stability, etc.


I followed the ley lines commonly walked by these writers and found myself often with uneasy footing alongside steep cliffs. Eliot refrains from even defining culture. At most he says it is not what we call education or class or religion, defining it by negation, or by the conception of culture as an inheritance of accumulated past riches. Birkerts puts all of his argument behind the intractable experience of reading and what gets in the way of the process (the screen) pokes holes in our understanding this cultural fabric. Steiner seems to be the most well-spoken, with this to say:

What is central to a true culture is a certain view of the relations between time and individual death. The thrust of will which engenders art and disinterested thought, the engaged response which alone can ensure its transmission to other human beings, to the future, are rooted in a gamble on transcendence.

One more source of this conversation on culture is relevant to the question of the loss of value in modernity, and it comes from the late Guy Davenport's "The Geography of the Imagination" (1981):

The imagination, like all things in time, is metamorphic. It is also rooted in a ground, a geography. The Latin word for the sacredness of a place is cultus, the dwelling of a god, the place where a rite is valid. Cultus becomes our word culture, not in the portentous sense it has now, but in a much humbler sense. For ancient people the sacred was the vernacular ordinariness of things.

To this telegram delivery man, it seems that "the thrust of will" for Steiner is the very activity carried out by Davenport's "imagination." Whereas the immanence of a thing in Davenport's measure of the Ancient Greeks was its sacredness, for Steiner (and his intellectual forbearer Eliot) the chance that we take on there being something worth transmitting to future generations is a matter of preserving the center, transcendence, which reconciles or at least keeps in communion the human value of both death and time. There is risk in this, personal hazard - what shall we not do for the preservation of this value? - but whether value is imminent or transcendent, we culminate the rite of it only in one space: Culture. The warp and woof of which all of these writers have as their concern - to keep its integrity alive. This is done through the activity of the imagination and it is a sacred rite performed by the artist, as Orpheus did so with his lyre.


The Fourth of July: A holiday we celebrate, as the younger generations of my country celebrate, in remembrance of the delight in bright, burning objects which we also saw when we were even younger. Not an observance but a great time to day drink. Commiseration over the terrible terror-state we now live in while we rarely wonder what it would be like to sacrifice the treasure of our individuality (whatever that really is) so that a generation or two from us can be free from horrors that would pale in comparison to current injustices. Eliot: culture is an "evolutionary fruition, a structure elegantly expressed with literature and the arts." Elegance? Perhaps those very motions that people used to perform as a rite in order to gives thanks to the origins of their present conditions.

The casualties of culture are the disappearance of these practices and traditions which provided the means by which to perform these rites that are now altered for the convenient "update" or rendered "obsolete." The cause? Either ignorant termination while laying down the pavement of progress or by refusal in aversion - because we do not personally, as individuals - align ourselves with men or women of the past (but mostly men) who thought or felt "that way." We can move beyond them and never look back again. This is our vista, and who knows how it was raised? You know, evolution.

In the phrase "nothing's sacred" - which actually comes from the old adage of admonishment "Is nothing sacred?" - we have what might be identified as the secular dogma. One might broach, but if nothing is sacred, doesn't this fulfill the Ancient Greek "vernacular ordinariness of things" mentioned by Davenport, making everything sacred? And didn't the Greeks gift us that which we value or purport to value above all else in our culture, Democracy? If there is anything to be defended during these culture wars, surely it must be the virtue of Democracy. I'm not so convinced that sacredness is what permeates everything now.

If that were so, there would be devotees in electric temples, for nothing permeates our lives more than electricity and the fields of forces that are produced by its help. Communication, or the opportunity to communicate, is chief of all and positioned by electricity - and yet I find it harder and more difficult to speak to and stay connected with everyone I care to keep close. There is more hindrance than cultus. What's humble about Facebook walls and the blathering of comment sections on news websites? It is most artless and we're fooling ourselves and each other when we try to convince someone of the ingenuity and creativity of the Internet and of current technological interfaces. I rarely encounter what Steiner states as "engaged response" except in chance face-to-face dialogue. There's no sacred space in the neutered vastness of the World Wide Web just as there isn't any inside of the enclosed cables connecting a grid. There's no Internet cultus because there isn't a rite being performed. You type and hit Enter - but you don't go anywhere. Convince me that you engage with and transmit something verifiably precious beyond your own love or hate on the Internet and then we can admit of the existence of dialogue and a culture that values it.

"True Culture"

I haven't even touched the topic of sub-cultures or the schismatic nature of this modern breakdown of values into smaller, subjective truths. There is an eerie fulfillment in Eliot's essays, as he was undoubtedly irked by the predictions of Arnold, Ruskin and/or Morris before him. My reading list keeps increasing on this topic and will likely never keep being added unto. I cannot conclude this article, no matter how hard I try to string the bits together. Though I do remain highly skeptical of "the now," it's not in Luddite fashion because I try to struggle with my relenting to the unrelenting advance of that which we've replaced most of the space where literature and the arts performed the rites that attempted to contextualize time & individual death. What virtues can we have upheld and what vices have we upended if either action done in battle is for a land we can never return to? We'd be worse off than Odysseus.

Sven Birkerts reluctantly submits in his afterword to The Gutenberg Elegies to the incredible efficacy of technology and by the example of his children, the adaptability of coming generations to encountering the wonders of literature and the arts off-the-page. Perhaps they are such rare wonders that my surprise at finding so very much detritus in what is supposed to be havens of culture or representatives of culture is actually the normal state of affairs. I do hope this is so, and I might be forgiving for proscribing any sort of sickness in our post-modern ways or enlarging what is merely a wrinkle. I'll end this with two more quotes from "Bluebeard's" by the inimitable George Steiner to ponder this post:

A culture "lived" is one that draws for continuous, indispensable sustenance on the works of the past, on the truths and beauties achieved in the tradition.

It is the collapse, more or less conscious, of these hierarchized, definitional value gradients (and can there be value without hierarchy?) which is now the major fact of our intellectual and social circumstance. The horizontal "cuts" of the classical order have been made vertical and often indistinct.

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