The Culture of Spectacle

Life will go on.  Machines will grow smarter, human beings gradually dumber.  Round the world the vast majority might possibly feel that something grand is missing, though they shan’t have a clue to what it might be–Joseph Epstein

Recently, I took issue with Mr. Epstein’s lament in The Weekly Standard over the shrinking “elite” whose self-imposed obligation it was to define “high culture” for the rest of us, and defend it from the plebes.  The diminution of any segment of the overseer class seemed like good news to me.  However, his description of the current state of Western culture, the “culture of spectacle,” is both insightful and very, very sad.

Epstein makes several references to a recent collection of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the few “international literary figures still at work.”  Vargas Llosa contends that in the culture of the spectacle “frivolity, superficiality, ignorance. gossip, and bad taste” dominate.  It “has no interest in ideas.”  It renders serious art and intellect “as remote and eccentric as the medieval scholastic debates over angels or the alchemists’ tracts on the philosophers’ stone seem to us.”

Set aside the acid commentary regarding the arbiters of today’s culture (“a world ‘divided between functional illiterates and ignorant and insensitive specialists,’ and ‘[s]tupidity has become the ruling value of postmodern life,'” quoting Vargas Llosa)–Epstein’s view of what we’ve become is hard to deny:  “Against the current notion of dumbing down, the curtailing of bold intellectual and artistic investigation through political correctness, high culture had been all that remained to smarten us up . . . But now high culture, once thought to be not the shortest but the surest way to the good life, is no longer the main quest in artistic or intellectual life, having been not so much defeated as replaced by noise, nervous energy, sheer distraction.”

His notions regarding the current state of “literature” are particularly distressing.  We no longer produce serious literature, he says, because “[t]he concentration that reading serious literature requires is no longer there (emphasis mine).”  Again quoting Vargas Llosa:  “For the culture in which we live does not favor, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers.”  He cites an anecdote about James Joyce who supposedly claimed that a reader should be willing to invest seven years in Ulysses since it took him seven years to write it.

Early in his essay, Epstein posits that “[t]he history of culture is one of highs and lows, mountains and gulleys . . . Today, people in a position to know would argue, we are in a deep cultural gulley.”  I’m afraid he’s right.

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