Last week I posted something lamenting the fragmentation of our culture in postmodernity, but trying also to identify some good things about it. Excerpt:
When I think about how relatively monotonous the culture of pop music was in the 1970s, when so much was driven by radio play, I think kids today must be living in a kind of paradise.
That goes for TV too. And, thanks to Amazon.com and similar retailers, books as well. A Catholic priest friend gets tired of Catholic laymen bellyaching about how the local parish is not teaching the faith adequately. He keeps pointing out that any Catholic with a credit card and Internet access has open to him the possibility of putting together a library of Catholic theology, philosophy and literature that Aquinas could only have dreamed of in his time. This is a great blessing of our time.
That said, culture is more fundamental to a people’s sense of itself than politics. It’s interesting to think about what the spectacular diversity of choice a cultural consumer has in this society does to forming one’s sense of belonging, and solidarity with others. That many more Americans watched the same TV shows, listened to the same music, got our news from the same sources, in the past did create a sense of blandness and monotony that is not to be missed; but it also created a sense of belonging and shared experience that is to be missed, I think. How do you unify a nation or a people when their cultural experiences and passions diverge so greatly? Is the diminishment of the possibility of unity something to be mourned, or celebrated? Why or why not?
My friend Ken Myers, the host and producer of the indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal — if you like this blog, you will love MHAJ, which is what this blog would be if I were an actual intellectual instead of a got-up wiseacre who reads widely — e-mailed a dissent from my silver-lining-finding. He wrote, “I think postculturalism (or autoculturalism), whatever goods it might offer, is a really bad thing.” And Ken included as an attachment a recent lecture he delivered about arts education in the current era. I’m not going to quote extensively from it, because the lecture is going to be published in a forthcoming book. But I have to give you a taste.
Ken begins by talking about how important it is to cultivate tradition in the arts — tradition, not as stiff, rote formalism, but a living thing, handed on in a culture from generation to generation, with each one adding something to it. That has been broken in the arts of Western culture. Myers:
[O]ne of the assumptions that I think stands in opposition to sound arts education is the disposition to imagine ourselves as consumers. Not disciples, not heirs, not apprentices, not recipients. Consumers. That class of people who, when labeled customers, are said to be always right.
The consumer worldview perceives the world as raw material, not a sacred trust requiring
sacrificial stewardship. The consumer worldview regards culture as a series of autonomously
selected commodities, not a valuable inheritance. The consumer worldview is an orientation
toward Creation and toward culture that promotes the modern ideal of the sovereign self.
This, Myers argues, is the natural (if ersatz) progression of the Enlightenment’s ideal of the sovereign self. He goes on to discuss sociologist Christian Smith’s recent book about the spirituality of adults in their 20s (“emerging adults”), and how it is shaped by the bedrock principle that the only authority worth following is the autonomous choosing self. Smith, says Myers, writes that in his team’s research, they found that their subjects had no objection at all to any aspect of consumerist materialism. Myers, quoting Smith:
As far as they were concerned–almost every single emerging adult interviewed–shopping falls on a spectrum of enjoyment between being simply uninteresting to being a major source of happiness, and there is little to no problem with the amount of material stuff everybody owns. . . . The idea of having any questions or doubts about the cycle of shopping, buying, consuming, accumulating discarding, and shopping appeared to be unthinkable to them.
This attitude toward the shopping mall has moral and metaphysical implications. Here’s Smith again, below the jump — and let me say that what follows is pretty jaw-dropping:
The majority of emerging adults . . . have great difficulty grasping the idea that a
reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction of it may exist that could
have a significant bearing on their lives. In philosophical terms, most emerging adults
functionally (meaning how they actually think and act, regardless of the theories they
hold) are soft ontological antirealists and epistemological skeptics and perspectivalists–
although few have any conscious idea what those terms mean. They seem to presuppose
that they are simply imprisoned in their own subjective selves, limited to their biased
interpretations of their own sense perceptions, unable to know the real truth of anything
beyond themselves. They are de facto doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared
reality might exist across and around people that can serve as a reliable reference point
for rational deliberation and argument. So, for example, when we interviewers tried to
get respondents to talk about whether what they take to be substantive moral beliefs
reflect some objective or universal quality or standard are simply relative human
inventions, many–if not most–could not understand what we interviewers were trying
to get at. They had difficulty seeing the possible distinction between, in this case,
objective moral truth and relative human invention. This is not because they are dumb.
It seems to be because they cannot, for whatever reason, believe in–or sometimes even
conceive of–a given, objective truth, fact, reality, or nature of the world that is
independent of their subjective self-experience and that in relation to which they and
others might learn or be persuaded to change. Although none would put it in exactly this
way, what emerging adults take to be reality ultimately seems to consist of a multitude of
subjective but ultimately autonomous experiences. People are thus trying to
communicate with each other in order to simply be able to get along and enjoy life as
they see fit. Beyond that, anything truly objectively shared or common or real seems
impossible to access.
That’s sociologist Christian Smith, on the spirituality of “emerging adults” in America. Myers goes on to conclude in this section of his lecture:
The myth of the sovereign individual–who engages the world as an unimpeachable
consumer–unites the spheres of morality, metaphysics, politics, and aesthetics. My hunch is that children who grow up in unconventional subcultures–children who know that their imaginations need to be trained, that there is an order of beauty in the cosmos that they need to learn to perceive and according to which their affections might be properly aligned–might be less repulsed by ideas of duty or obligation and less perplexed by the concept of an objective moral order. Awareness that there is a tradition, a canon (however open and revisable), a body of honored artifacts that orient our imaginations well is the way that people first become aware of larger cosmic order. Marion Montgomery has said that “Education is the preparing of the mind for the presence of our common inheritance, the accumulated and accumulating knowledge of the truth of things.” A good education isn’t just the acquisition of sound abstractions; it is the inauguration into a community that has been wrestling with reality, and the assumption of the obligation to acquire its inheritance with the obligation of preserving and improving it.
There’s much more to this lecture, but I’ll leave it right there. I have what I fear is a rather feeble response to Ken’s point, but I think it’s the only hopeful response possible in this culture at this point in its history. At least it’s the only one I can think of.
Ken is right, and so is Alan Bloom, whom he quotes in the lecture: the tradition has been severed by modernity. This isn’t true for everyone — it isn’t for Ken, who gives a dramatic example of how the tradition of Western classical music was passed down to him in an unbroken line from Bach — but I think it’s true for the overwhelming majority of us. At some point, the decision to break the silver cord with the past was made for us, before we were born. This is not only true of music and the arts, but of architecture, cooking, and many other aspects of culture. This is the meaning of Modernity. Postmodernity entails … well, postmodernism is a complicated thing, and lots of impenetrable b.s. is written about it, but it generally entails the idea that there’s no ultimate meaning in anything other than what the choosing person imputes to it, and that therefore we are free to mix-and-match any number of styles, ideas, and what have you, according to our own creative whims. This is why postmodern architecture can self-consciously “quote” design features from much older and styles; this is not a flaw, but a feature.
The cultural catastrophe Ken Myers laments is that the children of postmodernism no longer have any felt connection to tradition. It’s all the same to them. Bach, Bob Dylan, Britney Spears — it’s all the same to them, according to the individual’s taste. There is no objective value, no reason for anyone to work hard to connect with anything beyond the limits of their own pleasure. For a cultural traditionalist, no matter which culture he comes from (i.e., one can be a folk music traditionalist), the real cataclysm is not rebellion against tradition, because it is only through limited rebellion that any living tradition develops, and keeps from decaying into stasis; no, the real cataclysm is indifference to the idea of tradition. Even the conscious rebel knows what he is rebelling against. But if his rebellion is total, his children, and his children’s children, will be lost to the tradition, and to the culture.
This is where we are now: cultural chaos. In the bits of his lecture I’ve quoted here, you see why Ken believes the breaking of tradition in music was simply one aspect of a much more profound cultural catastrophe. I think he’s right.
But here’s why I have hope. Because the means of transmission of cultural values and knowledge has so fragmented now, we are able to access that which our parents, and even our grandparents, generation denied us by rejecting it. I don’t know classical music, but I do know something about food. The industrialization of American food production was a modernist act. Traditional cultural knowledge, in all its regional and ethnic diversity, was marginalized and in many cases lost outright. But now it’s coming back, in large part because the great fragmentation of the mass media made it possible for voices of protest and traditional renewal to get the word out, and to pass knowledge on to others interested in learning these traditions.
Similarly, in religion, it is now possible for rebels against the washed-out, wan pop religion that emerged out of the Sixties and Seventies to find each other, to organize, and to help each other refound traditions that were violently cast aside by the last of the Modernists. Think of that scene from that Denys Arcand film “The Decline of the American Empire” (or was it the follow-up, “The Barbarian Invasions”?) in which a character goes into a storage room at a church, and finds it filled with religious statues ripped by the Church from parishes after the Sixties. Well, today people who do not wish to have their traditions murdered have the possibility of Restoration, in some sense, in a way that wasn’t feasible 30, 40 years ago. This is in part the gift of communications technology, the Internet most especially, which makes the spreading of ideas and knowledge possible in a radical way, and even in conventional ways (e.g., Amazon.com being a resource for buying books that not long ago would have been very hard to find, if you could find them at all).
If you were me, growing up in my small town, it would have been very difficult to have educated yourself in classical music. There was no record store. There were very few if any performances. You had to have parents or grandparents with serious record collections, and a passion for the stuff. Today, though, if you live there, it’s still not easy, I would imagine, but far, far easier than it used to be. Again, this is because of the Internet, and because it’s not as weird for a kid to be interested in classical music as it was when I was a boy 30 years ago. The culture has fragmented, but it’s also easier to reach back in time and claim what was discarded.
The point I’m making (badly, I fear) is that yes, we do live in an era of cultural catastrophe, with the fragments of our shattered traditions all around us. This is the world into which we’ve been thrown. The good thing is that for those who have the creativity and the will, it is increasingly possible to live out in miniature a “Benedict Option” of one’s own, and reclaim, or attempt to reclaim, what was lost. We are condemned to be free to choose. But for those who wish to reacquaint themselves with the tradition that previous generations rejected, we are free to choose it in ways that we were not before. And that’s good.
The obvious objection to all this is: the moment you choose a tradition, it is no longer a tradition; what makes a tradition binding is the awareness that one doesn’t choose it, one submits to the prior claim it has on one’s loyalty. The moment you become aware that you have chosen tradition, its power over you, and therefore its power to sustain itself in time, weakens. This is what Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” is about, in part. To that, all I can muster is: What else is there to be done? We have to do the best we can in the conditions we’ve been born into. I very much share Ken’s deep concern over the metaphysical and moral consequences of the shattering of tradition and cultural authority. That said, I believe that resistance and even, in the future, restoration is far more likely now than it appeared to routed traditionalists 40 years ago. This is the paradox of libertarianism for traddies: in the postmodern era, the very culturally libertarian ideas that helped destroy the cultural hierarchies that sustained us may be the only possible construct that makes it possible for traditionalists and their communities to organize and sustain themselves.
You have thoughts. Let’s hear them.