Defining Cultural Decline
Not too long ago, New Dealer asked me “How are you defining cultural decline?” in the comments to one of my posts about the city in which I live. Since the comments are closed, here goes…
Let’s start by defining culture in the broadest sense as the means by which a society explains itself to its members and gives them a sense of meaning that embeds them within that society. We can talk of a “warrior culture”, a “feudal culture”, the “French culture” and so forth, and we often do. Defining culture in this way, we can include things as diverse as songs, novels, customs, values, myths, and works of art. More vaguely, we can say that cultural products serve a group of people’s psychological/spiritual needs much more concretely than their material needs. Culture has no practical material use. Culture is the record of a society’s mentalité.
So, defining culture in this way, we can speak pretty easily of the livability or “health” of certain cultures. To use the most obvious baseline example, let’s say that the Nazi culture was pathological. Let’s say that the Catholic culture is currently troubled. Finally, let’s say that we can draw comparisons between the health of respective cultures. Certain cultures will thrive and others will die. All will change. Cultures will differ between eras as well. The idea of a national culture is fairly problematic because nations are too diffuse to maintain uniform cultures without state control. Cultures change. While specific cultural norms can become more or less healthy, it is nearly impossible to speak of an overall cultural decline in the Spenglarian sense or overall cultural progress in the arc of justice sense.
Admittedly, therefore, I used the word “decline” ironically because I find unconvincing the idea of cultural change over time in a particularly recognizable direction- a telos of culture. Cultural teleologies derive from Judeo-Christianity and its special sense of history, of a fall and redemption occurring in historical time, but coming from outside time. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of an attempt to translate this idea into a philosophy of history is Hegel’s system, really an ill wind that blew little good. Marx had the right idea in “standing Hegel on his head” by focusing on change in the material conditions of a society. But even there (and let’s admit that this criticism applies little to Kapital) the real problem with Marxist dialectical materialism lie in its claims to “inevitability”- to predictions of the future. But, at least, material decline is something we can quantify.
Cultures tend, instead, to differ. While I find this particular local culture pathological, I would not say it is in a trajectory of increasing pathology, which I suppose puts me at odds with a particular strain of conservatism, or just reaction. However, it also puts me at odds with many progressives who believe in an arc of cultural progress. In order to paint a picture of cultural decline over generations, the reactionary erases all evidence to the contrary, focusing say on the increasing rate of divorce, while the progressive will ignore all evidence to the contrary to show cultural progress, focusing say on the decline of racism. Hence, they fight.
I would call the culture in the milieu where I live dysfunctional. This is not “decadence” in culture, which might be characterized by a highly aestheticised depiction of the unaesthetic, of things that are morally or aesthetically repulsive- what Camille Paglia called the juxtaposition of the highly refined and the primitive, culture circling back upon itself. But this isn’t decadence because the cultural items I encounter are unaesthetic in their presentation. The art tends to be ugly and assaultive and to present themes that are stultifying, banal, and brutalizing. The values expressed tend to be ones of power, violence, and domination, particularly of women. Criminality is often valorized, especially if it involves drugs. There’s a cynical understanding of human relations. And where I live, early divorce and illegitimate children are common. I know more than a few men my age who aspire to government assistance. I’ve learned to identify on sight what drugs people are on and how to deal with them. The culture reinforces much of this. Admittedly, much of this is informed by the ethos of pop culture, but the local culture which I’m referring to is a particular lived practice of that ethos. More specifically, it is the culture of poverty.
This, of course, opens a whole can of political worms and in a subsequent post, I will ask how it is that cultural politics have evolved over the last hundred years or so such that the pathologies associated with poverty that were once so brilliantly dissected by a left-leaning writer and reformer like Émile Zola are now similarly dissected by right-leaning writers like Theodore Dalyrimple and, hopefully, consider the serious blind spots of both the left and right when it comes to these issues. Honestly, I believe cultural problems are far better addressed by artists than politicians. But, before that, I would like to highlight another comment by “Mike” that reminds me of my own turning point in thinking of these issues, which came a few years back when an elderly friend of mine was nearly killed when a group of local kids smashed out his windshield by throwing bricks at passing cars from an overpass for fun. (Then, of course, there was this local news item) Mike writes:
One evening some thugs arrived at corner bar in Belleville, Ont. and proceeded to act like bullies, most likely dressed for the part wearing basketball jerseys and straight brimmed UFC hats, basically children in men’s bodies. Dirtbags. Within a short time they found what they were looking for, a fight with someone that wasn’t going to put up with their shit. Well the guy was certainly outmatched by these wanna be ultimate fighters. THEY BEAT HIM TO DEATH IN A GRAVEL PARKING LOT. A 29 year old father, out for a beer with friends Life is worthless to people like this and they proved it that night. I see guys like this everywhere in this area, angry all the time, no jobs, no desire for one. Video games, Tim Horton’s and beer on cheque day……… is all they live for.
This doesn’t ring 100% true for me, probably since this is a different city, but that ever-present anger so hot it could burn you, lord does that ring true.