viernes, 26 de junio de 2015

When the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat asked the comedian Bill Maher to locate the source of human rights, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘It’s in the laws of common sense.’

Sentimental Nihilism And Popular Culture


If last year’s debates about Britishness demonstrated anything, it’s that a culture cannot be reduced to a checklist of its most popular dishes and landmarks. Society is built, instead, upon the countless habits and rituals of its members, both living and dead. Since collective identity emerges imperceptibly from these everyday experiences, our understanding of ourselves is always rather nebulous and imprecise — like one of those optical illusions that, when one focuses too hard, dissolves back into the page. As each generation passes, we forget something essential — if intangible—about ou rselves. With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.

Throughout history, civilisations have compensated for this loss by stowing their shared memories in communal institutions. But today, for perhaps the first time in history, large chunks of our culture appear indifferent, even hostile, to their own past.

Look, for instance, at the art world. For many centuries, the West’s artistic traditions were held among its most precious assets, for they conveyed — by melody and brushstroke — so many things otherwise inexpressible about who we are. But at the beginning of the 20th century, culture suddenly took a different turn: artists, no longer content simply to loosen the ties and top buttons of convention, stripped themselves completely, doused their clothes in petrol, and set them alight.

Swept by the modernism surging through Europe’s veins, they sought to overturn and recreate everything anew. Declaring their own traditions irrelevant, they butchered them. Schoenberg irrevocably scrambled tonality. Duchamp scribbled a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

The great oaks of Western art were burned to the ground. Today, radical artists are left scouring through the embers, still looking for last traces of life. Their primary target is now the taboo — the unspoken memory of a once-communal system of values. Tracey Emin shows us her unmade bed, strewn with used condoms and bloodied underwear. Damien Hirst suggests that the 9/11 hijackers “need congratulating”. Every last inherited standard — every last comfort — must be torn from us once and for all.

But by trying so hard to wipe its own memory, art comes perilously close to losing its sense of self altogether. Once the shocks no longer shock, what does it stand for? A few generations after the narcotic highs of modernism, the art world has left itself largely brain-dead.

This tragedy acts as a miniature simulation of just how easily — and quickly — cultures can wither away. And it ought to alarm us to see the same pattern emerging right across Western society.

Consider the main philosophical movements of the 20th century. The majority followed the fearsome footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche — the man who killed God and buried good and evil at His side. And though they grappled with his legacy in a variety of ways, they shared, more or less, the same key assumption: that the traditional pursuits of thought — truth, beauty, meaning — were fundamentally misguided. Philosophy, unable to comment on the world, turned instead to — and on — itself. “Having broken its pledge to be at one with reality,” Theodor Adorno wrote, “philosophy is obliged to ruthlessly criticise itself.”

At the same time, positivism — the belief that only empirical or logically deduced data have any real meaning — took hold among many of the West’s intellectual circles. A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell declared that, if we were ever to understand ourselves, it would be by scientific means alone. Cultural memory, which could not be reduced to testable propositions, was made entirely superfluous.

Wherever one looked, the West seemed to be in the midst of a curious experiment: can a civilisation survive on nothing but the impulse to debunk its own presuppositions?

Adorno and his co-author Max Horkheimer tried to tackle this question inDialectic of Enlightenment. A bleak assessment of Western culture, it argued that modernism, nihilism and reductionism were symptoms of the same fundamental malady — the suicide of Enlightenment thinking. Our insatiable appetite for self-criticism, the monstrous alter ego of philosophical scepticism, was finally gnawing at the very foundations on which we stood.

Adorno and Horkheimer thought it unlikely we would survive, and predicted three historical steps that would see us collapse altogether. High culture — including art — would exhaust itself, taking with it any sense of a shared inheritance. Second, we would lapse into infantile solipsism, duped by the immediate gratifications of capitalism — in particular, cinema and popular music. Finally, society — stupefied by such pleasures — would topple at the first serious test of its walls. Adorno and Horkheimer saw a host of surrogate mythologies — most notably, Nazism — poised to flood into the vacuum left behind.

This final point seemed borne out by the events of the 1930s and 1940s. But then, as the war receded into the past, much of the West suddenly found itself reclining into an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. To the baby boomers, Adorno and Horkheimer's stuffy pessimism seemed laughably outmoded. And today, we assume — having never known any different — that this good fortune is simply here to stay. At a time of such global instability — with Putin and Islamism openly challenging our values — we urgently need to reconsider our confidence. Were the last 70 years really the final disproof of Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimism, or did history merely postpone its judgment?

Let us begin with the charge of Western infantilism. Here, at least, Adorno and Horkheimer seem to have been rather prescient. The West is — for all its wealth today — far more childish than even they anticipated. This can be traced — I believe — to the reductionist narratives we adopted as our mantras during the last century.

Think about the social implications of Ayer’s philosophy, emotivism. According to Ayer, moral and aesthetic statements express nothing but the crudest of personal feelings — when I say “Theft is wrong,” all I really mean is “I don’t like theft.” That’s it. Arguments about the thorniest of ethical dilemmas or the most sublime of artworks are reduced to the level of a toddler’s tantrum. The evolutionary psychologists go even further: we’re not just children, they say; we’re animals. According to Richard Dawkins, “Our animal origins are constantly lurking behind, even if they are filtered through complicated social evolution.” Culture is just a long-winded mating game that, somewhere along the line, seems to have got a bit out of hand.

These are not niche ideas any more. Advertisements humorously depict us as bumbling primates, perhaps stumbling upon coffee or a microwave for the first time. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” Such writers give us absolutely no reason to cultivate virtue, no reason to refine our judgments, and every reason to ignore the past and dispense with our responsibilities.

Which, given the easy ride we’re getting, suits us just fine. We seek to make society blinkered, mindless and immature. Look at the way today’s businesses choose to market themselves. They invent names that imitate the nonsense words of babies: Zoopla, Giffgaff, Google, Trivago. They deliberately botch grammar in their slogans to sound naïve and cutesy: “Find your happy”, “Be differenter”, “The joy of done”. They make their advertisements and logos twee and ironic — a twirly moustache here, a talking dog there — just to show how carefree and fun they are.

Those in our society who actually still have children have them later and in smaller numbers than ever. Many simply choose to forego the responsibilities of parenthood altogether. Marriage is an optional extra — one from which we can opt out at any point, regardless of the consequences for the children.


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