Thursday, May 19, 2005

Culture: What Is It (Good For)?

In dealing with questions of identity and culture as I do in my work, I often bring my mind back from nineteenth century Ireland and wonder about the contours of these notions in our own day. It is indeed easy to ascribe to a Baudrialliardian viewpoint where the image has collapsed reality and we live in a state of hyper-reality where nothing, in a concrete sense, is real. I am trying to come to terms with ideas like this that seem to be so useful. There has to be something more to our "culture," hasn't there?

In the spirit of these questions, here is an excerpt from Todd Gitlin's 1995 book The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars. I think Gitlin presents an interesting perspective, and one that does not leave us totally hopeless:
  • "In recent decades, all kinds of secular commonality ideas have lost much of their cogency and power. The Enlightenment belief in progress rooted in the onward march of reason seems reserved for scientists or students of society who fancy themselves scientists; it is not a popular faith. The liberalism of individual rights is under fire for cultivating systematic irresponsibility and failing to offer a sense of community. The secularist, cosmopolitan young who wish to feel part of a global community turn to the disposable imagery of popular culture...that seem to inhabit a world without locality and speak some primitive language without depth. The weightless, spurious universalism of commercial culture, the thrill of new technologies for wiring together the world, the all-consuming blackness of Generation X-such attachments and detachments are alluring substitutes for deep belief in the whole human project. The consumerist utopia of the Mall Without Borders offers endless enticements, but hopes only to heighten the pleasures of the ephemeral. It offers no commonality but the lightest, no vision of the future but more fun. There are pleasures and addictions and evanescent communities galore to be found under the big tent of popular culture, but what there is not is a sense of common citizenship. Instead, people seek solidarity among those who resemble themselves (1)."

Much to think about there. While I resent the generalizations about "Generation X," of which I assume I am a part, I realize his trepidation with culture and its meaning today. Who are the arbiters of culture? Who should they be? As I have argued before, we need to be the makers of our culture, forming it to our specificiations. It cannot be derivative or it becomes vapid and meaningless. We must fight the hard fights for truth and understanding. We need to look at the hard issues, deal with the difficult problems that face us literally and otherwise on a daily basis.

What happens if we don't. I don't think I have to spell it out. Look around you and you can see the grip loosening every day.


1. Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Owl Books, 1995) , 86-87.

1 comment:

Aaron Cynic said...

I think you've got quite a few good ideas here, and they're worth expanding infinately. One of the problems with culture, especially American culture is the fascination with youth, and what is defined as "youth culture."

There is a vibrant and positive culture of youth, but MTV, advertisers, and corporations would have you believe that it lies in the products they sell, and in capitalism. Since our society is so youth obsessed, we become obsessed with the materialism that this particular cultural phenomenon has produced. We don't however notice the larger philosophical and sociological things that are happening. Sadly enough, truth and understanding currently reside in who has the most buying power. That needs to change.

I think we should write a paper or a zine about it. You in?