Notes on the death of culture (Mario Vargas Llosa)

Mario Vargas Llosa reviews, in the overture to this work, four influential essays on the traumatic descent into death of culture, as he says, in the meaning traditionally ascribed to that term. 

First, he reviews T.S. Eliot’s Notes towards a definition of culture (1948), in which Eliot anticipates today’s burning archive: “I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.”

Then, he distances himself from George Steiner’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1971), a late reply to Eliot, haunted by the complicity of high culture with the holocaust. Steiner spoke uncertainly of the loss of the culture of the word, so personally precious to him, but now fading before the image, pop music, number and science. Steiner: “Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist.” Now the keeper and his archive burn.

Third, Guy Debord, The society of the Spectacle (1967), provides propositions that MVL incorporates into his own, and indeed the subtitle of his book, essays on spectacle and society. MVL judges Proposition 47 prescient: “the real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions.”

Fourth, two contemporary reflections on the emergence of a global democratic, market consumer or pop culture, and these provide counterpoint to MVL’s final judgement. Lipovetsky’s and Serroy’s Culture-World: response to a disoriented world and Frederic Martel’s Mainstream (2010). These works celebrate the creative industries – a ghastly term of culture bureaucrats that MVL rightly leaves in quotation marks – dedicated above all to mass production and commercial market success. But MVL does not.

While these latter authors celebrate with post-modern brio this commercial transvaluation of all values, MVL returns to and reasserts Eliot’s prophecy as a fact of today’s life.

The great majority of humanity does not engage with, produce or appreciate any form of culture other than what used to be considered by cultured people, disparagingly, as mere popular pastimes, with no links to the intellectual, artistic and literary activities that were once at the heart of culture. This former culture is now dead, although it survives in small social enclaves, without any influence on the mainstream. The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn. ( p. 20)

This death of culture creates a great trauma among the few isolated and devoted souls who keep their archives, write their sonnets, and study the word. It is a trauma that can only be healed by writing to defy death, through entering into Blanchot’s infinite conversation.

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