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Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa (2015-08-11) Hardcover – 1762
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“What do we mean by the civilization of the spectacle? The civilization of a world in which pride of place, in terms of scale of values, is given to entertainment, and where having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion. To have this goal in life is perfectly legitimate, of course…. But converting this natural propensity for enjoying oneself into a supreme value has unexpected consequences: it leads to a culture becoming banal, frivolity becoming widespread and, in the field of news coverage, it leads to the spread of irresponsible journalism based on gossip and scandal….systematically and imperceptibly, not being bored, avoiding anything that might be disturbing, worrying or distressing, became for increasing number both at the pinnacle and at the base of the social pyramid, a generational mandate..”
“Stupidity has become the ruling value of postmodern life, and politics is one of its main victims.”
While not a believer, Llosa values religious education as essential for understanding our cultural inheritance.
“To ban entirely all forms of religious education in state schools would be to bring up the new generations with a deficient culture and deprive them of basic tools to understanding their history, their tradition, and enjoy the art, literature and thought of the West. Western culture is imbued with religious ideas, beliefs, images, festivities and customs. To cut out this rich inheritance from the education of the new generations would be to deliver them, bound hand and foot, to the civilization of the spectacle, to frivolity, superficiality, ignorance, gossip and bad taste. A non-sectarian, objective and responsible education, which explains the hegemonic role of Christianity in the creation and evolution of the culture of the West, with all its divisions and secessions, its wars, its historical impact, its achievements, its excesses, its saints, its mystics, its martyrs, and the ways in which all this has had an influence, both good and bad, on history, philosophy, architecture, art and literature, is indispensable if we want to avoid culture degenerating at the rate it is doing and having the world in the future divided between functional illiterates and ignorant and insensitive specialists.”
His final thoughts include the following.
“Never before have we lived in an age so rich in scientific knowledge and technological discoveries; never have we been better equipped to defeat illness, ignorance and poverty, and yet perhaps we have never been so confused about certain basic questions such as what we are doing on this lightless planet of ours, if mere survival is the sole aim that justifies life, if concepts such as spirit, ideals, pleasure, love, solidarity, art, creation, beauty, soul, transcendence still have meaning and, if so, what these meanings might be. The raison d’être of culture was to give an answer to these questions. Today it is exonerated from such responsibility, since we have turned it into something much more superficial and voluble: a form of entertainment or an esoteric and obscurantist game for self-regarding academics and intellectuals who turn their backs on society.”
This is book that would bring a group alive with discussion of current issues.
Seems to imply that the invisible course of life - time - has lost any way of measurement or structure.
''All the great liberal thinkers, from John Stuart Mill to Karl Popper, including Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Isaiah Berlin and Milton Friedman, argued that economic and political freedom achieved its full civilizing function, creating wealth and employment, defending individual sovereignty, the rule of law and human rights, only when the spiritual life of a society was intense and fostered a hierarchy of values respected and adhered to by that society.'' (179)
This is fascinating, since Llosa is not a believer. Nevertheless, gives credit where due.
''This was the best way, according to them, of doing away with or reducing the difference between price and value. The great failure, and the crises that the capitalist system faces again and again –corruption, the spoils system, mercantilist manoeuvres to gain wealth by infringing the law, the frenetic greed and fraudulent activities of bank and finance houses –are not due to inherent faults in the institutions of capitalism themselves but rather to the collapse of moral and religious values, which act as a curb that keeps capitalism within certain norms of honesty, respect for one’s neighbour, and respect for the law.''
This keen insight - 'collapse of moral and religious values, which act as a curb', is profound.
''When this invisible but influential ethical structure collapses and disappears in many areas of society, above all among those that have the most responsibility in economic life, then anarchy spreads, bringing about an increasing lack of confidence in a system that seems to function only for the benefit of the most powerful (or the biggest tricksters) and against the interests of ordinary citizens who lack wealth and privilege.''
What is invisible is the most influential.
''When religion becomes banal and disappears from many sectors of modern society –in particular among the elites –this helps bring about the ‘crisis’ of capitalism that we hear so much about, at the very moment when, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the conversion of China into an authoritarian capitalist society, it seems that socialism, to all intents and purposes, has reached the end of its history.''
''Frivolity morally disarms a sceptical culture. It undermines its values and introduces dishonest and, at times, openly criminal practices without any form of moral sanction.'' (179)
Metamorphosis of a Word
I The Civilization of the Spectacle
II A Brief Discourse on Culture
III Forbidden to Forbid
IV The Disappearance of Eroticism
V Culture, Politics and Power
VI The Opium of the People
Llosa's introduction analyses two other famous essays on the death of culture; T. S. Elliott and George Steiner. Excellent choice. Quotes Steiner -
''The unique, inconceivable god of the Jews is outside human reason –it is accessible only through faith –and it fell victim to the philosophes of the Enlightenment, who were convinced that a lay, secular culture would put an end to the violence and killings resulting from religious fanaticism, inquisitorial practices and wars of religion.'' (7)
Voltaire knew - he just knew! - religion is the only cause of all pain. Remove religion and paradise will appear automatically! This idea - despite the evidence of modernity - still dominates.
''But the death of God did not signify the advent of paradise on earth, but rather a hell, already prefigured in the Dantesque nightmare of the Commedia or in the pleasure palaces and torture chambers of the Marquis de Sade. The world, liberated from God, gradually became dominated by the devil, a spirit of evil, cruelty and destruction that would culminate in the world wars, the Nazi crematoriums and the Soviet Gulag. With this cataclysm culture came to an end and the era of post-culture began.'' (7)
How has this horror dominated?
''What do we mean by civilization of the spectacle? The civilization of a world in which pride of place, in terms of a scale of values, is given to entertainment, and where having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion. To have this goal in life is perfectly legitimate, of course. Only a Puritan fanatic could reproach members of a society for wanting to find relaxation, fun and amusement in lives that are often circumscribed by depressing and sometimes soul-destroying routine.''
Recreation is not 're-creation'.
''But converting this natural propensity for enjoying oneself into a supreme value has unexpected consequences: it leads to culture becoming banal, frivolity becoming widespread and, in the field of news coverage, it leads to the spread of irresponsible journalism based on gossip and scandal.'' (23)
Llosa's combining of Spanish, Anglo and French thought paints a fascinating picture. Like Elliott and Steiner, he is not writing for the general reader. He hopes to reach a discerning, serious, intellectual moral seeker.
(See also; ''Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes'', by Jacques Ellul; ''Memoirs of a Superfluous Man'', by Albert Jay Nock)