Amanda’s article at MGC yesterday linked to an article by some intellect-critter who referred to himself as having “made culture” for the last twenty years.
On reading that infelicitous phrase, I had two reactions. The first was what my mom says, rather crudely, when someone is proud of something but the something is an actual mess. It is meant as crudely as it sounds: “You may as well wipe your hands to the walls, then.” The second was “And like making sausage, it’s a process that would do best remaining hidden.”
Shortly after that, I remembered a phrase that was popular among my ninth grade class (look, it was the times, but we were also precocious) “Hang all intellectuals.”
However, stepping back from the fact that I have a tiny little problem – almost unnoticeable, really – with authority, let’s consider the boast and what it meant, as well as the fact that this person thought it was not only something worth doing, but worth bragging about.
First, can you create culture? Yeah. You can. It has been done at several times throughout history, sometimes better than others. Shakespeare can be said to have created worldwide culture, to an extent, and various communists theocracies have created culture. (what, you were under the impression it WASN’T a religion? Let me see… prescribes what to believe on every case – check. Has a completely coherent system that has no reference to reality and must be taken on faith – check. When its prescriptions fail, time and again, the fault is of the imperfect humans who carry them out – check. Has a myth of perfection “before the fall” – check. And oh, yeah, aspires to creating a paradise with perfect people. [Something only religions can aspire to.] The fact that paradise is in the ever-unobtainable future and that they don’t believe in personal immortality is truly no different than other historical religions.) Usually they didn’t create the culture they said they were creating, but well… that’s on a par with everything else.
To create culture you need only take over channels of information and entertainment as completely as possible. This is, of course, more conveniently done via a totalitarian regime. However, since humans are social creatures and want to stand “well” with their contemporaries and “embrace the tide of history” and all that, it can also be done in the way other social things are done: infiltration, bullying, but, above all the creation of a “cool” culture that everyone else wants to be part of.
It takes more time, mind, than simply commanding that people from now on will only believe this and thus – though we have that too. No? Try writing a government document without being thoroughly versed in “politically correct” language – or at least express this and thus. However, it works just as well. If you have a highly concentrated “mass” culture and you take over the critical and conceptual channels and start blasting at full bore that to believe anything but what you believe is uncouth, artists and other purveyors of entertainment and information will fall in line. No, trust me on this. I know my people. Like any group that sticks out – no, really? How many people do you know, other than writers, who are obsessed with getting “right” events that never happened? – we try to fit in in every way we can. (Well, they do. I don’t know. Maybe in hopes of being killed last? Me I live by the Heinlein dictum. Better to be a live LION.) And educators and other such? Please. Those aren’t even a challenge. Any kid who goes to public school and can’t wait to return to it – unless he’s a very odd duck with a naturally subversive bent, and let’s remember subversives are of necessity few in any group – is by nature a conformist, forever trying to fit with the “right” group.
And there you have how we arrived at the culture of the last twenty years. Ever since radio and TV became the main means of dissemination there’s been the “reality” that “everybody knew.” Everybody knew it, not because they experienced it in their lives but because it was what came at them through schools, colleges, textbooks, tv, radio, newspapers and, oh, yeah, stuff read for entertainment too.
Everybody also knew that what they experienced in their real life was often at odds with what everybody knew. No? Come on. You know it. There are things that have been “true” in all those channels for years. Things like “every religious person is an hypocritical criminal” – even though any of us knows religious people who live as close to their ideal as they can come. And frankly, I’d rather entrust my kid to an evangelical Christian than to a homeless person in the park. What? Well, come on. In movies, tv, entertainment and the news if they can slant it, it would be the other way around.
There are a hundred such things I don’t plan to list (it would take days.) We all saw them, we all shook our heads over them, but we didn’t say anything because if we did people would think we were crazy. You see, culture is in large part the stories we tell ourselves. And the stories for the last… oh, eighty years, have been spinning increasingly loose from reality.
They always do to some extent, only the ability to broadcast them wide and have people go “well, it’s not that way for me, but maybe it is in the majority of the country” broke it free from “verification.”
And because in the way of the modern era professions – including those devoted to (gag) “creating culture” – tended to form their own echo chambers where they all went to the same colleges – or aspired to – and all knew what the “good places” to work were and followed people who worked there, the stories they told each other spun ever freer from reality.
In the heyday of this nonsense (if that bastard, Hegel, was right about something it was that when a system is at the top of its dominance, it is ripe to fall) in the early nineties, what ‘everybody knew’ actually proclaimed that any ninety pound woman could take out any man in a fight; that women enjoyed sex in exactly the same way as men and for the same reasons; that victims were always right; that “noble savages” (and therefore savages) were the most advanced form of humanity.
I wonder what would have happened if technology hadn’t shattered the unified means of distribution of “culture.” I suspect that changing in the distribution of culture was inevitable, but there are several other outcomes that one can posit as an intellectual exercise: revolt, perhaps violent; revolt, non violent, just a moving of the posts of “cool” so they are the polar opposite of what they were then; or, more likely, increasing gazing past “culture” and eventually civilizational collapse. Actually, civilizational collapse would be the result of the path we were on if people had continued on it, simply because the stories that made the culture were anti-survival. If you go around afraid to entrust your child to your Christian friend and thinking that every muttering vagrant is not only a heart of gold but a moral authority, your life will be short (but interesting.) The same, writ large, goes for the culture.
At any rate, that is neither here nor there, since the technology changed. Which is either a sign of someone driving this gig or of the fact that something in us knew the culture was going bad and we needed ways to change it.
It started with talk radio – and please remember the vilification of it. Then with blogs. And now it’s moved on to entertainment with music and books and, if we’re all lucky and there’s another technological step, soon it will be movies.
In every one of these small overturns, the pattern is the same. The Lords of Entrenched culture, those who sold their soul for someone else’s cool are first shocked. “What? Someone is creating culture outside our channels? Inconceivable.” Then comes the mockery, “Those grubby people, in their pajamas.” Then come outright attacks “the tone of blogs causes murders. Eeeevil.” Or “only idiots listen to talk radio” or… Then comes the soft sobbing appeals “Can’t you see you’re destroying the true professionals?”
Along the way come dirty tricks, personal destruction of those they view as their enemies and often counterproductive attempts at countering what they view as wanton destruction. They will never, ever, ever understand why talk radio that echoed the rest of the “culture making” apparatus didn’t succeed, for instance. Nor will they ever GET why their “carefully vetted” newsites attract fewer readers than someone’s blog. And they will NEVER understand why writers would rather go indie than jump through the hoops of political corrected. Nor why readers would prefer to read stuff that hasn’t been made “politically correct.” Why, why, “everybody knows” their world vision is right.
Being insulated from reality by their professional associations, their colleagues and peers and – often – by companies in which performance has become totally divorced from reality – as in publishing where numbers were more or less a function of what you put into them – they have no clue how different the stories have become from reality out here, in what the rest of us know as the real world.
I wonder if the dinosaurs looked up at the approaching meteor and simply denied it was there. It was just a fad, that glowing thing in the sky. They didn’t need to do anything differently. It would all go back to normal soon? Or if they raged that their rich culture was passing?
In either case, the result was the same.
And when I read intellectuals lament the “death of culture” I see dinosaurs lumbering around moaning that life on Earth is extinct forever. Because they ARE life on earth.
Meanwhile, us mammals have work to do. Those ecological niches aren’t going to fill themselves.
*crossposted at Mad Genius Club*