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Cultural pessimism

Parent: culture - pessimism - cultural criticism

In brief, a cultural pessimist believes that today's culture is inferior to yesterday's culture. It runs paralell to the argument that today's youth is less moral than yesterday's youth. Cultural pessimism's closest relative is cultural elitism. Cultural pessimism comes equally from the political right and left; it scorns new media and new developments in art and culture.

Considering myself a cultural optimist or cultural objectivist, I hold that every era yields equal amounts of creativity and thus quality culture. The exception to this rule are times of hardship such as war and famine in which less culture is produced.

Creativity is a basic human need as was shown in Maslow's hierarchy of needs: creativity belongs in self-actualization, the highest level of the hierarchy of needs, and will thus present itself in every era. [Jan 2007]

Related: apocalypse - bread and circuses - cultural criticism - culture industry - decadence (state of decline) - dumbing down of culture - dystopia - Western canon - "high culture" - popular culture

Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture As Social Decay (1983) - Patrick Brantlinger [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Cultural pessimists: Theodor Adorno - Matthew Arnold - Pierre Bourdieu - T. S. Eliot - Clement Greenberg - F. R. Leavis - Nietzsche - Neil Postman - Oswald Spengler - José Ortega y Gasset - Schopenhauer

Contrast: optimism - relativism


Cultural pessimism is a significant presence in the general outlook of many historical cultures: things are going to the dogs, the Golden age is in the past, and the current generation is fit only for dumbing down and cultural careerism. Some significant formulations have gone beyond this, proposing either a universally-applicable cyclic model of history — notably in the writings of Giambattista Vico — or specific criticism of the West, in the first years of the twentieth century usually taken as the Old World of Europe. The classic source for the latter variety is Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918 - 1923), which was often cited in the following years. The tone of much of the critical writing, for example, of T. S. Eliot, and the historical writing of Arnold Toynbee, is identifiable with the thought that Spengler had at least formulated some truths about the cultural situation of Europe after World War I.

The pessimistic element involved was in fact already freely available in Schopenhauer's philosophy and Matthew Arnold's cultural criticism. It might be more accurate to say that the tide of Whiggish optimism (exemplified by Macaulay) had receded. Classical culture, based on traditional classical scholarship in Latin and Greek literature, had itself been under attack externally for two generations or more by 1900, and had produced in Nietzsche a model pessimistic thinker. Cultural pessimism of the Spengler epoch could be seen as a refusal of the rather intellectual and secular choice between nihilism and modernism. Politically this tended to squeeze liberal thought.

Towards the end of the 20th century, in a global situation that was much changed, cultural pessimism surfaced again. This time the West as a whole was implicated. The very title of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000) challenges the reader to be hopeful. The end of the millennium did see in the USA concerns rather specific to the culture wars and university education, which were not really the same as Western Europe's self-definition in the face of limiting demography, and postmodernism as at least journalistically predominant — the difference primarily lying in the political prominence of the issues. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_pessimism [Feb 2005]

Tyler Cowen on cultural pessimism

One significant class of critics, whom I call the cultural pessimists, take a strongly negative view of modernity and of market exchange. They typically believe that the market economy corrupts culture. The modern age is often compared unfavorably to some earlier time, such as the classical period, the Enlightenment, the nineteenth century, or even the early twentieth century. T. S. Eliot exemplified the pessimistic view when he wrote: "We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity." Cultural pessimism comes from various points along the political spectrum and transcend traditional left-wing/right-wing distinctions. Its roots, in intellectual history, include Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Pope, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Spengler.

Cultural pessimism received its most explicit statement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the so-called "Battle of the Books." In these debates, William Temple, Jonathan Swift and others argued that modern writings and achievements were inferior to those of antiquity. The following chapters, and chapter five, cover the intellectual history of cultural pessimism in greater detail. In the contemporary scene, however, various forms of cultural pessimism exert wide intellectual influence. Neo-conservative intellectuals, such as Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol, have questioned whether a market economy supports healthy artistic tendencies. Bell, for instance, favors artistic modernism but views it as exhausted and superseded by less constructive movements. Allan Bloom, in his Closing of the American Mind, provides a Straussian slant on cultural pessimism. Bloom blames left-wing academics, youth culture, and the philosophy of moral relativism for our supposed cultural malaise. In the American political realm the new religious Right and Republican right have attacked the moral values exhibited by contemporary culture. Nationalist parties in Europe have criticized the loss of cultural unity brought by a market economy. The pessimism of the neo-conservatives often extends beyond culture in the narrow sense. Many neo-conservatives believe that Western civilization is collapsing under a plague of permissiveness, crime, loss of community, and related ailments. Robert Bork, in his latest book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, provides an extreme statement of this view. The supposedly sorry state of the modern arts is both a cause and reflection of the deeper plight of modernity. As I consider cultural pessimism, however, I focus only on the charges about culture in the narrower sense of artistic production. Neo-Marxists and critics of mass culture, including the Frankfurt School, also adhere to largely pessimistic views. Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, among many others, believe that market exchange damages the quality of cultural production. The commodification of culture stifles our critical faculties, induces alienation, degrades artworks, and protects the capitalist system against internal challenges. Adorno advocates atonal music, and regards jazz and rock and roll as abominable corruptions. Frankfurt School writers tend to dislike popular culture, which they perceive as hostile to the project of a society built on modernist reason. Jorgen Habermas, also associated with the Frankfurt School, stakes out a positive position on modernity but holds unsympathetic attitudes towards the culture of capitalism. On one hand, Habermas views modernity as explicitly progressive, as did Marx. Habermas believes in the utopian potential of modernity, based on objective reason and the Enlightenment project of a good society. On the other hand, Habermas is highly critical of modernity as we experience it in contemporary capitalist society. He sees Western reason, when combined with capitalism, technology, and the media, as a force of domination rather than a force of liberation or free expression. Critical social theory is needed to reform communicative discourse and bring about a more fully progressive modernity. Habermas sees the market as hindering rather than aiding critical communication.

Many neo-liberal writers echo the concerns of the Frankfurt School, although they do not accept Marxist solutions. Neil Postman emphasizes how modern technology and media corrupt our culture. The title of Herbert Schiller's book summarizes the views of many: Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression. Pierre Bourdieu, one of the leading sociologists of culture, argues against the corporate control of culture that he associates with a market economy. Even the mainstream American case for liberal social democracy portrays capitalism as an uneasy ally of culture, at best. The political correctness movement often identifies market culture with the suppression of women and minorities. Puritan feminist Catherine McKinnon, in her book Only Words, argues that sexually explicit literature and art create harm and should be banned. Some branches of multiculturalist thought argue that free cultural exchange leads to cultural homogenization and a culture of the least common denominator. Marshall McLuhan raised the specter of a "global village," in which we all consume the same products. In the political realm we find cultural protectionism practiced around the world.

Many left-wing "cultural studies" scholars stake out a mixed position. These individuals tend to look sympathetically on modern popular culture but they dislike capitalism and the forces of the market. Frederic Jameson exemplifies these attitudes. He describes himself as a "relatively enthusiastic consumer of postmodernism," but he also promises us that central planning someday will return in superior form. Only then will our culture become a "project" to be planned by free individuals. Writers from the British Birmingham school (e.g., Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall) tend to reject the distinction between high and low culture and they propose a unified methodological approach to the two. Like much of the cultural studies movement, writers in that tradition have helped legitimize popular culture and have shown sympathy for cultural optimism. Unlike the Frankfurt School, Birmingham writers see popular culture as containing liberating influences against otherwise elitist capitalist structures. When it comes to the market, however, the Birmingham school uses neo-Marxist economic analysis and emphasizes mechanisms of hegemony, rather than innovation and freedom of expression. Finally, to conclude this discussion of sources, cultural pessimism is by no means an exclusively intellectual phenomenon. The final chapter of this book examines the criticisms of contemporary culture coming from parents, churches, artists themselves, and other sources. [...] --http://www.gmu.edu/jbc/Tyler/Chapter1.htm [Mar 2006]

Culture Industry, pessimistic view

The concentration of culture production within an industry that is dominated by a few corporate producers [Disney+ABC+MacDonald's] who manufacture, own the rights to and distribute a vast number of the mass-mediated cultural products that are found in the world. The consequences of such concentration are viewed as leading to a process of standardization of form and homogeneity of content. The impact is perceived as, at best giving the consumer little real choice, at worst promoting cultural forms that are dulling our ability to think critically about the world in which we live and reducing the diversity of values, beliefs and customs across the world. --http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/cultural_studies/adorno_introd.htm

Negative classicism

The traditional approaches to the study of mass culture tend to assert, as Brantlinger argues, a "negative classicism," in which the Culture of yesteryear was superior to the "mass culture" of today; based upon this premise, modern civilization is seen to be in a state of decay, a slouching toward Rome, so to speak. Given this set of assumptions, it should therefore be no surprise that traditional approaches seek to salvage some golden moment of the past which was better -- or which has the potential for rescuing the future -- in order to prevent or obstruct the recurring Fall of Rome. --http://www.mediahistory.umn.edu/masscult.html [Nov 2006]


  1. The Idea of Decline in Western History - Arthur Herman [Amazon US]
    In this ambitious and eminently relevant work of popular intellectual history, Arthur Herman, the coordinator of the Western civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution, makes a broad survey of the literature of cultural decline and a scatter-shot retort to the purveyors of doom and gloom. Herman attempts to right the balance unset by panicky prognosticators who either decry the defeat of Western values or herald the bankruptcy of Enlightenment idealism, despite the unparalleled worldwide ascendance of market economics, universal human rights, and representational, constitutional government. Herman is at his best when making erudite replies to today's ill-informed peddlers of doom and gloom. But when he starts attempting to trace the history of "declinism," to philosophers from Frederick Neitzche to Martin Heidegger, and writers from Henry Adams to Robert Bly, his accusations often fall wide of the intended mark. His assaults on Jean Jacques Rousseau and W.E.B. DuBois will appear particularly unfair to those familiar with the works of these men, though readers who trust in Herman's abbreviated accounts of their thinking will be unknowingly misled. The "Great Ideas" framework Herman defends in the pages of this book ought to prize the close reading of important texts as much as it seeks to protect a sacrosanct canon or a static notion of prized ideals. Great ideas after all stand up to close attention. Herman's book conveys a confidence in the values of the Western tradition, but in making its argument, it inspires a casual disrespect from the works of other arguably great thinkers and artists based on Herman's swift survey--a dubious achievement and troublesome side effect of this challenging book. --amazon.com editorial

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