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Related: utopia

Cultural optimists: The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies - Arnold Bennett - Tyler Cowen - Camille Paglia - Susan Sontag - Alvin Toffler

Contrast: pessimism - relativism


Panglossianism is baseless optimism of the type possessed by the character Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's novel Candide. Pangloss believed that "we live in the best of all possible worlds". The real-world model for Dr. Pangloss was the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panglossianism

Cultural optimism

Cultural optimism
The cultural optimists are a less prominent group in intellectual history than the pessimists. Cultural optimism nonetheless has attracted a number of prominent defenders in the history of ideas. Charles Perrault, a seventeenth-century French believer in cultural progress, wrote Mother Goose and other tales in a deliberate attempt to match Aesop's Fables. Baldesar Castiglione defended cultural progress in his The Book of the Courtier. He argued that the modern age (1478-1529 for him) compared favorably to the world of the ancients. Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth- century English writer defended the civilizing aspects of books,printing, and commercial bookselling. Jean Antoine Condorcet, a classical liberal Girondist and victim of the French Revolution, argued that human reason provides a strong impetus for cultural progress.

We find at least three versions of the cultural optimist position in the history of ideas. The first view suggests that the arts tend to flourish in a modern liberal order (today, democratic capitalism, although not all the cultural optimists of the past were democrats). I promote that position in this book. This view does not predict that any single geographic area necessarily produces great culture in a particular genre. As discussed above, artistic creativity is highly contingent upon many factors, including luck. Nonetheless the world as a whole is highly diverse and we can expect a flourishing of creativity in the aggregate. Bad luck or intervening causes may influence a specific culture for the worse, but cultural optimism nonetheless suggests that a preponderance of factors favor positive outcomes for the free world as a whole.

The second version of cultural optimism goes further and makes the political prediction that a liberal order will remain prominent for many years to come. I have sympathies for this view as well, but it lies beyond the purview of this book (in its defense, see Francis Fukayama, The End of History.) The third version of cultural optimism argues that the arts will flourish precisely because capitalism is doomed and will be replaced by a superior system, such as socialism or communism. This is the classic Marxian statement of cultural optimism, which I reject.

My favored version of cultural optimism draws upon a wide variety of contemporary writers, many of whom work outside a purely academic context. Camille Paglia defends the Rolling Stones and Hollywood cinema as artistically vital forces in the modern world. She even writes favorably about how capitalist wealth has stimulated artistic production. Robert Pattison's The Triumph of Vulgarity, takes the supposed aesthetic defects of rock and roll and interprets them as virtues; his book On Literacy argues that literacy has been increasing over time, rather than decreasing. Herbert Gans, in his Popular Culture and High Culture, praises popular culture and argues that modernity has produced increasing diversity of culture. Cultural studies theorist Paul Willis, in his Common Culture, praises the "symbolic creativity" of capitalist consumerism. Nelson George, well-known author and critic for the Village Voice, defends rap music and argues the importance of "black capitalism" for contemporary music. Wendy Steiner, in her The Scandal of Pleasure, defends contemporary culture and the autonomy of art against moralizing critics, from both left and right. William Grampp, economist and author of Pricing the Priceless, argues that artistic production is not necessarily subject to market failure. Terence Kealey's The Economic Laws of Scientific Research deals with science rather than culture, but makes analogous arguments about the benefits of commerce. Alvin Toffler, in his early The Culture Consumers, chronicled the growth of art and culture in America; his later book The Third Wave writes of the tendency of mass media to decline in the face of decentralized competitive forces. The postmodern theorists, while they do not necessarily hold optimistic attitudes towards either culture or capitalism, have insightfully analyzed the forces behind the proliferation of cultures in a market economy and the breakdown of absolutist cultural standards.

[...]--http://www.gmu.edu/jbc/Tyler/Chapter1.htm [Mar 2006]


  1. Candide (1759) - Voltaire [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Voltaire was the icon-at-large and philosopher-punk of the Age of Reason. He's best known for his tale Candide, which expressed his contempt for those among his contemporaries who denied the existence of evil. Voltaire was an original flamer, creating that top note of bitchiness without which the arrogance of French philosophy would have been impossible. He offended so many people during his career that many were surprised he died of natural causes, in old age. -- R.U. Sirius

    Satirical novel published in 1759 that is the best-known work by Voltaire. It is a savage denunciation of metaphysical optimism--as espoused by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz--that reveals a world of horrors and folly. In this philosophical fantasy, naive Candide sees and suffers such misfortune that he ultimately rejects the philosophy of his tutor Doctor Pangloss, who claims that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." Candide and his companions--Pangloss, his beloved Cunegonde, and his servant Cacambo--display an instinct for survival that provides them hope in an otherwise somber setting. When they all retire together to a simple life on a small farm, they discover that the secret of happiness is "to cultivate one's garden," a practical philosophy that excludes excessive idealism and nebulous metaphysics. --The Merriam-Webster Encylopedia of Literature

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