Thursday, September 8, 2016

How Global Entertainment Killed Culture

A large number of studies in recent years have looked to define the characteristics of contemporary culture within the context of the globalization of capitalism and of markets, and the extraordinary revolution in technology. One of the most incisive of these studies is Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy’s La cultura-mundo: Respuesta a una sociedad desorientada (Culture-World: Response to a Disoriented Society). It puts forward the idea that there is now an established global culture—a culture-world—that, as a result of the progressive erosion of borders due to market forces, and of scientific and technical revolutions (especially in the field of communications), is creating, for the first time in history, certain cultural values that are shared by societies and individuals across the five continents, values that can be shared equally despite different traditions, beliefs, and languages. This culture, unlike what had previously been defined as culture, is no longer elitist, erudite and exclusive, but rather a genuine “mass culture”:
Diametrically opposed to hermetic and elitist vanguard movements, this mass culture seeks to offer innovations that are accessible to the widest possible audience, which will entertain the greatest number of consumers. Its intention is to amuse and offer pleasure, to provide an easy and accessible escapism for everyone without the need for any specific educational background, without concrete and erudite references. What the culture industries invent is a culture transformed into articles of mass consumption.
This mass culture, according to the authors, is based on the predominance of image and sound over the word. The film industry, in particular Hollywood, “globalizes” movies, sending them to every country, and within each country, reaching every social group, because, like commercially available music and television, films are accessible to everyone and require no specialist background to be enjoyed. This process has been accelerated by the cybernetic revolution, the creation of social networks and the universal reach of the Internet. Not only has information broken through all barriers and become accessible to all, but almost every aspect of communication, art, politics, sport, religion, etc., has felt the reforming effects of the small screen: “The screen world has dislocated, desynchronized and deregulated the space—time of culture.”

All this is true, of course. What is not clear is whether what Lipovetsky and Serroy call the “culture-world” or mass culture (in which they include, for example, even the “culture of brands” of luxury objects), is, strictly speaking, culture, or if we are referring to essentially different things when we speak, on one hand, about an opera by Wagner or Nietzsche’s philosophy and, on the other hand, the films of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford (two of my favorite directors), and an advertisement for Coca-Cola. They would say yes, that both categories are culture, while I think that there has been a change, or a Hegelian qualitative leap, that has turned this second category into something different from the first.

Furthermore, some assertions of La cultura-mundo seem questionable, such as the proposition that this new planetary culture has developed extreme individualism across the globe. Quite the reverse: the ways in which advertising and fashion shape and promote cultural products today are a major obstacle to the formation of independent individuals, capable of judging for themselves what they like, what they admire, or what they find disagreeable, deceitful or horrifying in these products. Rather than developing individuals, the culture-world stifles them, depriving them of lucidity and free will, causing them to react to the dominant “culture” with a conditioned, herd mentality, like Pavlov’s dogs reacting to the bell that rings for a meal.

Another of Lipovetsky’s and Serroy’s ideas that seems questionable is the assertion that because millions of tourists visit the Louvre, the Acropolis and the Greek amphitheaters in Sicily, then culture has lost none of its value, and still enjoys “a great legitimacy.” The authors seem not to notice that these mass visits to great museums and classic historical monuments do not illustrate a genuine interest in “high culture” (the term they use), but rather simple snobbery because the fact of having been in these places is part of the obligations of the perfect postmodern tourist. Instead of stimulating an interest in the classical past and its arts, these visits replace any form of serious study and investigation. A quick look is enough to satisfy people that their cultural conscience is clear. These tourist visits “on the lookout for distractions” undermine the real significance of these museums and monuments, putting them on the same level as other obligations of the perfect tourist: eating pasta and dancing a tarantella in Italy, applauding flamenco and cante jondo in Andalucía, and tasting escargots, visiting the Louvre and the Folies-Bergère in Paris.

In 2010, Flammarion in Paris published Mainstream by the sociologist Frédéric Martel. This book demonstrates that, to some extent, the “new culture” or the “culture-world” that Lipovetsky and Serroy speak of is already a thing of the past, out of kilter with the frantic maelstrom of our age. Martel’s book is fascinating and terrifying in its description of the “entertainment culture” that has replaced almost everywhere what scarcely half a century ago was understood as culture. Mainstream is, in effect, an ambitious study, drawing on hundreds of interviews from many parts of the world, of what, thanks to globalization and the audiovisual revolution, is now shared by people across five continents, despite differences in languages, religions and customs.

Martel’s study does not talk about books—the only one mentioned in its several hundred pages is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and the only woman writer mentioned is the film critic Pauline Kael—or about painting and sculpture, or about classical music and dance, or about philosophy or the humanities in general. Instead it talks exclusively about films, television programs, videogames, manga, rock, pop and rap concerts, videos and tablets and the “creative industries” that produce and promote them: that is, the entertainment enjoyed by the vast majority of people that has been replacing (and will end up finishing off) the culture of the past.

The author approves of this change, because, as a result, mainstream culture has swept away the cultural life of a small minority that had previously held a monopoly over culture; it has democratized it, putting it within everyone’s reach, and because the contents of this new culture seem to him to be perfectly attuned to modernity, to the great scientific and technological inventions of our era.

The accounts and the interviews collected by Martel, along with his own analysis, are instructive and quite representative of a reality that, until now, sociological and philosophical studies have not dared to address. 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 still 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. Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, still more Joyce and Faulkner, wrote books that looked to defeat death, outlive their authors and continue attracting and fascinating readers in the future. Brazilian soaps, Bollywood movies, and Shakira concerts do not look to exist any longer than the duration of their performance. They disappear and leave space for other equally successful and ephemeral products. Culture is entertainment and what is not entertaining is not culture.

Martel’s investigation shows that this is today a global phenomenon, something that is occurring for the first time in history, in which developed and underdeveloped countries participate, no matter how different their traditions, beliefs or systems of government although, of course, each country and society will display certain differences in terms of detail and nuance with regard to films, soap operas, songs, manga, animation, etc.

by Mario Vargas Llosa, Literary Hub | Read more:
Image: The Truman Show