Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fragmentary Grenade

The democratization of society (not to be confused with the democratization of politics or governance) brings about the democratization of culture; the democratization of culture, in stigmatizing the distinction between high and low art, destroys high art. It destroys the very idea of high culture. We don't merely disdain it; we are no longer capable of it. Ironically, the democratization of culture rigorously oppresses its highest expression--from which our democratized present sprang.

Yet the base material of humanity does not change; we are not significantly different from our near forebears of recorded history. The talents and passions remain the same; the media and conventions for their expression have changed drastically. The outlets are more numerous and the audience more vast; the barriers are fewer and less effective. But the barriers that kept out also kept in, channeling and cohering; the limitations of convention and standards refined the arts and also had the effect of remorselessly selecting and deselecting a creative elite. There is no crucible now for either creating this elite group or refining their art, even if the idea of refinement itself were not already discredited. Within the more strict limitations of a given medium and the cultural whole this system--which, by way of its severity, used the artist as a medium for an idea as much as the artist used his particular medium to express the idea--high art was created, and the Western idea became the highest expression of humanity, through painting, literature and music unmatched before or since.

Western culture refined the idea of the autonomous individual; "personality" was born here. The cinematic close-up is its ultimate expression, a study of human nature both unforgiving and worshipful, a realism that goes beyond the perfect representation attempted by pre-photography portraiture--"more real than real". The camera is both a perfectly transparent vehicle for portraying human expression and a distillation of it into transcendence. A thing cannot be put on that great big screen and not glorified. Cinema is what's left of high culture, but the demands of commerce and the general vulgarization of society mean that it cannot but speak the common language of low art. It's a sort of schizophrenia.

But the Western idea of the individual was born in the sin of its fatal contradiction, of the ultimate irreconcilability of absolute personal autonomy with social harmony; between the distinctly Western individualism expressed and the punishing requirements elite standards placed on the individual.
Personality is eventually lost in the flattening, liquefacting mass of popular culture, where discernment is apostasy and even the president of the United States is an affable vulgarian. We are coming upon something representing our primitive origins, a classless, unindividuated mass of humanity that crushes the individual. An Eastern idea sagely warned us of this inevitability, popularly expressed as "what goes around comes around." The age of high tech primitivism is upon us, replete with ritual sacrifices and mass violence--all safely subsumed within a bloodless virtual, electronic popular culture. It will be both antiseptic and gory. Our capacity for cruelty and violence, a near constant of human behavior, is both aroused and sated within the virtual realm, where it is safely contained as long as societal order is maintained. How durable societal order is, how sound its balance, is a thing we likely can only know by its loss.

We also created the idea of the Idea.Attendant upon this was the discovery of Truth, as a real and discernible thing, of a physical reality indifferent to our passions and desires. Truth beyond beauty and will. Truth will not be argued away or willed into conformance; it can only be unearthed. This is just too much for us. In our vanity we turn upon it; futilely we attempt to draw it back down, to rip it to shreds, to obliterate it. This is the nature of our self-referential, oppressively popular, anti-elitist cultural moment. Despite its hostility toward religion, postmodernism is inherently, supremely religious--in the sense that we currently understand the word. It would be more accurate to describe it as superstitious or pagan--a pre-religious and pre-ideational order, where sentiment and subjectivity ruled, and these were judged worthy by virtue of their desirability and usefulness to a dominant order, and where observations or evidence troubling that order needn't be suppressed because the necessary idea of truth had yet to be revealed.

But of course we can't go back--the cat's out of the bag--we didn't create something after all as much as we discovered something and set it loose upon the world. We cannot succeed in displacing the Western idea--it displaced us from the moment we willed it into expression. It will pass on, perhaps to the East, perhaps to some future generation, after the cataclysm and its inevitable reaction that we are now setting in motion. All of this was inevitable. What remains we cannot know.

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