Monday, December 12, 2011

Waste Land

Over at Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen pens an interesting piece (could have been cut by half though) that begins with an also interesting observation:
Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present.
This observation rings true to me.  I've noticed, for example, that I rarely, if ever, listen to contemporary artists and their music.  Not so strange in and of itself, I'm old, after all.  But I've also noticed that my kids (mid-20s) don't listen all that much either, and really never have.  They much prefer the music of the 1970s and earlier.  Why?  Andersen's first guess:
In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.
But he's not satisfied with this:
If this stylistic freeze is just a respite, a backward-looking counter-reaction to upheaval, then once we finally get accustomed to all the radical newness, things should return to normal—and what we’re wearing and driving and designing and producing right now will look totally démodé come 2032. Or not. Because rather than a temporary cultural glitch, these stagnant last couple of decades may be a secular rather than cyclical trend, the beginning of American civilization’s new chronic condition, a permanent loss of appetite for innovation and the shockingly new. After all, such a sensibility shift has happened again and again over the last several thousand years, that moment when all great cultures—Egyptian, Roman, Mayan, Islamic, French, Ottoman, British—slide irrevocably into an enervated late middle age.
He should have stopped there, but wanders around a bit looking for deeper reasons (villains?)--technology, Reagan, the economy--before finishing, tentatively, where he started:
We seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle—economic progress and innovation stagnated, except in information technology; which leads us to embrace the past and turn the present into a pleasantly eclectic for-profit museum; which deprives the cultures of innovation of the fuel they need to conjure genuinely new ideas and forms; which deters radical change, reinforcing the economic (and political) stagnation. I’ve been a big believer in historical pendulum swings—American sociopolitical cycles that tend to last, according to historians, about 30 years. So maybe we are coming to the end of this cultural era of the Same Old Same Old. As the baby-boomers who brought about this ice age finally shuffle off, maybe America and the rich world are on the verge of a cascade of the wildly new and insanely great. Or maybe, I worry some days, this is the way that Western civilization declines, not with a bang but with a long, nostalgic whimper. (my italics)
The diagnosis, I think, is simpler, and scarier:  The demographics of America have shifted from a relatively young to a relatively old population.

Relatively more old people means more interest in old stuff, old styles, and more interest as well in keeping them just the way they are.  (It also, by the way, means a "miraculous drop in violent crime.")  Advances in medicine extending the average life span is no doubt part of the reason for the shift, but that would only explain the phenomenon of more old people, not relatively more.  For that we would need relatively fewer young people as well, which we have.  The explanation for that, I'm convinced, is what has been called by the late Pope John Paul II, "The Culture of Death."

I'm not referring here exclusively to the practices of abortion and euthanasia, although they're most definitely part of it.  I'm also referring to the defense of, even celebration of homosexuality, along with a reproduction rate that has shrunk to a mere 1.X children per family unit.  (Not being able anymore to say "married couple" without qualification is itself telling, isn't it?)

While reading the article, I couldn't help but think of one of the most famous poems of the Twentieth Century, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.  If you're not familiar with it, you should be.  Be warned:  It's weird.  Long, obscure, and extremely erudite, perhaps pedantically so, it's difficult to slog through.  Published in 1922, it was Eliot's lament about the meaning and consequences of the fin de siecle culture that described the late-19th century and that culminated with the devastation's of World War I.  But maybe the poem's most significant insight was about the direction of Western Civilization: Barrenness, i.e., a waste land.

Perhaps Eliot wrote a hundred years too soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment