Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Culture Wars

What Nietzsche was getting at was the fact that high art has always been preserved by the aristocracy, who need it in order to spiritualize their position of power. Walk through the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art and you will see the propaganda of former religious and political leaders, who often came to power through force, but who legitimized that power through culture. Some of the most sublime and beautiful works of art ever created were created to make power itself seem sublime and beautiful. High culture is the aestheticization of authority.

Nietzsche realized that mass democracy would come to oppose culture for the same reason that the aristocracy supported and preserved it- because it is not easily accessible. For the aristocracy, financing a work of art that only a handful of people appreciate is a stunning success because this appreciation distinguishes them. But, in a mass democracy, such art is a failure. Art that 'the guy on the street' can't appreciate is a failure in populist terms, and a success in aristocratic terms.

Socrates argued that democracies love liberty so much that they inevitably invert all hierarchies and pave the way for tyranny. Nietzsche's major theme was also this transvaluation, even though he opposed Socrates. But he recognized that mass movements are guided by resentment more than anything else, and that this resentment is opposed to anything or anyone higher.

So, the mass democratic party line about culture is something like "Who can say that Proust is a better writer than Stephen King? It's all a matter of opinion." Good and well. But, unfortunately, Marcel Proust is a better writer than Stephen King. This is why he will endure and Stephen King will not. Our job as academics is to repeat this truth, and to repeat that all of the passing, infantile fancies of society will fade, and truth will endure. This makes us worthy of resentment in a democracy that is sustained by the belief that we could all be Proust if we just applied ourselves!

Similarly, populist movements inevitably oppose all forms of authority. The left opposes economic and social hierarchies. The right opposes cultural hierarchies. But, they use the same barrel-scraping rhetoric that attacks 'elites' for being distinguished in some way. "Who are they to think they know more than you do, just because they know more than you do?" And this rhetoric comes from the same place. Populists across the board support the same resentment of distinction (a position that is unthinkable in an aristocracy), and this is the source of their power. Aristocratic power comes from distinction. Populist power comes from levelling.

Academics love the masses, we love egalitarianism, but we must defend the dead values of the aristocracy. We must oppose cultural levelling, whether we'd like to or not. We must defend the beautiful and the sublime and all of the other aestheticizations of authority. Academics in the humanities are the stewards of culture. We are what Matthew Arnold called the clerisy. We have no other mission than this. We have to preserve Shakespeare and Aristotle and Emily Dickinson, and Confucius, and all of those other boring old distinguished thinkers for the next generation. Because of this, we are inherently elitist. Not only that, but we are the true counterculture. We are the opposition to all transvaluations of culture. And you start to realize this when you're teaching. Because the culture at large, young and old, in love with the sound of its own voice, thinks that philosophy is 'worthless since it can't get you a job', just as they did in 400 BCE . They believe that culture is 'boring, boring, boring', that poetry is 'gay' and that knowledge of these things has no real-world value. And we, intrinsically, oppose this.

Not all of us do, of course. There is a snarking, sarcastic, arrogance against culture that persists in the humanities as well. It results in bizarre over-the-top allegations against those 'dead white males' who the culture at large can't stand. (Sucking up to the popular crowd as always) It results in bizarre defenses of cultural garbage too- how many academics have waxed poetic on the merits of the Ghetto Boys in seminar papers! Moreover, it results in a real denial of what it is that we do in the humanities.

We are boring, boring, boring! We read old texts and draw out the wisdom in them. Of course, we question them, and criticize them, but not out-of-hand, not simply because they existed before we did. We take them seriously, and in doing so, we implicitly argue that they are more worthy of being taken seriously than the garbage of the current culture. We are hierarchical by our very nature. We are elitists.

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