It’s the Stupid Culture

Everyone today complains about the culture. From liberals who think it promotes gun violence and “hate crimes” to conservatives who believe it’s taking us on a high-speed luxury liner to Hell. Perhaps the only thing that rivals this agreement across ideological lines is the utter bewilderment at what to do about the whole sad mess.

I have been reading around in a fascinating little book, The Civilization of the Spectacle, by Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist who once ran for president in Peru. I’ve always liked him because his books combine rare literary gifts with a firm rejection of the kinds of nonsense that radicals in Latin America and elsewhere have been peddling for decades (try The War at the End of the World).

He’s so good that he won the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature, even though the selection committee admires – and sometimes honors – those very radicals, and usually passes over their critics, however talented.

His latest effort (unfortunately, still only available in Spanish), opens with a bold thesis:

Probably never in history have so many treatises, essays, theories, and analyses been written on culture as in our time. This fact is even more surprising inasmuch as culture, in the traditional sense of this word, stands in our day on the point of disappearing. And maybe it’s already disappeared, discretely emptied of content and replaced with another that has denatured the one it once had.

He adds: It’s more than the fact, universally admitted, that the culture is decadent. The very nature of “culture” has changed to the point that maybe today we have no culture worthy of the name.

Sixty years, ago, T.S. Eliot wrote a well-known essay “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.” Eliot argued that a healthy culture is articulated into three parts: a few at the high end, a significant middle, and a large number of common folk. And back then, it was clear that culture did not coincide with social class (as Chesterton observed, many of the rich are “born tired”).

There was exchange among the three – which some of us can still remember – in everything from music to religion. Family and church were and must be key carriers of culture – not universities (to say nothing of the current art scene, theater, etc.), says Vargas Llosa, because knowledge is not culture.

Knowledge is useful, but what it’s useful for depends on religion and culture. Besides, universities have stopped teaching about religion:

which for good and ill, in history, philosophy, architecture, art, literature is indispensable to keep culture from degenerating at its current pace and to see that the world of the future will not be divided between functional illiterates and ignorant or heartless specialists.

Without religious knowledge, new generations will be, “bound hand and foot to the civilization of the spectacle, which is to say, to frivolousness, superficiality, ignorance, gossip, and bad taste.”  

Mario Vargas Llosa receiving the Nobel Prize

Recent theorists have used Marxism, sociology, political theory in efforts to understand culture. But all of that has been eclipsed by what is now a global standard culture that requires no personal cultivation, makes no special demands on anyone, anywhere. Its primary vehicles are pop music and movies – reinforced and spread by the Internet and social media.

Vargas Llosa notes that this situation does not equally empower all, as is often claimed. Quite the opposite. Without independent cultural bases, it’s very difficult for anyone – whether your “culture” is Hollywood or Bollywood – to maintain real freedom.

The worldwide civilization of the spectacle promises endless diversions. The very definition of what counts culturally is what is commercially successful because it “diverts” enough people around the world.

Another characteristic is that culture objects are consumed in the enjoyment. So one film follows another, one rock concert or album replaces the last, and maybe soon one digitized text by another. Very little is intended – or expected – to survive passing enjoyment.

When he was living in London in the 1960s, Vargas Llosa noticed that the counterculture partly turned even religion into a superficial self-indulgence to go along with promiscuity, drugs, and dropping-out.

But real religion has survived: In bad forms in al Qaeda, Fundamentalisms of various kinds, but also in ways eminently human. Despite the intellectual attacks of the Dawkinses and Hitchenses, he says, all human cultures have valued transcendence, in their different ways, and not solely out of ignorance. The New Atheists are merely repeating the old theory that secularization inevitably following education, which has not proven to be the case.

Every civilization has embraced something beyond itself, partly as a bulwark against present suffering and hope of future justice. But Vargas Llosa notes that it’s an obscure – and sound – human intuition that without something that transcends us – that envelops and gives us reliable guiding stars – the worst human evils will inevitably follow. That something, for most people, is religion. We’re already bad enough, even with the transcendent.

Let’s hope that this little book will soon appear in English, because it’s time to figure out why several distinguished non-believers – Jürgen Habermas in Germany, Marcello Pera in Italy (both of whom have done books with the current pope), and now Vargas Llosa – are arguing that you can’t have high democratic culture and, maybe even a moral economy and stable democracy, without religion.

En route, he also gets important things wrong about the compatibility of faith and freedom. But to understand culture in such lucid and deep terms is a great step forward. Others have suggested it will take “creative minorities”  (Benedict XVI) and communities of meaning (Alasdair MacIntyre ) to escape our current morass. 

It’s no small matter for a Nobel Prize winning novelist to come to the realization that culture has passed – and must pass – through family and Church rather than what we assume are the usual “cultural” institutions. (The decay of family and Church is a subject for another day.) It may mean that, even in secular precincts, all is not lost for us yet.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.