I recently made the mistake of purchasing a used book online, not realizing that it had a previous owner’s comments scrawled inside. Although I, like probably everyone who still has a quaint attachment to paper, have seen this before, I was struck by these comments in particular.
Though short — mostly only four or five words at most — the scribbler’s nauseating snobbish personality and sense of self-importance shined through. He had dated many of his worthless comments, addressed the publisher (Oxford University Press) in several of them — as if to psychically alert them to his overblown sense of self-importance — and had concluded the 300-plus page book with, “Interesting, but reference material.” He had, of course, signed and dated this as well, as if it were equivalent to Picasso signing Guernica.
Normally, we find this sort of horribleness in the comments of blogs, not books. There, I’ve noticed, a certain type of commenter will intentionally misinterpret an article so that he can criticize it (or what he falsely claims it is saying).
This is my point: Such people aren’t stupid. They’re simply willing to sacrifice their normal level of intelligence (in which thinking is involved) so that they can argue in public, in the hope of appearing smart to others. They dumb down to look smarter. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s quite common and can be seen in those, for example, who sacrifice style (what actually suits them) to wear whatever is the latest fashion, even if it doesn’t suit them.
Many Bloggers themselves do something similar. Wanting to get more hits, bloggers will find someone to denounce or something to be “shocked” by. (Although this is especially the case with the politically-minded, I recently came across a series of videos on YouTube claiming to tell the viewer “everything that is wrong with…” various pop stars, such as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Apparently, they do not pass the test of the moral police.)
Young people are shocked and insulted. We see it all the time. There is something incredibly fake about this behavior — something pornographic, even. It is the open display of vulnerability and emotional nakedness for the purpose, it seems, of getting public attention. Instead of fake orgasms, we are treated to fake tears.
Why don’t these people create something? There has been an unusually long period in which no youth culture has emerged. There is no equivalent, today, of Rockabilly, Hippie, Skinhead, Punk, or Hip Hop created. No shocking new music or style of dress. No new way for people to express themselves.
We must admit that this is partly due to large corporations catering to the masses. Before corporations did this, you had to create something for yourself. If you wanted ripped jeans, you had to rip them. Now you just buy them ripped. We trust the brand to do it for us more than we trust ourselves.
Every style is available. And no one needs to create a new look for themselves. It’s true that there are suddenly more young women dying their hair blue or green, but this is not against the mainstream; it is a part of it. It signifies a political and consumer proclivity, not a cultural movement with its own aesthetics, music, and dress outside of mainstream consumerism.
But reliance on corporations for one’s identity (in terms of clothing, music, and so on), has meant that they must embody the political or moral identity that we have consumed from the media or from our favorite politician. Consequently, giant corporations are now pressured to support various political causes, especially the issue du jour. Remarkably, while a lack of advertising sponsors might have suggested some interesting, obscure scene a few decades ago, today it signals that the event, website, and so so, must be on the wrong side.
Your favorite publicly-traded corporation will donate to your favorite “cause.” The “system” has rebellion built into it.
To rebel, one merely opts to consume one media channel over another, to shop at one chain store and not another, and to follow certain vapid celebrities and not others. It is rebellion à la carte. Consumerist. Pro-Big Brother. And the opposite of the youth cultures of previous decades.
Modern Western culture in its current guise is probably not sustainable. In contrast to every non-Western culture and every culture in the world before a few decades ago that, we see that in the universities and in the media, in particular, weakness is elevated over strength, ugliness over beauty, cliches over deep thinking, ignorance of history over history, and “assistance” over self-initiative.
But an unsustainable culture makes a new one necessary, whether for the majority or for a small minority. Ancient Greece fell, but there are those who still read ancient Greek philosophy. Pre-Christian Europe fell, but pre-Christian, pagan or “heathen” religions are still around — revived perhaps, modified, but still around. Classical China fell, but Confucianism, Taoism, Kung fu, and Tai Chi survive. Classical India fell, but Hinduism, or Dharma, survives. Europe — as a great civilization with energy, vitality, ideas, etc. — has fallen, but we have its philosophy, art, music, literature, and ritual. Trees may fall with the wind, but the wind scatters their seed.
Those of us that are not ignorant of history should feel lucky to live in this time, because history is in the making, and those who know the past have a better sense of the future and what it takes to create one. Instead of being angered at the behavior of others, we should use it as a reminder of our own. If ugliness is elevated and we prefer beauty, what is our contribution? To improve our own appearance? To paint? To write? To learn about aesthetics? If weakness is elevated, are we training for strength? If there is dumbing down, are we reading deeply and often? Or forming intellectual groups? Or teaching our children to think for themselves and to prefer what is good over what is bad?
The temper-tantrum-rebelliousness of one side is often met with a boring intellectual and cultural snobbery from the other. But a new culture won’t be born from denouncing the denouncers, protesting the protestors, or being “triggered” by the “triggered.” Indeed, the denunciations, protesting, and being triggered are traps set for those who oppose such behavior. Whether intended or not, becoming the “negative of the negative” — to borrow a phrase from Hegel — drains energy and sucks the creativity out of the individual who could be doing something positive and making an actual difference.
Of course, we should recognize problems in the world and in our society, but becoming mesmerized by them is not a solution. To create an alternative culture is to offer a choice: weakness or strength? Ugliness or beauty? Ignorance or knowledge? Misery or joy? Destructiveness or creativity? To see the world as embodying profound and deep meaning as opposed to the belief that everything is just an intellectual construct that can be deconstructed?
And we have to offer that choice not by shouting about it, but by embodying it.
A culture that cuts off its roots will die. True cultures know their history and take the best of it as they look forward, developing their philosophical, artistic, musical, and architectural traditions. This is something we can do on a large scale. But we can do it on a small scale as well, forming small circles of the like-minded, or, if we are totally alone, working on developing our physical strength and health, on our intelligence and knowledge of history, philosophy, spirituality, art, aesthetics, and so on. We can be our own culture; our own work of art.
Instead of wasting our time criticizing students who are asking for “trigger warnings” on university textbooks that contain themes such as rape and war, in case it upsets them, we — as all artists have done until recently — should try to understand and express the three-dimensionality of life, the good and ill, the joyful and painful, and the struggle with the self.
It is important that we are creators, not just critics of criticism. Real creativity doesn’t come from the emulating the mainstream. Nor does it spontaneously arrive out of the imagination like a revelation from God. It requires going deep into a tradition — or, better still, more than one tradition — of art, literature, music, etc., grasping the essence, the attitude of the past creators, understanding what is relevant to us today, and creating something new and unexpected. Tradition cannot be endlessly replicated, but should be seen as a launchpad to a new vision of its essence — of what is essential to life, vitality, and self-overcoming.