Has The Impermanence Of Globalization Killed Culture?
One British art historian claimed that geographic permanence is the precondition for great culture and today we have neither
I never thought I would live to see the total death of culture. I don’t mean high culture or great culture but even the level of good popular culture I took for granted in my teens and early twenties, which I thought would just continue to reinvent itself indefinitely. I thought that there would always be a steady flow of cinema, music, fashion and fiction, which were absolutely central to life until a decade or two ago. It was what people talked about. It was what ambitious young people dreamed of creating. Every weekend the culture supplements would have something or somebody in the arts to be excited about. There was always a great music act to hear live or a new book by a favorite living author to anticipate. Talking about politics was for a small joyless niche only.
The afterglow of what ever it was that made us create culture seems to have been finally extinguished. The financial models of the institutions that used to create popular culture still exist and so movies, books, clothes are still being made but they’re artistically dead and there is no organic audience or excitement about them. The standards have plummeted. I imagine one of the reasons nobody seems to be admitting this is that the people who are in the business of producing culture or writing about it or facilitating it in some way would be putting themselves out of work in the industries that remain. It also invites the inevitable criticisms of being old and out of touch or just mourning the passing domination of white culture. Today nobody is creating even good quality pop culture and industries worth billions struggle to keep people interested.
There are many possible causes here but I’d like to suggest one, based on Kenneth Clarke’s famous 1969 Civilization series. Near the beginning of the series he stands in front of a great Viking ship, admiring its craftsmanship but he says that the decisive feature that gave rise to great culture was the end of migrations and nomadism and the beginning of permanence.
Civilisation means something more than energy and will and creative power: something the early Norsemen hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence. The wanderers and invaders were in a continual state of flux. They didn’t feel the need to look beyond the next March or the next voyage or the next battle. And for that reason it didn’t occur to them to build stone houses, or to write books…Civilised man, or so it seems to me, must feel that he belongs somewhere in space and time; that he consciously looks forward and looks back. And for this purpose it is a great convenience to be able to read and write.
Even the cosmopolitan writers of the past, like James Joyce for example, were directly inspired by and deeply psychically rooted in their home city which they imagined living on far into the future. Today there is no such permanence. We are not rooted anywhere and everything is temporary. There is no continuity with the future to which a love letter can be written. Maybe as a result we just can’t create anymore.