Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture (1)

 Is there any future for culture? That is the question with which I ended my previous post, more than three months ago now. It is where I want to resume now, after that long break.

To get right to the point, the answer to that question is no, there is no future for culture. The only future that what presents itself today as our global reality permits us is the endless continuation of the circulation of commodities, a pseudo-future that precludes all cultural production. We can only expect more of the same, that is, yet ever more new commodities, newly circulating. Culture today is impossible.

Accordingly, the creation of a future for culture—of a future itself—can today be only an impossible possibility. Since cultural production is no longer possible today, any cultural product that comes upon us must come to us on some other day than this one, this endless day of ceaseless commodity production and circulation.

Culture is no commodity, and no commodity is a cultural product.

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Martin Heidegger’s so called “Schwarze Hefte,” the “Black Notebooks” he kept from the period of his Nazi involvement early in the 1930s all the way down to the beginning of the 1970s, near the end of his life, have begun to appear in German in the Gesamtausgabe (GA), or Complete Edition, of his works. So far, three volumes containing fifteen notebooks labeled Überlegungen (Reflections) have been issued (GA 94-96).

In a note early in “Überlegungen IV,” written in the1930s after Heidegger’s controversial year as Rector under the Nazis at the University of Freiburg from 1933-1934 had ended, Heidegger writes (GA 94, page 210): “The ‘world’ is out of joint; there is no world any more, more truly said: there never was yet world. We are standing only at its preparation.” He then begins the immediately following note with the italicized remark that “[w]ith the gods, we have also lost the world.”

Where there is no world, there is no culture; and where no culture, no world. Nor is there anything of gods or the divine in such an indifferent, placeless place.

(What all that may have to do with Nazism, and with Heidegger’s relationship to it, I will leave for subsequent reflections of my own sometime somewhere.)

*     *     *     *     *     *

Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has already come to count as something of a sensation of 21st century literature—if there is any such thing as literature any longer, which is a question with which Knausgaard is himself concerned—with the publication of his multi-volume autobiographical novel entitled My Struggle. Particularly in the original Norwegian, Min Kamp, that title was immediately controversial because of its obvious allusion to Hitler’s notorious Mein Kampf. Despite the expectations such a title might inspire, there certainly seems to be nothing of Nazism, anti-Semitism, Fascism, or the like in Knausgaard’s text. At least no critics I know of have suggested that there is, nor can I personally detect anything of the sort in what I’ve read of it so far—which admittedly is not that much, relatively speaking, since I am still only midway through the second of the six volumes of the work.

At one point well along in the first volume of My Struggle Knausgaard remarks on the common contemporary feeling that (as he puts it on page 221) “the future does not exist.” He explains that he means the feeling that what lies ahead for us today is “only more of the same,” never anything really new or surprising any more, vibrant with possibility. What that feeling indicates, he says, also “means that all utopias are meaningless.” However, he continues: “Literature has always been related to utopia, so when the utopia loses meaning, so does literature.” He suggests that the literary enterprise, or at least his own literary enterprise, has always been an endeavor “to combat fiction with fiction.” That is, by conjuring up a “no-place”—which is the literal meaning of the word utopia—literature aims to put the lie to what presents itself as being present, but is really no more than a sort of convenient lie or confabulation—something the proverbial powers that be, whoever or whatever those powers themselves may really be at any given time, would have us all take to be “reality” itself, rather than see the very different real reality behind such mere appearances. Telling tales that tell the tale on the tales we are told (often even telling them to ourselves): that is the work of literature, as I take Knausgaard to be articulating it.

What that which passes for “reality” today kept telling Knausgaard himself he “ought to do,” he goes on to say in the passage at issue, “was to affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out, for in that way I would undoubtedly have a better life.” Surely that is indeed what he “ought” to do, instead of pursuing all this literary nonsense that leads straight to nowhere; “but,” he says, “I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t, something had congealed inside me, and although it was essentialist, that is, outmoded and, furthermore, romantic, I could not get past it, for the simple reason that it had not only been thought but also experienced, in the sudden states of clear-sightedness that everyone must know, where for a few seconds you catch sight of another world from the one you were in only a moment earlier, where the world seems to step forward and show itself for a brief glimpse before reverting and leaving everything as before.”

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Perhaps the most shocking thing about our present age is that today we can no longer be shocked by anything. Such moments as Knausgaard describes, when we are suddenly shocked out of the somnambulism of our daily conduct of business as usual, where there is only ever more of the same old same old—moments when we are brought alive in the world again—are perhaps no longer possible for us. At any rate, if even a glimmer of such an impossible possibility dares show itself to us, then the dark that wants to be taken for the real rushes in to close back over it again immediately.

That is just what it does for Sally Elliott, a character in another novel I have recently been reading.

Only a few weeks ago American novelist Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath was published, and I immediately downloaded a Kindle copy and read it. It is the long-awaited—and very long—sequel to his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, which first appeared long ago, way back in 1966, when it won that year’s Faulkner Prize for best first novel.

Briefly, Coover’s fictional Brunists are a typically American, whacko fundamentalist Christian extremist sect. In the first of the two novels about the Brunists, Cover traces the sect’s emergence. The Brunists then return to the scene of their cultish birth five years later, in Coover’s eventual follow-up. That story of their return to the scene culminates in a typically American, eruptive and violent bloodbath, a sort on anti-apocalyptic apocalypse that, once it has happened, ultimately just lets everything keep right on going pretty much the same as before, really.

Sally Elliott appears as one of the many characters that people both novels. She is anything but a Brunist herself, being not only atheistic but also even anti-theistic—or more properly put anti-religious, since she does not confine her critique to theism as such. For the most part Sally stands aside from the main action of the story of the Brunists, to serve Coover as a sensitive observer registering the events that unfold around her. Still just a child during the action in the story of the Brunists’ origin, she becomes the very anchor of moral sanity in the narrative of their eventual day of wrath.

Relatively early on in the later novel, Sally pays a spy’s visit to the Brunist camp. There she encounters some young Brunists with hopes of converting her.   When Sally grows faint, they become concerned and lead her into the communal tent to rest, and where they give her a cream soda to refresh herself. Coover pauses with her there to write (starting at location 3,844 of a total of 15,901 in the Kindle version I read): “Sometimes, it seems to her [despite or at least apart from all her anti-religious sanity] that she grasps or is embraced by a great cosmic mystery, and for a moment she enjoys a certain rapt serenity. But usually the mystery eludes her of it evolves into some familiar banality, like the cream soda she burped then, and it never comes close to happening when she’s bummed out with the blahs.”

The very point of what presents itself as present today is to bum us all out with the blahs, so that nothing of the future may ever come—and even if it does, will fizzle out again right away, like bubbles from some cheap carbonated soda.   What presents itself as present today lacks all presence. It cannot hold. It has no grounding.

Nor can it, accordingly, offer any ground for anything else to grow in it. Nothing can be cultivated in such soil. No culture can take root there.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Nietzsche remarks somewhere that his ambition is to say more in a single aphorism than others say in an entire book. Then he immediately corrects himself and says, no, his goal is to say more in a single aphorism than others do not say in a whole book.

Indeed, Nietzsche aims to say the whole world in a single aphorism. At least one aphorism where he succeeds in doing just that is in a passage about the very nature of “world” itself, a passage from The Twilight of the Idols entitled “The History of an Error: How the ‘True’ World Finally Became a Fable.” At the end of his telling of that history, Nietzsche asks just what’s left of the world, once the belief in some “true” world has finally shown itself up as no longer worthy of any belief. When the “true” world finally vanishes, just what world remains? The “apparent” one, perhaps? But no, Nietzsche answers. Along with the “true” world, he says, the “apparent” one also vanishes.

Half a century and two World Wars (at least by one count) later, Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception glosses Nietzsche’s remark by saying that, with the collapse of the very grounds for any distinction between a supposedly merely apparent or “false” world, on the one hand, and a supposedly “true” one, on the other, the world itself at last comes forth clearly for itself, as the very place where sense and non-sense, meaning and the lack of it, themselves emerge. This world itself is neither “true” nor “false.” The world is just that, the world—of which, as Merleau-Ponty nicely says, “the true and the false are but provinces.”

Unfortunately, however, there is another possibility, one which neither Nietzsche nor Merleau-Ponty would have welcomed at all, but of which both were all too much aware, as I read them. That is the possibility that, to borrow a way of putting it from Heidegger, who came between those two, the world itself might simply cease to world at all.

Framed in those terms, to continue considering whether culture has any future today confronts us with the no doubt strange-sounding question of whether, in the world of today, there is any longer any world—or, with it, any today—at all. Can anything really present itself at all in what presents itself today as what is present?

That is precisely the question with which contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou occupies himself in yet another book I’ve been reading just recently, since my last post to this blog more than three months ago now. I will start with Badiou in my next post (which I do not think will take me another three more months to put up).

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Frank, this was splendid! You’ve given me so much to think about. Do you think the 24 hour news cycle is the example par excellance of the death of culture and the possibility of a future? Gmail put all your other posts in the Social category, so I never saw them. Fuck. Hope you and Gail are well. Charlie

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Thanks, Charlie! Glad you liked it! Unfortunately, I do think the news cycle is all too much of an example.

  2. Thank you. Keep on challenging us, Frank, and have a great summer!

    • The same to you, Marc!

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