Our Cultural Recession

Our Cultural Recession
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One hundred years ago on a February day in New York City "a line of automobiles stood waiting along Broadway," in what according to legend was the first modern traffic jam in Manhattan. Meanwhile, "those who could not beg, buy, or borrow a ticket of admission formed a line outside the door" of a building in Morningside Heights. They were "hoping that some who had tickets would fail to appear," while others crowded behind a window to catch glimpses; a woman "fainted in the crush."

What garnered such frenzy? A lecture at Columbia University by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. The vivid description comes from American journalist Edwin Slosson, who documented the "major prophets of his day" for The Independent, a weekly New York-based magazine. His subjects included poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré, biologist Élie Metchnikof, physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, and naturalist Ernst Haeckel. If Slosson's subject seems heady by today's standards, the topic of Bergson's lecture series -- spirituality, freedom and the method of philosophy (half of which was delivered in French) -- was recherché.

Not so the attendees. While the audience members included students and faculty, it also comprised "people from the city." This diversity was typical of Bergson's lectures at the Collège de France in Paris, where within the swollen crowds could often be heard "French, Italian, English, American, German, Yiddish, and Russian." The scene in New York, Slosson suggested, was rivaled only by the famous lectures given in Rome by neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus nearly two millennia ago, when the ancient streets overflowed with would-be spectators.

Department stores up and down Manhattan showcased Bergson's books in windows and on best sellers counters. In just two years, U.S. sales of Bergson's Creative Evolution approached the number sold in France in over fourteen years. The event, Slosson wrote, gave reason "to question the common assertion that nowadays no interest is taken in metaphysical problems." If the American public of Slosson's day could be accused, if wrongly, of having no interest in metaphysics, words surely fail to capture the public's attitude in our own time. Bergson believed that "any philosophical idea" worthy of the name could be made "clear and acceptable to the multitude." But he also lived and wrote in a world in which there was a multitude hungry for such ideas.

The year 1913 also saw the founding of Vanity Fair, a "society magazine" that folded in 1936, to be resurrected in its familiar guise in 1983. Vanity Fair's implied readership in the years leading up to 1936 suggests that Bergson's reception in America was not incongruous, but in keeping with a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, reading public. Consider the following passage, from a 1922 article:

I do not mean to align myself...with the younger French generation by whom Flaubert is lightly dismissed and Anatole France conspué...For the younger artists in France have completely thrown overboard the ideals of perfection and form...They believe that limpidity and smoothness are inevitably meretricious.

What is remarkable about this passage, in addition to its references and vocabulary -- and I have omitted the long untranslated quotations in French -- is the topic: a comparison of nineteenth century realism and classicism with the surrealist avant-garde. The latter is the stuff of today's academic journals and graduate seminars, not popular magazines. But Vanity Fair was no academic journal and the author of the piece in question was not an academic. Edmund Wilson, who was briefly the magazine's managing editor, did not have a graduate degree; rather, he was an exemplary specimen of a nearly extinct species: the American man of letters.

To be sure, Wilson's Vanity Fair published its share of society gossip, and today's does boast talented writers (such as the late provocateur Christopher Hitchens) and retains a literary bent. But it is no stretch to say that today Vanity Fair is more often pulled off the shelf -- or, rather, linked to -- so that one can hear Taylor Swift "set the record straight" about her "Mr. Right" than read a critique the literary avant-garde. Wilson's implied reader inhabits a world whose historical distance from our own has grown into a chasm -- a world in which lectures on metaphysics could create traffic jams in New York City.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair. A century is a long time and much has since changed for the better. It is jarring to recall, for example, that the women in Bergson's audience could not vote. Fast-forward, then, to 1967 when Robert Lowell was featured on the cover of Time magazine with the subtitle: "Poetry in an Age of Prose." (Dare one speculate as to what "age" we live in now? Tweets?) Here is evidence that a sophisticated American readership continued to thrive in a world of universal suffrage, civil rights, radio, and television. If a Bergson were to speak his metaphysics in ordinary language in 2013, would there be an audience to whom he might try to make it "clear and acceptable"?

What has happened since 1913, 1922, 1967? For one, men and women of letters enjoy less of what the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu called "cultural capital" than they once did. The market has adjusted accordingly. Entertainers now occupy the position once enjoyed by belletrists. Today, a man such as Wilson, with his specialist's knowledge of the history of politics and an expert's ear for literature, would have difficulty finding a career outside academia. There are just too few professional jobs left in the public sphere for men and women of letters.

It is little known that Thomas Hardy, famous for his realist novels, wrote his novels to support his career as a poet. Similarly, Henry James, who despite his relatively blue blood worried about money most of his adult life, wrote journalism to support his career as a novelist. Today one must increasingly find a profession to support a career as a journalist. No surprise, then, that people are fleeing the public sphere, where a culture of letters has given way to one of entertainment.

Academia is only precariously sheltered from these trends.

Recently the so-called crisis in the humanities has provoked professors to defend their livelihood. Such defenses typically focus on their disciplines' ability to impart skills to a shrinking number of students -- "writing," "thinking critically" -- once prerequisite for a liberal arts education, not its raison d'être. If this crisis were just a matter of declining enrollment in humanities courses - and if Berkeley professor Scott Saul is right in his New York Times piece, only in elite private colleges -- then, while not cause for celebration, it would hardly be cause for alarm. It would befit discussion on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, not the New York Times.

But the crisis in the humanities is no more reducible to low enrollments in the humanities at a subset of schools than the 2008 economic crisis was reducible to the risky behavior of a few financial firms. Rather, the devaluing of the humanities -- even if it is only at the "top" -- is a symptom and cause of a crisis in our public sphere: a cultural recession.

Like our current economic one, this recession has not meted out punishment fairly. The Great Recession did not herald the end of haute couture and multimillion-dollar condos -- even though consumer spending plummeted and the housing bubble burst. So too the cultural recession does not entail the end of our culture of letters and its institutions.

There still are, and will remain, elite institutions and publications, and hence kinds of discourse prerequisite for participation in various cultural and political spheres. And there are, and will remain, readers and writers willing and able to participate in them. But participation is no longer part and parcel of being an informed citizen. The requisite skills and a common knowledge base can no longer be taken for granted.

To some, defending the institutions of "higher culture" will smack of elitism. But the result of our cultural recession is far more elitist. A healthy public sphere is indispensable for a flourishing, democratic, and non-technocratic society. The real losers will not be the minority of people seeking careers in letters, but the broadly educated public, who will suffer for lack of participation in that public sphere.

In his article, Edmund Wilson cautioned his Gallic contemporaries with words that might have been directed at us:

We, too, had an eighteenth century and we have forgotten it completely; it founded our literature, invented our social ideals, produced the political philosophers who gave strength and dignity to the Republic; but among us to-day you can find no one to imitate either its architecture or its ideals. The buildings are flattening us out, the machines are tearing us to pieces; our ideals are formed by the movies and our taste by the posters...Be careful how you fling away the ropes that unite you to the past from which you have fallen.

Such ropes are as important in our own century as they were in the last. But they have grown only more fragile. If our cultural recession is, like our current economic one, to herald future growth the ropes will have to be strengthened.

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

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