The Twilight of Meaning

This is not going to be an easy post to write, and I’m not at all sure it will be any easier to understand; I trust my readers will bear with me. I could begin it in any number of places, but the one that seems most important just now is the vestibule of the little public library six blocks away from my house. It’s a solid if unimaginative brick rectangle of Eighties vintage, one room not quite so full of books as it ought to be, another room in back for the librarians to work, a meeting space, restrooms, and a vestibule where books that are being discarded from the collection are shelved for sale.

That’s standard practice in most public libraries these days. If a book hasn’t been checked out for three years, or if it needs repairs and there isn’t a huge demand for it, it goes onto the sale shelf. Prices range from cheap to absurdly cheap; the sale doesn’t bring in a huge amount, but at a time of sparse and faltering budgets, every bit helps. The exception is children’s books, which aren’t for sale at all. They’re in a cart marked FREE, and if they don’t get taken in a month or so, they go into the trash, because there simply isn’t any demand for them. That was where, a few months ago, I spotted a copy of Kate Seredy’s 1938 Newberry Award winner The White Stag.

The vast majority of my readers will no doubt find the reference opaque. Still, back when I was a child—no, dinosaurs didn’t quite walk the earth back then, though it sometimes feels that way—winners of the Newberry Award, one of the two most prestigious US awards for children’s literature, still counted for quite a bit. Most libraries with a children’s collection of any size had the whole set, and most children’s librarians were enthusiastic about getting them into the hands of young readers. That’s not how I found The White Stag—I needed nobody’s encouragement to read, and Seredy’s compelling illustrations of galloping horsemen and magical beasts were well aimed to catch my eye—but find it I did, and that’s how medieval Hungarian legends about the coming of Attila the Hun wove their way permanently into the crawlspaces of my imagination.

So that was the book, one among dozens, that was awaiting its fate in the free cart at the South Cumberland Public Library. I already have a copy, and I decided to take the risk that somebody would find the one in the cart before it got tossed in the trash. As it happens, it was the right choice; the next week it was gone. I’ll never know whether some grandparent recognized it from his or her own childhood and took it as a gift, or whether some child caught sight of the cover, pulled it from the cart, and was caught by the magic of a tale that makes today’s canned children’s fantasies look like the pasty commercial product they are, but at least I can hope that it was something like that.

The White Stag was written the year my father was born. In my youth you could find books that old and much older, plenty of them, in small town public libraries all over the country. Nowadays, increasingly, you can’t. What you get instead are shelf upon shelf of whatever’s new, glossy, popular and uncontroversial, massaged into innocuousness by marketing specialists and oozing a fetid layer of movie, toy, and video game tie-ins from all orifices, all part of the feedback loop that endlessly recycles the clichés of current popular culture into minds that, in many cases, have never encountered anything else. In the process, the threads of our collective memory are coming silently apart.

I don’t think it’s going too far to describe the result as a kind of cultural senility. That concept certainly goes a long way to explain the blank and babbling incoherence with which America in particular stares vacantly at its onrushing fate. Without a sense of the past and its meaning, without narratives that weave the events of our daily lives into patterns that touch the principles that matter, we lack the essential raw materials of thought, and so our collective reasoning processes, such as they are, spit out the same rehashed nonsolutions over and over again.

It will doubtless be objected that we have the internet, and thus all the information we could possibly need. We do indeed have the internet, where sites discussing the current color of Lady Gaga’s pubic hair probably outnumber sites discussing Newberry Award books by a thousand to one. We have an effectively limitless supply of information, but then it’s not information that I got from reading The White Stag at age eight, and it’s not a lack of information that’s dragging us down to a sorry end.

The problem—for it is a problem, and thus at least in theory capable of solution, rather than a predicament, which simply has to be put up with—is the collapse of the framework of collective meanings that gives individual facts their relevance. That framework of meanings consists, in our culture and every other, of shared narratives inherited from the past that form the armature on which our minds place data as it comes in.

A couple of years ago, in a discussion on this blog that touched on this same point, I made the mistake of referring to those narratives by their proper name, which is myth. Those of you who know how Americans think know exactly what happened next: plenty of readers flatly insisted on taking the word in its debased modern sense of “a story that isn’t true,” and insisted in tones ranging from bafflement to injured pride that they didn’t believe in any myths, and what was I talking about?

The myths you really believe in, of course, are the ones you don’t notice that you believe. The myth of progress is still like that for most people. Even those who insist that they no longer believe in progress very often claim that we can have a better world for everybody if we do whatever they think we ought to do. In the same way, quite a few of the people who claim that they’ve renounced religion and all its works still believe, as devoutly as any other fundamentalist, that it’s essential to save everybody else in the world from false beliefs; the central myth of evangelical religion, which centers on salvation through having the right opinions, remains welded into place even among those who most angrily reject the original religious context of that myth.

But there’s a further dimension to the dynamics of—well, let’s just call them cultural narratives, shall we?—unfolding in America today. When the shared narratives from the past break apart, and all you’ve got is popular culture spinning feedback loops in the void, what happens then?

What happens is the incoherence that’s become a massive political fact in America today. That incoherence takes at least three forms. The first is the rise of subcultures that can’t communicate with one another at all. We had a display of that not long ago in the clash over raising the deficit limit. To judge by the more thoughtful comments in the blogosphere, I was far from the only person who noticed that the two sides were talking straight past each other. It wasn’t simply that the two sides had differing ideas about government finance, though of course that’s also true; it’s that there’s no longer any shared narrative about government that’s held in common between the two sides. The common context is gone; it’s hard to think of a single political concept that has the same connotations and meanings to a New England liberal that it has to an Oklahoma conservative.

It’s crucial to recognize, though, that these subcultures are themselves riddled with the same sort of incoherence that pervades society as a whole; this is the second form of incoherence I want to address. I wonder how many of the devout Christians who back the Republican Party, for example, realize that the current GOP approach to social welfare issues is identical to the one presented by Anton Szandor LaVey in The Satanic Bible. (Check it out sometime; the parallels are remarkable.) It may seem odd that believers in a faith whose founder told his followers to give all they had to the poor now by and large support a party that’s telling America to give all it has to the rich, but that’s what you get when a culture’s central narratives dissolve; of course it’s also been my experience that most people who claim they believe in the Bible have never actually read more than a verse here and there.

Mind you, the Democratic Party is no more coherent than the GOP. Since the ascendancy of Reagan, the basic Democrat strategy has been to mouth whatever slogans you think will get you elected and then, if you do land in the White House, chuck the slogans, copy the policies of the last successful Republican president, and hope for the best. Clinton did that with some success, copying to the letter Reagan’s borrow-and-spend policies at home and mostly toothless bluster abroad; of course he had the luck to ride a monstrous speculative bubble through his two terms, and then hand it over to the GOP right as it started to pop. Obama, in turn, has copied the younger Bush’s foreign and domestic policies with equal assiduity but less success; partly that’s because the two Middle Eastern wars he’s pursued with such enthusiasm were a bad idea from the start, and partly because his attempts to repeat Bush’s trick of countering the collapse of one speculative bubble by inflating another haven’t worked so far.

I’ve discussed more than once before in these posts the multiple ironies of living at a time when the liberals have forgotten how to liberate and the conservatives have never learned how to conserve. Still, there’s a third dimension to the incoherence of contemporary America, and it appears most clearly in the behavior of people whose actions are quite literally cutting their own throats. The kleptocratic frenzy under way at the top of the economic pyramid is the best example I can think of.

Back in the 1930s, a substantial majority of the American rich realized that the only way to stop the rising spiral of depressions that threatened to end here, as in much of Europe, in fascist takeovers was to allow a much larger share of the national wealth to go to the working classes. They were quite correct, because it’s wages rather than investments that are the real drivers of economic prosperity. The logic here is as simple as it is irrefutable. When people below the rentier class have money, by and large, they spend it, and those expenditures provide income for businesses. Rising wages thus drive rising business income, increased employment, and all the other factors that make for prosperity.

On the other hand, when more money shifts to the rentier class – the people who live on investments – a smaller fraction goes to consumer expenditures, and the higher up the ladder you go, the smaller the fraction becomes. Close to the summit, nearly all income gets turned into investments of a more or less speculative nature, which take it out of the productive economy altogether. (How many people are employed to manufacture a derivative?) This recognition was the basis for the American compromise of the 1930s, a compromise brokered by the very rich Franklin Roosevelt and backed by a solid majority of financiers and industrialists at the time, who recognized that pursuing their own short-term profit at the expense of economic prosperity and national survival was not exactly a bright idea.

Yet this not very bright idea is now standard practice across the board on the upper end of the American economy. The absurd bonuses “earned” by bankers in recent years are only the most visible end of a pervasive culture of executive profiteering, aided and abetted by both parties and shrugged off by boards of directors who have by and large misplaced their fiduciary duty to the stockholders. This and other equally bad habits have drawn a pre-1930s share of the national wealth to the upper end of the economic spectrum, and accordingly produced a classic pre-1930s sequence of bubbles and crashes.

None of this takes rocket science to understand; nor does it demand exceptional thinking capacity to realize that pushed too far, a set of habits that prioritizes short-term personal profits over the survival of the system that makes those profits possible could very well leave top executives dangling from lampposts—or, as was the case in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, so common a target for homegrown terrorists that people throwing bombs through the windows of magnates’ cars was a theme for music-hall ditties. What it takes, rather, is the sense of context that comes from shared narratives deriving from the past—in this case, the recognition that today’s economic problems derive from the policies that caused the same problems most of a century ago would probably be enough.

Still, that recognition—more broadly, the awareness that the lessons of the past have something to teach the present—requires a kind of awareness that’s become very uncommon in America these days, and I’ve come to think that the main culprit at all levels of society is precisely the feedback loop mentioned earlier, the transformation of culture into marketing that exists for no other purpose than to sell more copies of itself. The replacement of The White Stag and its peers with the Care Bears and theirs is only one small part of that transformation, though it’s a telling one. There’s no tragedy in the Care Bears universe, no history, and no change, just a series of interchangeable episodes in which one-dimensional figures lurch mechanically through their routines and end exactly where they started, just in time for the closing flurry of ads.

The popular culture on offer to adults is by and large more complex, but no less subject to the pressures of manufactured popular culture. (The public library in Seattle, to my horror, once put up splashy ads asking, “What if everyone in Seattle read the same book?” Why, then we’d have even more of a mental monoculture than we’ve got already.) There the interchangeable unit is less often the episode than the movie, the novel, or the series. Whether the protagonist finds true love, catches the murderer, gets bitten by the vampire, saves the world from destruction, or whatever other generic gimmick drives the plot, you know perfectly well that when you finish this one there are hundreds more just like it ready to go through the same mechanical motions. Their sole originality is the effort to ring as many changes on a standard formula as possible—hey, let’s do another pirate zombie romantic mystery, but this time with Jane Austen! The result is like taking a loaf of Wonder Bread and spreading something different on every slice, starting with Marmite and ending with motor oil; there are plenty of surface variations, but underneath it’s always the same bland paste.

Business executives, you may be interested to know, read very little other than mystery novels and pop business books. I don’t know that anybody’s done a survey on what politicians read, but I doubt it’s anything more edifying. It’s really a closed loop; from the top to the bottom of the social pyramid, one or another form of mass-market popular culture makes up most of the mental input of Americans, and I trust most of my readers know the meaning of the acronym GIGO. Then we look baffled when things don’t work out, because we don’t know how to deal with tragedy or history or change, and trying to impose some form of Care Bear logic on the real world simply doesn’t work.

I mentioned earlier that this is a problem, not a predicament, and that it therefore has a solution. As it happens, I have no reason to think that more than a handful of people will be willing to embrace the solution, but it’s still worth mentioning for their sake, and for another reason I’ll get to in a bit. The solution? It’s got two steps, which are as follows.

1. Pull the plug on current popular culture in your own life. Cutting back a little doesn’t count, and no, you don’t get any points for feeling guilty about wallowing in the muck. Face it, your television will do you more good at the bottom of a dumpster than it will sitting in your living room, and the latest pirate zombie romantic mystery, with or without Jane Austen, is better off gathering cobwebs in a warehouse; you don’t need any of it, and it may well be wrecking your capacity to think clearly.

2. Replace it with something worth reading, watching, hearing, or doing. You may well have your own ideas about what goes in this category, but in case you don’t, I have a suggetion: go looking among things that are older than you are.

Yes, I’m quite serious, and for more than one reason. First, one of the advantages of time is that the most forgettable things get forgotten; there was a huge amount of vapid popular culture in the 19th century, for example, but only the most erudite specialists know much about it now. Your chances of finding something worth reading or watching or hearing or doing goes up as time has more of a chance to run its filter on the results. Second, even if what you find is pablum, it’s the pablum of a different time, and will clash with mental habits tuned to the pablum of this time, with useful results. When the visual conventions of a Humphrey Bogart movie strike you as staged and hokey, stop and ask yourself how current popular culture will look fifty years from now—if anybody’s looking at them at all, that is.

That, of course, is the third reason, the one I hinted at a few paragraphs back: current popular culture, like so much else of contemporary American society, is almost uniquely vulnerable to the multiple impacts of an industrial civilization in decline. Fifty years from now, the way things are going just now, the chances that anybody will be able to watch a Care Bears video are pretty close to nil; most of today’s media don’t age well, and all of them depend directly and indirectly on energy inputs that our society can scarcely maintain now and almost certainly won’t be able to maintain for most Americans for more than a decade or two longer. Beyond that, you’re going to need something more durable, and a great deal of what was in circulation before the era of mass culture will still be viable after that era is over once and for all.

There’s more to it, too, but to get there we’re going to have to take a detour through a conversation that almost nobody in America wants to have just now. We’ll get into that next week.