Cultural Conservers

A few years back the American middle class indulged in another of the periodic orgies of self-congratulation in which it proclaims its opinion of its own historical importance. The inspiration for this particular outburst was a 2000 book entitled Cultural Creatives by Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, which announced that the spread of certain fashionable ideas through the middle class meant nothing less than the imminent transformation of American society.

Apparently none of its more enthusiastic reviewers remembered that the same imminent transformation had been announced just as confidently in the pages of Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970), and a long line of predecessors reaching back well into the nineteenth century. Like so many of today’s new ideas, in other words, this one has been around for a good long time, just as the “new” attitudes Ray and Anderson identified as hallmarks of their “cultural creatives” have been widely accepted among a sizeable sector of the American intelligentsia since the heyday of the Transcendentalists in the 1820s.

Yet there’s more going on here than the simple failure of memory discussed in last week’s Archdruid Report post. What is at issue here touches on the meaning and value of culture itself.

Mind you, it’s difficult to talk meaningfully about that topic in America today, after decades of “culture wars” in which all sides redefined the very concept of culture to fit their own Utopian fantasies and political objectives. It’s doubly difficult because the last half century or so has witnessed the systematic destruction of America’s own national and regional cultures, their replacement with a manufactured pseudoculture based on the values of the American urban intelligentsia, and the consequent revolt of many working class Americans against the concept of culture altogether.

Culture is memory. An authentic culture roots into the collective experience of a community’s past, and from this source draws meaning for the present and tools for the future. Thus culture, like memory, is a constant negotiation between the living and the dead, as new conditions call for reinterpretation of past experience and redefine the meanings that are relevant and the tools that are useful. When a society gives up on these negotiations and abandons the link with its past, as last week’s post suggested, what remains is not originality but stasis, in which a persistent set of common assumptions and popular narratives are rediscovered and rehashed endlessly under a veneer of apparent novelty.

Woven into this process is the social schism Arnold Toynbee traced in his magisterial A Study of History. As each civilization enters its imperial stage, he showed, a split opens up between its privileged classes and the rest of the population. The latter becomes what Toynbee called an “internal proletariat,” expected to perform the work that maintains the civilization but deprived of participation in its benefits and, as the schism in society unfolds, increasingly alienated from its values. The internal proletariat is deprived of its folk cultures by the destruction of the economic basis of traditional lifeways, and barred from participation in elite culture by class and income barriers that grow steadily higher as the imperial stage proceeds.

In the bare ground that results, any number of strange seeds can sprout. Eventually, Toynbee suggests, what fills the cultural vacuum is religion – not the traditional religion of the imperial culture, but some exotic faith dissonant enough from the values of that culture to express the alienation felt by the internal proletariat. As the imperial stage ends in collapse and the privileged classes find themselves stripped of wealth and power by the upwardly mobile warlords of the ensuing dark age, the imperial society’s own cultural resources generally hit the scrap heap. The result is a curious feedback loop amplifying the process of catabolic collapse; pious hands tore down the temples of the Roman gods and recycled the mathematical papers of Archimedes to provide parchment for Christian homilies, for example, because most people in the postclassical world no longer felt any loyalty to the culture of their ancestors.

We are already well into that process in modern America. The schism in society outlined by Toynbee was clearly visible in his lifetime, and has widened since then. A parallel chasm now gapes down the center of American culture, and most other industrial cultures as well. It bears remembering that in the nineteenth century, opera counted as popular entertainment, and women in the privileged classes practiced most of the same handicrafts as their poorer sisters; nowadays very few such common factors connect, say, the university-educated middle classes of an east coast suburb with the rural poor of a Midwestern farm state. Folk cultures have guttered out or survive only as museum pieces, while elite culture withdraws behind walls of obscurantism – compare the accessible and deservedly popular fine art of the late nineteenth century with the deliberately unwelcoming and often offensive product served up by today’s art scene.

In a world lurching through economic crisis and the first wave of impacts from peak oil, it’s easy to dismiss the continuing implosion of American culture as a minor issue, but such a dismissal is as much a symptom of cultural collapse as anything I’ve cited already. Again, culture is memory, and among the things it holds in store are the tools, insights, and lifeways that served people well in the days before our civilization started chasing the suicidally addictive rush of empire. Again, Rome offers a useful example; by the time the Roman empire began coming apart at the seams and the grain ships no longer sailed from North African wheat fields to Ostia’s wharves, nobody remembered how things had worked in the days when the classical world consisted of independent city-states producing most of their own necessities at home.

Still, the Roman world lacked the extraordinary sense of historical time and change that, as John Luk√°cs has pointed out, is one of modern industrial civilization’s most distinctive traits. Roman writers in the declining phase of the empire apparently never noticed that their experiences mirrored, say, the implosion of the Mycenean world in the 13th century BCE, nor did such Roman historians as Livy treat Rome’s own past as a guide to the future. Thus it seems never to have occurred to the Romans of the late Empire that their civilization might need to be handed on to a very different future. The task of salvage was left to Irish monks some centuries later, and by the time they got to work, a huge amount of material had already vanished forever. Nor did the monasteries preserve everything that came to them; the immense musical heritage of ancient Rome, for example, was not of interest to monastic scribes, and as a result, all that survives of it is one fragment of a single haunting melody, taking some 25 seconds to play.

Our situation differs from theirs only because the contemporary sense of history makes it possible to place our own experience beside that of the Romans, and any number of other fallen civilizations as well, and draw conclusions about the likely shape of our own future. We are arguably in much the same case as the Romans of the late Empire; we have, as they had, an immense cultural heritage, nearly all of which is disastrously vulnerable to the impacts of collapse; we have done our level best to abandon the heritage of local folk cultures at home and elsewhere in our empire, just as they did, and thus risk losing precious knowledge that might make it easier to weather the descent from today’s vertiginous imperial heights. The one difference is that it’s possible to talk in these terms today, and to propose concrete responses to what will be one of the most challenging features of the decline and fall of the industrial world.

In an ironic way, the “cultural creatives” whose specter I evoked at the beginning of this essay offer a glimpse at one of the most promising of these potential responses. Behind the inevitable rhetoric of innovation and originality was a very different reality: a sector of America’s middle-class intelligentsia discovered a set of ideas their parents, grandparents, and great-great-grandparents had valued in their time, and applied those ideas to the present day. True, most of the people involved in this rediscovery had no idea that this was what they were doing, and thus never made use of the rich heritage of the Transcendentalists, the Theosophists, the Beat generation, or any other expression of the same current of thought. Still, what they did half-unconsciously can be done in a more deliberate and conscious way.

Thus I’d like to suggest that one crucial need of our present predicament is the rise of a movement of cultural conservers – individuals who choose, for one reason or another, to take personal responsibility for the preservation of some part of the modern world’s cultural heritage. That’s a tall order, not least because the crises inseparable from the decline and fall of a civilization will leave many of us scrambling for bare survival in the face of soaring death rates and increasingly harsh conditions. Still, it’s not an insurmountable challenge.

Three themes, it seems to me, sketch out a basic frame on which cultural conservers can weave the individual patterns of their own work:

  • Focus. The cultural heritage of the modern world is far too vast for any one person even to encounter it all, much less to know enough about it to preserve significant elements of it in any meaningful way. Thus each cultural conserver will need to choose a handful of traditions at most, and focus his or her efforts on those. Since a consensus on what is worth saving is almost certainly impossible to reach, and might not even be a good idea, it seems to me that the best guide to the prospective cultural conserver in choosing a focus is sheer personal passion. The tradition that speaks to you most deeply – be it tablet weaving or Wordsworth’s poetry, mountain dulcimers or handbuilt radio technology, classical philosophy or the great American novels – is the one that will inspire you to the efforts necessary to pass it on to the future.
  • Simplicity. As the requirements needed to maintain a cultural tradition go up, the likelihood of its survival in a time of scarcity go down. Musical forms you can play yourself on an instrument of your own construction are thus more likely to survive as living traditions than musical forms that require a symphony orchestra and an opera company trained to today’s exacting vocal standards. More complex traditions can sometimes be stored in easily maintained forms; the intricate reasonings of Greek philosophers, for example, made it to the Renaissance because they were written down on durable parchment and left to gather dust in monastic libraries through the intervening centuries. In many cases, though, it’s possible to choose between simple and complex options for preserving a technology; if you want to preserve the technology of printing, for example, a hand-operated letterpress is much simpler to use, maintain, and build with hand tools and locally available resources than a computer and a laser printer. Technologies that are less efficient in the abstract, as this example suggests, may be more durable in the deindustrial future ahead of us.
  • Transmission. It takes more than one lifetime for a civilization to decline and fall, and so the flip side of preserving some bit of cultural heritage is the challenge of passing it on to a younger generation. Those traditions that will have obvious economic value in an age of decline and disintegration have a huge head start here; it’s unlikely in the extreme, for example, that today’s advances in intensive organic food production will be lost anytime soon, since the skills in question grant a huge survival advantage to those who know them and have the opportunity to put them to use. Still, cultural transmission does not always follow the economic line of least resistance. Those who know must be prepared to teach, and also to use their knowledge in ways that meet community needs.
These three themes sketch out only the first rough lines on a very broad canvas. In posts to come, I hope to develop these ideas in more detail. It’s worth noting that a significant number of people have already taken on some elements of the sort of project I am outlining here, some quite consciously, and I propose to draw on their experience as much as I can. Just as the “cultural creatives” could have benefited by placing their own projects in a historical context, too, I intend to offer some historical context to the mission of the cultural conservers, in the hope that a sense of what worked (and what didn’t work) in the past will help shape constructive responses to the immense challenges of our future.