“Culture” was Merriam’s word of 2014, the most-queried term in its online dictionary that year, well before the hip-hop trio Migos dropped their album C U L T U R E and the phrase “doing it for the culture” dabbed its way into the American lexicon.
The choice was not made by a panel of usage technocrats, as with the OED (which distinguished “vape” among a crowded field of contenders, viz. “bae,” “budtender,” and “slacktivism”), but left to the curiosities of Merriam’s users. “Confusion about culture was just part of the culture this year,” Joshua Rothman wrote for The New Yorker. “People were desperate to know what ‘culture’ meant.”
The dictionary was likely an imperfect salve for their anxieties. Culture is one of those shifty words—the type whose definition college freshman quote verbatim in the introductions to their papers—for which a dictionary entry is of marginal use. “The problem,” according to Rothman, “is that ‘culture’ is more than the sum of its definitions. If anything, its value as a word depends on the tension between them.” The authority on the meaning of culture for Rothman is not the OED but the Welsh critic Raymond Williams, whose Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society identifies three main senses of the word: (1) culture as the “general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development”; (2) culture as “a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, a group, or humanity in general”; and (3) culture as “the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity.”
In 2015 Picador published an English edition of Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, translated from the Spanish by John King. Equal parts autopsy, jeremiad, and homily, the collection—structured around nine columns cobbled together from the Madrid newspaper to which Mr. Vargas Llosa regularly contributes (seven of them originally printed at least fifteen years ago)—argues that culture has become unmoored from its old referents. “The meaning traditionally ascribed to the term is now on the point of disappearing,” he writes in the introduction. “Perhaps it has already disappeared, discreetly emptied of its content.”
The book’s title riffs on T.S. Eliot’s 1948 essay “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” which, by Mr. Vargas Llosa’s reading, is more critical than it is definitional. Eliot anticipated that cultural decay would eventually result in “a period of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.” For Mr. Vargas Llosa, the anticipation is over, though when exactly it ended he doesn’t say.
At best, he seems to think, culture is on life support: Even if it’s still breathing, it’s no longer really thinking. From French critical theorist Guy Debord, founding member of the Situationist International, Mr. Vargas Llosa borrows the language of “spectacle”—i.e. “the effective dictatorship of illusion in modern society.” The image regime of mass entertainment and advertising, Debord argues, not only mediates but also displaces reality. Swaddling the public in what Thomas de Zengotita calls the “tapestry of virtuality,” the society of the spectacle desiccates the mind and numbs the spirit. This idea is central to Mr. Vargas Llosa’s argument, even as he distances himself from the notion of culture “as a mere epiphenomenon of social and economic life.” In his view, advertising is “the main vector” of “the dominant culture, which privileges wit over intelligence, images over ideas, humor over gravity, banality over depth, and frivolity over seriousness.”
Culture is no longer dialectical, Mr. Vargas Llosa argues: Once the primary medium for cross-examining the public conscience and confronting the Big Questions, it has since become the primary means of escaping them. “Now,” he tells us, culture “is a mechanism that allows us to ignore problematic issues, distracts us from serious concerns, and immerses us in a transitory ‘artificial paradise,’ like a drag of marijuana or a snort of cocaine, that is, a brief vacation in unreality.”
The list of those Mr. Vargas Llosa considers responsible for or corrupted by culture’s descent into “playful banality” is rambling and scattershot, bringing his main argument out of focus and distracting away from its thrust. A representative sample (not exhaustive, but perhaps a bit exhausting): screens, in all their variants; Woody Allen; cultural relativism; anthropologists; celebrity voyeurism; the sensationalist press; the gutter press; muckrakers; Julian Assange; “the fallacies and excess of postmodernism”; “self-regarding academics and intellectuals who turn their backs on society”; Michel Foucault and “his unwitting disciples”; Paul de Man; Jacques Derrida; the art world; Damien Hirst; French post-structuralism; comedians; football; raves!; drugs; publishing piracy; e-Books.
By the death of capital C culture, Mr. Vargas Llosa really means that bookish culture is in crisis. To put this back in the terms outlined by Williams, Mr. Vargas Llosa bemoans: (1) the fading archetype of the writer/public intellectual; (2) the marginalization of his own preferred way of life, i.e. literary culture, from the mainstream; and (3) the reduction of intellectual and artistic practice to cynicism, apathy, and navel-gazing.
Push notification-addled attention spans, a dwindling audience, academic myopia, escapism, consumerism, the collapse of traditional sources of authority—the usual suspects, in other words—are to blame. This is hardly news, and much of it has been said elsewhere with more bite. Writers have elegized the attention span since at least the advent of television. In the United States, the serious literary reader has been a critically endangered species since 2004, when the National Endowment for the Arts saw in its dataset of American reading habits the portents of a “vast cultural impoverishment.” More than seventy years ago Orwell lampooned academic solipsism by translating Ecclesiastes 9:11—“I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift”—into academese—“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.” Rem Koolhaas was just as pithy in his 2001 essay “Junkspace,” which characterized myopic academics as “reading a footnote under a microscope hoping it would turn into a novel.”
David Foster Wallace, in a footnote to a 1999 essay on Kafka, puts the society of spectacle under the microscope with more clarity and empathy than Notes does in the length of a novel: “Our present culture is, both developmentally and historically, adolescent. And since adolescence is acknowledged to be the single most stressful and frightening period of human development—the stage when the adulthood we claim to crave begins to present itself as a real and narrowing system of responsibilities and limitations and when we yearn for a return to the same childish oblivion we pretend to scorn—it’s not difficult to see why we as a culture are so susceptible to art and entertainment whose primary function is to escape, i.e. fantasy, adrenaline, spectacle, romance, etc… most of us come to art now essentially to escape ourselves—to pretend for a while that we’re not mice and the walls are parallel and the cat can be outrun.”
The real trouble with Notes is that it’s difficult to discern whom it’s for. If younger writers and academics mired in a culture hostile to their work are the intended audience, then the book is belaboring a familiar point to a disinterested choir. If, on the other hand, it’s meant to rouse the mainstream constituents of this culture into skipping their next Netflix&Chill session and defecting to the Republic of Letters, well, belittling Woody Allen doesn’t seem like the place to start. Notes probably hews closest to the manifesto genre, but it’s lacking a well-defined program and its tone is overly dyspeptic, undercutting the verbal edge that Mr. Vargas Llosa needs to play a convincing cultural coroner. For a book that commits so much real estate to taking stock of democratic culture, it’s curiously lacking in what Foster Wallace called a democratic spirit, i.e. “one that combines rigor and humility . . . passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others . . . [and] 100 percent intellectual integrity.”
I neglected to ask him, but I am hard-pressed to believe that Mr. Vargas Llosa has recently been to one of those “packed electronic music parties, raves, where people dance in the darkness,” that he calls “an [unwitting] return to the primitive times of magic and the tribe.” I do know, because he says so in the book, that Mr. Vargas Llosa has little interest in engaging with the scholarship of identity. “Not a single one of the titles most prominently displayed (such as Rethinking Feminist Identification, The Material Queer, Ideology and Cultural Identity, and The Lesbian Idol) appealed to me,” he writes of a 1997 trip to the London Institute of Contemporary Arts bookstore. “So I left without buying anything, something that rarely happens to me in a bookstore.”
The tone in these passages (of which there are many) is regrettable because it plays into a popular image of the high literary persona in the broader culture that is damaging to literature’s desire for a wider audience. You know the type, the curmudgeon in tweeds—aloof, imperious, priggish—think Dennis Quaid in Smart People.
I submit that the marginalization of bookish culture by the dominant culture has far more to do with this image of the discipline than with the specter of the e-Book. For decades, the man of letters has been waiting by the rotary phone for the mainstream to call him back, as an Odyssean onslaught of more entertaining suitors have slid into the general public’s DMs (and the work of women and people of color has flourished). If literature is presently in crisis, then some of the blame must fall on its own narrow, hunched shoulders for taking its cultural centrality for granted and failing to advance a stylish argument for its value to the dominant culture.
For me, then, the main question Notes prompted was not whether Culture is on the verge of extinction, but how best to make a rhetorically sophisticated, unpretentious case for literature that isn’t just a crass relevance grab. Another screed against e-books doesn't seem like the answer, but Mr. Vargas Llosa’s Nobel acceptance speech wouldn’t be a bad place to start:
“Thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute—the foundation of the human condition—and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.”
In the meantime, “like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways.”
Conducted by phone between Madrid and Shanghai in February, this interview, through which I meant to challenge some of the assumptions and binaries (the image/the idea, art/entertainment, engagement/relief) drawn in Notes, shows a more hopeful, measured Vargas Llosa than is represented in the book.
—Henry Ace Knight
I’d like to start with Notes on the Death of Culture. From the acknowledgements section it seems you collated and arranged these notes in 2011. There are several footnotes referencing more recent events, like the failure of the once promising Arab Spring to translate into a firmly rooted democratic culture in countries like Egypt. Are there any recent developments since the book’s publication that have either validated its theses or prompted you to reconsider, extend, or revise any of them?
The book was a bit controversial, you know? There were people who were in agreement with the book, but many people considered it to be too pessimistic about the culture of our times. In general, I think what I describe as the trend in culture has been confirmed.
My impression is that ideas are less important now than in the past because the images of the cinema, television, and new platforms are much more influential in society than books. And I think this is a great change from the past, in which ideas were the most important element in the transformation of values, aesthetics, and moral standards.
My impression is that since the book was published this has not changed. On the contrary, in fact. Take the United States, for example. The election of Mr. Trump is very typical of the transformation of culture in our times, in which spectacle is an essential aspect of communication, particularly in politics.
He’s using all of the icons of popular culture. And the tradition of culture which takes ideas as its great protagonists is now playing a secondary role because popular culture, this culture of images, not of ideas, has replaced it. This is particularly the case with the United States, its new president, and what he uses to communicate with the electorate—the tweets, the manipulation of media instruments. He doesn’t place any importance on books or academic culture. I think he doesn’t pay any attention to these institutions.
I mention the case of Trump, but you know, now unfortunately this kind of populism is quite common in the rest of the world, not only in third world countries, but also in first world countries. It’s this transformation of culture in which the protagonist is the image rather than the idea.
How do the ascendant currents of populism and nationalism sweeping the world relate to the culture of spectacle in your view?
In our time, more books have been published than in the last century. But that doesn’t change the idea that books are less influential than the images on our screens. The influence of books, at least of ideas, has been shrinking and not only in countries of the third world, but particularly in countries of the first world. I think images can be much more easily manipulated by power than ideas. Ideas are more resistant to this kind of manipulation. In spite of the fact that communications have enlarged tremendously in our times because of the technological revolution, ideas have much, much less importance in our society. And I think this probably explains why populism and demagoguery are so pervasive in our time. Now the big problem for democracy is not the alternative of communism—not at all, communism has in a way disappeared as a real threat to democracy—but populism, which can be very destructive to democratic institutions and values.
In the book you express a pessimism that the culture of spectacle can be uprooted or reversed. To whom, then, do you mean to sound the alarm bells? Are you any more or less hopeful for the resurrection of the high culture of your youth than you were at the time of writing this book?
The audience is mostly people within academic institutions, teachers and students. In the academic world, technology is growing systematically and the humanities are shrinking. This is another trend of our times to which I think we should be very attentive. In the long run, I foresee it being very damaging to the survival of democratic institutions and a free society. The real enemy to democracy now comes from within.
I think the diminishing influence of ideas has facilitated this transformation. But I don’t want to be dramatic and present this as a tragic, irreparable event. No, I don’t think the problem has reached such extreme proportions. But what I think is worrisome is the orientation of modern society to a world which is moved far more by images—that is, by a very superficial kind of culture—than by ideas. I think this is a trend that can still be resisted. I don’t want to be too pessimistic.
I think everything will depend on these new generations of young people, if they are conscious of the danger posed by images replacing ideas, the danger this represents for the individual and for society, [if they can] reintroduce the dominance of ideas, which I really don’t think is replaceable if you want to preserve the democratic institutions and values of a free society.
How do you think that trend ought to be resisted?
It’s a battle that is taking place. We don’t know yet who is going to win. But my hope is that young people, if they are conscious of what we are risking with this strain of culture in our times, will be able to change things. I think the course of events can help—democracies in which populism causes real catastrophes—but it will depend very much on young people, particularly if they experience directly the kind of vices and banalization of society in moral, economic, social, and cultural terms effected by populism.
Which younger writers/public intellectuals do you admire?
I think there are many. Particularly in Latin America, fortunately, among the new generations, there are writers, particularly essayists, fighting in a very committed way this frivolization, this banalization of cultural activity. That’s one reason why I’m not totally pessimistic. My impression is that young novelists, poets, essayists are now trying to defend a tradition that I think is indispensable if we want to preserve civilization against this banalization and frivolization of culture. A culture based exclusively on the hedonism of screens inevitably becomes frivolous and banal.
Of the younger Latin American writers or public intellectuals, whom do you admire?
I don’t want to name people because it seems like a disturbance. My impression is that among the new generations of writers, not only in Latin America, but also in France, for example, the polemic about this particular problem is very interesting. At the least the battle is still ongoing.
You write that “bookish” culture is losing its vitality and it exists on the margins of contemporary culture. What do you find redeeming or innovative about contemporary literary and artistic culture, marooned outside the mainstream though it may presently be?
When I critique the dominance of images, I’m not saying—certainly not—that all of the cinema of our times is superficial and frivolous. Not at all. I enjoy cinema very much, and you have very great films which cannot be called frivolous or superficial. Television, too, although it is more frivolous in general, sometimes can be very creative, even excellent, although this is not very common.
What I am saying is that television should be better than it is in general. It’s very superficial, because it has been totally controlled by publicity. There are certain countries in which television is much better than in others. I remember, for example, when I lived in England, that the BBC used to be very, very creative and produce excellent documentaries. I’m not totally pessimistic about images or the screen, not at all, but my impression is that the trend is not for creativity and critical worth, but to the contrary, very banal and easily done films.
Which films or television series have you enjoyed recently?
Maybe you haven’t heard of it—a Spanish film, beautifully done, which has received great recognition at the Goya Awards, called The Bookshop. It’s a wonderful film by a Catalan director, a young woman who is very, very creative, and it’s a very beautiful film about these particular problems. It’s about a woman who tries to save a bookshop in a society in which bookshops are disappearing. It’s a wonderful fight. It is not a defense of the bookshop only, but of a kind of civilization, a tradition in which books were the protagonists. The director is Isabel Coixet.
David Foster Wallace said, “Entertainment provokes relief. Art provokes engagement.” Do you believe the two to be mutually exclusive, or can relief and engagement coexist?
That’s beautiful. I agree one hundred percent. Absolutely they can coexist. Take for example, William Faulkner, an American writer whom I admire enormously: his books are not easy to read. There’s an intellectual challenge. But they produce enormous entertainment and pleasure when you understand exactly what story he’s trying to tell. At the same time, there’s a vision of society and its problems. It helps you to understand the problem of a society with different traditions, beliefs, and races. He’s a great writer who is very entertaining while also producing a kind of original knowledge about the source of political problems. I think all great literature produces this kind of effect in the reader, no?
In his review of Notes on the Death of Culture for The New York Times, Joshua Cohen wrote, “Vargas Llosa’s novels have never hesitated to traffic in the same high-low blend he now bemoans,” which seems to me a misreading of your argument. You write in the concluding section of the book, “Great poems, plays, novels, and essays have always entertained, enchanted, and dazzled us . . . Commitment is not about abandoning aesthetic pleasure and invention.” Cohen goes on to suggest that your work is, in fact, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, and inventive, though he marshals this as an argument for your hypocrisy. Do you ever consider entertainment or aesthetic pleasure as you write, or are they merely secondary consequences in your novels?
I sent The New York Times a letter because the review was very frivolous. I thought it was a crime that a very serious newspaper like that would publish idiotic gossip in a literary review.
It was probably a mistake. Serious literature is always entertaining. Serious literature that requires an intellectual effort from the reader is not boring. Without great entertainment, there is no great literature. I cannot remember this exact phrase [you quote], but probably the author of the review was a bit confused. Entertainment is an essential condition for a novel to be read, but on the other hand, it shouldn’t only be entertainment. Very frivolous literature is too strictly entertaining. In a good novel, there’s always much more than entertainment—ideas, criticism of the world. Novels enrich your vision of things, to better understand the problems that you are surrounded by.
“Audio-visual information, so fleeting, transient, striking, and superficial, makes us see history as fiction, distancing us by concealing the causes and complexities of the events that are so vividly portrayed.” How do you see the relationship between history and fiction?
I think a writer of literature has one advantage over the historian: that what you don’t know—what we cannot know about a historical event—you can invent. At the same time, if you write novels based in historical fact, you have to respect at least the central episodes of history because otherwise you’re writing pure fantasy. It’s a very subtle equilibrium that you must respect in order to use all the freedom that comes with writing literature, but in a way that does not provoke a reaction from the reader, saying this is too much, this is ahistorical, this is pure fantasy. It’s an equilibrium between the freedom of literature and respect for the historical facts. But all great historical novels, like War and Peace, or Les Misérables, have managed to strike this kind of equilibrium between invention and history.