Thursday, February 13, 2020

Has "civilization" entered a phase of decadence?

That's what Ross Douthat argues in his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, which Damon Linker reviews in The Week, February 13, 2020. Decadence?
By calling us "decadent," Douthat doesn't mean that we're succumbing to imminent decline and collapse. Following esteemed cultural critic Jacques Barzun, Douthat instead defines decadence as a time when art and life seem exhausted, when institutions creak, the sensations of "repetition and frustration" are endemic, "boredom and fatigue are great historical forces," and "people accept futility and the absurd as normal."

Douthat goes on to refine the definition:
Decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which intellectual life seems to go in circles; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development: the decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.
Douthat certainly isn't a favorite of mine, and I've got problems with the word "decadent", but that description is consistent with my own view, based on the theory of cultural ranks that David Hays and I developed,  that we're exhausting the cultural resources we've inherited but have not yet managed to invent new modes of thinking, feeling, living, and exploring.

Near the end Linker observes:
Interestingly, one way to describe the populist insurgencies taking place around us is to say that they're a rebellion against the decadence of the post-Cold War world — the sense that history came to an end in 1989, with all significant ideological disputes resolved and politics reduced to the fine-tuning of liberal democratic government. Francis Fukuyama's own high-level punditry on the subject was actually far more ambivalent than it's usually credited with being. Although Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy triumphed over communism because it was more capable of fulfilling humanity's material and spiritual needs than any other political and economic system, he also worried with uncanny prescience that a world in which liberal democracy was the only available option could be marked by boredom, repetition, and sterility — and that the intolerable character of such decadence could inspire anti-liberal movements that aimed to restart history once again.

Douthat's book can be read as a melancholy sequel to Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man that confirms the author's darkest predictions but without endorsing (or seriously wrestling with) any of the concrete efforts going on around us to overcome our own malaise by breaking away from decadent liberalism — whether it's Donald Trump's MAGA presidency, the Catholic conservatism of Poland's Law and Justice Party, Marion Maréchal's National Rally in France, the National Conservatism spearheaded by Yoram Hazony, or Viktor Orban's anti-liberal and pro-natalist populism in Hungary. Given that Douthat is a conservative who longs for renewal, rebirth, and revitalization — for an end to the decadence he thinks plagues us — it's surprising that he has so little to say about these efforts in the book. [...]

Douthat sees a lot, and far more than most of our less profoundly discontented commentators. That makes him an excellent pundit — maybe the best of our moment. But in his new book he also avoids a forthright confrontation with the political correlates of his own moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual dissatisfactions. In its place we find idle speculations about alternative realities. Which may mean that, for all its strengths, Douthat's book about decadence is more than a little decadent itself.
That is to say that Douthat is himself trapped in the same exhausted cultural forms. 

Who among us isn't?

1 comment:

  1. Yes, cultural ranks. And another -- and crucial -- factor is that when people have survival needs met, and a dependable community within which to live, the challenge becomes one of making choices in life that avoid an imaginative life that is banal, ho-hum, flat. Appreciating the vibrancy that comes with taking risks -- whether it be work related, artistically -- can be a challenge to a person's sense of belonging and authority of purpose. It is also hard to teach. Yet it is this vision by people individually that creates collective vibrancy.

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