Desire and Fate
(With apologies to Christopher Caudwell - the British Marxist critic, not to be confused with the American conservative writer Christopher Caldwell):
Studies in a Dying Culture #1
Only 8% of university students in the UK are enrolled in humanities subjects. This is the context in which the culture wars are being contested: as Borges said of the Falklands/Malvinas War, it is a case of two bald men fighting over a comb. This does not mean the issues in dispute are unimportant. Far from it. The madness of Woke and the barbarous inanities of “anti-racism’ (please note the inverted commas!) are well on their way to destroying high culture in the Anglosphere and probably in parts of Latin America and Western as well, even if in those regions there is the kind of cultural pushback that has all but disappeared in the Anglosphere. This is because most of the Right in the US, Canada, and Australia is no more committed to high culture than it is the preservation of the environment, whereas as in Western Europe and Latin America high culture has not for a century at least been largely a monopoly of the Left, if not a monoculture, to use a phrase the critic Harold Rosenberg once used to describe Jewish intellectuals. In contrast, from Borges to Houellebecq a conservative tradition remains alive in Western Europe and Latin America, whereas in the Anglosphere, once one gets past Chesterton, Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, the cultural pickings are slim indeed.
For all that, though, in fifty years it is likely that these culture wars will seem like the last spasms of a fish flapping desperately in its last moments on the deck of a fishing trawler than it will the existential ideological and ethical conflict it so often appears to be today. Let us for once be honest: what is on offer in terms of contemporary culture on both sides of the Woke/anti-Woke battle line today is a penumbral shadow of the culture of the past. This is not to say that there are not people of talent in both camps. But if we are being rigorous, it is simply a fact to say that the greatest days of Western culture are behind it. There is nothing unusual in this. Cultures and civilizations are as mortal as human beings. The great Renaissance historical and politician Guicciardini says somewhere that a citizen must not mourn the decline of their city. All cities decline, he writes. If there is anything to mourn it is that it has been one’s unhappy fate to be born when one’s city is in decline.
A lover of high culture should nonetheless be clear-eyed about the quality of what is being produced today. At its best, it is good, not great. But a believer in the great Woke cultural revolution should be equally clear-eyed: the fantasy that culture can be largely representation of the historical unrepresented or that testimony is art is a consoling fiction. In some ways, the Woke fantasy is a kind of infernal mix of Blake and Mao Tse Tung: the cult of experience fused with the cult of cultural revolution. At its worst, Woke culture is just Western fantasies about the authenticity and nobility of the tribal and the premodern, this in a time when racial identity has never been more in flux, and the intermingling of the races more and more the norm (look at who American Jews and Japanese-Americans marry for the extreme end of this). For “my race/people my spirit will speak,” wrote the great Mexican thinker José Vasconcelos (it is hard to convey the exact meaning in English of the Spanish word “raza”). But the Woke and the “anti-racist” are tying themselves to the mast of an essentialist understanding of identity just as it is vanishing into air.
If there is a new culture waiting to be born, it will not be born of Woke and “anti-racism,” of Neo-Tribalist nostalgia, and notions of race that, typologically though of course not hierarchically, would have pleased the worst earl 20th century White Supremacist scientist. But nor will Western high culture ever ascend to the heights that so many times, and so gloriously, it reached in the period between the Renaissance and the middle of the 20th century. That race has run its course. And the point is that somewhere, deep down, everyone knows this. Given that, why in God’s name would one want to study a subject in the humanities. There are, of course, material reasons for the death of the humanities as well. But one must be materialist, but not too materialist here - allegro ma non troppo, as it were. The old culture is dying, and what purports to be its successor has come into the world stillborn.