University of San Diego Lecture
November 16, 2021.
What Good Is Culture?
In 2006, in Lewisburg, Tennessee, a neighborhood group protested because the public library was investing resources in the purchase of books in Spanish. Of the sixty thousand volumes, only one thousand were published in a language other than English. The annual budget, totaling thirteen thousand dollars, dedicated the sum of one hundred and thirty dollars to the purchase of books in Spanish. The buying spree, representing one percent of the budget, enraged some of the citizens of Tennessee, causing them to take the issue to the authorities, arguing that a public service, sustained through taxes charged to the U.S. populace should not promote something that might benefit illegal workers.
Thus, the new conception of culture surpasses that distant precept of the ancient library of Alexandria. That now almost completely forgotten library achieved the height of its development in second-century Egypt. Its backward administrators had the custom of periodically sending investigators throughout the world to acquire copies of texts from the most distant cultures. Among its volumes, there were copies of Greek, Persian, Indian, Hebrew, and African texts. Almost all of those decade-long efforts were abruptly brought to an end, thanks to a fire caused by the enlightened ships of the emperor Julius Caesar. Nearly a thousand years later, another deliberately-set fire destroyed the similarly celebrated library of Córdoba, Spain, founded by the caliph Al-Hakam (creator of the University and free education for poor kids), where the passion for knowledge brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims with texts from the most diverse cultures known in the period. Also, in this period, the Spanish caliphs were in the habit of dispatching seekers throughout the world to expand the library’s collection of foreign books. This library was also destroyed by a fanatic, al-Mansur, in the name of Islam, according to his interpretation of the common good and superior morality.
In the past, military rulers of Latin American dictatorships (I grew up in one of them), to exacerbate honor and patriotism, tried to clean up the Spanish language, college education, and culture itself from any foreign influence, starting with ideas (people in power frequently fear other’s ideas, which is understandable; words are perceived as more dangerous than money and arms and, in fact, sometimes they are). For some reason they, as the Nazis and many other self-proclaimed democratic people did and do today, never realized that there is no idea, no tradition, no language, no religion, no race uncontaminated by foreigners. By definition, every human creation is historical, that is, is the result of a long evolution and, very frequently, of short and devastating involutions.
The Tennessee anecdote perhaps represents a minority in a vast and heterogeneous country (both “real Americans” and anti-Americans hate the most beautiful characteristic of this country: diversity). But it remains significant and representative of still millions of people, frequently exacerbated by some big media shows, a practice that was invented in Germany eighty years ago.
Significant and common is the idea, assumed in that anecdote, that the Spanish language is a foreign language, when any half-way educated person knows that almost one hundred years before English, it was Spanish that was spoken in what today is the United States; that Spanish has been there, in many states of the Union for five centuries; that Spanish and Latino culture are neither foreign nor an insignificant minority: more than fifty million Hispanics live in the United States and the number of Spanish-speakers in the country is roughly equivalent to the number of Spanish speakers living in Spain. For many, the “real American” (another stereotype, as most of the “real” men and women, are), often depicted as a kind of cowboy, actually derives from the Mexican vaquero (originally from the Arabic tradition, like most of the traditional West and Southwest architectural style) who left a strong mark on both legal and illegal immigrants from the eastern US. The dollar symbol, $, is derived from the Spanish Peso (PS), the common currency until late 18th century—not to mention the Spanish Empire Flag, which is in the flag of some southern U.S. states. And so on, and so forth.
If those who become nervous because of the presence of that “new culture” had the slightest historical awareness, they would neither be nervous nor consider their neighbors to be dangerous foreigners. The only thing that historically has always been dangerous is ignorance, which is why the promotion of ignorance can hardly be considered synonymous with security and progress—even by association, as with the reigning method of propaganda, which consists of associating cars with women, tomatoes with civil rights, the victory of force and wealth with proof of the truth, or a million dollars with Paradise.
According to French-American Thomas Jefferson, Spanish is a crucial language to an American. He read Don Quixote in its original language and recommended the study of both Spanish and French. However, as the revolutionary British Thomas Paine once said: “nothing can reach the heart that is steeled with prejudice.”
I am not so naïve as to think that today we could have intellectual politicians like the Founding Fathers, but at least it could be convenient to consider that myths, traditions, and popular history are written based on a convenient combination of memory and forgetfulness. Sometimes it helps to mitigate the pride of ignorance—and the fire as well.
What good is literature, anyway?
I am sure that you have heard this loaded query: “Well, what good is literature, anyway?” almost always from a pragmatic businessman or, at worst, from a Goering of the day, one of those pseudo-demigods that are always hunched down in a corner of history, waiting for the worst moments of weakness in order to “save” the country and humankind by burning books and teaching men how to be “real” men. And, if one is a freethinking writer during such times, one gets a beating, because nothing is worse for a domineering man with an inferiority complex than being close to somebody who writes. Because if it is true that our financial times have turned most literature into a hateful contest with the leisure industry, the collective unconscious still retains the idea that a writer is an apprentice sorcerer going around touching sore spots, saying inconvenient truths, being a naughty child at naptime. And if his/her work has some value, in fact he/she is all that. Perhaps the deeper mission of literature during the last five centuries has been precisely those things. Not to mention the ancient Greeks, now unreachable for a contemporary human spirit that, like a running dog, has finally gotten exhausted and simply hangs by its neck behind its owner’s moving car.
However, literature is still there; being troublesome from the beginning, because to say its own truths it only needs a modest pen and a piece of paper. Its greatest value will continue to be the same: not to resign itself to the complacency of the people nor to the temptation of barbarism. Politics and television are for that.
Every so often a politician, a bureaucrat or a smart investor decides to strangulate the humanities with a cut in education, some culture ministry or simply downloading the full force of the market over the busy factories of prefabricated sensitivities.
Much more sincere are the gravediggers who look us in the eyes, and with bitterness or simple resentment, throw their convictions in our faces as if they were a single question: What good is literature?
Some wield this kind of philosophical question not as an analytical instrument but as a mechanical shovel, to slowly widen a tomb full of living corpses.
The gravediggers are old acquaintances. They live or pretend to live, but they are always clinging to the throne of time. Up or down, there they go repeating with voices of the dead their utilitarian superstitions about needs and progress.
How to respond about the uselessness of literature depends on what you comprehend to be useful and not on the literature itself. How useful is the epitaph, the tombstone carved, a reconciliation, sex with love, farewell, tears, laughter, coffee? How useful is football, television programs, photographs that are traded on social networks, racing horses, whiskey, diamonds, thirty pieces of Judas and the repentance?
There are very few who seriously wonder what good is football or the greed of Madoff. There are but a few people (or they have not had enough time) who question or wonder, “What good is literature?” Soccer and football are, at best, naïve. They have frequently been accomplices of puppeteers and gravediggers.
Literature, if it has not been an accomplice of puppeteers, has just been literature. Its critics do not refer to the respectable business of bestsellers or of prefabricated emotions. No one has ever asked so insistently, “what good is good business?” Critics of literature, deep down, are not concerned with this type of literature. They are concerned with something else. They worry about literature.
The best Olympic athletes have shown us how much the human body may withstand. Formula One racers as well, although borrowing some tricks. The same with the astronauts who put their first steps on the moon, the shovel that builds also destroys.
The same way, the great writers throughout history have shown how far and deep human experience, (what really matters, what really exists) the vertigo of the highest and deepest ideas and emotions, can go.
For gravediggers only the shovel is useful. For the living dead too.
For others who have not forgotten their status as human beings who dare to go beyond the narrow confines of their own primitive individual experience, for the condemned who roam the mass graves but have regained the passion and dignity of human beings, for them it is literature.
Then, yes, we can say literature is good for many things. But, because we know that our inquisitors of the day are most interested in profits and benefits, we should remind them that a narrow spirit can hardly shelter a great intelligence. A great intelligence trapped within a narrow spirit sooner or later chokes. Or it becomes spiteful and vicious. But, of course, a great intelligence, spiteful and vicious, can hardly understand this. Much less, then, when it is not even a great intelligence.
Who’s Afraid of Culture?
The problem with words is that they think for us, and in this way, we are means of thought and values transmitted by words too often: we repeat apriorism embedded in language, in popular culture. This problem is more remarkable when we lack a metalinguistic awareness.
One of these traps is to use words that contain an unsuspected diversity where one of their possible meanings dominates and excludes the others. To mention just a few, some of those words are patriot, freedom, equality, radical, culture, and all those names of countries, religions, and other good intentions.
In any debate or policy on culture, it is necessary to clarify what culture we refer to. In a basic classification, there is what was once called «high culture» in the last century; very close, inside, and outside of it, is the «radical culture.» Radical culture raises the consciousness of individuals and peoples, which is not satisfied with reproducing standards and stereotypes and which, by consequence and consistency, is constantly pushing the limits of thought and sensitivity. It is the one that makes us more human.
On the other hand, we have «popular culture» and within it two radically opposite forms: first, the culture that is generated by people (that is, that which arises from the bottom up) and, on the other hand, the culture that is produced by the culture industry (the one that is dictated from the top-down). The first type of popular culture has been, for centuries, the dominant one. Today it can be found in regions such as Africa, far from the tourist circuits (which vulgarizes everything and empties it of content), with its plastic art, songs, and legends.
The 20th century, on the other hand, saw how people consumed popular culture produced in specialized industries such as the film industry, whose paradigm was and still is Hollywood, and the mainstream media. Thus, the peoples’ adopted forms and values of which they were alien, exercising a single role: to consume.
Before the critics, the market defended itself (it still does) with the innocent but consistently compelling argument that the success of the sales is due to offering what the public demands. If we accept such a theory, we should concede that novel readers are responsible for the million-dollar campaigns of the big publishing houses. So, every year, the children of the world agree to demand that international companies produce all those surreal cartoons and dolls (such as the most recent Minecraft or Minions). Thus, each year, the united children of the world exercise their power over the poor production companies that have no choice but to satisfy such an arbitrary demand, typical of immature people, based on two or three basic characters.
Freedom is a utopia, and it is a myth in the worst case since there are only forms of liberation but never freedom, despite this being the most recurrent word in nationalist narratives. Without radical culture, there is no democracy, and there is no full individual. In contrast, radical culture has not reaped the benefits of some new habits of our time, such as social networking sites, in the same proportion as the market and popular culture. It is enough to observe that the cultural and intellectual differences between individuals who share the same space are not given by social networks but by some other form of education that they have received, either formal and traditional education or education in the family environment. Social networks have not contributed anything to radical culture but, perhaps, the opposite: those consumers of prefabricated popular culture simply limit themselves to that: to consume and reproduce values that are not only predictable and monotonous but are also functional to groups in economic power to which poor consumers do not belong.
Then there is a paradox of resistance. We owe all the ethical and social progress of modern history: culture sells, but the managers and creators of radical culture do not live from culture as do the producers and reproducers of standardized popular culture. Radical culture survives thanks to this minority army of artists, scientists, and publishers with a small market share. In this way, democracy is saved from planetary dictatorship, and individuals are protected from dehumanization, of mere consumption and standardization.
Just as writing beyond the micro fragment is a radical act of thought and sensitivity, reading a book is also an expression of rebellion typical of radical culture. Whether digital or printed, a book is subversive being only because of its format, due to its resistance to the fragmentation of the individual. So are cultural events that governments timidly support as if they were superfluous waste; they are exercises of radical culture. Exercises of liberation, of levitation of the human conscience that in its natural state (that is, not brutalized by propaganda and ideology) always aspires to release from its conditioning factors, from its ongoing dehumanization; the liberation of its proper powers.
A people without culture (without radical culture) are a docile people, a slave who thinks he is happy like a drug addict who thinks he is free just because he has access to drugs.
Even if we do not favor government interference in culture and most individuals’ lives, it would be naive to expect something better from the other major player, the market. Leaving culture in the hands of the laws of the market would be like leaving agriculture in the hands of the laws of meteorology and microbiology. No one can say that excess rainfall, droughts, invasions of locusts and worms, pests, and parasites are less natural phenomena than the always suspicious, elusive hand of the market. If we left agriculture to its own devices, we would starve. In the same way, it is necessary to understand that if we leave culture in the hands of the laws of the market, we will perish in barbarism.
Seven points to consider
The Culture and the Cult of Obviousness
- The same way ten years ago the governments of the World were trying to escape from the Great recession increasing the drug that had been driving the Planet to the catastrophe (consumerism) today they are focused on STEM-only education. I am in favor of science and scientific thinking but neglecting Humanities to save Humankind is not a wise strategy. We should not invest in intelligence while abandoning our pursuit of wisdom. During the 30s, Germany was the most advanced country in science and technology. Hitler labelled the Bauhaus as “un-German,” “Degenerate art,” and the Nazi pressed until it closed. Its artists and thinkers had to migrate.
- Only a radical culture that recovers the sense of doubt and the complexity of the Human experience, can recover and cultivate wisdom. Our present is marked by tribalism and sects of any kind —(from 2000 to 2005 I published articles like “The Slow Suicide of the West” and “The mental borders of tribalism”).
- Now everyone is absolutely sure about the importance of eliminating doubt, confusing obviousness with truth. Is it possible to save the human mind, the human soul, and, consequently, the Human existence on this planet this way?
- We do need more investment in science, but we desperately need a massive investment, attention, and cultivation of Humanities to save Humanity.
- There has not been any time in human history when the very existence of our Human race had been at stake. Never. We are at this very point, right now.
- There have been always cultural and political identity wars. The difference is that, due to a global economic structure, all this was exported to the colonies and to the «inferior races». Now the stage of the conflict and dissatisfaction is the so called First world and, again, it is exporting its political and cultural frustrations in a new wave of fascism, nationalism, racism, tribalism, and fanatic medievalism.
- The same way the Biosphere will perish if we destroy biodiversity, the same Humankind will perish if we do not understand that human diversity is not an attribute of the Devil, as Medieval Theologians used to say, but a necessary and beautiful condition of the Human race.