by Ken Myers
In the summer of 1996, The American Scholar published an essay by Christopher Clausen. It was called “Welcome to Post-culturalism” and in it, Clausen (then a professor of English at Penn State University) reflected on how the word “culture” has come to mean something very different from its historical meaning in anthropology. In that context, it “refers to the total way of life of a discrete society, its traditions, habits, belief, and art.” This way of life was transmitted from one generation to the next and thereby served as a system of moral instruction and ethical restraint.
But “culture” in this deep sense has always been something of a problem for Americans. “The American political tradition places individual liberty ahead of nearly every other goal, thereby (among many other benefits) reducing occasions for intergroup conflict.” The liberation of individuals from restraining forces “is one of the permanent trends in American life and comes closer to realization with every advance in communications. But the freedom that lies beyond culture may be a mixed blessing — in some respects a liberty that not even John Stuart Mill could love. The escape from restraint that the Internet represents derives not from an ideal of human fulfillment but from the narcissistic experience of one's own personality, strengthened by its reflection in the computer screen, as the only significant reality. The major constituents of real cultures — family, religion, ethics, manners—have shrunk almost to the vanishing point as authorities over individual behavior. This inflation of personality at the expense of external reality did not begin with the computer age; Christopher Lasch chronicles its rise in a book entitled, naturally, The Culture of Narcissism (1978). Computers and their sibling, cable television, have, however, greatly accelerated the process. . . .
“The old liberal distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding conduct has little significance if one inhabits a world made up primarily of bytes and images. Like television itself, which exists only to reach the largest possible audience, such a world has no fixed norms; like the Internet, it welcomes virtually any content from any source. Every expression, however violent, pornographic, or merely shallow, is equivalent to all other expressions. ‘The First Amendment,’ proclaims Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company, ‘gives you the right to be plastic.’”
Clausen’s observations resonate with earlier concerns expressed by Philip Rieff in his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. In that book, Rieff describes a culture as an “inherited organization of permissions and restraints upon action.” But the twentieth century was witness to a widespread suspicion about any inherited assumptions about good and evil, and so encouraged social institutions and personalities that were committed to liberation rather than restraint. This marked a transition from culture to what Rieff terms anti-culture: “The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized. . . . Our cultural revolution does not aim, like its predecessors, at victory for some rival commitment, but rather at a way of using all commitments, which amounts to loyalty toward none.”
Rieff's diagnosis is similar to Clausen's, but finally more pessimistic.