Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Oktober 2000 Editorial

Global Trends in the Modern Cultural Process

Michail Blumenkrantz (Charkow)


In 1886 the magazine Russkiy Vestnik(1) published a large article on decadence in Russian literature. Paradoxically, the same issue also contained the final chapters of Dostoevskiy's Crime and Punishment and the first chapters of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which vividly illustrates how risky global generalizations can become.

Exact diagnosis is the privilege of descendants rather than contemporaries. To give it, one needs a certain distance in time, a point of extrapolation that unlocks the space of a retrospective view. Furthermore, in the case of a serious disease there is a danger that exact diagnosis may become a problem not for a doctor but for an autopsist.

For more than one hundred years, outstanding European intellectuals, Friedrich Nietzsche perhaps being the first of them, have been appealing to us to realize that modern civilization is developing in a suicidal way, clearly depicting the spiritual tragedy of the present moment. Several generations of Europeans spent their lives waiting for Godot in vain. Although the twentieth century was really tragic in the history of mankind, in the long run the anticipated end of the Alexandrian epoch, permanent mass revolt, or irreversible oblivion at the start of the third millennium saddens neither the minds nor the souls of educated Europeans. Although persistent heralds of Apocalypse still exist, the progressive part of mankind involved with the concerns of the present moment placidly looks into the future of history inevitably approaching despite the premonition of Fukiyama.

Not so long ago I asked my Dutch friend and colleague about a cultural crisis to which he disconnectedly answered that there was no cultural crisis in the West, it was just that we, the Russians, liked to extrapolate our problems to Europe. My Italian interlocutor, a well-known specialist in Slavonic culture, sees the problem differently. Yes, there had been a crisis, but it was resolved in the First and the Second World Wars, and now we live in a post-crisis world.

Let us define the term "crisis." First, in ancient Greek, it meant a transient moment, a point of decision. If we consider the first meaning, "transient moment", then a crisis is a normal state of culture, an unavoidable stage in its development, a disease of growth. Civilization without crisis means not harmony, but morbidity. Therefore, crisis in its meaning of transition signifies change in the paradigm of a given culture, a transition from classicism to baroque, for example.

"Termination" is a more radical term, which means a state of total crisis leading either to changing the paradigm of a culture via a breakthrough in the culture or to the death of the culture when creative impulse is exhausted.

"We, the civilization, now know that we are mortal".(2) These are the first words of Paul Valery's well-known essay "Crisis of Spirit" written in 1919.
It is not accidental that the twentieth century brings a feeling of the fragility and insecurity of the world. It is not Buber's feeling of homelessness as loss of life-guiding lines, it is a revelation that terrifies your soul: the ancestral home that seemed safe yesterday turned out to be made of glass and the abyss is withering wide beneath your feet. After another critical change in history we have lived at a crossroads. History knows at least three such critical changes.

The first one was the advent of written language, which spurred forward historical consciousness and entailed the appearance of the first ancient civilizations. The second one was the Gutenberg epoch, which brought written language to the broad masses and was one of the main factors in forming the picture of the world in the modern age. The third one was the scientific and technical revolution of the twentieth century, which developed new communication technologies for the proliferation of culture. Audio and video facilities created not only new quantitative, but first of all new qualitative possibilities for cultural transformations, thus generating a new spiritual situation. One of the innovations was the ousting of the word as a medium for Logos by the word as a means for suggestion.

This trend was most explicitly expressed in the super-rigid ideological mechanisms initiated by totalitarian regimes. While religion, philosophy, and science develop because they strive for the truth, ideological systems make use of the truth only as a means for seizing power. That is why what is critically important for those systems is not the truth of their ideas but their ability to unite people, their energetic, suggestive charge, which creates a charismatic sphere of power.

The word becomes a powerful tool of propaganda, and the leading genre in literature the genre of slogan. The culture is either metaphysically oriented or there is no culture at all, believed J. Huizinga.(3) The most important aspect of culture is openness towards infinity(4), noted P. Tillich. In relation to the metaphysical dimension, ideology acts as "Ockham's razor." Historical values, relative in their nature but acquiring an absolute status hallowed by the charisma of a leader or the guiding role of a political party, obtain a sacred content.

The symbol also loses its main function of being a link between a man and the transcendental foundations of existence, which inevitably leads to the spiritual devaluation of culture. As a result, a culture is now defined according to the formula of Marshall McLuhan "as a sum of perceptive preferences".(5) As such, under totalitarian regimes such perceptive preferences are implanted into the consciousness of individuals from their early years and, strictly filtered by the regime, appear to be more of a public than personal character. From the methodological point of view, this operation is carried out by means of a technique that Jacques Lacan described as "pin-point." The Word-Logos is tightly pinned to one sole meaning and functions only in the ideological sphere of suggestive influence.

All its other meanings are negated. For instance, the only meaning of the word "freedom" in the Soviet ideology was that of a binary opposition: either "freedom of the soviet individual," or the "infamous Western freedom," in absolute accordance with Wittgenstein's statement that what is not in language is not in thinking either.(6)

These ideological practices are less strict in the Western consumption industry, which has free ideological competition and is free of ideological monopoly. However, even the West faces the substitution of the Word-Logos with the word as a means of suggestive influence. At that, the exchange of information via audio and video not only in terms of concepts, but rather in the form of images, is capable of a much more powerful suggestive effect. This is seen clearly in modern advertising technologies.

A second novelty of the cultural situation of our time is the growing emphasis on the entertaining function of arts peculiar to public culture. A fine illustration is the novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. At the beginning, on returning home the main character of the novel fails to establish any contact with his wife. For a long time already she has been living in a separate reality, the audio-world. The walls of modern houses have turned into gigantic television screens. A person escapes into the world of dreaming and there experiences the strongest emotions of his phantasmal existence. Smooth emotional sliding in the world of virtual dreams comes in place of spiritual reality, for facing which you need an ongoing personal effort, an act of co-creation. The lack of self-realization in this harsh and severe reality is compensated for through pseudo self-identification with television heroes and show business stars. Human emotions often unclaimed in everyday life find expression here: the power to live the lives of others removes the awful burden of responsibility for one's personal life.

Modern technologies seduce a man with the fantastic possibility of turning from Homo Sapiens into Homo Virtualis. Evidently, pop culture can be defined not by means of its transmission, but by its quality. The means of transmission add only the aspect of radiation to it, making it omnipresent.

Pandering to the demands of the public, the modern pop culture industry takes more and more advantage of the narcotic functions of art, creating grandiose shows that are meant not for watching but as space to live in. Culture as a spiritual development of a person, and creativity as a metaphysical mission and task, are replaced with culture as an effective means of escapism from one's 'self' and the world, culture as generally accepted pleasures of the illusory existence. The history of the European individualism reaches a paradoxical boundary-line, beyond which a person exists and does not exist at the same time. The hypertrophy of individualism, the atomization of society and expansion of pop culture seem to be entities coherently interrelated.

At the level of so-called modern elitist culture the processes are also developing in the same direction. A craving for non-existence is embedded in the spiritual situation of the ruling postmodern - most importantly the craving, not the will for non-existence, since a volitional impulse in this trend was originally quenched with a cold breath of aestheticism.

Postmodernism is a cogent argument in favor of morphological conformities in the history of development of cultures, which Spengler wrote about. The similarity in characteristic features of modern postmodernism and the cultural situation at the end of the Hellenistic epoch is obvious. Both may be seen as a time of brilliant stylists, masterly versifiers, texts overloaded with literary allusions, a tendency to aesthetical perfection of form, all-cankerous irony, art as play, where all values seem conventional and truths seem relative. In philosophy, this means golden age of skeptics and eclectics-deconstructivists during the decline of the ancient world. In consequence, any hierarchy of values is aesthetically negated.

Jürgen Habermas made a keen observation regarding this peculiarity of poststructuralism: "Poststructuralism is characterized by a certain universal aesthetization, by means of which "the truth" is ultimately reduced to one of the style effects of the discourse expression".(7) The pathos of total deconstruction, demolition in the name of demolition as a phenomenon of the Nero-like aesthetic play, was mentioned by the German philosopher P. Kozlovski in his book Postmodernism Culture: "Postmodern assumes the role of a brake delaying what was to have come after the collapse of the Utopian historical and philosophical expectations of the present, and namely ruin. The destiny of the human being is to ruin him but before that he is to deserve it, which he does not yet. The postmodernism epoch is the time apportioned to people to deserve ruin."(8)

Postmodernism is trying to fix the point of transition of existence into non-existence as an instance of an ultimate aesthetic exertion. At that transition point the strategy of postmodernism comes to light as a manifestation of non-existence, a desperate flirting of culture with Nothingness.

Though they may seem different, those three phenomena originating from the modern cultural situation stem from the same roots: ideological, mass and post-modern consciousness serve as mediators of non-existence. Each of them reflects the process of demolishing the Word as bearer of Logos in its own way, thus putting an end to the triune dialogue, which R. Niebuhr considered the essence and content of the history of mankind: one's dialogue with oneself, with the world, and with God.(9)

In my paper I can only touch upon some of the problems, and I am far from claiming to have outlined the global perspectives of the modern cultural genesis. What intended was to mention some of the negative trends in its development. What Ortega-y-Gasset defined as the "tiredness of culture" is a dismal result of the Enlightenment and romantic illusions, which presupposed that art should perform a function that had always been a prerogative of religion - a sacred function of changing the world. Having failed to fulfill the mission beyond its possibilities, the art of the twentieth century creates alternative worlds ideal in all respects except one - existence.

The cultural vector is aimed at culture overcoming itself, overflowing its boundaries. The current cultural situation displays the root connection of culture with existence, since cultural problems naturally develop into ontological ones. The present-day threat of ecological disaster is only a visible part of this correlation, and the problem of emaciation of the ozone layer is only one of the results of the obliteration of the spiritual layer. Turned away from his inner depth a person starts spreading wide in constant search for new exciting sensations and, striving for an oasis, stumbles on a desert.

It is obvious that neither the scientific and technical revolution nor audio and video facilities have entailed the crisis; they are but the result of more profound changes in the spiritual foundation. They only facilitate the process, only broaden the possibilities for an expansion of destructive forces within the civilization.

The basis of cultural genesis is a process of a continuous complication and increasing differentiation. A rapid growth in the number of binary oppositions within a culture eventually leads to the loss of its synthesizing foundation. This foundation is normally laid by religion. The collapse of the synthesizing foundation induces an inevitable desacralization of a culture and destruction of its hierarchic unity. Attempts to replace that lost unity with ideological and aesthetic systems of values are eventually fruitless. Confronted with an approaching non-existence, modern culture aims at creating such synthesis. It is therefore quite likely that the only global problem that modern culture faces is how to survive.

© Michail Blumenkrantz (Charkow)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.9


(1) Russkiy Vestnik, 1886: 12.


(2) Paul Valery: "Crisis of Spirit" in About Art, Moscow: Art, 1976, p. 105.

(3) J. Huizinga: "The Task of the History of Culture", in Historical and Life Ideals and other Lectures, London: Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd, 1992, p. 40.

(4) P. Tillich: Selected Works. Theology of Culture, Moscow: Jurist, 1995, p. 243.

(5) M. McLuhan: The Gutenberg Galaxy, London, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

(6) L. Wittgenstein: "Logic-philosophical treatise" in Philosophy Works (part 1), Moscow: Gnosis, 1994, p. 56.

(7) J. Habermas: Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985, p. 12.

(8) P. Kozlovski: Postmodernism Culture, Moscow: Republic, 1997, p. 34.

(9) R. Niebuhr: Attempt at Interpretation of Christian Ethics in Niebuhr, Selected Works, Moscow: Jurist, 1996, p. 446.

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