Do We Live In An Age Of Cultural Stagnation?

At the core of cultural stagnation is “entanglement,” writes Douthat—“meaning the way that the economic, demographic, intellectual, and cultural elements of our predicament are all connected, so that you can’t just pick out a single cause or driver of stagnation or repetition, or solve the problem with a narrow focus on one area or issue.” Stagnation is an omnibus phenomenon requiring omnibus solutions—a flooding of the political, economic, and intellectual zone. This totalizing strategy feels appropriate to our interstitial times, caught in a wasting neoliberalism and rocked by exogenous shocks (the pandemic, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the death of George Floyd) that have accelerated new forms of action and thought (work from home, decarbonization, the cross-examination of the carceral state and liberal interventionism). The escape from cultural inertia will inevitably respond to policy, but more important than any bullet-point program will be a revival in culture’s own sense of self, its charisma—precisely the quality whose absence makes the work of stagnationist critics like Chayka feel so wan and underseasoned.

Culture, in the literature of stagnation, can often feel subordinate to higher forces, a mere appendage to whatever’s going on in government or the tech sector or the economy. But if the past two centuries teach us anything, it’s that politics, material reality, and culture are co-constitutive, that new forms of sociality and meaning owe as much, possibly more, to the freaks and haircuts of the artistic scene as they do to the suits and adults of the establishment. The utopian experiments of the twentieth century are inconceivable without the social awakening touched off by works like Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1771 novel, The Year 2440, or Edward Bellamy’s 1888 fantasy, Looking Backward. Italy’s postwar passage from laboratory of the left to neoliberal retirement home is a story told through the transition from Nanni Balestrini to Italo disco. Shinzo Abe springs, seemingly fully formed, from the work of Yukio Mishima; dad rock and reality TV invented Javier Milei. Culture is not the ward of technology; it is technology, a miracle of transformation that allows us to see and experience a different world.

How can culture escape the doldrums of algorithmic capitalism? Through social housing, an expanded role for the state, the energy transition, fresh imagination in political thought, a new spirit of conflict between society’s owners and nonowners: all of that, yes, and (why not?) through stiffer regulation of the tech platforms as well. But what’s needed more than anything else, I think, is for culture—in the way that critics discuss it, institutions present it, and artists produce it—to recover a sense of its own historical importance. That means complete immersion in culture, the culturization of everything, the rediscovery of culture’s vocation as the motor of history rather than the scenery we all pass on the way to whatever is next.  

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