Perceptions of Progress and Cultural Decline
by Mark English
Here is a short extract from a piece I wrote early this year:
Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.
A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”), had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.
As fate would have it, Mr Lagerfeld himself ceased to exist two weeks after my piece appeared. He was hospitalized on February 18th and died from complications associated with pancreatic cancer the next morning. In accordance with his wishes, there was no formal funeral, no ceremony.
My attitude to the industry in which Lagerfeld worked is not positive, and I have little knowledge of or interest in the man himself. What is most interesting is the phenomenon, the artifice, the public image – sustained over many years – as a kind of mask or act which was understood to be just that. Whatever his faults, Karl Lagerfeld had style and a sense of privacy. He was a product of the lost world which he remembered.
I once claimed that all the best people are dead. Such an assertion, taken at face value, is little more than a rhetorical flourish or provocation. Just a little hyperbolic, you could say.
Compare and contrast the stated views of John Cleese. Informed by an interviewer in September, 2017 that he (Cleese) was “very, very old”, the actor responded:
I’m 77. It’s very nice being this old, because when you’re this old, you’re going to die soon, so you don’t give a [expletive removed in source]… I am not afraid of death. I was thinking about it a lot, because you do when you’re older. I thought: most of the best people are dead.
I have to admit that his “most” is more defensible than my “all”. Cleese added that there are today “a lot of really awful people” about, many of them holding positions of power and influence. Provocation? Yes. But at least half-serious also.
If we are to take such claims even half seriously, however, we need to see them clearly for what they are: judgments not so much about individuals but rather (because individuals are created by the culture which nurtures them) about cultural change.
Moreover, negative or positive assessments of our (or any) society’s cultural trajectory will inevitably be subjective because any given judgment derives from a particular value framework, one amongst many actual and possible such frameworks. And, although they may be objectively described, competing value frameworks cannot be objectively assessed (except perhaps in very broad, functional terms).
Given the assumption that the social, political, educational, professional and familial structures upon which the functioning, health and transmission of a valued culture depend are breaking down or mutating in dangerous or otherwise undesirable ways, negative conclusions about the present and immediate future can be confidently – and quite reasonably – drawn. How plausible (or implausible) such an assumption or set of assumptions might be is debatable, of course. Opinions on these matters will be heavily influenced by ideological views and moral priorities.
Documentation on the decline in educational standards and a concomitant loss of status on the part of teachers and academics is not difficult to find, however. Likewise documentation on the breakdown of the family. But interpretations of the data will inevitably differ, as will the scope and focus of individual concerns.
We are all confronted with – and react in different ways to – the same broad social, political and cultural realities. Strangely – or perhaps, given the binary nature of many of our thought processes, not so strangely – most of us take a clear position not just on particular issues but also on the general trend. It is perceived as positive or as negative; as indicative of general improvement or of general deterioration.
Driven by temperament and who-knows-what, as time passes and as more loved and admired figures topple into the grave, I naturally see my negative stance confirmed. It is not just that all the old family friends, my father, all but one of my aunts and most of my teachers are dead; so are the thinkers and writers and artists who mean most to me. More importantly, the sorts of values these people exemplified or at least aspired to have been replaced by other values entirely.
Because linguistic communication is based on shared assumptions and words have no fixed meanings, talk about alternative assumptions is difficult. Let me try at least to describe the main areas in which I see deep divisions.
One is the social and political arena. So-called progressive attitudes and policies clearly dominate within the education system and within our ever-expanding government and quasi-governmental bureaucracies. Such attitudes also dominate the mainstream media and the increasingly influential technology companies. ‘Conservatism’ has become a dirty word associated either with fundamentalist Christians or war-mongering neocons. Burkean and other sensible and moderate forms of conservatism are not much discussed or widely understood.
Unfortunately, the arts have become a vehicle for the dominant ideology. There is an appalling homogeneity of views amongst actors, directors, screenwriters, dramatists and artists of various kinds. I know a bit about Western cultural history and I have never seen anything like it.
There are, of course, a few dissidents, a few independent voices, but even they find themselves caught up in the general silliness. Satire works only when the basic culture is still more or less intact. It deals with aberrations, exaggerating certain trends. But our politicians, bureaucrats, actors, academics and educators unwittingly satirize themselves.
Fortunately we all have access to a body of material from the past (music, literature, historical documents, film etc.) which is more than large enough to occupy anyone for a lifetime. Some of this material can be enjoyed by anybody but much requires a certain kind of education to understand or appreciate.
It is the areas of scholarship and science with which I am particularly concerned. As I see it, epistemic questions are beyond ideology. To the extent that ideology intrudes into science or scholarship, the science or scholarship in question is fatally compromised. And it not just a question of ideology in a narrowly political sense.
I recently posted a revised version of a previously-published piece on Lee Smolin’s realism. Smolin is a left-leaning, contrarian physicist who sees problems with postmodernism and the epistemic relativism and anti-realism with which it is associated. He takes up the apparently lost cause of scientific realism, once championed by the likes of Albert Einstein and Louis de Broglie. Smolin’s concerns are broader than science and deeper than politics. He sees (as I do) current intellectual trends as potentially undermining not just science but the broader culture as well.
It is impossible, of course, to know how physics will develop in the future. It may be that Smolin’s realist intuitions about physics are fundamentally misguided. But the broader aspects of his thinking are not necessarily dependent on how the science finally plays out.
Take, for example, his decidedly philosophical preoccupations. Smolin is one of the few leading contemporary physicists who carry forward the European tradition of mixing science and philosophy and of seeing scientific theories as significant in terms of how they add to and affect our general understanding of the world.
Most physicists are heartened by the progress made in quantum field theory and see quantum mechanics as retaining (and perhaps enhancing) its status as central and fundamental. Such an outcome could be seen to pose challenges for those committed to the sort of realism and view of science and logic which Smolin has articulated.
As I see it, the main point of any common-sense or scientific realism is to counter certain natural human tendencies, tendencies towards compartmentalized or superstitious or magical thinking, for example. Or the propensity to see knowledge primarily in personal/intuitive or tribal or ideological terms. Such tendencies can often have grave social consequences.
Being aware of these tendencies does not require their complete suppression in terms of our mundane habits of thought. Such suppression is arguably impossible anyway and it is healthy, in my opinion, to embrace or at least indulge our less rational side in certain ways. This applies even in science where motivation is always a factor and hypothesis formation, for example, is often driven by intuition, imagination or mere hunches. Besides, nonrational tendencies are not necessarily irrational.
At the heart of the point of view I am trying to articulate is the idea that we can (and do) have objective knowledge of the world. A commitment to this notion is the bedrock of my position and that of other scientific realists (like Smolin).
It is, I think, symptomatic of the age in which we live that people feel driven not only to personally doubt the possibility of objective knowledge but also to attempt to actively discredit the idea by presenting it as being somehow morally dubious or politically unacceptable.