Mario Vargas Llosa – Notes on the Death of Culture

Metamorphosis of a Word

Before developing my own argument, I would like to explore some of the essays that have focused on [culture] from different perspectives. Although they are very different from each other, they do share a common denominator in so far as they all agree that culture is in deep crisis and is in decline.

a) T.S.Eliot: Notes Towards the Definition of Culture

  • [He] offers a penetrating criticism of the cultural system of his time, which, according to him, is becoming ever more distant from the ideal model that it represented in the past.
  • T.S.Eliot states that what he calls ‘high culture’ is the domain of elite, and he justifies this by asserting that ‘it is an essential condition of the preservation of the quality of the culture of a minority, that it should continue to be a minority culture’.
  • The naive idea that, through education, one can transmit culture to all of society is destroying ‘higher culture’, because the only way of achieving this universal democratization of culture is by impoverishing culture, making it even more superficial.
  • We should not confuse culture with knowledge … … Culture is something that predates knowledge, an attribute of the spirit, a sensibility and a cultivation of form that gives sense and direction to different spheres of knowledge.
  • Culture and religion are not the same thing, but they are not separable … … Religion, ‘while it lasts, and on its own level, gives an apparent meaning of life, provides the framework for a culture and protect the mass of humanity from boredom and despair’.

b) George Steiner: Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture

  • Steiner is disturbed that the great poet of The Waste Land could have written a treatise on culture just three years after the end of the Second World War without linking his discussion in any way to the extraordinary of the two world wars, … … the culmination of a long tradition of anti-Semitism within Western culture.
  • In Steiner’s account, … … the Old Continent [Europe] fell prey to … … a sense of frustration, tedium and melacholy, mixed with a secret desire for explosive, cataclysmic violence … … For Steiner, European culture did not simply anticipate but it also desired the prospect of a bloody and purging explosion that took shape in revolutions and in two world wars. Instead of stopping these bloodbaths, culture desired to provoke and celebrate them.
  • In his final chapters, Steiner sketches a rather gloomy picture of how culture might evolve, … … Traditionally, ‘spoken, remembered and written discourse was the backbone of consciousness’. Now the word is increasingly subordinated to the image.
  • The most polemical part of Steiner’s essay is where he argues that postmodern society requires all cultured men and women to have basic knowledge of mathematics and natural science so that they can understand the notable advances that the scientific world has made … … This proposition is as utopian as those that Steiner decries in his essay.

c) Guy Debord: La Societe du spectacle

  • Debord defines ‘spectacle’ what Marx called ‘alineation’ … …, a condition caused by commodity fetishism, which has taken on such a central role in the life of consumers that it has displaced any other cultural, intellectual or political reality. The obsessive acquisition of manufactured products, which keeps commodity production actively increasing, brings about the ‘reification’ of individuals, turns them into objects. Men and women become active consumers of objects that fashion and advertising impose on them, emptying them of social, spiritual or even human concerns … …
  • These ideas of the young Marx, which he never managed to develop in his mature writings, are at the basis of Debord’s theory of our times.
  • Debord’s book has a number insights and intuitions such as the idea that replacing life by representation, turning life into a spectator of itself, leads to an impoverishment of human existence … … ‘The real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions’. This lucid observation has been amply confirmed in the years following the publication of Debord’s book.
  • This process leads to a sense of futility … … and the disappearance of freedom because any social or political changes that occur are not due to the free choices of individuals, but rather to ‘the economic system, the dynamic of capitalism’.

d) Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy: La cultura-mundo: Repuesta a una sociedad desorientada

  • It puts forward the idea that there is now an established global culture – a culture-world … … This culture, unlike what had previously been defined as culture, is no longer elitist, erudite and exclusive, but rather a genuine ‘mass culture’ … … This mass culture is based on the predominance of image and sound over word … … Not only has information broken through all barriers and become accessible to all, but almost every aspect of communication, art, politics, sport, religion, etc., has felt the reforming effects of the small screen.
  • Some assertions of La cultura-mundo seem questionable, such as the proposition that this new planetary culture has developed extreme individualism across the globe. Quite the reverse: the ways in which advertising and fashion shape and promote cultural products today are a major obstacle to the formation of independent individuals … … Rather than developing individuals, the culture-world stifles them, depriving them from lucidity and free will, causing them to react to the dominant ‘culture’ with conditioned, herd mentality.

e) Frederic Martel: Mainstream

  • … … Mainstream culture has swept away the cultural life of a small minority that had previously held monopoly over culture; it has democratized it, putting it within everyone’s reach … …
  • The accounts and the interviews collected by Martel are instructive and quite representative of a reality that, … … the great majority of humanity does not engage with, produce or appreciate any form of culture other than what used to be considered by cultured people, disparagingly, as mere popular pastimes, with no links to the intellectual, artistic and literary activities that were once at the heart of culture. This former culture now is dead.
  • The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn.

I   The Civilization of the Spectacle

a) What has caused the West to slide towards [the civilization of the spectacle]?

  • The material well-being that followed the years of privation during the Second World War … … at the same time, there was a notable extension of moral parameters. Well-being, a freer lifestyle and the increased time given to leisure in the developed world gave an important stimulus to leisure industries, promoted by advertising, the insipiration and magical guide for our times.
  • Another, no less important factor has been the democratization of culture … …This commendable philosophy has had the undesired effect of trivializing and cheapening cultural life, justifying superficial form and content in works on the grounds of fulfilling a civic duty to reach the greatest number.

b) Feature of our time

  • … … The culture we live does not favour, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers. Today’s readers require easy books … …
  • It is true that the more serious newspapers and journals still publish reviews of books, exhibitions and concerts, but does anyone read these solitary paladins who try to map a scale of value onto the tangled jungle that contemporary culture has become? In the days of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, criticism played a central role in the world of culture because it helped guide citizens in the difficult task of judging what they heard, saw and read.
  • In the civilization of our time, it is normal, and almost obligatory, for cookery and fashion to take up most of the culture sections, for chefs and fashion designers now enjoy the prominence that before was given to scientists, composers and philosophers.
  • The vacuum left by the disappearance of criticism has been filled by advertising … … [which] plays a decisive role in forming taste, sensibility, imagination and customs.
  • Massification, along with frivolity, is another feature of our time … … today the major football games, like the Roman circuses, function mainly as a pretext for irrationality, the regression of individuals to the tribe, to being a part of a collective, where, in the anonymous warmth of the stands, spectators can give free rein to their aggressive instincts, to the symbolic conquest and annihilation of the opposition.
  • Today, drugs are not used to explore new sensations or visions for scientific or artistic purposes. They are not an expression of rebellion against established norms by nonconformists looking to adopt alternative forms of existence. Today, the mass consumption of [drugs] is a response to a social environment that pushes men and women toward quick and easy pleasure, that immunizes them against worries and responsibility, allowing them to turn their backs on any self-knowledge that might be gained through thought and introspection.
  • Superficial and glitzy culture, which is playful and an affectation, cannot replace the certainties, myths, mysteries and rituals of religions that have stood the test of centuries. In today’s society narcotics and alcohol offer a momentary spiritual peace, and provide the certainties and respite that, in earlier times, men and women could find in prayer, confession, communion and sermons.
  • A notable feature of contemporary society is the waning in importance of intellectuals.
  • A further characteristic of this civilization is the impoverishment of ideas as a driving force of cultural life. Today images have primacy over ideas.
  • … … sometimes on the margins, and sometimes in the mainstream, great talents would emerge, which, despite difficult conditions in which directors always had to work because of budget constraints and dependence on producers, were capable of making films of great richness, depth and originality, with a distinctive personal style. Today’s society … … no longer produces creators such as Ingmar Bergman, Luchino Visconti or Luis Bunuel. Who is today’s cinema icon? Woody Allen, who is to David Lean or Orson Welles what Andy Warhol is to Gauguin or Van Gogh in painting or Dario Fo is to Chekhov or Ibsen in theatre.
  • The disappearance of any minimal consensus about aesthetic value means that in this field confusion reigns and will continue to reign for a long time, since it is now not possible to discern with any degree of objectivity what it is to have talent or to lack talent, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what work represents something new and durable and what is just a will-o’-the-wisp. This confusion has turned the art into a carnival where genuine creators, sharp operators and conmen all intermingle and it is often difficult to tell them apart.

c) In what ways has journalism influenced, and been influenced by, the civilization of the spectacle?

  • [¡Hola! Magazine], which is now published not just in Spanish, but in eleven languages, is avidly read by millions of readers across the globe, who enjoy reading news about how the rich, the famous and the winners in this vale of tears get married, get divorced, remarry, dress, undress, fight, become friends, spend their millions, listing their likes, their dislikes, their taste and lack of taste.
  • While they are acting in this way to meet the demands of their public, the organs of the press are unwittingly contributing more than anyone else to consolidating this ‘light’ civilization that has given frivolity the supremacy previously accorded to ideas and artistic creation.
  • Of course the big press corporations are not mere weathervanes that decide their editorial stance, their moral behaviour and their news priorities simply on the basis of opinion polls on public taste. Their function is also to offer direction, assess, educate and clarify … … But to perform this function, they must have an audience.
  • It is not in the power of journalism by itself to change the civilization of the spectacle that it has helped to create. This reality is deeply rooted in our time … … we who are the fortunate citizens of countries in which the democracy, liberty, ideas, values, books, art and literature of the West have afforded us both the privilege of turning fleeting entertainment into the supreme aspiration of human existence as well as the right to view with cynicism and disdain everything that is boring or worrying, and remind us that life is not just entertainment but also drama, pain, mystery and frustration.

d) Evolution of modern art

  • The most unexpected and disturbing consequence of the evolution of modern art and the myriad experiments feeding it is that there are no longer any objective criteria that make it possible to qualify or disqualify something as a work of art or situate it within a hierarchy. The possibility began to disappear with the cubist revolution and disappeared entirely with abstract art.
  • Under the guise of modernity, the experiment – the search for ‘new means of expression’ – in reality documented the terrible dearth of ideas, artistic culture, dexterous craftsmanship and authenticity and integrity that marks a good portion of the artistic work of our times. There are exceptions, of course. But it is extremely difficult to locate them, because, contrary to the way things happen in the field of literature – where there aesthetic codes that permit the identification of originality, novelty, talent and mastery, or crudity and fraud, have not yet collapsed completely … … in the case of painting the system is rotten to the core.
  • In Bathers at Asnieres, that perfection astonishes and, in a way, overwhelms us: the repose of the figures sunning themselves, bathing in the river, or contemplating the scenery, beneath ta midday sun that seems to dissolve the distant bridge, the locomotive crossing it, and the chimneys of Passy into the dazzle of a mirage. This tranquility, this balance and this secret harmony between man and water, cloud and sailboat, costume and oars, are certainly manifestations of a total command of the medium, the sureness of line, and the use of colour, all achieved by dint of effort; but they also represent an elevated and noble conception of the art of painting as a means of spiritual fulfilment and a source of pleasure in and of itself, in which painting is understood as its own best reward, a metier in the practice of which one finds meaning and joy. … … The admiration it arouses in us derives from more than technical skill and meticulous craftsmanship. Beyond all that, and somehow supporting and fostering it, is an attitude, an ethic, a manner of surrendering oneself to the service of an ideal, which a creator must embrace in order to transcend and extend the limits of a tradition, as Seurat did. This way of ‘choosing to be an artist’ seems lost for ever to today’s impatient and cynical youth, who dream of seizing glory any way they can, even if to reach it they must climb a mountain of pachydermatous shit.

II   A Brief Discourse on Culture

a) Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World

  • The Russian critic argues what he calls ‘popular culture’ serves as a sort of counterpoint to official and aristocratic culture. Popular culture satirizes official culture, with incidents that expose and exaggerate what is hidden and censored, and contrasts this bawdy ‘bad taste’ to the so-called ‘good taste’ of the dominant classes.
  • This is more radical than the division between highbrow and lowbrow culture: they gave lack of culture due dignity, showing that what might be seen as crude, vulgar or slovenly could be redeemed by its vitality and humour and the uninhibited and authentic way it represented the most basic of human experiences.
  • In this way the borders that separated culture from lack of culture appear politically incorrect. Now we are all cultured in some way.

b) An era of specialization and the collapse of culture

  • In the past, culture at least allowed [people] to establish hierarchies and preferences in the fields of knowledge and aesthetic values.
  • T.S.Eliot in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture argued that we should not identify culture with knowledge, because culture precedes and sustains knowledge … … something akin to a moral design.
  • It would be wrong to attribute identical functions to science and to the arts: one cannot say of literature, painting and music, as one can say of chemistry and alchemy, that the latter replaces and supersedes the former. A literary and artistic work that achieves a certain level of excellence does not die with the passing of time; it continues living and enriching new generations and evolving with them. That is why, [they] were the common denominator of culture, the space where communication between human beings was possible despite differences in language, traditions, beliefs, and eras.

III   Forbidden to Forbid

a) An end to ‘authority’

  • Michel Foucault (and his ideology of May ’68): in the Western world education had always been one of those ‘structures of power’ put in place to repress and domesticate the social order, establishing forms of compliance and alienation to ensure that the dominant groups could perpetuate their privileges and power.
  • Teachers: stripped of credibility and authority since then; lost the respect of parents and revolutionary philosophers.
  • The impoverishment and disorder suffered by the state education in France has given private education. Effectively Michel Foucault and his unwitting disciples instead contributed to a great education revolution, which ended up with the poor remaining poor, the rich remaining rich … …

b) The delusion of deconstructionism

  • Jacques Derrida: literature does not describe the world, it merely describes itself … …[In the end] nothing exists outside language, which constructs the world that we think we know, but which is nothing more than a fiction woven of words.
  • According to Foucault, power uses languages to control society and to nip in the bud any attempt to undermine the privileges of the dominant elites — If we were merely the languages that power imposes on us, political liberty would not have been born, no historical evolution would have taken place, and literary and artistic originality would not have blossomed.
  • Lionel Trilling and his essays: [he] saw literature as the ultimate witness to the ideas, myths, beliefs and dreams that make a society function and to the secret frustrations or stimuli that explain individual behaviour. [Indeed], the worst and the best of the human story could always be found in books.
  • … … The field of literature encompasses all of human experience because it reflects it and shapes it in decisive ways, and that it should thus be the patrimony of everyone, an activity that is nurtured in the shared experiences of the species, to which we can ceaselessly refer as we search for order when we seem mired in chaos, or look for relief when we are downhearted, or explore doubts and uncertainties when reality seems to safe and reliable.

c) The Islamic veil

  • From the outset, from a liberal perspective, the respect for individual rights demands that any person should be able to dress any way they like without the state getting involved in their decision.
  • The issue of Islamic veil is not so simple if examined more closely and from within the framework of institutions that guarantee democracy, pluralism and freedom.
  • The first, irrevocable, requisite of a democratic society is the secular nature of the state which is the only way of guaranteeing the preservation of the common interest over individual interests … … in the nineteenth century, secular public schooling was a great step forward towards the creation of an open society and it offered a stimulus to scientific investigation and artistic creativity, … …  the development of a critical spirit and of a deep spirituality. A secular state is … … a state that, in order to preserve the freedom of its citizens, has removed religious practice from the public sphere into the private sphere.
  • This process of secularization has made democracy possible. Unlike Christianity, Islam has not experienced this process in any integral fashion.
  • The girls sent by their families and communities to French state schools wearing the Islamic veil are something more than they appear: their objective is to gain recognition for their right to be different, to enjoy, in public spaces, a civic extraterritoriality compatible with what these sectors consider their cultural identity, supported by their beliefs and religious practices. This cultural and political process is one of the most potent challenges that the culture of freedom faces in our time.
  • This argument, taken to extremes, is endless. Or rather, if it is accepted, it will create powerful precedents for the acceptance of other practices that are so fictitiously ‘essential’ in their own culture, such as arranged marriages, polygamy and , as an extreme, even female circumcision.
  • All cultures, beliefs and customs should have their place in an open society so long as they do not collide head on with those human rights and principle of tolerance that are at the heart of democracy. The human rights and public and private freedoms guaranteed by democratic society offer a wide variety ways to live one’s life that allow for the coexistence of all religions, beliefs, but these, in many cases, must give up, as Christianity has done, the most fundamentalist aspects of their doctrine, in order to gain a democratic place in an open society.

IV   The Disappearance of Eroticism

a) The masturbation workshops in Spain

  • The initiatives designed to demystify sex, making it something as common and everyday as eating, sleeping and going to work, might have the effect of making future generations feel prematurely disillusioned by sex. For sex would lose its mystery, passion, fantasy and creativity and would become banal, a gymnastic workout.
  • The ideal thing in this respect would be for the boundaries within our sex lives unfold to broaden sufficiently for men and women to act freely, exploring their desires and fantasies without feeling threatened or discriminated against, but within certain cultural forms that preserve the private and intimate nature of sex, so that sex lives do not become banal or animalistic. That is eroticism. With its rituals, fantasies, its clandestine nature, its love of form and theatricality, it emerges as a product of high civilization, a phenomenon inconceivable in primitive or rudimentary societies or people, because it is an activity that requires refined sensibility, literary and artistic culture and a certain propensity for transgression.

b) Catherine Millet’s account on her own sex life

  • This book confirms what all literature that focuses on sex has shown over and over again: that, if separated from all other activities and functions that make up our existence, sex is extremely monotonous, so limited in its scope that, in the end, it is dehumanizing.
  • It is essential, as Georges Bataille has explained, that certain taboos and rules that can channel and limit sex should be preserved, so that physical love can be lived – enjoyed – as transgression.

V   Culture, Politics and Power

a) The loss of prestige in politics

  • In our era those negative aspects of political life have often been magnified by the press, with the result that public opinion has become convinced that politics is an activity full of amoral, inefficient and corruptible people. The frantic search for scandal and cheap gossip with which to launch attacks on politicians has mean that, in many democracies, what the public knows about its politicians are their worst features.
  • There is no way out: muckraking journalism is a perverse stepchild of the culture of freedom. We cannot curtail it without dealing freedom of expression a mortal blow.
  • The root of all this is in the culture, in which the supreme value now is to amuse oneself and amuse others … … to forget serious, deep, disquieting and difficult things and to indulge in light, pleasant, superficial, happy and sanely stupid pursuits. Politics is one of the main victims of the ruling value of postmodern life: stupidity.
  • Another consequence is how little the majority of people react to levels of corruption in developed and developing countries that are at perhaps their highest levels in history. Furthermore this moral laxity has reached such a level of complexity that the supervision of power that any society can achieve is much more difficult than in the past.
  • Of course culture cannot be held solely responsible; another reason is because public office is usually badly paid.

b) Indifference to the law

  • This indifference presupposes that laws are the work of a power that is merely self-serving. Most people adhere to the law because there is no other alternative.
  • There is no better example of this general indifference to the law today than the widespread piracy of books, records, DVDs and other audiovisual products.

c) The disappearance of confidentiality

  • The prodigious transformations brought about by the Internet authorize Internet users to know everything and divulge everything that happens under the sun, dissolving once and for all the demarcation between public and private, is to take a giant leap that might not be an act of freedom but rather an assault on freedom itself.
  • Notes on Julian Assange: it is not about fighting against a ‘lie’, but rather about satisfying this morbid and unhealthy curiosity of the civilization of the spectacle, the civilization of our age, where journalism is guided by the need to entertain.

VI   The Opium of the People

a) Presence of religion in contemporary life

  • Religion shows no signs of disappearing: the resolve and engagement of Catholics have never before been so active in social campaigns, demonstrating against gay marriage, the legalization of abortion, contraception, euthanasia and secularism. Something similar can be said of Protestant churches in United States and Orthodox in Russia.
  • Is this good or bad for culture and for freedom?
  • Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great): books against religion and in defence of atheism
  • Noble Prize winner for physics, Charles Tornes, who defend their religion beliefs

b) The function of churches and religions

  • Fear of death; however, the development of scientific and technological knowledge has not managed to do away with religions. Physical extinction has kept notions of transcendence alive throughout history.
  • A complementary belief: for this life to be bearable, it is necessary that there should be an authority where good is rewarded and evil is punished.
  • Also, so many of us suspect that if this idea were to disappear, then, sooner or later, social life would become barbaric, there would be a return to the law of the jungle and the rule of the strongest.
  • It is rather a feeling of abandonment and loss in this life caused by the mere suspicion that there is no other life, there is no place beyond where a being more powerful and wiser than humans know and determine the meaning of life, of temporal and historical order … … Despite all the advances it has made, science has not been able to reveal this mystery.
  • Positive aspect (private sphere): religion gives people a form of solace; it is a form of salvation that they cling to so as not to give in to the desperation that might undermine their capacity to react to and resist misfortune
  • Positive aspect (social sphere): church played a crucial role in the birth of democratic culture; they did help to alleviate the most brutal forms of exploitation, discrimination and violence … …

c) Church vs. development of secular society

  • While Christianity would serve democracy through the philosophy implicit in its doctrine, in societies that had not become secularized, it became one of the greatest obstacles preventing democracy from expanding and taking root
  • Religions accept and promulgate only absolute truths; every religion rejects the truths of other religions; they all aspire to conquer the hearts of human beings and to control their behavior. In power it became intolerant, dogmatic, exclusivist and fanatical
  • Secularization means unrestricted freedom of citizens to practice and live their faith without any hindrance, as long as they respect the laws of their parliaments and democratic governments
  • Catholicism and Protestantism reduced their intolerance and accepted coexistence with other religions, not because their doctrine was any less all-encompassing and intolerant than that of Islam, but because they were forced to change; in Christian societies, there was a process that forced religion to privatize and step back from state control
  • In an open society, religion belongs to the private sphere should not usurp the function of the state, for monopolies are always a source of abuse and corruption

d) Necessity of spiritual life

  • While I am firmly convinced that secularism is indispensable in a truly free society, I also believe with equal certainty that for a society to be free it is necessary for there to be an intense spiritual life
  • There are examples of secular morality, but they could be found only in small groups … … It is still an incontrovertible reality that, for the great majority, religion is the first and the main source of the moral and civic principles that buttress democratic culture
  • It is in the economy that the evisceration of spiritual life are most visible: this system of free economy accentuates economic differences and encourages materialism, consumerism, the accumulation of wealth, and an aggressive, belligerent and egotistical attitude
  • All the great liberal thinkers  argued that economic and political freedom achieved its full civilizing function only when the spiritual life of a society was intense and fostered a hierarchy of values respected and adhered to by that society. The great failure, and the crises that the capitalist system faces again and again are not due to inherent faults in the institutions of capitalism themselves but rather to the collapse of moral and religious values, which act us a curb that keeps capitalism within certain norm of honesty, respect for one’s neighbor, and respect for the law.
  • And it is even worse if the person committing the crime is rewarded by media success

e) The case of German Constitutional Court

  • If the state doesn’t preserve its secular character, and gives in, democracy is lost, in the short or the long term
  • Churches would negate themselves – they would cease to exist – if they were flexible and tolerant and prepared to accept the basic principles of democratic life, such as pluralism, relativism, the coexistence of contradictory truths, the constant mutual concessions required to arrive at a social consensus

Final Thoughts

a) The idea of progress is deceptive

  • Never before have we lived in an age so rich in scientific knowledge and technological discoveries; never have we been better equipped to defeat illness, ignorance and poverty, and yet perhaps we have never been so confused about certain basic questions such as what are we doing on this lightless planet of ours, if mere survival is the sole aim that justifies life, if concepts such as spirit, ideals, pleasure, love, solidarity, art, creation, beauty, soul, transcendence still have meaning and, if so, what these meanings might be?
  • In the past, literature and the other arts were often the best way of attracting attention to such problems … … Now, by contrast, it is a mechanism that allows us to ignore problematic issues, distracts us from serious concerns, and immerses us in a transitory ‘artificial paradise’, … … , a brief vacation of unreality

b) A final query: will paper books survive?

  • Jorge Volpi: the arrival of electronic books will contribute in a decisive way to ‘the greatest democratic expansion that culture has been since the invention of the printing press’
  • [I suspect] something of immateriality of the electronic book will affect its content, as happens with the clumsy literature, without order or syntax, full of apocopes and jargon, sometimes undecipherable, that dominates the world of blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other Internet-based communication systems … … Television is to date the best demonstration that the screen makes ideas banal and tends to turn everything it touches into spectacle … … My impression is that literature, philosophy, history, art criticism, to say nothing of poetry, all the manifestations of culture written for the Net, will doubtless be ever more entertaining, that is, more superficial and transient. If this is the case, new generations of readers will find it difficult to appreciate the worth and significance of demanding works of ideas or literature … …
  • Molina Foix reminded Volpi that for many readers, ‘reading’ is an operation that as well as registering the semantic content of the words also means savoring the beauty that, like the sounds of a beautiful symphony, the colors of an unusual picture, or the ideas of a shrewd argument … … reading is not only an intellectual operation but also a physical exercise

c) The world of Internet

  • Nicholas Carr (and his The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember): his book is vindication of the theories of Marshall McLuhan who argued that the medium is important not just for its content, but that the medium itself has a surreptitious bearing on this content and, in the long run, changes how we think and act
  • There is evidence that when a person’s memory is not exercised because it relies on the infinite archive that a computer can offer, then it stiffens and weakens, like muscles that are no longer used
  • Dr Katherine Hoyle at Duke University: ‘I can’t get my students to read whole books any more’

d) The fate of literature

  • The power of literature: to help readers better understand human complexity, be alert to historical realities and to resist the manipulation of the truth by the powers
  • If literature is just about entertainment, having a good time, immersing ourselves in fantasy, free from the pettiness of everyday life, domestic hell or economic anguish, in a relaxed spiritual indolence, then literary fictions cannot compete with those supplied by our screens, be they big or small
  • Screen fictions are intense in their immediacy and ephermeral in terms of their effects: they seize us and then release us almost immediately … … what is important about reading good novels always happens after the event; it is an effect that lights up in one’s memory over time
  • Benjamin and Popper, the Marxist and the liberal, both heterodox and original within larger currents of though that they renewed and stimulated, are two examples of how, by writing, one can resist adversity, act and influence society

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