Cultural change in the modern world

My manifesto post got picked up by OU’s patahistorian David Davisson for the latest History Carnival. From there, I happened upon a Crooked Timber post by John Quiggin on “the traditionality of modernity,” a clever way of saying that, contrary to common historical intuition, cultural change is slowing down… and fast.

In a nutshell, technology-induced mass/global culture tends to make major cultural changes less, not more common. Elements of this include:

  • The standarization of written language following the printing press, a trend that is rapidly become panlingual (“it’s expected that during the 21st century the number of language in the world will go from 6,000 to 300”).
  • The permanent fixation of/on the foundational pop culture icons like Marilyn Monroe or The Beatles (a dubious contention, but maybe “Marilyn will, inevitably, fade, but never be replaced on her pedestal”).
  • Globalization, reification and simplication of many previously local traditions: styles of food, artforms, forms of national government (or the beginning of the end thereof, with the EU and global economic institutions).

I’m still not sure how much of this I buy as a general statement, but some of it at least is true, and some of it is lamentable. Whatever truth there is to this technology-leads-to-cultural-hegemony thesis, it’s obviously somewhat more complex, and I think somewhat more positive, than the general tone of discussion at Crooked Timber. I won’t particularly mourn the death of 5,700 languages, despite whatever profoundly different ways of thinking such languages might or might not enable. There are more than enough socially constructed boundaries of thought to hamper communication and exchange (e.g., academic disciplines, nationality) , and subcultures proliferate mightily in the modern world, providing ample breeding ground for new ideas and traditions while retaining the ability to swiftly reconnect to mainstream culture (or other subcultures) when necessary.

My course with Jean-Cristophe Agnew ( The American Century, 1941-1961 ) has been great, and it provides a jumping-off point for assessing this cultural hegemony idea. The premise of the course, which I’m increasingly convinced of, is that those two decades (give or take a few years) formed the basis of American culture since that time; nearly all the significant shifts of the later 20th century had their origins then and cultural events from the period are still frequently relevant today. This period, along with the turn-of-the-century rise of the even-nebulous “modernity” (which I studied with Ole Molvig last semester, incidentally) were singled out in the Crooked Timber discussion as periods when it seemed cultural change was especially rapid compared to today, and I would generally agree.

But I also think we’re seeing the beginning of the reversal or supersession of the homogenizing trends in American culture that have been in play since the 60s. Widespread television broadcasting and the other biproducts of defense research from WWI and WWII are finally being overtaken in cultural significance by the Cold War research legacy of computers. Along with this comes “the long tail,” the massive diversification of cultural products that is just beginning. The hit for music and the blockbuster for movies (the things that make radio and theaters so lame today) are both dying economic modes; they’re being replaced by niche-centric media such as digital music stores, Netflix (which apparently has a superb recommendation system that facilitates discovery of movies both new and old that escape mainstream attention), and other “new economy”-style retailers that make niche-content profitable again.

Mainstream media is not likely to die completely, and its current troubles only make it even more homogenous and derivative… witness current trend of mergers in news agencies, the fact that half the shows on network TV are Law and Order spinoffs (some day I’ll write a post about the pernicious political effect those shows must have), and the fact that the only truly good blockbuster from last year was not from Hollywood, and even it followed the current formula of sticking to established franchises and/or well-worn classic plots. (Neo-noir comic book male-fantasy shoot-em-up with computer graphics… seemingly the least original movie possible.) But again, I see some silver lining to retaining and even enhancing a cultural baseline as a backdrop for the vibrant long tail of culture. The key is to improve that cultural baseline (the point of my recent manifesto), but I think there is more hope for that project now than at any time since the rise Cold War culture. The fact that these issues regarding the interplay technology and culture are becoming visible means we needn’t feel trapped by any technological determinism; now is the time to determine the shape of mass culture for the next century.

This is, of course, a very modernocentric (is there better word this?) view. What about all the full-blown culture(s) being obliterated by the shift to modernity? I don’t know how to answer that… I’ve never been too enthralled by anthropology and the idea of culture for culture’s sake. The modern/post-modern long tail world will make it easier preserve parts of traditional culture, but transitions to modernity will still entail a lot of suffering; the results of the current world picture look a somewhat more promising than the fruits of 50s and 60s modernization theory, even though not much has fundamentally changed (besides the end of the Cold War).

Alas, that’s probably enough of an incoherent rant for one night.