On Decadence

Charles Hill, fellow at Yale and Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has an excellent piece “On Decadence“:

The advent of “screen culture”—cellphones, iPads, as well as old-fashioned TV and film—now ubiquitous among the young in their formative years of education, has shrunk consciousness down in a different way. Students increasingly seem conditioned by the fact that much of their waking life is populated by mechanically mediated images in which they can see other beings on screens but those others cannot see them. As a result the viewer can become oblivious to others, having no need to interact or maintain a minimum of civil conduct with them. To think back on Herodotus again, this is the Gyges question: What do you do when no one is looking? The “screenie” has invisibility even without privacy. As consciousness has atrophied, obliviousness—and no little rudeness—replaces it. This phenomenon adds a new dimension to the age-old definition of decadence…

Whereas thought and feeling formerly had been experienced together, the cultural transformation of the time separated them into unconnected “rational” and “emotional” states, a dichotomy of consciousness that has continued ever since. Flaubert depicted this shift in Madame Bovary by revealing Emma’s consciousness as severely one-dimensional as a result of her infatuation with the genre of popular romance novels.

So in the early 21st century it is the electronic domination of society by screen culture, as well as the orthodoxies of social science, that is shriveling consciousness. As Sven Birkerts prophesied at the fading cusp of the century past, this new millennium shift may spell the end of the centuries-long book culture heralded in Hugo’s Notre Dame. The advent of “modernism” in the arts of the early 20th century depicted an age of fragments—to be “shored against” our ruin, Eliot wrote—that has been carried to greater fissuring by hand-held “remote” devices. These devices produce an ever shorter “attention span” that tolerates only fragments of information. As Stanley Cavell of the Harvard philosophy department has noted, “chronic interruption means the perpetual incompleteness of human expression.

This entry was posted in Culture, Culture Wars, Death of the West. Bookmark the permalink.