Saturday, April 14, 2007

Culture Death

Charles Taylor has a fascinating article in the latest issue of The New York Review. The book under review is Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, by Jonathan Lear. The topic of the book is what happened to the Crow tribe after they were confined to a reservation under the terms of a treated with the United States government. Taylor takes, as his point of departure, a quotation from Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation, reflecting on the transition to reservation life:

When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.

Taylor argues that the phrase "nothing happened" should be taken literally, rather than as a symbolic representation of, for example, the depression felt by the Crow upon losing their life style. He fixes a label to that literal meaning; he calls it "culture death." He elaborates his position with the following quote from Lear's book:

The issue is that the Crow have lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative. This is a real loss, not just one that is described from a certain point of view. It is the real loss of a point of view.

Taylor also examines the current state of our own culture in terms of its understanding of the concept of culture death:

We have encouraged an identity, a self-definition, of which the core is the ability to "reinvent" ourselves. Someone who can change his or her situation is free, self-reliant, creative, imaginative, resourceful. In the current talk about "globalization," this identity and its associated virtues are seen as the highest stage of human development. To such people rightly belong the benefits of economic growth, prosperity, increased mobility, ever-new experiences. In the end, we often come to believe that we're doing the victims of culture death a favor in breaking them out of the stagnant structures of their lives, and opening for them paths of freedom, equality, opportunity.

While Taylor does not explicitly cite Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism, he seems to be saying that we are promoting our own narcissistic impulses as a way to fight off or deny the possibility of culture death. Writing at the beginning of the Nineties, Lasch was more concerned with, as his subtitle put it, "American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations." He could not anticipate the impact that globalization, the Internet, the technology of virtual worlds, and, of course, the blogosphere would have on those narcissistic impulses.

The original myth discloses the irony of our situation. We talk the talk of freedom, self-reliance, creativity, imagination, and so forth; but, after the gods punished Narcissus, his fate was the his vision became fixed on only one thing, his own image. The vocabulary of reinvention conceals the way in which we willing assume tighter and tighter blinders, not so much of our own invention but through acceptance of what the world is dishing out to us. It will not be long before ours becomes the world where "nothing happens;" but, unlike Chief Plenty Coups, we probably shall not be aware of it!

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