|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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vol. 3, no. 1, Summer 2001
|Article Type:||Book Review|
University of Detroit Mercy
Morris Berman. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: Norton, 2000. 205 pp. $23.95
A few weeks ago, in response to a number of rave reviews, I decided to check out a new watering hole for hipsters. A bit long in the tooth for the bar scene, I nonetheless stopped by for a peek, hoping for the best.
Alas, I found the worst. The bartender, pierced and tattooed to the nines, poured a stingy vodka and then proceeded to turn up the volume on her boom box from which Eminem was making his awful witness. To add insult to injury, the video of a biker jamboree played on a silent television suspended over the bar. Lank-haired mamas lifted their t-shirts for the cameras while leathered brethren egged them on. I quickly drank up and slinked away into night, ready for a nice quiet cave.
After reading this fine piquant essay, I now know why I feel so bad. I'm suffering from vulgarity fatigue. America has turned itself in a toxic waste site of joyless suburban sprawl, shabby trailer parks and inner city ghettos, populated with incurious, emotionally scarred youth and their overworked parents along with more than a few crazy drifters. Lacking any critical faculties, they wilfully gorge themselves on cultural shit hyped to the heavens by mass media hucksters. All existential roads lead to the mall—I shop, therefore I am.
We've heard this lament countless times before and Berman offers a breezy compendium of bon mots from fellow doomsayers such as Neil Postman, Don DeLillo and Louis Lapham. His two principal fellow travellers are Benjamin Barber and Robert Kaplan, both authors of discouraging words. Barber coined the term "McWorld" to describe the virulent spread of global consumer culture. Kaplan, retracing Jack Kerouac's On the Road, scribbled a scathing portrait of what McWorld had wrought on byways and highways of the American terrain. He gamely toured the country by bus, listening to incomprehensible conversations and witnessing indescribable scenes of woeful humanity. For Berman, American civilization is about to fold its tent not just because corporations have turned the populace into shopaholic dummies whose children have been colonized by hard-core pornography in its mainstream guises of pro wrestling, hip-hop videos and glamour worship. Awful as they are, the symptoms are no match for the disease itself. The social infrastructure of the country is so frayed that the have-nots are left to their own meager devices while the haves are locked into a siege mentality, hiding from the rabble behind gates, massive SUVs and modems.
When Rome fell, there was a "monastic" class that endeavored to sequester the best of the civilization and keep it alive for healthier times. The monks accomplished the same vital function during the Middle Ages. Their moment has come again. Berman suggests that it is the very nature of history to decline and recover. Once we accept this organic process for what it is, we can turn it to our advantage.
Witness the new monastic individual: A NMI understands that he or she does not have to be enveloped by McWorld, by the "skin" of a disintegrating society that is abandoning its values and replacing our cultural heritage with hype and marketing. Instead you can choose a way of life that becomes its own "monastery," preserves the treasures of our heritage for yourself, and, hopefully, for future generations.
Through the operation of saving civilization, Berman argues, you become civilized and inoculate yourself against vulgarity and "vital kitsch." But the NMI must be vigilant. Anonymity and movement are key lest you be co-opted into the dying system. Berman, borrowing heavily from Deleuze and Guattari, uses the game of "go" as a metaphor for the savvy NMI. Unlike chess pieces which contain intrinsic differences in power, and hence mobility, Go pieces are "anonymous mathematical units" which can move about freely.
Strong as these arguments are, Berman's real coup is his prescription for keeping the flame alive a bit longer. Alternative education based heavily on the humanities should supersede all trendy moves to "distance learning" and the tiresome parlour game of postmodern identity politics. Cheap, innovative cultural spaces must bloom in order to keep the visual and performing arts a viable entity on the local level. He offers Olga Bloom's Bargemusic Project in Manhattan and the flophouse writing projects of Earl Shorris as examples. Finally, innovations to the environmental design of public and private landscapes are essential.
Yet the capacity for accomplishing these goals is limited by the dangers of corporate culture interference and general spiritual malaise. Every day, entrepreneurs cook up new schemes to get television and advertising into elementary schools. The vast majority of people would rather pay to watch Larry Fine smash his fiddle over Curly's head than attend an actual violin recital. The town of Celebration in Florida is little more than a Disney Potemkin Village—pie-chart human ecology fronted with a shit-eating grin and a white picket fence.
And so it is left to the NMI to go off into darkness, find the niches where he or she can confer with comrades and wait. Berman gives us hope that the wait will indeed be worthwhile.