Starting Over: The value of crisis

Societies change and the arts are at the center of how we understand both the societies and the change

Nearly every day during my particular version of shelter-in-place, I sift through articles and essays (not to mention tweets) from likely sources, hoping to find out what in the blazes is going on out there. Or in here. Surely, I think, somebody has figured this stuff out, and so I search. 

I’ve been productively edified and instructed, pleasantly amused and delighted, annoyingly frustrated and aggravated, and alternatingly filled with dread and anxiety. You have to love the cycle that starts with anxiety, leads to dread, and then ends up back at anxiety. We’re all Kierkegaardians now!

Last week I ran into science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s essay, “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations” in the New Yorker’s excellent feed. Robinson opened his argument with a reference from the late culture critic Raymond Williams, who argued in “The Long Revolution” that each historical period has its own, distinct “structure of feeling.” Robinson neatly paraphrases Williams’ observation about cultural difference as “a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive.”

Robinson then goes on to argue that we are (or maybe it’s “we should be”) entering a new cultural system through the door of the pandemic. That’s good: We need to turn the page on our current system if we are going to mitigate the disaster of climate change in a meaningful way.

“Even though our economic system ignores reality, we can act when we have to,” Robinson says, pointing to the reaction to the pandemic. “At the very least, we are all freaking out together. To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs.”

All of this is well and good, but what really caught my eye was the reference to Williams. I “discovered” “The Long Revolution” a few years ago, and I immediately cried out, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this book before now?” The attraction for me was Williams’ approach to analyzing society and the culture it produces, and the way the arts create and preserve meaning at the center of things. Williams acknowledges both how difficult cultural analysis is because of the complexity of human activity and associations and how difficult it is to recognize where a culture is going when we are part of it. And he suggests that we shouldn’t underestimate the human energy available to drive us from epoch to epoch, energy liberated by artists.

Robinson reminded me of Williams’ usefulness to the project of “Starting Over.” The column started with a call-to-arms for building an artist-centered local culture, and I intended to follow it up with a series of pieces about what that could look like in a post-pandemic Oregon. Then I realized that the pandemic was generating a culture of its own, both local and national. 

Was that pandemic “structure of feeling,” however it evolved, the beginning of a new, distinct historical epoch? Was it a separate, temporary stage that would inform a new epoch? Would it inform the old epoch, if the old epoch isn’t finished with us yet? So, I decided to focus my participation in ArtsWatch for a while on “what it feels like now”: what changes and fluctuations we can detect, what other people here are thinking about it all, what they’re saying, what they’re doing, what they’re creating.

Williams and his ideas about art and culture aren’t the subject of this essay: I’m just employing him to help me make sense of what’s going on and what’s to come. We face many crises at this moment—not just the pandemic—and I’ve begun to think that there is a deeper crisis that links them all, a crisis of values. Williams helps with that, too. 

*****

Societies do change, right? Williams describes how that happens in his analysis of culture in “The Long Revolution” (Chapter Two), and we see it, too, especially the surface manifestations, flickering from day to day and hour to hour, with new products, catch phrases, memes, technology and “news.” The river of culture is in flux (we never step into the same river twice!). And usually I regard it as a river in another way, too, as a flow that is more or less predictable, that stays within its banks; “Old Man River” just keeps rolling along. We sweat and strain, sure, but the river is always there, rising a bit and falling a bit, occasionally flooding but returning to its course: new products, catch phrases, memes, technology, and “news.”

My thinking, my regard, is wrong.

A river on Mars. Image credit:NASA/JPL-CalTech/UofA/Matt Balme

Rivers change course. They dry up and disappear completely. They duck under ice sheets. The ecosystem the river supports (or once supported) changes. And humans can change it completely: Just visit the banks of the Willamette River as it flows through Portland. They can leave a mark—bank and river bed—even on another planet, but the feeling of the river is entirely different. The flux is in flux, too. Its structure of feeling, like that of our culture, changes. And pretty soon you find yourself alongside a different river, a different culture, 7.0 or something: The Sixties, the Victorian era, the Middle Ages, the Roman Republic, the Ming Dynasty, the Kingdom of Kush.

How did the Middle Ages feel? “All things presenting themselves to the mind in violent contrasts and impressive forms, lent a tone of excitement and of passion to everyday life and tended to produce that perpetual oscillation between despair and distracted joy, between cruelty and pious tenderness which characterize life in the Middle Ages.” That’s from the beginning of Johan Huizinga’s magisterial “The Waning of the Middle Ages,” published in 1949. Even as we consider the description and how deeply different the structure of feeling was then, we may note the style, the structure of feeling, to broaden the use of the term, of Huizinga’s own text. 

The Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, then classical Absolutism (think Louis XIV in France), then the Enlightenment, then neo-classicism, then the Industrial Age and on and on—or however you would like to name the different eras—that naming tells us a lot about our own era. How do we in the Pandemic Culture understand these past cultures, especially those that are beyond living memory? Williams focuses on their arts, because the arts both provide a record of the past and testify to the creativity at work amplifying and then changing that past. Some of that past is still with us, for better and for worse, preserved in libraries (real and virtual) and museums, and even still commodified for sale to the highest bidder. After that, it’s all burial mounds, garbage dumps and patient digging. Hitler and his generation are dead, but some people insist on bringing that grotesque toxicity along for our ride, too, even down to the pseudo-traditional societies they conjure, the evocation of a Golden Era when German was really Germany and America was really America. 

How do the arts figure into the analysis? Because they track lived experience, Williams says. Individual artists live a particular reality, and then organize that reality internally, eventually enough to communicate it in art (a play, a song, a dance, a text, a movie). “Communication is the crux of art,” Williams writes, and the artist’s experience reaches the spectator (or auditor) in the artist’s terms. Although I may think of art as operating on the “frontiers of knowledge,” that’s because the 20th and 21st centuries have been alternately dramatically disturbed or rapidly changing, Williams says. Often it operates in the middle of society and in doing so, its expressions, the artist’s communication, organizes a society’s experience and provides a common meaning of the lived reality.

In a changing and/or disturbed society—and ours does seem like it’s both changing and deeply disturbed—it’s not just a case of society changing, “but of real changes in the personal organization of all its members.”

ArtsWatch’s Martha Daghlian recently interviewed artist Bruce Conkle, and his comments are pertinent here.

Daghlian: When this is all over (hopefully soon), what will you take away from this experience? What do you hope the rest of the world will take away? 

Conkle: Hopefully during the ‘isolation time’ most people have done some introspection, and in theory that should lead to more self-aware individuals. I hope that through more internal thoughtful experiences combined with less shopping, people have proven to themselves that it is easy to get by without buying a ton of unnecessary shit, and that it is not only easier to get along without so much consumption, it can be more rewarding as well.

"Love Luck Money Spells" is part of conceptual artist Bruce Conkle's show at Nine Gallery.
Bruce Conkle, “Love Luck Money Spells”, 2019, oil on wood, 24″ by 18″

In this circumstance, individual artists either recreate common meanings or create new meanings. And the new meanings are organized from the artists’ own experiences. 

More specifically, what do you think artists and the art world at large will lose or gain as a result of the challenges we are experiencing now? Do you think the role of art or the way arts communities and institutions function will change permanently?

With so much time at home, practically everyone is surrounding themselves with more arts these days, from the obvious movies and music, to dressing up in costumes for video meetings, and cooking elaborate meals to enjoy. Ideally this will nurture a more nuanced appreciation of quality that comes from within and results in a more meaningful approach to living life.

Art is a central part of the community project to understand and organize a changing society, in our case one living through the uncertainty of a pandemic, on one hand, and a looming cluster of similarly (or even more) disruptive events brought about by climate change.

“The individual creative description is part of the general process which creates conventions and institutions,” Williams writes, “through which the meanings which are valued by the community are shared and made active.”

For these short readings from Williams, I’m drawing on a very few pages of “The Long Revolution.” When I first read the book, I found it very useful as a way to organize my own descriptions of culture and how it operates and changes. It seems reductive in this particular form—short quotes—and even sometimes in the longer argument he’s constructing. And it’s not a guide to understanding specific works of art or artists. But I appreciate his deep understanding of the social character of the arts and their centrality to the understanding and evolution of culture. 

*****

“Valued by the community.” Ay, there’s the rub. In addition to a crisis of democracy, an economic crisis, a climate change crisis and a pandemic crisis, we also have a crisis of values. The values crisis makes solving the other ones impossible.

“For about a century, the West has worked on the degradation of its own values, eliminating and abolishing them. Abolishing everything that gives value to something, someone or a culture.” If I continue this quote, you may guess the author: “Simulation and simulacra participate in this phenomenon. This process of abjection, humiliation, shame, self-denial, this fantastic masquerade, has become the strategy of the West and is amplified by the U.S.” [“The Agony of Power,” Jean Baudrillard, semiotext(e), 2005]

My cure for undue optimism is the late French philosopher/culture critic Jean Baudrillard, who argued that the West had managed to replace reality with simulacra, “the flotation of value escaping into boundless speculation.” Don’t worry. I’m not about to drop into a discussion of simulacra (think Disneyland, a representation of reality in which the representation is more perfect than reality, so much more perfect that we pay to experience it) through the ages. But the simulation of reality that contemporary mass media has constructed is compelling enough to pull us out of reality and into the consumption of a simulated one, where car insurance at a lower price purports to restore you to an ideal (simulated) life that is full of fun, well-being, and even a bit whimsy. That’s SOME car insurance! We even KNOW it’s a simulation, a commercial, and yet we don’t turn away in disgust. We consume it. Or at least I do. All of which Baudrillard observed and predicted: The only values in the simulated world? Distraction for the consumer; money and control for the producers; vast quantities of money for those who hire the producers.

Jean Baudrillard

“We live in a virtually banalized, neutralized world where, because of a kind of preventive terror, nothing can take place anymore,” Baudrillard writes in “The Agony of Power”. “Therefore everything that breaks through is an event. The definition of an event is not to be unpredictable but to be predestined.” Baudrillard (1929-2007) isn’t writing about coronavirus Covid-19, which is anything but predictable, though he could be writing about the Trump administration’s efforts to treat it as something that can be dealt with through the president’s wizardry, his mastery of the simulated reality that rules us.

The virus is microbial, but it is real. Its effects are real. Our fear of it is a real fear and we have done real things to ward it off. Covid-19 closed down Disneyland! Faced with a choice, a test of values, Trump’s simulation machine demands that we save…the simulation. Instead of human life. If we keep the simulation, it won’t matter if we die, because the simulation will continue. Human life is one of those values that escaped, a lost balloon drifting on the breeze above Disneyland, getting smaller and smaller, then disappearing…from Disneyland at least (which, by the way, remains closed).

But though the wizard wants us to ignore the little man behind the curtain and the virus, we know the virus is real. We’ve seen the pictures. Part of the feeling we are experiencing is the novelty of something actually puncturing the simulation. It’s deadly, but maybe it wakes us from the dream. Once awake, Conkle suggests in his interview with ArtsWatch, maybe we will be able to reestablish some values beyond protection of the simulation.

*****

After World War II, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre founded the magazine Les Temps Modernes. In November they published the first issue, and it contained an essay by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The War Has Taken Place.” Merleau-Ponty had enlisted in the French army, was wounded and then worked with Sartre on a Resistance publication during the Occupation of France. He joined Sartre and de Beauvoir as a member of the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes.

I think of World War II as a separate “structure of feeling,” and “The War Has Taken Place” as an account, a confession, an explanation, of that time, at least as it was lived in Occupied France. I want to quote from it at some length, because it addresses this question of values, real values, not the simulated ones which many Americans perform at state houses around the country, defining freedom as the right to infect other people, discriminate at will, and defend the simulation to the death, often with English translations of Nazi slogans.

What values will we bring forward? “A Night at the Opera in the year 2000”,
cartoon by Albert Robida, 1882

“We were not wrong, in 1939, to want liberty, truth, happiness, and transparent relations among men, and we are not now abandoning humanism,” Merleau-Ponty wrote in 1945 (explaining the formulation “among men”). “It is a question not of giving up our values of 1939 but of realizing them. Imitating the tyrants is not the question, and, insofar as such imitation was necessary, it is precisely for having forced us to it that we cannot forgive them.”

The pandemic reveals us for who we are, and it asks questions of us— difficult questions, as individuals and as a society. The great artists of this time will help us figure them out, figure ourselves out, but they won’t deliver us. That’s an individual matter, one I have to solve for myself, and then share with other individuals who are also figuring it out. What are our values? How will we realize them? How do we create institutions that will help us? These are questions we were born to answer, that the species has been answering for a very long time. Maybe the seductive power of the simulation diverted us from those ancient debates, but maybe we can apply ourselves to them again. 

In the era of simulation, talk of values and meaning has gone out of fashion, but we aren’t stuck here, as Williams reminds us. We’ve already left it, and we’re going somewhere else. Maybe we’re even starting over. Right…now.

Comments are closed.