Review by Anthony Signorelli
Review of Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Key Ideas: Eroticism, capitalism, religion, law, culture, spectacle, society
Just as I was finishing the new book Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, by Mario Vargas Llosa, a man in Virginia planned and carried out the murder of a reporter and her cameraman. Such murders have become far too prevalent in our society—so much so that they fail to shock us anymore. This particular murder, for example, occurred just a few days after James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado movie theater killer, was sentenced to over 3,000 years in prison. Such is the environment in which these events occur.
What was poignant about this particular murder was the way in which it was conducted. The murderer had clearly planned it to occur during a live, on air interview the reporter and cameraman were conducting, and he apparently strapped a video device onto his gun and videotaped the shooting from that angle. The video tape he created was posted to social media and the Internet shortly after the murder. That is to say, the murder was carried out for the expressed purpose of creating a spectacle—a video and an image that would seer itself into the minds of all who were tuned in to TV that day, or who happened upon this video online.
Notice what happened here. Yes, there was hatred and anger. Yes, there was care to be taken. Yes, there was mental disturbance. But only a civilization that honors and values the spectacle above all else would lead the mentally ill to aggrandize oneself through the creation of such a gruesome spectacle. All the recent school shootings, Adam Lanza, Timothy McVeigh, the 9/11 attacks. None of them were planned specifically to self-film and produce a spectacle of the act itself. Only ISIS had hitherto understood what was possible in a civilization of the spectacle. This one was a domestic crime, and in that way, it marks a milestone in the development of this decrepit cultural tendency.
Written well before this particular incident, Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, sets out to explain the societal decay that would lead inevitably to this kind of spectacular event. In a culture where spectacle rises above all art, ideas, and intellect to become the single most dominant and influential force in the culture, there is little else to expect. A murder of this type, and perhaps many murders of this type, was almost inevitable.
Vargas Llosa’s primary thesis seems to be that we have moved from a culture of higher standards to this society of spectacular debauchery. I admire his attempt to do this, for in the writing he maintains a sharp eye on liberal culture and the way it has fed this collapse. Many writers have made such critiques of liberal culture, but most, in the end, collapse into a doctrinaire recitation of conservative ideas. Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind comes to mind, as does Amitai Etzioni’s Spirit of Community. In both of these, and so many other works, the critique of liberal values is a set up for an ideological attack on those same values from a conservative viewpoint. The critique is not meant to strengthen the values; it is meant to destroy them. Vargas Llosa seems unique in this case for he criticizes with the apparent desire to strengthen, not attack and destroy. This stance wins him some trust.
Instead of hackneyed conservatism, however, Vargas Llosa seems to fall into trite traditionalism. Authors who complain about the current quality of work in art, ideas, literature, and theater frequently harken to old times, when the quality of the art and literature was supposedly better. Unfortunately, criticism like this may seek to provide keen and deep insight, but it frequently dissolves into an older man’s lament for a nostalgic past. In too many places, Vargas Llosa has made this mistake, and the result is traditionalism at its worst.
So, what is to be gained from reading and discussing this book? Despite the displays of traditionalism and lament, Vargas Llosa’s focus on the civilization of the spectacle is important because it names what we have become. It is not that there hasn’t always been spectacle, even barbaric spectacle, in society. Public hangings, beheadings, and suicides are all part of the historical record, and go back as far as Socrates and further. But what does seem serious is that the spectacle has risen beyond the occasional event, and become the essential cultural currency of our time. Arguably, there is more influence from a celebrity, a spectacular event, or even a mere provocation today than there ever was. At the same time, it seems that the influence of serious art has indeed waned. Vargas Llosa complains about the celebrated performance artist who goes out on stage, takes a shit on stage, and then proceeds to eat the feces. The complaint? Crude, grotesque, unfinished, lack of refinement. All true.
But as art historians will explain, the same accusations have been made against a lot of art that later became masterpieces. For example, similar criticisms and insults were made against Picasso, who Vargas Llosa holds up as a master in this book. Similar accusations were made against rock and roll, yet many of those songs we now hold as classics. Think of Chekhov and Beckett in the theater, Manet in painting, Nietzsche in philosophy. All came out with controversial original works later understood to be masterpieces.
Such art may often be best understood as an ongoing conversation, but the artist’s contemporary fans and viewers often have a hard time seeing the conversation. I believe that part of Vargas Llosa’s lament is for critics who actually understand and can see the conversation for what it is, because without that, viewers and the general public have no way to understand. I suppose that such critics exist, it’s just that they are very hard to find. That is, they aren’t very influential.
Vargas Llosa’s argument here is easy to characterize as a lament, and to write off in that way. But to do so would be a mistake. His more important contribution is not that a man defecating and eating it on stage is low art, but rather that such art is largely irrelevant to society—right along with all the other art being produced. Our society is not influenced by art, ideas, or significant conversation anymore; it is driven by spectacle. Unless you are an art nerd, you never heard of the guy on the stage. But everyone knows about the aforementioned on-air murder, the latest NFL cheating scandal, and the recent divorce of a celebrity movie star. And worse, society tends to treat these as the defining aspects of our time.
Unfortunately, Vargas Llosa is far more focused on the decay of art into spectacle than he is on the changing influence of the two. His best insights come in the area of eroticism, where the decay from “art” to the profane spectacle is clear and poignant, while he follows an errant path through capitalism, religion, and law without seeming to understand the real drivers in any of them—he is content instead with a half-baked blame on the spectacle, which is unconvincing at best. I will look at all four to illustrate what I mean.
Nowhere in this book is he as poignant as he is on eroticism. Vargas Llosa masterfully pulls the sexual revolution apart from its prudish forebears, yet refuses to embrace the mundane engagement with pornography, nor the “forward thinking” high school masturbation classes offered in some countries. If humans are different from animals, he says, it is surely in our experience of sexuality. For animals, sex is mere mechanics and the physical relief from biological urge, and human sexuality certainly includes that. But likewise, our sexuality is imbued with mystery, love, secrecy, and privacy. It takes us to the very limits of creativity and experience, yet in so doing, opens the doors of destruction and death. It is this vastness of the experience that separates human and animal experience, and the profane dullness of pornography and masturbation classes threatens to return us to the animal sexual experience.
Although he doesn’t say it, this line of thought raises very serious questions about the Christian view of sexuality. Christians argue that sex is only for procreation. The implication? We are and should remain animals if we are to serve Christ and stay moral. Put that way, I doubt most Christians would argue that view, yet if Vargas Llosa is correct with the first insight, the second follows. But he cannot and will not make that charge. This is the first hint of his naïve proclivity toward the role of religion in society. As a defender of religion in later chapters, he cannot make the obvious indictment the insight otherwise warrants.
Equally, Vargas Llosa has no time in this book for the vulgarities of pornography, which he defines as eroticism stripped to mere spectacle. Here, he deserves applause. Pornography, as well as the brothel, are designed to strip away all those human complications—the emotions, the vulnerability, the mystery—and turn sex into a purely mechanical, animalistic function. The objectification of the brothel is turned into spectacle in pornography, yet each serves the same function—to destroy eroticism in favor of mere biological release.
This section of the book is critical because it is a kind of metaphor for his argument on the whole. Eroticism is the creative force and experience he is trying to defend from attacking or eroding influences on all sides—the mechanistic liberality of masturbation workshops, the prudishness of Christian moralism, and the objectified spectacle of pornography. In eroticism, the argument and opposing positions are made clear. His defense of a truly creative, human eroticism signals his attempt to defend genuine creativity, and it provides the reader with a sense of what he is trying to do. The “high culture” against which he juxtaposes the civilization of the spectacle is precisely that creative drive. And, it is being overwhelmed by the spectacle.
As the book moves into religion, the up-til-now erudition of the writer begins a rapid decay, and this is lamentable. First, he enters the old and ludicrous debate about whether or not God exists—apparently as some separate old man with a long white beard who lives in the sky. It seems that he believes this is still a lively debate, despite the fact that the last real contribution to it was Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century. The ability to prove God’s existence is meaningless both to atheists and to the religious, and even more importantly, it gets the writer caught up in that atheist-religious practitioner debate, which has nothing to do with the death of culture and creativity, nor the rise of the spectacle. Any religion based on such proofs is doomed to fail, for in the end, there is no such proof.
And yet, Vargas Llosa asks an interesting question: why do men and women believe? And here, he gives an answer worth contemplating: It is not about death, nor even about evil, nor about explaining the universe, although those issues infect the souls of most people. No. Instead, he says: “Men and women insist on believing in God because they do not trust themselves.” That is, they do not trust themselves to make the proper moral judgments, exert the appropriate self-control, nor find the generosity of heart within themselves to do good by their fellow human beings, unless they are told what to do by a greater power than themselves. In other words, they don’t trust themselves to understand and act upon moral decisions. They do not want to be tasked with making the decision, for it is far easier to follow a rule made by God.
If this insight is accurate, it explains the constant swing between the rise of liberal freedoms and the alternating rise of religious conservatism, especially fundamentalism. First, society breaks loose into new freedoms—most recently the sexual revolution, the feminist revolution, and so on, but then it responds with the worst kind of religious fundamentalism, starting with the so-called revivals of Jerry Falwell, then rapidly descending into hate-filled condemnation of those who see things differently. I imagine there are people on both sides who will either never put faith in a higher power, or never let go of the sense of safety they get from the idea that a higher power has told them what to do. But as one or the other sways into ascendency, it must be the uncertain middle who makes the move. First, people get scared of the uncertainties and responsibilities posed by the new freedom, and so run toward stricter rules for safety. When the rules become too constraining, they run toward the freedom offered by more liberal ideas. Society appears to move back and forth based on this insight presented by Vargas Llosa.
As I read the section on the Opium of the People, however, I became less certain I have a trusted or insightful author. Here, Vargas Llosa tries again to walk that fine line acknowledging the current and historical problems with religion, yet somehow calling for it to be the counterweight to capitalistic excess. He even goes so far as to suggest that the financial crisis of 2009 could have been avoided or at least tempered, if the bankers were just a little more church going. On one hand, this idea is laughable because capitalism has never been tamed by the church; on the other, it is ridiculous because religion has always propped up capitalism, not controlled it.
His superficial view of religion as a set of rules that guide the masses lead him to some very unfortunate perspectives:
- He makes no distinction between religion and spirituality
- He fails to recognize that religion enables capitalistic excess by offering solace through escape, redemption, and the godhead’s imagined blessing on the actions of the people committing the excess.
- He seems to be calling for religion not to balance capitalistic excess, but to assuage the people—some from their moral guilt and others from the desperate situations—thus preserving the opiate function of religion which Marx described.
Oddly, Vargas Llosa rails against the democratization of arts and letters, and justly so, for it is resulting in a plethora of bad, dull, boring literature and art, which is nearly impossible to weed through to get to the good stuff. Yet in my reading, he seems to be saying “democratize religion instead” for that will placate the people and put a lid on their animal instincts. The idea of placation is real; the lid on animal instincts is a farce—as two millennia of religious wars ought to amply illustrate.
Worse, Vargas Llosa sees clearly the modern disdain for the law—that is, the penchant for feeling the law doesn’t apply to me. Yet he fails miserably to see the profound role the church has played in this attitude. Nowhere is it more profound than in Catholicism, especially in America, where antiquated church rules make them irrelevant to how people live their lives, or even how they practice their faith. Most Catholics go to mass every week, but feel free to interpret church rules to their own liking, or to jettison the rules altogether. How can an institution interpreted that way have any moral standing? It can’t. The situation was made even worse by the church’s institutional criminal activity in relation to priest sexual abuse of children, when the church actually saw itself as above the law in its refusal to report the most heinous crimes by its clergy. Is it any wonder people don’t respect the law when the most powerful institutions in their midst don’t either?
Rather than being a beacon of morality that will temper the animalistic drives of capitalism, religion presents a supposedly higher law, inveighs its members to honor its law above all else, and in that way is the single biggest contributor to the degradation of the respect for rule of law. While a certain moral empowerment comes forth here in certain situations—civil rights being one of them—the general call to obey the higher law will always undermine both man-made law and liberty itself. In this way, the church promotes the idea that the law need not apply. It is undermining true democracy, and adds to and supports contempt for the law in such a way that leads us not only to not be shocked by the excesses of capitalism, but to expect them.
These ludicrous statements about capitalism left me slack-jawed. How could such an intelligent man so profoundly misunderstand the driving powers of capitalism? Doesn’t he see that capitalism is, in fact, the driving power of the civilization of the spectacle? This is not because of its power to manipulate consumers, but rather because of what it does to producers—i.e., its own employees. The reason mass culture needs spectacle is the mass ennui of modern work life. This mass boredom forces employees to seek spectacular entertainment, which breaks us out of the insanity of that professional culture and moves us into an electrified body experienced through spectacles, such as modern sport, concerts, shows, television, movies, and now the Internet. Capitalism creates the desperate experience of the individual, which is the cause of a civilization of the spectacle in response. It is a mutually reinforcing cycle.
Vargas Llosa is a writer who can see clearly that as books become ebooks, the form will change the content, and therefore the writer as well as the reader. And yet, he seems to believe that capitalism plays no such role in re-forming, altering, and shaping either the people who serve it constantly, the organizations that relate to it such as church and state, nor even the culture itself. Instead, he promulgates this idea that religion will check capitalistic excess. Go back through the history of capitalism, however, and exploitative excess is everywhere. Start with the seventeenth century tulip mania in Holland, follow that with the East India Company. Ask yourself if capital didn’t have a role in driving the Conquistadors and the slave trade. As corporate capitalism flourished in America, what was more excessive than the railroad trusts, the Robber Barons, oil trusts, or men like Morgan, Schwab, and Rockefeller, or the Pinkerton attack on the steel workers. All these excesses, riots, speculative bubbles, frauds and outright crimes were perpetrated from within capitalism at a time, Vargas Llosa believes to be more balanced because churches were more active and influential. One would have to ask—what check did religion play in these supposedly restrained events?
Capitalism, in other words, is inherently excessive—especially corporate capitalism, and even more especially, global capitalism. No religion will check it, for that suggests individuals will overpower the inherent requirements capitalism forces upon individual participants. It’s not just encouragement, but actual requirement. Individuals won’t control the excess because they can’t. Even if a single individual achieves a religiously inspired victory, he or she will be replaced by a “more effective” employee. More religion will not control capitalism for the greater good. It never has, and it never will.
Finally, Vargas Llosa laments the contemporary lack of respect for the law. While I had hoped to see an astute assessment of what is actually a real problem, no such assessment materialized. Instead, he lumps this complaint into the same overall lament, missing the opportunity to share poignant insights on the underlying cause of such a loss of respect. I suppose my hopes were misplaced, however, because given his perspective on capitalism and religion, there was likely no way poignant insights could materialize.
Law is respected in societies where law applies equally to everyone, and is reasonably easy and simple to administer and comply with. It is eroded when other forces in the society attempt to supersede the law. The most common and obvious of these is corruption. But the two other strongest forces are the very forces we’ve been discussing—religion and capitalism.
Religion, as stated earlier, posits the existence of higher powers and persuades followers that its law is higher than the actual law of our nations. What could be more corrosive to respect for the law than that? The law is the law, but only if it conveniently suits your religious perception, and the church actively encourages adherence to its law above all else. Vargas Llosa fails to explain how this helps strengthen law.
Capitalism deals a dual blow. On one hand, it releases the competitive instincts Vargas Llosa seems so worried about. On the other, its very nature—the DNA of the corporate structure itself—requires participants to ignore responsibility wherever possible—especially wherever such actions will not threaten the very existence of the corporation. The inherent structure of the corporation—indeed, its very raison d’etre, is to avoid liability for its actions. The responsibilities of the office, the corporate charter, and the market, all lead people toward avoiding responsibility. You can hear this every time a corporate manager says something like: “As parent, I fully understand. But as your boss, I have say no.” That’s the office speaking. It’s not far from there to the ongoing, systemic excesses that led to the financial crisis.
This is a most basic criticism and understanding of how corporations function. They encourage thwarting the law every bit as much as religion does. Both point to a higher order, a different source, an alternative ethic. The law depends on people taking responsibility for civic duty and their own actions, and both religion and capitalism say, “Hey, don’t focus on the law; there is something else more important to guide your actions.”
I enjoy it immensely when quality writers take on the big issues of our day. Such a writer is bound to articulate at least one or two solid notions, and sometimes several. In this one, it is the civilization of the spectacle. That idea should go with us all as a notion for additional thought and contemplation. How did it get this way? What does it mean? What are its implications? Should we do something about it?
I imagine that further exploration is what Vargas Llosa prescribed for himself in this book. His section on eroticism fulfills that promise, but much of the rest of the book awaits for a different kind of attention from a different writer to speak clearly and fully explore the notions he provides here. This is a book of seeds with enormous potential. The fruits have yet to develop.