What is Modern Culture?


I found these characteristics of modern culture summarized in a book by Ryszard Kapuszcinsky – they are from 1996 and I am curious how accurate they feel seventeen years later, so I will attempt a brief analysis of each point.

First of all – everything is provisionary. Everything is fluid. Everything can be questioned, changed, put into brackets, disregarded or discarded. Nothing is stable, nothing lasts, nothing is final. Relativism is the dominant mode of thought – a tendency to question obvious truths, a pragmatism without principles.

Scarily accurate and we are so deep into this mode of thought that we do not realize its danger anymore. To moor along intellectually, to be able to change at will is a useful ability, certainly, but by it intellectuals run the danger of forgetting who they are, constantly engaged in endless debates about potential that are merely an exercise of the imagination or an intellectual distinction that has little to no effect on social realities.

Questioning obvious truths is certainly good, but we have to do it without self-aggrandizing spectacle. Turning Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, who are examples of people who radically shifted public perception to a more relativistic attitude, into cult heroes is perhaps counter propaganda.

Pragmatism without principles…filesharing is a good example of this. While filesharers abide by a certain codex of principles, those principles usually only extends to themselves and not to the group whose intellectual or artistic property they share. If those two groups were to enter into a fuller discourse, a large part of the market would change…crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are examples of the beginning of such a shift, but the question that remains is, if everything is relative whose rules do we follow?

The second characteristic is the conviction that everything needs to be perfected. Nothing is perfect, nothing ever will be perfect and that’s why everything constantly needs to be perfected. Behind this is the idea of endlessness. Perfection has no end, progress is infinite. The idea of progress has turned into a Golden Calf.

True as well, as we see in the larger market. Success does not end if we perfect something, upgrade it, rename it, reboot it, rebrand it. This can even be extended to personal aspects…we need to get better or we lose everything and since our identity is fluid, rebranding and reinvention of ourselves is not so difficult to attain.

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying”, as Bob Dylan sang. We are busy in frantic proportions because we fear death, to stand still, lack of progress, regression, unable to reconcile ourselves with these integral and unavoidable aspects of life. By turning ourselves into machines, we attempt to forget our mortality, because we are busy becoming better.

The third characteristic: The place of culture in her former sense of something that was experienced in mind and body has been taken by the subculture of spectacle. The attitude of modern man is best characterized by calling him a passive watcher. Tourism has become a symbol of our time because of that very reason. One wants to look at things without knowing anything about them. Looking at replaces knowledge and understanding, even more, it becomes synonymous with them. Culture no longer is a form and expression of life, it has instead been reduced to specialized fields which are gladly left to its specialists – it has become a restricted territory of professionalists.

Boy, oh boy, does that ever hit the nail on the head. And this characteristic has only increased. Youtube videos of everything exist and news come streaming in images. Words, especially extensive and characteristic words have become a rarity, because due to our endless perfectionism we have no more time to deal with redundant words or, God forbid, someone else’s character.

We have become scavengers of information, capable of reducing everything to what we take as its essence. Bland sometimes, sometimes piercing, but to the point. Or so we believe. A reductionist relativism necessitated by an overload of information most of which is redundant.

By doing so we quite often parse the essential from the information, stripping it bare of what may once have been considered culture and is increasingly labeled as baggage.

We comfort ourselves with the (probably erroneous) idea that knowledge has become too difficult and diverse (perhaps due to endless perfectionism on part of the different branches) to grasp all of it and, in the end, cease even to grasp the tiniest bit. Culture as a transmitter of often unspoken information is being lost in a global community that shares a lot but reflects very little and is often tied together only by financial and virtual strings.

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