'This is the Dead End of Modernist Culture'

“Why the Oscars Were So Bad” is the headline of an article by Robert Tracinski in Real Clear Politics. It’s not about the show itself, so much as the underlying culture that produced it: 


So I guess the Academy got what it wanted, after all, because this is the essence of contemporary youth popular culture. It is a culture suffused with ridicule and sarcasm intended to tear down all values. But of course, people still pursue values anyway because this is a necessity of life. So they insulate their values from criticism by apologizing for them in advance, presenting everything as a sarcastic or “ironic” joke and begging not to be taken seriously.

The New York Times recently published a searing self-examination of this “hipster” culture.

“The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness….

“For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s—members of Generation Y, or Millennials—particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt….

“Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself.”

All of which perfectly describes MacFarlane’s performance.

But “irony” is not the right word to describe this culture. Irony implies an element of intelligence, wit, and judgment. The hipster tells himself that what he is doing is “ironic” to make himself feel sophisticated. But the real motive for the pre-emptive apology, for not daring to take anything seriously, is clearly fear: the fear of having to stand up for and defend a value, particularly against ridicule from a contemporary culture ruled by sneering sarcasm. So hipster “irony” really just turns out to be a form of awkward self-consciousness. Behind every modern comedian of the Seth MacFarlane-Jon Stewart variety, there is a neurotic teenager paralyzed with fear that the cool kids are going to make fun of him.

Incidentally, this explains what William Shatner was doing there. On one level, it made no sense. Shatner hasn’t made a Star Trek film in years, and the franchise has already been rebooted with younger actors. If you’re trying to create an awards show that appeals to younger viewers, why feature an 81-year-old actor from a 47-year old television show? On another level, though, Shatner’s career fully tracks popular culture’s collapse into pseudo-ironic self-consciousness. He spent the first half of his career creating an earnestly meant film and television hero—and he has spent the second half of his career as an increasingly cartoonish parody of that character.

This is the dead end of Modernist culture, which sought to break down traditional values and rules but was unable to replace them with anything better. It left us in a cultural void where, as the New York Times piece puts it, everyone is afraid that “serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst.” In the second half of the 20th century, this corrosive Modernist skepticism brought us the ruling concept of contemporary popular culture: the “cool.” Remember the original meaning of the term. To be “cool” is to be emotionally cool, to refuse to be caught up in enthusiasm. Early on, this could be taken to mean a kind of manly reserve, the ability to be calm, cool, and collected in the face of strife, or to refuse to be carried away by momentary or trivial emotions. This is the sense in which James Bond was “cool.” But by the end of the 20th century, the culture of cool increasingly came to mean a studied lack of response to values. It meant refusing to be carried away by enthusiasm about anything.


It’s a show about nothing, in other words.

So what comes next after a culture sleepwalks through an extended period of irony and nihilism? “This week Europe blew up,” James Lewis and Justine Aristea write at the American Thinker. “The media haven’t caught up yet, because they are what they are. But the markets are catching up fast.” Read the whole thing.

Related: Former Clinton Aide George Stephanopoulos discusses North Korea with Time-Warner-CNN-HBO spokesman and geopolitical troubleshooter Dennis Rodman on The Week, ABC’s Sunday morning talk show. Which in a way, adds a bit of perspective to Tracinski’s Real Clear Politics article:

If this year’s Oscars weren’t the dead end of modernist culture; this moment certainly must be.


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