Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Sarah Palin. Click for credits and to enlarge

This is the end of a series on Antonio Gramsci. I am beginning here where I left in my previous post.

The title and the post are meant to provoke a bit, and I know I risk being considered a snobbish, or a chauvinist, European.

The United States – I was saying – exert today a cultural hegemony over the planet at a high and a popular level of culture [for the high level, suffice it the sheer excellence of their universities in the scientific, technological and humanities fields, not to mention the number of Nobel prizes attained by Americans]

One can speak of a new American Renaissance, with fantastic contributions offered to the world – the Internet, a great revolution, being just one of them.

Which affects both the American culture and those cultures exposed to American influence – basically ALL of them, at diverse degrees.

[By culture I mean both:

1) the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a group (the Unesco definition);

2) the general knowledge, values etc. an individual can attain through education (linked to the Ancient concepts of Humanitas & Paideia.)

Also culture quality has to be considered. If I enjoy Shakespeare better than soap operas, I am not a snob, I am simply better educated and my mind is more powerful]

Gramsci, reflecting on the US soon after the 1929 depression, considered America culturally hegemonic already at his time (the 1930s) although to him such world-wide hegemony presented a few cracks for being, the US, too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many ‘cultures’ (see above the meaning 1 of the term.)

Now, following Gramsci’s reasoning – and considering his notions of ‘intellectuals’, ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘national-popular’ culture (see our posts on Gramsci 1, 2 and 3)– we can ask ourselves:

In our rapidly changing world, with powerful civilisations about to re-surface, is America seductive enough at a world-wide scale [ie ‘culturally hegemonic’ world-wide]?

I’ll say my opinion right away: the cracks Gramsci was mentioning seem today particularly evident (at least to many Europeans) at a pop culture level [update: whatever the reasons for this.] A civilization doesn’t export its high culture only. It exports the sentiments of its whole people with its books (quality works and blockbusters), films, TV serials etc. and when its tourists, business people, soldiers & the men of the street wander about the planet.

[A Gramscian national-popular notion of culture is where the intellectuals – artists, writers etc. – express at a higher level the elementary sentiments of the common people who thus emotionally and intellectually participate. The examples he indicates of ‘national-popular’ may clarify this Gramscian crucial concept: the Elisabethan theatre, the Greek tragedy or the Italian opera.]

I mean, when Rome conquered Gaul, Romanization occurred deeply without any organized effort by the Romans. That is, the Roman ‘culture’ was felt as superior and seduced the Gauls who became the French – not only the culture of the ‘intellectuals’ (big politicians, generals, writers etc.) was seducing, but that of the merchants, of the soldiers, of the simple citizens as well.

Do you also think that American world-wide hegemony’s weak point is a low-level and too pervading pop culture (due to consumerism, to making money being what only matters nowadays etc.) and also the “erasure of any high-pop culture distinction”? [see Lichanos comment on this]

Trekkies at Baycon, 2003. Click for credits

Do you also think that, to quote Andreas Kluth, a ‘high culture’ perceived as snobbish only “is a tragedy” and that – I’d add – the tea parties, the Sarah Palins and US widespread anti-elitism will make America pay a price in the long run in terms, again, of world cultural hegemony?

Finally – be patient, I dislike Star Trek – what do the Indians, the Chinese, the Persians, the rest of the world population – often belonging to ancient civilizations – think of the thousands of Star Trek conventions and clubs that have spread all over the globe? Will it benefit America’s image?

Note. I had discussed ‘West and US Seduction’ with my commentators (among other themes) at the time of Culture, Kultur, Paideia and The Last Days of the Polymath. Those discussions were among the best in this blog in my opinion.

Here just a few ideas from those discussions.

As for culture (in the sense of individual general knowledge & refinement) Lichanos had lamented the erasure of a high-pop culture distinction in the USA. To him more than the ‘youth factor’ a role may be played by America being often “the first to represent trends that are going world-wide”, ie America is just ahead of Europe in mass-culture and consumerism, which explains why a superficial pop culture is so pervasive in the US.

To Andreas Kluth a ‘high culture’ perceived as ‘snobbish only’ is “a tragedy” and due to many factors among which a too widespread anti-elitism (“Sarah Palin and all the rest”).

ψ

Other posts on Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought
America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath


Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

An interesting discussion over the dangers menacing our democracies was kicked off by our latest postWill Fascism Come Back? Easy, a Bit is There Already.

Most participants asked themselves whether democracy is at a turning point in many countries.

I am fortunate to have such great commentators.  I’m also glad I received additional insight on the American mind I always found fascinating also because elements of it are not that easy to be grasped by Europeans (the collectivism vs individualism thing, for example.)

I’ll freely transcribe here a few sentences of the said dialogue where the dear-to-me topic education in a democracy stands out a bit.

A scene from Videocracy, by Erik Gandini, an Italian Swedish film director

The idea behind this is a follow-up post on a work experience I had in Russia where I was sent in the year 2000 in order to carry out a TACIS* financed educational project for the integration of military personnel into civil society.

It seems very much to the point since it regards the topics discussed in the said conversation, ie individualism, collectivism, education in democracies or in flawed (or almost non existent) democracies.

[*TACIS was a programme financed by the EU for “grant-financed technical assistance to 12 countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia”]

MoR: Is fascism coming back in a way or another? We see “the contempt for the composed reason replaced by the reason of those who shout louder, by the hubbub that rages every evening in the televised debates etc.”

Paul: I’m afraid [fascism] has never been very far below the surface. [Paul’s blog]

Douglas: “I cannot think of any true democracies. Republics, yes, but democracies, no. [Douglas’ blog]

MoR: I agree. Demo-cracies are often aristo-cracies, ie the rule of the happy few. There is in fact a prerequisite imo for a democracy to work correctly: a solidly educated people. Without such prerequisite, demo-cracy degenerates into dem-agogy, ie a rule manipulative of the people via their emotions, fears, bias etc. The health care debate in America is an example of that I presume. Berlusconian Italy a much bigger one.

Andreas: Nobody actually fears fascism will win in America. But the rancor, the shrillness, the animosity obscuring reason and thought: that is everywhere. [Andreas’s blog]

Cheri: On both sides of the aisle, I might observe. [Cheri’s blog]

[Everybody seems to agree that it is not a Left or Right thing. The attack to freedom after all has historical roots in political ‘churches’ of any colour, and often in churches tout court (and, alas, especially in one Church)]:

ZeusIsWatching: Fascism is the kissing cousin of communism, the similarities are clear enough. [Zeus‘ blog]

Sledpress: Fascism [will live] with us as long as authority and submission are considered vital components of human culture … conditioning from birth onward … [cult of] “strong leadership” … We’ve all seen people bounce from Catholicism to Communism or whatever. [Sledpress’ blog]

Douglas: [he gets back to the educational thing] Do you really believe, MoR, that any country will produce a solidly educated people? …I think that as long as education is in the hands of the government ….there will only be people educated to support that government.

An image from the Italian TV. Click for credits

MoR: I understand America is suspicious of any state intervention in society …continental Europe, and possibly French Canada, have a rationalist, non empiricist, tradition (‘reason’ moulds society or kinda) so that a state should be ethical enough to try help the ‘losers’ of societal Darwinian competition, ie the poor, the uneducated etc

Portions of the sotosay winners’ income – a widespread mentality here, not necessarily leftist – should go to the less wealthy, without condoning tho those who take advantage of such a system (many of course do, tons of money gets wasted to the extent of foolishness).

While (almost) not spending a euro I have an excellent medical care, I myself once was a state school teacher trying to do something for the uneducated in the poorest districts of Rome.

And in Russia, a great but nightmarish place where I worked in 2000 (a moment when ALL was crumbling down there,) the masses were nonetheless amazingly educated in S&T and were reading Tolstoy, Pushkin in second class trains. Education didn’t save them from many forms of tyranny, big and small, which they accepted as their tradition, but I’m sure after these 10 years they are still bearing their tyrannies but must have copied the worst from us and are now reading crap in trains as well, as we do in moronic Berlusconian Italy.

Ana Téran: [a Mexican writer I just met at Andreas’.] Public will is a powerful weapon. Why in the hell don’t we use it MoR?

Lichanos: The “masses?” I wonder what percentage of people were reading Tolstoy and Pushkin. On the other hand, I meet lots of technically educated Russians who are surprised to find that I, an American engineer, know their history and literature, as they know ours. So, clearly there is a difference. [Lichanos’ blog]

Ψ

The final twist of the conversation brings me then to talk about Russia a bit. A marvellous (but puzzling) place from any point of view. See you soon then.

Ψ

Related posts:

[The 3 posts below illustrate – with really ample discussions – the notion of ‘personal knowledge’ related to what I mean by ‘solid education’, ie specialisation plus general knowledge. There is for example a difference (diminishing, alas) between the Latin countries plus Germany and Austria, on one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon countries on the other hand.

As Magister wrote, before the young are inserted into specialised activities they should first attain “a certain amount of maturity, of capacity of autonomy, orientation, initiative.” The last 30 years have seen in Italy the debacle of any effective education – both the Left and the Right having responsibilities, but Berlusconi added a big cherry on the pie by the propagation of a degrading culture in which he sincerely believes, it seems. I invite you all to get a copy of Videocracy. Here is the film’s official web site.

We had good ‘general culture’ orientation according to Italian traditions (but less specialization, a flaw, ok,) but now we have none of the two. AND Berlusconi has now convinced many Italians that priority num 1 is a reform of the constitution that will give him the power of a French (or American) President without any French or US counterbalance. And the economy? And unemployment? If this is not manipulation ….]

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

The Last Days of the Polymath

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Days of the Polymath

An earlier post kicked off an interesting conversation on the meaning of the word ‘culture’.

Dev, Lichanos, Andreas Kluth, the Commentator, Paul Costopoulos, sledpress, Rosaria, zeusiswatching – all were so nice to participate.

Being ‘cultured’ – we discussed – does it make any sense today? Why does it call up “stuffy, out-of-date rich people in drawing rooms?” in the English-speaking countries (Lichanos,) while it is still (a bit) appreciated in Italy France or Germany?

Apart from any possible European snobbery, elitism – being a ‘man of culture’ is not bad in my view and it is not elitist in that it can now be extended to the great number, this great number now watching realities – while they could buy a library only kings could afford in the past: something like a failure to me, not many doubts about it.

Only less than a century ago the Marxists, in their utopian folly, desired the totally developed man for everybody, which Antonio Gramsci adapted with his mass Leonardo da Vinci concept, that I always found fascinating.

The problem now is that a modern (mass or non mass) Leonardo is less viable because we know a lot more in so many more fields.

So the big gurus or maîtres à penser, providing the big picture people are so hungry for, are disappearing. Void is advancing and people, more and more confused, fall into the hands of organizations like Scientology and similar.

However, is this trend really inevitable, one may wonder?

Here is a conversation over at Lichanos’ – Journey to Perplexity.

It is about the death of the polymath and it started around Lichanos’ excellent review of “2001 a Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick.

Lichanos. Dev, thanks for the kind words, and I am very happy that you find my reviews interesting! I am a civil engineer – no connection to the film industry at all, but I came to my profession by way of studying philosophy and art history, so I am not, so I am told, a “typical” engineer.

Such a background used to be unremarkable for engineers, say, 60 or 100 years ago, but today, at least in the USA, it is unusual.

Dev. I know what you mean. I think that’s unusual every where in the world nowadays. Even considering the fact that all science and engineering had it’s foundation in philosophy earlier. I mean many scientists in the earlier times were originally philosophers.
But, I’m sure you are a very good civil engineer too.
Should I tell you that I studied Electronics Engineering in my undergrad too. 🙂
But I never worked as an engineer..
Anyways, I look forward to go through many of your earlier posts -especially the film/literature related ones- in the coming days.

Man of Roma. Lichanos, you are definitely not a ‘typical’ engineer. Dev, I don’t know you enough to say something.

We are shifting from Kubrick, but you are both evoking the polymath, he who knows a lot about a lot. This essay The Last Days of the Polymath is a good read (though Western-centric) and describes how the polymath is disappearing.

We Europeans had always the impression that this prevalence of specialization is due to America and her big influence. Although it may be simply necessary, with a corpus of knowledge so greatly expanding.

It seems clear, Dev, that by today’s standards many scientists of the past were polymaths.

Polymath is an English term. In Italy we say ‘tuttologo’ etc. Polymathy is still a bit ingrained in the Latin countries curricula. The ‘Liceo classico’ in Italy still educates the young in this way, probably because the universal-man ideal, the ‘homo universalis’, was developed during the Italian Renaissance – one example, I like to think, where being provincial could be an advantage.

ψ

I was hit in fact some time ago by a review on a book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. The review was written by Jared Diamond, an American I think. Cavalli-Sforza is an Italian who started at Stanford a revolution in human genetics from the 1960s onward and basically proved that ‘races’ do not exist.

“It would be a slight exaggeration – argues Jared Diamond – to say that L.L. Cavalli-Sforza studies everything about everybody, because actually he is ‘only’ interested in what genes, languages, archaeology, and culture can teach us about the history and migrations of everybody for the last several hundred thousand years.”

The Indians should be naturally born polymaths, due to their holistic approach, although today, with the speed of their economic development, they seem somewhat obliged to imitate the Westerners and be monomaths as well. But there are so many polymaths over there!

Man of Roma. My comment was not a paean to my country. It was a paean to the Greek Paideia and the Roman Humanitas, where the Renaissance man comes from.

Polymathy as a tendency is also dangerous, it encourages flitting around, dabbling, people who cannot stick at anything (I know it too well), Giacomo Casanova (mentioned in the essay) being a high-level example of it: he was good in mathematics, in philosophy and theology, but not too good.

A metaphor in the said essay that I liked: flirting, promiscuity – they are no good. It’s the real polygamy, the numerous & deeply lived marriages that make a real polymath.

I digressed. I’ll then add Kubrick was a genius and had a tendency towards polymathy, as the amazing variety of his films attests – Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange etc. – as well as his passion for music, photography, he also being a great producer & marketing man (I heard at the radio he used to commercialize all the gadgets of his movies by himself, the heart-shaped glasses Sue Lyon wore, for example.)

Lichanos. Dev, MoR: No need to apologize for digressing here! If not here, where can we let our minds and conversation wander?

I love that word tuttologo!! Better than polymath, which sounds so dry to my ear. As for being spread too thinly, comme une dilettante, in English there is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none…” Still, the culture of the amateur and the dilettante are attractive to me as long as there is not too much superficiality.

I recall reading a critique of Voltaire once, I forget by whom, that railed against him: “The man has opinions on everything!” The implication was that he was flippant and felt the need to pronounce on all topics, even if he was formulaic. The size of his collected works was presented as evidence. Perhaps something there, but he was quite deep enough of the time to redeem himself, perhaps.

Regarding the engineering profession, I must say, 1st: I never could understand electrical circuits beyond the most basic. I understand water systems, and everyone says that they are similar, but not for me! 2nd: My father, retired, is an electrical engineer. He once drove me past an old industrial building in downtown Brooklyn where he said he worked at one of his first jobs after WWII. They build a computer there and had to knock down an exterior wall to get it out!

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, by architect I. M. Pei. Click to enlarge and for credits

In the pre-WWII days, “patrician” familes were happy to send their sons to engineering school. Now they only become lawyers or MBAs. It was a status profession. Some say that the dominance of corporate industry after WWII succeeded in capturing the educational institutions and molding them to its own ends, i.e., the production of ready-made technicians in large supply to keep wages lower. There is something to it. Within my sort of engineering, there is still a sort of envy of doctors and lawyers who used to be seen as gods, and are still, on TV at least, seen as worthy of celebrity and dramatic presentation. They tend to earn a lot more too! On the other hand, architects, a definite prestige profession here, get paid much less than engineers and always cut each other’s throats competing for business. I think the solution to this economic, status “problem” is to make it harder to become an engineer, to require additional liberal arts training in addition to the technical curriculum. This would restrict supply, but this is not popular position. Thus, the griping about “low status” and complaints that “nobody really knows what engineers do,” go on.

I conclude with a favorite quote of mine from volume I of the Gulag Archipelago:

An engineer? I had grown up among engineers,and I could remember the engineers of the
twenties very well indeed: their open shining intellects, their free and gentle humor, their
agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field
to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then,
too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly
and was free of uncultured words; one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble
in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

Dev. MoR and Lichanos, wow, what a discussion and exchange of thoughts going on!

MoR: Thanks for sharing your views on polymaths. I agree with you that for most people trying to be polymaths is not a good idea. I mean one life is hardly long enough to do one thing properly, so dabbling in various things is never easy. But then, the best of the people have been, in some ways, polymaths. You are very right that Kubrick was in a sense a polymath. Each of his films were so different from each other in terms of genre, treatment etc. What made him special was that he was a chameleon. Nobody could really guess what to expect from his films. He was an excellent photographer and editor too. Plus, as you mentioned, he took great interest in the marketing of his films, even designing the promos and posters.

Lichanos: Nice to read your views. My father is a civil engineer and was a good one. Well, understanding circuits was never easy for me either. I guess I concluded it years back when I finished my engineering that most people are not ready to become an engineer at the tender age of 18. I somehow finished my degree in time and tried to get away from the engineering side of things as soon I got an opportunity. Not because I looked down at engineering, rather I thought it deserved so much respect and discipline that I’m not ready for it. Sadly, most engineering schools across the world just make assembly line engineers who can get decent jobs and raise a family. But, not really nurturing questioning/scientific minds.

Similar to what you quoted in the end, even when my father graduated in the late 60’s in India, they used to be proud of their engineering degrees; even more than the doctors or even the bureaucrats of those times. This is not really true anymore.

Man of Roma. Dev and Lichanos: you both then confirm that engineers are declining socially. Damn. My youngest daughter is graduating in civil engineering! 😉

Lichanos. Dev: On Engineers – yes, I think you hit it right on the head. BTW, I didn’t go to school to get an engineering degree until I was 23 or so. I NEVER could have made it at 18, even if I’d wanted to!!
MoR: I’m sure your daughter will do just fine. Everyone wants things built right! If she works in the field, on-site, it’s very much in demand, but a very demanding job! I could not stand it, I’m sure. I look out my window at the World Trade Center site and think, “How the HELL do they get everything to come together on time?” I’d have a nervous breakdown.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Previous installment:

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Days ago I was revising my blog’s categories. I realized how lazy I had been.

‘Culture’ for example indicated both:

  1. the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or group  (it’s the Unesco definition)  and
  2. the general knowledge and refinement a person can attain through education.

The former, anthropological, relates to groups, while the latter, humanistic, relates to individuals. So my category ‘culture’ has been split in two: culture and knowledge & refinement.

I’ll tell you, my impression is that ‘culture’ in English has progressively lost meaning num 2, which was instead well alive in the past if we have to believe J. C. Shairp, a Scottish man of letters, who wrote in the 19th century:

“What the Greeks expressed by their paideia, the Romans by their humanitas, we less happily try to express by the more artificial word culture.”

Well, if paideia and humanitas were better, culture is better than nothing in any case.

Of course European cultures (anthropological) are very much interrelated. In countries such as France Italy and Germany, for example, people continue to refer to culture also as personal, individual refinement: we have ‘cultura’ in Italian, ‘culture’ in French and ‘Kultur’ in German, which the German Duden dictionary explains with Bildung and verfeinerte Lebensart (refined way of life.)

I’m wondering why the English-speaking countries have retained only the anthropological use of culture. Don’t they like gli uomini di cultura generale any more?

According to my friend jurist cultura was a high culture ideal that mirrored social elitism, so the English-speaking countries, basically more pluralistic, bit by bit moved on. Very good point, but I’m not entirely convinced, there must be something else too.

This thing being more complicated than it seems, I am now asking my readers for insight.

In the meanwhile, I’ll soon post a nice discussion occurred a few days ago where some kind of replies have surfaced: a dialogue among a civil engineer from NYC, an Indian Canadian from Quebec – about to start a career in the film industry – and MoR.

Arrivederci a presto dunque.

ψ

See next installment:

The Last Days of the Polymath

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People