Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Every man a Philosopher King?

Most cultural production is just a distraction that keeps people from thinking about the conditions of their existence. From the perspective of Plato's cave, audiences are stuck there, bored, and staring at a wall: diversion keeps them sane.

The difference between "art" and "cultural production" is that "art" leads to transcendence -- a shimmering appreciation of the beauty of the universe -- while "cultural production" can be a pleasant way for a brain exhausted by a long workday to pass some time. From a phenomenological perspective, "art" breaks the structural intellectual habits of one's historical era while "cultural production" reinforces those habits.

The passage of time can turn "cultural production" into "art", because the historicity of a work creates a counterpoint to the Zeitgeist of the current time, and the tension between the two systems of interpretation can undermine one's commitment to the current system of interpretation. In recent years, the marketplace has enhanced the value of cultural production by representing it as art, but cultural production that reinforces the preconceptions of its own historical era will only become art after that historical era has passed.

By telling people that contemporary books and movies are "art", our civilization has stripped real art of its power to counterbalance the cultural production of our civilization. Twenty years ago, people said that Film Studies Courses or teaching comic books at universities marked the end of our civilization -- and that is true insofar as the saving grace of our civilization is our ability to transcend our civilization -- but the real effect of putting contemporary culture on the same level as art is to reinforce our civilization rather than subvert it.

Social criticism -- pointing the relationship between cultural production and power structures -- draws attention to the moment of cultural production, but not the deeper reality masked by cultural production. Social critics can be so consumed by jealousy that they can't conceptualize an alternate reality. Their only truth is that other people are hiding the truth.

The last two weeks have been like a moment in a play where the house lights come on and the actors break character. The show is gripping, but the theatrical spell is broken. Previously solid truths have all the substance of shadows on the wall. Narrative is no longer following its expected path, and nobody knows what will happen next.

We are at a fork in the allegory: Will an enraged lynch mob fall on the performers? Will we find a better show with an even more compelling story? Or will we accept this moment of freedom as a gift and head towards the exit of the cave?

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