In conversation with the sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky, novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa discusses the relative merits of “high” and “mass” culture in the contemporary world and defends the ideas explored in his recent book La civilización del espectáculo.
Mario Vargas Llosa: La civilización del espectáculo is an attempt to express a feeling of concern, an anguish of sorts, on seeing what we understood by “culture” when I was young, changing during my lifetime into something very different, something essentially distinct from what we understood by “culture” in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The book attempts to describe this transformation and examine the effects of the vagaries of what we call culture today on different aspects of human activity – social, political, religious, sexual and so on – given that culture is something that impregnates all we do in life.
The book doesn’t set out to be pessimistic, but it does aim to be disturbing and to encourage people to think about whether the hegemonic role entertainment and distraction have assumed in our time have also caused them to become central to cultural life. I believe that this is the case and that it has happened with the blessing of wide sections of society, including those who traditionally have represented society’s institutions and cultural values.
In my view, Gilles Lipovetsky is one of the thinkers today to have analysed this new culture in the greatest depth and with the utmost rigour. In his bookThe Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, he has expertly described what this new culture consists of. Unlike me, he has approached it without anxiety, without an undue sense of alarm, but with sympathy, seeing in it features he considers highly positive. For example, the democratizing effect of a culture that extends to everyone, a culture that, unlike traditional culture, doesn’t make distinctions, is not monopolized by an elite, by coteries of scholars or intellectuals, but permeates the whole of society in one way or another.
He also says, and it’s an interesting and debatable point, that this culture has led to greater individual freedom. Unlike in the past – when the individual was, in a way, the prisoner, the expression, of a culture – individuals today can choose between a wide range of cultural possibilities, thus exercising not only their sovereignty and free will, but also their taste and personal inclinations. He argues that this culture is one that permits people to seek their pleasure in activities that are categorized as cultural but that in the past wouldn’t have been considered as such. These ideas are debatable: at times they convince me; at other times they leave me undecided. I think that a dialogue between our two positions – positions that are different but that might, in some ways, be complementary – could be very fruitful.
Gilles Lipovetsky: Many thanks, Mario, for this fine introduction in which I recognize myself completely. You emphasize the fact that this society of the spectacle challenges the noble meaning of culture. I agree with you in that respect. I’m going to permit myself to develop this point a little because I believe it goes in the direction you’re focusing on. What was noble culture, high culture, for the Moderns? Culture represented the new absolute. As the Moderns began to develop scientific and democratic society, the German Romantics created a form of religion through art, whose mission was to contribute what neither religion nor science were providing, because science simply describes things. Art became something sacred. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the poet – and artists in general – were those who showed the way, who said what religion was saying earlier.
When we observe what culture is in the world of consumption, in the world of the spectacle – what you aptly call the “civilization of the spectacle” – is precisely the collapse of that Romantic model. Culture becomes a unit of consumption. We’re no longer waiting for culture to change life, change the world, as Rimbaud thought. That was the task of the poets, such as Baudelaire, who rejected the world of the utilitarian. They believed that high culture was what could change man, change life. Today, nobody can possibly believe that high culture is going to change the world. In fact, on that score it’s the society of entertainment, of the spectacle, that’s won. What we expect from culture is entertainment, a slightly elevated form of amusement; but what changes life today is basically capitalism, technology. And culture turns out to be the crowning glory of all this.
To a certain extent we share a strictly negative vision of this civilization of the spectacle and of consumer society in general. However over the years I’ve also tried to demonstrate its positive potential, despite everything. Seen from the traditional model of culture, the negative aspect is undeniably greater. But life is not only culture. Life is also politics – for us, democracy – our relationships with others, our relationship with ourselves, with our bodies, with pleasure and with many other elements. On that level, we may say that the society of the spectacle, consumer society, has massified behaviour patterns, has given a greater degree of autonomy to the individual. Why? Because it has meant the collapse of mega-discourses, the grand political ideologies that confined individuals within a tight set of rules, and has replaced them with leisure, with cultural hedonism. By and large, people no longer want to submit to authority: they want to be happy and to seek that happiness with all the means at their disposal. Hedonistic, consumer society has allowed these lifestyles to proliferate. Television, for example, has been a sort of graveyard for high culture, but it has also provided people with other references and opened up new horizons: it enables individuals to make comparisons. On that level, the society of the spectacle has enabled individuals to become autonomous, creating a kind of society à la carte in which people construct their own lifestyles.
I think this is an important aspect, because societies in which the spectacle dominates are generally consensual societies founded on the democratic contract. Today, social struggles no longer end in a bloodbath and in all these places the figure of the dictator has been rejected. In that sense, I think, the society of the spectacle has permitted democracies to live in a less tragic, less schizophrenic way than before. Yet this has not entirely liberated us from the two basic features – the two great vices – of the modern age: revolution and nationalism. Nationalisms exist wherever the society of the spectacle prevails, but they’re not bloody, and revolution – the great epic of Marxism, the great eschatological revolutionary hope – no longer counts many faithful followers. Remembering what nationalisms and revolutions have meant for the twentieth century enables us to avoid apocalyptic readings of the society of the spectacle, although we might continue to be critical of it.