Jon Beasley-Murray
Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
M13 9PL

From Beatriz Sarlo's Scenes of Postmodern Life, translated by Jon Beasley-Murray.

This is a draft: please do not cite without author's or translator's permission



I could be wrong, but my sense is that public declarations of atheism or, lately, also socialism, produce a certain discomfort. Why not keep to oneself one's convictions concerning such personal matters as God or the social order? (Roberto Schwarz)

Here we are, at the end of the century, in Argentina. A mixture of lights and shadows define a social landscape that is recognizably part of the Western world. But here the contrasts are extreme, for two reasons: because of our marginality with respect to the "first world" (and as a result, the tributary character of so many processes whose motive force is elsewhere); and because of the callous indifference with which the State entrusts the management of culture to the market, without implementing any policies to offset this development. As with other American nations, Argentina is living out the condition of so-called "postmodernity" in the paradoxical setting of a nation that is fractured and impoverished. Television is broadcast twenty hours daily, on fifty channels, while the school system is in disarray, having to make do without either symbolic prestige or material resources. We have cityscapes whose planning follows the latest design available on the international market, while city services are in a state of crisis. The market in audio-visual goods distributes its trinkets and those who can consume them indulge themselves as if they were living in some wealthy Miami suburb. The very poorest can feed on a diet of "fast food" television alone. Those who are a little better off may additionally consume some other cultural goods, while reflecting on the heyday of the public schools to which they can no longer send their children or from which their children no longer receive what their parents once received. The rich have absolute freedom of choice, as much here as anywhere else.

This inequality scarcely seems to cause any concern. There are two major factions, each with its own intellectual cadres, among those who deny it any importance. On the one hand, there are the convinced neoliberals who take no interest in the poor for fear such interest would force public investment that would be hard to translate into the terms of electoral politics or "social peace." On the other hand, there are the market neopopulists who think that the poor have plenty of cultural resources of their own with which to put this "fast food" television to literally any use. Each faction forgets that oldstyle populists and oldstyle liberals alike were never indifferent towards cultural inequality, however much their analyses and proposals for change differed.

Given this intellectual and political climate, it is no surprise that so few concern themselves with an issue the mere mention of which attracts ridicule: the place of art and high culture in the life of society (and, I would add, the place of the humanities within a civilization whose tendency is towards technology and science). This would appear to be an unfashionable topic, to be pursued only by university-based specialists or artists themselves, though even they might not always be interested in it. There is no agenda on which the question of art figures not simply for discussion among specialists, but rather as a matter for public intellectual debate.

Yet, as many people know, art has been a central issue for the past two hundred years, a period that we are only now leaving behind. Though it is probable that this centrality has faded forever, it is still the case that there is no other human activity that can present us with our condition as subjects and as a society in the way that art does, with such intensity and richness of feeling without the experience demanding, as is the case with religion, that we affirm transcendence. Market neopopulists (whose mode is irony or postmodern disenchantment) do away with the issue, treating it as an archaic residue of petit bourgeois moral hang-ups. Like the neoliberals, they put their faith in the market because they think that the market is the place where anyone can be free to choose their Picasso reproduction or their Berlin Philharmonic record, so long as they have the inclination and financial resources. In a world in which almost everyone concurs in diagnosing a "waning of affect," it is ironic that this diagnosis does not take into account art as it really is: a practice defined by its production of affect and by its formal and moral intensity.

Argentina is like almost everywhere else in the West in that it is going through a process of increasing cultural homogenization, whose fundamental trait is, at the same time, an extreme individualism, and in which the wealth of goods on offer is no compensation for the poverty of collective ideals. Evidence for this can be seen in so-called "youth culture" as it is defined by the market, and in a social imaginary possessed by two phantoms: limitless freedom of choice as the abstract affirmation of individuality, and programmed individualism. The contradictions of this imaginary are the contradictions of the actually existing postmodern condition. We see the cloned reproduction of needs combined with the fantasy that the satisfaction of these needs is an act of freedom and differentiation. Whereas it has been a characteristic of all societies that they reproduce desires, myths, and habits (because habit is also needed for continuity), our society adds to this the idea that normative reproduction is an exercise of subjective autonomy. This is the essential paradox that lies behind cultural homogenization achieved under the banner of absolute freedom of choice.

Here it seems opportune to pose at least a few questions, even if we know in advance that there will be no simple answers. These questions serve to indicate problems more than they lead to solutions. For in fact, the problems we face do not have, and social problems never have had, solutions written into their presentation. We have here questions that will enable us to see rather than questions that will uncover, straight-away, a guide to action. The question is not what is to be done, but rather how to set up a standpoint from which we can see.

If there is be any defining feature of intellectual activity today, it would be precisely the interrogation of whatever seems written into the nature of things, to demonstrate that things are not inevitable. In contrast to the whole gamut of determinisms parading their banners of acceptance and adaptation (technical determinism, market determinism, neopopulist determinism), I wish to counterpose an interrogation whose only pretension would be to upset the justifications, be they celebratory or cynical, of what is. I want to examine the given in the belief that it is a product of social activity whose power is not absolute: the given is the condition of future action, not its limit.

Let us take this test to three fields: that of the audiovisual media and their market; that of what were once called popular cultures; and the field of art and "high" culture.

Regarding the first of these: Do we have to accept the way in which the mass media reorganize culture in line with the forms sold to us by a market that operates according to the law of profit and, in our case, without counterweight either from the State or from the public sphere? Are the fates of the market and the audiovisual revolution so closely intertwined that the market is the sole possible agent of audiovisual innovation? Does intervention in the market necessarily imply blocking the development and growth of new cultural forms?

Second: What is the situation of so-called popular cultures at the point where institutional crisis and audiovisual abundance intersect? How does the circuit work in which spontaneous common sense is made up of a compound of what the media imparts along with traces of older impositions, experiences, and symbolic hardships? What use do popular cultures make of cultural goods from the market? Is it inevitable that popular cultures that are not part of mass media should fall into disarray?

Third: Do we have to resign ourselves to the restricted character of "high" culture? Will art always be (or has it always been) an activity for the leisured, for those with higher callings, or mandarins? Have we drifted so much that we are now definitively isolated from traditional cultures whose traces are all erased? Is there a place for art in life or do art and life exclude each other in line with some sociological and aesthetic principle?

These questions sketch out a map of hypotheses. They have been formulated in the conviction that just because the figure of the intellectual is in disrepute, this is not to say that we should give a quiet burial, rather that we should learn to avoid the equivocations and the boundless pride that used to characterize this figure. It is these equivocations and this pride that lead many to want to bury the intellectual forever, on the grounds that the intellectual as sovereign legislator or prophet was all too much an figure of isolation. However, past errors do not constitute enough of a crime to force silence upon us now. Certainly intellectuals have no monopoly on criticism, but there is still moral force in their obligation towards knowledge. In only a matter of a few decades, history may reveal whether or not the end of this century really has seen the critical intellectual's definitive decline.

In the meantime, we are in no hurry to be going.

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