Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Sacrificing Culture

No. 184: Saturday, October 9, 1999

The term "culture" is indelibly ambiguous. In the narrow sense favored by the general public, it is a system of esthetic representations that functions to defer violence. In the broad sense used by anthropologists, culture includes all the activities of a given human society that are in any way meaningful. But meaning implies representation: there is no meaning prior to language or, even in the vague sense of "meaningfulness," without signs. This is not to deny the distinction between the all-inclusive idea of culture and the narrow one that focuses on specifically "cultural" activities. What the ambiguity of the term points to is a privileged link between systems of representation--religion, art--and the social order in general. Although economic relations are crucial to life, it is cultural phenomena in the narrow sense that are exemplary of human culture in the inclusive sense.

If symbolic culture is the exemplary human activity, what then is "popular" culture? In a simple sociological model, more appropriate to the nineteenth than the twentieth century, popular or mass culture is the culture of the uneducated working class--the "proletariat"--in contrast to the educated possessing class--the "bourgeoisie." High culture for the readers of the classics, popular culture for the barely literate. But this class-based analysis is fundamentally inadequate.

The dichotomous culture of early market society reflects an unusual level of tension between the moral intuition that "all men are created equal" and the state of the social order. All previous societies beyond the most primitive had been dominated by elites, in the general case far more privileged and oppressive than the relatively civilized nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, but in these societies the intuition of universal equality had been deferred far more strongly by a social ideology promoting some form of the "divine right of kings." The ideology of market society, on the contrary, becomes increasingly egalitarian as it evolves toward its mature, stable form of liberal democracy.

The tension between egalitarian ideology and extreme inequality poses a problem to an art that would transcend the resentments of everyday life. The high culture of the nineteenth century  reflects, as against the resentful and/or sentimental tastes held in common by the "people" and the majority of the bourgeois themselves, the authentically universalist aspirations of bourgeois society. The art-for-artís-sake ideology of the second half of the century defines high art by its difference less from the art of the people than from that of the bourgeois world as a whole.

The ethical weakness of popular culture is that it reverts to a de facto pre-Christian sense of the sacred. On the one hand, there is an unhealthy relish in dispatching the "bad guys" whose evil deeds are transparent pretexts for our participation in their downfall. On the other, the "good guys" are suspiciously sacralized. In Girardian terms, if high culture participates in the Judeo-Christian deconstruction of sacrifice, popular culture remains sacrificial in the pagan sense, naively accepting the premises of scapegoating accusations.

Although the educated bourgeoisie furnished and continues to furnish the audience for high culture, popular culture is less and less limited to the "people"; the universalism incarnate in high culture is increasingly challenged by the universal appeal of popular culture. The apparently clear difference in cultural sophistication between high modernism and the contemporary manifestations of popular culture in cinema, detective novels, stage shows and the like already reflects less a difference of class or even of world-view than of mindset or attitude. By the middle of the twentieth century, most educated people had become broadly familiar with both high and popular cultures and few connoisseurs of the former could honestly claim that their familiarity with the latter was untainted by participation.

In the succeeding decades, high culture has become increasingly relegated to museums and classical music concerts. The artistic avant-garde that continues to work within high-cultural modes increasingly addresses niche audiences isolated from the educated general public, who share in the universality of its popular counterpart. When the connoisseur of modern music meets the connoisseur of modern poetry, they discuss the latest film. Art touches the public mind only through scandal of an ever cruder nature; what is scandalous nowadays is not the creation but the public funding of "artworks" that would otherwise be ignored. As recent news from Brooklyn about elephant dung on the Madonna demonstrates, all that is left of the avant-garde's defense of the beautiful against bourgeois banality are infantile gestures of desecration no longer mediated by artistic technique.

What this suggests is not merely the end of the opposition between high and popular, but the decay of the "high" even as a laboratory for the development and testing of forms that eventually flow into the mainstream. This does not imply that we are no longer able to appreciate the difference between sacrifice and the critique of sacrifice, but that we have reached the point in the historical unfolding of this critique at which there is no longer any ethical value, which is to say, any further deferral of violence, to be derived from it. On the contrary, its liberating pretensions have made it more sacrificial than the "bourgeois" forms it purports to demystify.

The story of culture as the revelation in time of the arbitrariness of sacrifice is a "master-narrative" ripe for deconstruction. The critic-narrator is blind to the sacrificial structure of his own story, to which sacrifice in the role of the bad guy is as indispensable as the evil genius in a James Bond movie. There was a time when it was useful--and dangerous--to denounce sacrifice. Or perhaps we should say more prudently that there was a time when it was socially harmful in the short run but morally helpful in the long run, that even if a nonsacrificial social order could not be conceived, insistence on reciprocity in human relations helped to create the increasing approximation of such an order. But as the sacrificial model inherent in esthetic form comes increasingly to be applied to contingent forms of interpersonal dissymmetry, the basis for the high-popular, sacrificial-antisacrificial distinction is lost.

Once the deconstruction of the sacrificial no longer accepts esthetic formís affirmation malgré tout of the necessity of the sacrificial, it can no longer be realized within this form. Unlike tragedy, which achieved a deconstruction of its own sacrificial form, a literary work that denounces exploitation or racism turns a blind eye to its own structure, which functions on the basis of expulsion. Even the distinction between works in which faceless bad guys are annihilated and those which end in reconciliation is not sufficient to reestablish the high-popular distinction on firmer footing. For the narrative of reconciliation, however ethically superior it may seem to the mere reversal of roles between persecutor and victim, is to high-cultural comedy as the expulsion of the bad guy is to high-cultural tragedy. There can be no true reconciliation between the perpetrator and the victim of a continuing injustice. Comedy in such a situation means reform, expulsion, if not of the sacrificer, then of his sacrificial attitudes and propensities. But then the same critique applies: these attitudes, like the bad guys, are denounced as unnecessary by the very form that depends on having the opportunity to expel them.

This end of the ability of the esthetic to discriminate between the sacrificial and the antisacrificial is not the end of art. On the contrary, it liberates the esthetic from the ethical end of justifying sacrifice. Esthetic form remains sacrificial, but sacrifice is no longer understood as a necessary feature of social organization; it is merely a "psychological" element of the human condition. Just as we retain physiological drives, such as the appetite for sugar, that have become counterproductive in modern society, so we retain the cultural drive toward sacrifice that determines the structure of the esthetic work. And just as we feel no compunction about substituting saccharine or aspartame for sugar, so we need feel no compunction about replacing the naively sacrificial forms of the past by ironic versions of these forms that we no longer consider as models of ethical relations. The wisecracking superheroes of the comics and their movie adaptations typify this attitude. We no longer really believe in good guys and bad guys, but we need the dichotomy in order to enjoy the narration and the catharsis it effects. Like the molecules of aspartame that fool our tastebuds into thinking they are sugar, the staged contrast between good and evil fools our cultural instincts, not "us."

To ironize sacrifice is very different from deconstructing it, which implies taking it seriously. The "postmodern" Batman is not a deconstruction of the old superhero. The new adventures have the same structure as the old; the irony that tells us not to take the bad guysí sufferings to heart is altogether different from tragedyís incitement to identify with the protagonist-victim despite his crimes. On the contrary, it makes such identification not simply impossible but beside the point, like suffering on behalf of the pilots shot down in a video game.

Art is far from ended, but I think it is fair to say that its sacrificial esthetic is essentially exhausted as a creative force. The future would appear to lie not with fictions but with simulations, the creation of virtual realities in which the spectator plays an at least partially interactive role. Two contemporary indications, Brooklyn Museum aside, are the stagnation of popular music and the spread of pornography. I hope to explore the cultural implications of these trends in future Chronicles.

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Last updated 10/9/99