Ever since my schooldays I have been sympathetic to the proposition that great art is no longer conceivable, that we are reaching the end of culture. This is perhaps the simplest way of defining postmodernity.

But until recently I assumed that the energies that had fueled high culture would be diverted into an increasingly vital popular culture. Although the cultural sphere would no longer be the locus of the most profound discoveries concerning the human–this being reserved for Generative Anthropology–it would continue to be productive of new forms.

I wonder now if this attitude does not make too much of the distinction between high and low. There is indeed a difference: high culture problematizes the ritual legacy of sacrifice that popular culture simply adapts to its resentful ends. But this adaptation too is an anthropological hypothesis, and when such hypotheses become irrelevant, the source of their creativity is cut off. At the end of what our schoolbooks call the 1900s, we seem to be witnessing an across-the-board decline in cultural creativity. Could this be the real end of culture?

 The most vital of the popular arts is music, and the most profound influence on American popular music has long been the Black minority. But as my fellow cultural pessimist Lewis Weinberg pointed out to me recently, this music has largely stagnated over the past decade in its obsession with hip-hop. This mode eliminates the reconciling forces of melody and harmony–music proper–in favor of the driving energy of rhythm, the paroxystic expression of minority resentment. Our other musical forms–pop, jazz, rock, punk–are reduced to quotations from the past. This provides a model of popular culture reduced to ritualistic lowest terms: the purgation of passions by visceral repetition.

Proust or Porn?

Marcel Proust‘s 3000-page novel is of all narratives the most profoundly concerned with transcending the repetitious structure of narrative itself. The repetition of a tiny detail of experience such as the taste of the famous petite madeleine reveals the self’s lost unity. Desire is one, Proust tells us, but only a lifetime of desire can teach that to us.  A la recherche du temps perdu suggests a model of the esthetic where the purgation of desire is deferred as long as possible.

 In contrast is the porno film, where the narrative is reduced to a quasi-ritualized sequence of sexual acts in fifteen-minute sequences. The marketplace gives evidence that this repetitious action is effective in stimulating and purging desire. Nor does the existence of thousands of such films prevent new ones from being shot; even minimal unpredictability attracts our desire.

If high culture found its culmination in the work of Proust and his contemporaries in high modernism, today the porno film seems an increasingly appropriate model for culture in general. Both minimalist music and rap share its ritualistic emphasis on sameness rather than variance. So does the genre fiction that increasingly dominates the literary market. (The evolution of cinema in the direction of virtual reality suggests a new direction for culture that I’ll discuss in a later column.) The cultural has come full circle from ritual origins through secularization to a secularized version of ritual in which the sacred is assimilated to a physical process. The Western conception of incarnate divinity is challenged by a Hindu-Buddhist emphasis on the practices of self-purgation.

The porno model does not imply the death of culture. On the contrary, by linking culture directly to its roots in desire, it explains why culture endures beyond its “end.” In high culture, desire is a source of knowledge; but the biblical expression “carnal knowledge” reminds us that sexuality provides a minimalist epistemology of its own.

But this model is more problematic than first appears. Pornography is shameful, not because it is sinful in the eyes of our religious traditions, but because it is just a bit ridiculous. Expressions like faire la bête à deux dos mock the return to animality that sexual relations require. But that desire, seen from without, is always ridiculous is the central principle of the comic. A culture that no longer troubles to hide its purgative function is thus supremely open to comedy. Just as we need culture to purge our desires, we need comedy to affirm that we are not dupes of the cultural stereotypes to which we submit ourselves. The more our “serious” culture approximates the porno model, the more intense its comic antithesis becomes. Is it a coincidence that Saturday night cable fare seems almost equally divided between soft-core pornography and satire–which is often directed at the pornography?

Cultural irony is powerful only when it takes not itself but its victims seriously. Otherwise it becomes like the nouveau roman, whose narrative uncertainties are finally less disturbing than boring. There is no static position from which to look down with contempt upon the futile repetitiousness of desire. Far better if postmodern self-referentiality can make us laugh. We are condemned to take our desires seriously, but not so seriously as to prevent us from laughing at our seriousness. And the laughing is generally far more entertaining than what it mocks. So perhaps we haven’t reached the end of culture after all.