Artist Taylor Swift performs on The Voice. Photo courtesy of Trae Patton/NBC


Can culture degenerate?

Tempting it might be, but the idea that culture has become vacuous and banal comes with unsavoury implications

by Christy Wampole + BIO

Artist Taylor Swift performs on The Voice. Photo courtesy of Trae Patton/NBC

I’ll admit that when I turn on the TV or radio or dig around on the internet, I am often appalled at what I find. When I hear the vapid pronouncements of influencers or the mind-numbing inanity of much of today’s pop culture, my reflex is to become angry and depressed. I’ve dedicated my life to the humanities, to reading and patient study, to the learning of new languages and to the refining of my mother tongue in written and spoken expression, so to see the superabundance of what I interpret as mindlessness and lowest-common-denominator aesthetics in the public square feels like a personal offence.

On most days, I keep this reflex in check, however, recognising it as curmudgeonly and slightly ridiculous. The French philosopher Michel Serres had it right in his teasing title C’était mieux avant! (‘Things used to be better!’ 2017), which exposes the silliness of the kinds of cultural nostalgia that keep us from seeing how good we’ve got it. I’d prefer to maintain a balanced judgment, one that gives credit to those artists, writers and musicians today creating important, thoughtful and complex work. And, perhaps more importantly, I want to avoid falling into a logic of cultural degeneration.

What about you? Looking toward today’s new writing, thinking, music and art, what do you make of contemporary culture? Do you see a thriving and innovative scene, replete with original forms and vibrant content? Or do you see something simple and stagnant, marked by dead-end ideas that either repeat the patterns of the past or offer only feeble attempts to craft a new aesthetic vision? In other words, is culture better or worse now than it used to be?

If the second description matches your judgment, you might be tempted by the notion of cultural degeneration. This powerful metaphor is a particular way of interpreting the changes typical of any culture, especially in an age of technical acceleration and the democratisation of culture-making. More people are producing culture; new kinds of people are producing widely consumed culture; and there are more tools to create and distribute these objects than ever before. The person who believes in cultural degeneration – a declinist philosophy by nature – will argue that this democratisation and other factors, such as lowered standards of education and failures of taste-inculcating institutions, have decreased the quality of what is produced. Culture used to be complex and highly developed; now it is rudimentary and bland.

I will push back against this pessimistic reading, offering a short history of cultural degeneration and highlighting the flaws of this way of judging the transformations that make a society look different tomorrow than it did yesterday.

Throughout history, humans have been tempted to imagine cultural production as something that is born, passes through stages of adolescence and maturity, moving toward senility or suffering some infirmity, and eventually dying and decaying. These are metaphors, of course, and show our incorrigible tendency to project our own life cycles – or those of plants or animals – on to inanimate and often abstract entities. A new republic is born. A movement is burgeoning. The novel is dead.

Of the many metaphors that belong to this organic family, one in particular has caught my attention in recent years: the metaphor of degeneration. This old trope has returned to politics, social critique and the analysis of cultural artefacts. In English, to call someone a degenerate has potentially both racist and classist connotations, and the insult implies the genetic or intellectual superiority of the one delivering it over the one receiving it. The language and logic of degeneration has been applied not only to people but also to the culture they produce. As I will show, the term bears within it a whole host of racial and class connotations and has been a hallmark of conservative and reactionary thought throughout the modern era.

Before revisiting this history and piecing together its implications for today, it is important to understand exactly what the term ‘degeneration’ means. The best explanation I’ve found is in the English psychiatrist Henry Maudsley’s book Body and Will (1883), in which he offers this description of the word’s early shift in meaning:

[Degeneration] means literally an unkinding, the undoing of a kind, and in this sense was first used to express the change of kind without regard to whether the change was to perfect or to degrade; but it is now used exclusively to denote a change from a higher to a lower kind, that is to say, from a more complex to a less complex organisation …

The move from a more complex to a less complex form also implies a decrease in quality and, by extension, value. What degenerates becomes simpler and more crude, fallen from a higher standard and worth less than its precursors. The notion of an organic worsening has been applied readily throughout modernity, first to humankind itself and later to the cultural artefacts and ideas that humans produce.

Wherever he saw the mixing of races, Gobineau saw decadence. Hybridity equals morbidity, in his view

The term has had a particularly dark history in Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was deployed to argue that climate differences between the places where people dwelled caused some human types to degenerate from an earlier, more perfect state. As scientific racism sought more concepts for its toolbox, the notion of degeneration proved a particularly helpful one. It was used to explain why some races thrived more than others, and how some had produced great scientific and artistic works and achieved a state of technological advancement as others floundered. The producers of these theories tended to rank their own civilisation as the most sophisticated, eliding or diminishing the achievements of the other civilisations to which they compared their own.

One of the founding fathers of Aryan thought was a French aristocrat, named Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, who argued that a race begins to degenerate the moment it mixes with other races. Hybridity equals morbidity, in his view. In his book The Inequality of the Human Races (1853-55), he writes in stark terms:

The word degenerate, when applied to a people, means (as it ought to mean) that the people has no longer the same intrinsic value as it had before, because it has no longer the same blood in its veins, continual adulterations having gradually affected the quality of that blood. In other words, though the nation bears the name given by its founders, the name no longer connotes the same race; in fact, the man of a decadent time, the degenerate man properly so called, is a different being, from the racial point of view, from the heroes of the great ages … He, and his civilisation with him, will certainly die on the day when the primordial race-unit is so broken up and swamped by the influx of foreign elements, that its effective qualities have no longer a sufficient freedom of action.

Gobineau’s hogwash is easily disproven by comparing the health and vitality of endogamic and exogamic communities, that is communities that only breed with their own versus communities that invite outsiders into their genetic pool. Wherever he saw the mixing of races, Gobineau saw decadence. For him, this problem was primarily a biological one, but in Europe throughout the 19th century, this body problem became a problem of the mind and the creative spirit.

The weird science of theorists of degeneration such as Bénédict Augustin Morel, Cesare Lombroso and Max Nordau, among others, could seem laughable to us today were it not for the endurance of their ideas in the collective consciousness, even among those who’ve never read their books. Of the three, the physician and social critic Nordau’s book Degeneration (Entartung in German, 1892) strikes me as the strangest. In it, Nordau unleashes his wrath on a variety of artists, musicians and painters whose work he claims is the product of pollution, noise and urban chaos, which trigger exhaustion, general hysteria, depravity and sexual dysfunction. He takes on Wagner, Tolstoy, Verlaine, Rossetti, Zola, the Symbolists, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Decadents, to name just a few. He tries to convince his reader that the reason the Impressionists’ paintings are so bad is that they suffer from a condition called ‘nystagmus’, or a trembling of the eyeball, which explains their frenetic brush strokes and stippled canvases. Page after page, he uses medical justifications to explain why the art he doesn’t like exists.

In his framework, it is not the working class that suffers from the degenerative forces that shaped art, music and letters of his day. It is, rather, the bourgeois culture-brokers who’ve been most touched by this collective malady. He poses the question: ‘Is it possible to accelerate the recovery of the cultivated classes from the present derangement of their nervous system? I seriously believe it to be so, and for that reason alone I undertook this work.’ Nordau believed that modernity had brought with it a collective nervous illness that was ruining culture, and he thought that his diagnosis and therapeutic suggestions could somehow cure this disease of which bad art was a symptom.

Nazi ideology took up where Nordau left off. This legacy is perhaps most famously illustrated by the National Socialists’ Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) show, which opened in Munich in 1937. The exhibition showcased art produced by the ‘degenerate’ populations the Nazis were bent on annihilating. Displaying roughly 650 works that today would fall under the rubric of modernist or avant-garde, the organisers of the show ridiculed these pieces produced by Jews, communists or simply non-Germans with derisive captions that implied the supremacy of ‘pure’ German art. According to its catalogue, the exhibition sought to show the ‘diverse symptoms of degeneracy’, which included poor craftsmanship, blasphemy, artistic anarchy, a Marxist/Bolshevist propagandistic tendency, moral deficiency, the dismissal of racial consciousness, and the celebration of ‘the idiot, the cretin and the paralytic’. It is clear that Nazis used the theory of degeneration as a tool to prove that inferior races can produce only inferior art.

The Enlightenment was for the surrealists a kind of devolution, an impoverishment of the true human essence

It is important to note that simultaneous to these lamentations of cultural degeneration, there were always voices loudly celebrating the very aesthetic qualities despised by the declinists. All of the artists represented in the Entartete Kunst show – including Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Otto Dix and Emil Nolde – are obvious examples. Take as another the many movements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that celebrated primitivism, which took inspiration from Indigenous and tribal cultures across the world whose aesthetic genius had not yet been ruined by development, according to proponents of such art.

The surrealists, for example, believed that ‘primitive’ peoples, children, and those who did not fit neatly into a European logocentric framework possessed a kind of visionary superiority, capable of expressing through ‘elementary’ forms the complexity of the subconscious. The naive lines of a child’s drawing or the simple forms found in petroglyphs, folk art and tribal masks somehow tapped an essential and primordial element of the human mind in ways that academic art and ‘advanced’ forms produced by trained artists never could. In his Surrealism Manifesto (1924), the French poet André Breton defined surrealism this way:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

The legacy of the Enlightenment, which tried to advance humanity through rationality, represented for the surrealists a kind of devolution, an impoverishment of the true human essence. In their view, good culture is simple, primordial and still connected to the originary forms of human consciousness. The more complex and advanced a society becomes, the more its people fall victim to an alienation from their own psychical structures. This is why surrealism privileges ‘psychic automatism in its pure state’ over the ‘advanced’ machinations of controlled and logical thinking.

Let’s skip ahead to today. As a scholar of contemporary French literature and thought, I’ve noticed the conspicuous appearance of the language of degeneration in many realist novels written in the past two decades that describe the (moribund) state of French society and of Western civilisation. In these narratives, not only is the West in a state of irreversible degeneration, so is reality itself. I call this phenomenon ‘degenerative realism’, and the more research I conducted, the more I realised that this kind of thinking is by no means limited to the field of literature, but extends to contemporary French political discourse, particularly among Right-wing politicians and pundits.

A good example from France’s intelligentsia is Richard Millet, a writer of fiction and inflammatory pamphlets that catalogue the many forms of what he sees as the country’s cultural degeneration: the loss of taste and historical memory, the oppressive rise of antiracism and feminism, the appalling decline in quality of French literature, the weakening of Christianity, and an impoverishment of the French language. In his view, things are just getting worse and worse all the time. How should one respond to such a cynical outlook, one that seems to be quite widely shared in our age of discontent?

On days when I feel discouraged by the kinds of cultural objects I encounter, I try to remember a few things. First, pop culture is not all culture. Upon deeper reflection, I realise that while media companies reward narcissism, shallowness, empty spectacle, hyperbole and brainlessness by giving disproportionate exposure to things that generate easy attention, there is another coexisting world, one in which thoughtful, intricate and uplifting things are being created at an unprecedented pace. Indeed, there is a surplus of extraordinary objects that illustrate and celebrate the full range of human ingenuity. Excellent culture – things that would have blown the minds of our ancestors – still exists all around us, but has simply become harder to find. The analogue and digital worlds are glutted with cultural artefacts – many of them produced more and more frequently by amateurs and hobbyists – and we have far more to wade through to find what suits our tastes and feels like some form of aesthetic progress according to our individual standards. The kinds of art, music and literature that combine technical prowess, originality, and manifest what we sometimes call genius are not necessarily rewarded by or featured in the context of fast gratification and clickbait. There is beauty, intelligence and artistry out there; we might just have to dig a little deeper to find it.

Second, those cultural artefacts that strike me at first as too basic, derivative or uninteresting surely contain a simple truth worth acknowledging: sometimes the human brain needs something soft to chew on, especially in difficult times. There is something comforting and therapeutic about the loop of a no-frills beat, the repetition of age-old platitudes, familiar plotlines, and modest shapes and colours in configurations we recognise. Those who produce these types of cultural objects are participating in the very human activity of giving significance a form that might comfort or please the beholder. Must every piece be a masterpiece? Hardly. It is best to surround oneself with cultural objects of varying complexity and purpose. Sometimes, we need objects that challenge us. Other times, we need objects that just let us coast.

The whole world has become a borderland where things are now possible that weren’t before

Finally, it is possible for a person to be democratically minded while still having standards that separate the excellent from the mediocre. There is something quite antidemocratic about flattening all differences between cultural objects, disregarding the extra work and exceptional talent of some of the world’s most creative citizens, who bring pleasure and beauty to those who know how to see it. All people’s tastes should be accommodated, even the demanding ones. In a real democracy, one can like or dislike freely, as an individual possessing a complex set of identities and affinities. One is free to be a snob or to like everything undiscerningly.

Let’s return to the original question motivating this essay: can culture degenerate? As I pointed out in the beginning, degeneration is a metaphor, so in this respect, culture cannot literally degenerate. But if we translate the sentiment expressed through this figurative language into something more literal – can culture become worse? – several new questions arise. How confidently can we speak of culture as one uniform thing? As I type, there are millions of microphenomena being produced that could count as culture. Is it plausible that they would all simultaneously find themselves in a state of degradation compared with their earlier counterparts? No. At any given moment, across this vast spinning orb on which we live, artists, writers and thinkers are producing rudimentary objects and complex ones, artefacts that take no particular skill or thought to make and others that require specialised knowledge and years of training, reflection and preparation. For each taste, there are objects and ideas to accommodate it. They are hiding in plain sight.

One could argue that globalisation has created the conditions for a richer, more expansive kind of culture-making. The more that cultures mix, the more that genres and genders get reconfigured and identities get complicated, then the more exciting the results of this combinatoric process can be. I disagree with Gobineau’s assessment that hybridity equals morbidity. On the contrary, hybridity equals creativity. We know that borderlands are the richest regions culturally because they put two cultures in productive contact, allowing for the seepage of ideas and forms from one side of the frontier to the other. The whole world has become a borderland where things are now possible that weren’t before. These conditions can only result in the proliferation of all kinds of cultural objects for all kinds of tastes, from the plainest to the most exacting.

To argue that culture is degenerating might prove only one thing, namely that you haven’t taken the time to look for the many (re)generative objects that are waiting there to be found, or that you don’t quite know how to find meaning in the ones that displease you. We have a choice: either to judge the world as embittered critics who find little beauty in new things or to feel a tingle of elation at the seemingly infinite cultural improvisations that humans keep spinning out like silk. The latter seems far more appealing to me.