The twilight of American culture / Morris Berman

by Morris Berman

Hardcover, 2000




New York : Norton, c2000.


A prophetic examination of Western decline, The Twilight of American Culture provides one of the most caustic and surprising portraits of American society to date. Whether examining the corruption at the heart of modern politics, the "Rambification" of popular entertainment, or the collapse of our school systems, Morris Berman suspects that there is little we can do as a society to arrest the onset of corporate Mass Mind culture. Citing writers as diverse as de Toqueville and DeLillo, he cogently argues that cultural preservation is a matter of individual conscience, and discusses how classical learning might triumph over political correctness with the rise of a "a new monastic individual"--a person who, much like the medieval monk, is willing to retreat from conventional society in order to preserve its literary and historical treasures. "Brilliantly observant, deeply thoughtful ....lucidly argued."--Christian Science Monitor… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Carlie
According to Berman (and I tend to agree), American culture has entered its twilight, ready for decline and disintegration. In fact, the decline has already begun with the advent of McWorld - corporate takeover and marketed messages. There are four factors that coincide with the collapse of
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culture, all apparent in society today. These four factors are: "(a) accelerating social and economic inequality; (b) declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems; (c) rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness; (d) spiritual death - that is, Spengler's classicism: the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing (or repackaging) of it in formulas - kitsch, in short."

He also chronicles the fall of the Roman empire and the subsequent monastic tradition of copying texts to show how another culture ended and what the response was. Berman provides insight into how to live a monastic life and the value of living in this way for the preservation of culture. In the end, he outlines possible 22nd centuries based on alternative visions and social theories.

Really, it is all pretty bleak but not out of touch with reality. Most of what he says makes perfect sense and has the possibility of utter rage at what we have become. For me, the main message is to keep doing what I have been doing - learning, creating, teaching, discovering. These things may soon be more important for cultural preservation than ever. Living the life of a new monastic individual may have unforeseen, positive impact when culture hits its ultimate lowest. If we can't stop a bleak future, at least we can help shape it.
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LibraryThing member owen1218
The only thing I took from this was that the author thinks younger people are stupid because they never learned to memorize Robert Browning poems in school, and that this was a sure sign the culture was falling into ruin. I'm sure there were some good bits in this, but they escape me now, and so
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couldn't have been all that brilliant.
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LibraryThing member pessoanongrata
i pretty much agree with everything he says. our culture, our politics, are cesspools of submediocrity. but all this talk about the meaningless of consumerism made me want to go out and buy some new threads. which i did.
LibraryThing member snash
The book presents clear evidence for the decline and hollowing out of America which the years' events since its publication in 1999 further prove. He finds the collapse unavoidable and then suggests the only ethical and meaningful way to live at this time is to quietly renounce the values of the
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culture and live according to one's own. Perhaps these counter lives will provide a beacon to a later enlightenment or not.
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
This book did not have the depth of Berman's earlier works, but then it has more urgency. I am writing this review in 2023, decades after the book was published. The trends Berman outlines have surely continued. Probably when the book was published, most people found implausible the idea that the
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USA might not be eternal. But nowadays we have people in Congress calling for a national divorce and it looks less plausible that the USA can survive another few election cycles.

One curious feature of Berman's argument for the decline of the USA is that it doesn't include problems with resources or ecology. Berman is a cultural historian, so it makes sense that his argument is purely cultural. But still, surely a cultural historian can look at how culture is embedded in a physical-ecological context? Well, maybe that is another sign of the book's age: such connections might have been rarely drawn 25 years ago.

A major theme of the book is the proposal that an appropriate response to our process of cultural decline is to work to cultivate and preserve the most valuable nuggets of our culture, just at a small scale. Berman is quite insistent that the primary nuggets are associated with the European Enlightenment, Voltaire etc. The notion of preserving nuggets is modeled on the dark age monasteries of Ireland etc. that kept at least a few classical texts available. But the Renaissance did not rely mere on these copies. Islamic culture kept alive a lot of classical culture, and the Renaissance recovered much of this from Islamic sources. How did Marco Polo and other contacts with China contribute to the vitality of the Renaissance, I sure don't know. Well even Christopher Columbus and the opening of the Americas... rather late in the Renaissance, OK. But surely the road from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment was not built with purely European resources.

Berman sneers here at any kind of post-colonial perspective. If it's not European, it must be some primitive tribal nonsense. And of course a lot of New Age drivel does dress up nonsense in exotic costume. Maybe Berman is just of an old enough generation to make it difficult to see that high culture has existed outside of Europe, too... just as primitive nonsense exists in Europe, too!

My own hobby horse is the development of a Buddhist philosophy of science. Berman mostly dismisses deconstruction, but then he backs off a bit and limits his dismissal to the nihilist fringe. The kind of epistemological middle ground that Berman is looking for is what Buddhist thinkers have explored for thousands of years.

Despite these quibbles, Berman's perspectives on our cultural decline are still valuable and even fresh.
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