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)
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.
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.