Weight Watchers History

Culture is a middle-class phenomenon.  As David Stove pointed out, you could cull out all the aristocrats and all the proles from any human field, and lose virtually nothing.  Middle class men are anxious about climbing up the social ladder, and terrified of sliding down it.  This tension — call it anxiety, “alienation,” what have you — is culture’s wellspring.

Or, at least, it used to be.  We’ve debated here whether there’s anything good at all in Modern “art,” or if there are any truly great American artists, but whichever way you fall on those questions, it’s obvious that modern culture in general, and Americanized culture in particular, is a vast desert compared to even the recent past.   Even if we stipulate that The Godfather is the Hamlet of its age, it took an entire studio of people to produce what one guy did back in the 17th century.  Proportionally it’s even worse — granting the widest possible latitude to “art,” such that Citizen Kane is the 20th century’s Doctor Faustus — we’re still way behind.  Shakespeare and Marlowe were near contemporaries in a population of a few million.  Modern America has over 350 million, and we’ve got one Orson Welles… and he died in 1985.

The only creative endeavor in which America stacks up is technology.  Again using the broadest possible definition of “culture,” we could argue that America’s Renaissance was roughly the period from the 2nd Industrial Revolution through the Internet Age.  Our achievements were staggering… but those, too, have ended.  What’s the last truly new technology?  Even the Internet, you’ll recall, had its roots in the 1960s.  Some of the tweaks are impressive indeed, but they are just tweaks – I’d argue that technical innovation peaked right around the time of the moon landing.

Which, not coincidentally, is right around the time Western culture went into permanent caloric surplus.  Betcha didn’t see that coming!!

Section break!

Prior to about 1960, the entire social spectrum faced the same basic fears.  Medieval kings wouldn’t starve to death like their peasants might after a bad harvest, but disease — always humankind’s main killer — took high and low indiscriminately.  Moreover, though the aristocracy might not starve, they probably faced an equivalent mortality risk in battle.   Pestilence, war, famine — there was no real defense from any of them…. until modern times.

That tension, I argue, is the real wellspring of culture.  Only someone tragically aware of his, and everyone else’s, mortality could produce a Sistine Chapel, a Hamlet, a Requiem in D Minor.  All culture is a more or less disguised memento mori.  Back in the days, death was always just around the corner… and you were reminded of it every time your stomach rumbled.

Our world has flipped that on its head.  Before about 1960, even in America, people went to bed hungry involuntarily.  Infant mortality is an almost inconceivable tragedy now; it was just a fact of life back then.  Modern medicine’s miracles are so recent, in fact, that my grandparents’ generation steadfastly refused to go to the hospital, since that’s where people went to die.  (I’m no spring chicken, but I’m hardly ancient).

The Baby Boomers are the way they are, I’d argue, because their experience really was unique.  Or, rather, their lack of experience — while every adult they knew, knew someone who’d died of something like scarlet fever, the worst the Boomers had to endure was chicken pox.  Is it any wonder that The Wonder Years was the best they could do?

It’s a testable hypothesis.  Take China, for instance.  The Mao generations came up rough, but Mao died in 1976.  Things were still rough out in the provinces into the 1980s — naturally rough, I mean, not communism’s artificial suffering — but the generations born around 1990 should, on my hypothesis, be hitting total caloric overload.  How’s Chinese culture doing these days?  Are they innovating, or just tweaking stuff Diane Feinstein’s chauffeur stole for them?  How about Japan?  They were going gangbusters into the 1990s… right up to the point when even the worst aftereffects of WWII and the Occupation started fading away.  What have they done lately, other than stuff used panties into vending machines?

Humans are hardwired for belief in the transcendent.  We strive for immortality, because we know we’re going to die.  Ruthlessly suppress that knowledge — say, by stuffing your gullet with gallons of corn syrup — and you suppress the striving.. which is the only thing that makes culture go.

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13 thoughts on “Weight Watchers History

  1. Skedastic Racket

    “Culture is a middle-class phenomenon. As David Stove pointed out, you could cull out all the aristocrats and all the proles from any human field, and lose virtually nothing. ”

    What? Am I missing the point? This is certainly not true in warfare, nor in politics, and definitely not in art. The middle class didn’t tell Michelangelo to paint the Sistine chapel ceiling, but they did fracture David’s knee. Haydn wouldn’t have been a composer if not for Prince Esterhazy. Aristocracy has always been a major influence of culture.
    Proles not so much I’ll give you that. There is a middle class culture, and it mixes with aristocratic culture, but it depends on having a place, on building families I’d argue. Which also collapsed in 1960’s America, and later in Japan, and also in China.

    “Humans are hardwired for belief in the transcendent. We strive for immortality, because we know we’re going to die.”

    I think you’re in the right frame here, in that transcendent beliefs determine culture.

    Virtues are transcendent. Without a belief in the transcendent, you cannot have virtues, which are really the drivers of culture/civilization. They are what give you the ability to combat entropy, to borrow from the Eleventh. And to return to a point you made about stoicism, this is why modern stoicism is so dumb. All the great Stoics end up suicidal, ended up deciding that life really wasn’t worth much, and thought just enduring was the best virtue. We need courage right now.
    The highest expression of courage is in the hero. We don’t have any heroes, though we certainly want one. We keep trying to turn Trump into a god emperor. If we had a real hero, wouldn’t a bunch of us flock to him? But if we don’t believe in anything transcendent, it won’t be possible for a hero to exist.

    1. Severian Post author

      The middle class are the ones actually creating the art. The Medicis paid, but Michaelangelo painted. Ditto the rest of the arts. Take out the bluebloods in plastic arts and you don’t lose anyone. In writing, you lose Byron (the only (arguably) important one) and some minor figures like Wilmot. Same thing if you take out the authentic proles. Those with too much money, free time, and security produce as little as those with too little.

      1. Skedastic Racket

        I always thought the aristocrats provided much of the vision and afterwords judgement, and so were part of the creative process. Wasn’t that part of Cosimo’s legacy?

        1. Al from da Nort

          I tend to agree with your point about involved and discriminating patronage being an important part of the creative process for great art.

          I think one of the reason we have such bad art now is that it is being directed by the less intelligent spawn of prior generations’ elites parked out of the way in NGO’s & even-more-useless-than-normal govt. art councils spending other people’s money.

          Cosimo was spending his own money in status-competition with other aristos: Skin in the game.

  2. Rod1963

    I like it and mostly agree.

    My take is a bit different when the decline began. We started going to shit the moment the Cold War ended. Without the threat of nuclear annihilation to keep our elites and business class in line and in fear. Real innovation had slowly ceased as well. And the boss class turned on us, since we whites didn’t fit into their plans now that the threat was gone.

    Whisky at Zman’s blog pointed this out and it makes sense to me at least. Maybe you wrote of this as well, but if so I missed. Sorry if that’s the case.

    The space program was based on a shuttle designed in the 1960’s. Lockheed and Boeing both failed to come up with a replacement and by the late 80’s NASA pulled the plugs on the idiots. With the retirement of the Shuttle we lost the ability to put a man into space, we had no backup. NASA knew the shuttle days were numbered and had no stop gap. The private sector efforts aren’t impressive, those companies are either using Russian rocket motors or designs NASA developed in the 50’s and 60’s. Space suit designs are just badly off. NASA has turned into a jobs program for minorities and women.

    And we still can’t put a man into low Earth orbit. Something we had no problem with since the Mercury days. BTW I bring this up on hacker sites and they freak out, they don’t want to even consider the notion that we have lost the abilty for manned missions.

    Silicon Valley’s days of innovation ceased with the duopoloy of Intel/Microsoft in the 90’s. Now Silicon Valley is dominated by rent-seekers data mining the population. What little that is made is done in Chinese sweatshops and it’s mostly just derivatives of ideas that have been around for decades and merely refined for pot heads, layabout and nogoodniks to amuse themselves with.

    Energy sources. We’re still based on the same system we had in 1950. Our nuclear reactors are ancient and their designs are horrible and expensive. No one(except China and India) is putting money into newer and safer alternatives like Molten Salt Reactors even though big energy and the government has money to burn.

    In terms of modern culture, the collapse of the Soviet Union coincides with replacement of Rock with Rap music, the end of white action movie heroes. Music videos became grotesque and pornographic. Singers no longer sang on stage, but pranced about dressed like hookers while lip syncing.

    Economically, the great hollowing out of industry and the white middle-class began during the Warsaw’s pact decline during the 80’s and accelerated with NAFTA right after the Soviet Union ended.

    Politically it was a time of merging. Globalization which began under Bush the elder was quickly embraced by the Democrats and Clinton as they all sought to dismantle the U.S. and notions of nationalism since they weren’t needed anymore to protect us against the Hun.

  3. ErisGuy

    Our current desert of culture may have something to do with most artists, writers, etc. opted for either fascism or communism (almost) a hundred years ago. Every Mann, every Drieu La Rochelle, every Hellman, every (Edmund) Wilson, every Celine, every Pavese was discredited when their (obviously) stupid and bloodthirsty ideas played out exactly as they should have expected. LIttle has changed since. American and European writers and artists remain Leftists.

    It’s tought to have a culture when the self-appointed, self-selected creators of that culture are self-proclaimed Communists and Fascists.

    1. Severian Post author

      But there again, politics — especially radical politics — is a middle-class preoccupation. There are no authentic proletarians in Proletarian revolutions. The Fascists had a few minor bluebloods, but nobody important — they thought the Fascists were necessary evils for protecting what they had. Every influential thinker was middle-class, too, with the arguable exceptions of Plato and Bertrand Russell. Kings don’t write treatises on kingship; the proletariat doesn’t vanguard itself.

  4. MBlanc46

    There is certainly something to this. The closer I come to facing the reaper—I’m now in my eighth decade—the more focussed I become. Dr Johnson says something about that somewhere. When I was young I never gave it a thought. Death was for the little people. But I wonder whether people in the days before antibiotics actually gave much more thought to their mortality. Haven’t young people always thought that they were immortal. Perhaps the reason for our apparent decline has at least as much to do with the possibilities of Western culture being played out.* That and perhaps good times making soft men.

    * Part of what’s going on in modernist art is that it is the working out of the final limits of the Western aesthetic.

      1. Severian Post author

        Katy Perry. I just have a few stock cheesecake photos I use as section breaks. I don’t find her particularly attractive, but I know I’m in the tiny minority there.

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