What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all ;
Ne is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought :
For whatsoever from one place doth fall
Is with the tyde unto another brought :
For there is nothing lost, that may be found if sought.
― Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
Municipal bond market maven, government official, and longtime Twitter fixture Kristi Culpepper
penned an interesting riposte
yesterday to Leon Wieseltier’s recent jeremiad against the disruptive cultural effects of technology
in The New York Times
. Leon, you may recall, laid about rather vigorously with his rhetorical cudgel in defense of humanism against the allied evils he sees arrayed against it today, including technologism, scientism, data fetishism, and commerce. He declared—correctly if rather dramatically—that “A culture is an internecine contest between alternative conceptions of the human.” And he, if I may be so blunt, came down on the side of writing, art, and Western cultural patrimony and against the forces who wish to strip, devalue, and denature same in the name of technological progress and efficiency.
Now, being as I have consistently declared myself an amateur and aficionado of such arty, literary, cultural-y things, I am sympathetic to Mr. Wieseltier’s arguments, although I do think he lays it on a bit thick in the straw man department. I also have reservations that his full-throated defense of writers and thinkers against the commoditization, devaluation, and impoverishment of a certain sort of careful, deeply informed thinking and writing by the forces triumphant of digital and social media is a bit overblown. For one thing, I would observe Mr. Wieseltier himself seems to have had no problem securing a soapbox at the paper of record for the liberal intelligentsia to spout his opinions, mere weeks after the implosion of his prior perch at The New Republic
due to the machinations of the sort of technologist philistines he decries. Second, I utterly fail to see a shortage of intelligent, hardworking writers pontificating on important matters and sundry throughout the English speaking opinionsphere. It seems that everybody and his brother and his brother’s three-legged cat are scribbling as journalists, bloggers, opinion editors, MFA students, novelists, and nonfiction writers nowadays. When I walk into the ground floor of my local 50,000 square foot Barnes & Noble bookstore, I am not struck by any dearth of written material for my perusal, and the ground floor of my store is not filled with the works of dead white men (those are in the basement). Speaking as an acolyte of microeconomics (and a minor unpaid contributor to the general oversupply of published dreck), it strikes me that writers face a supply
problem in the market for their wares, not a lack of demand. Maybe if writing weren’t so popular as a lifestyle choice
, rather than an actual calling for a dedicated few (as it has been for most of recorded time), fewer professional writers would be bemoaning the parlous state of their bank accounts.
Be that as it may, Ms Culpepper takes issue with our Cultural Cassandra from another direction:
First, innovation presents new opportunities to define oneself for those that are willing to invest the time and effort. The same is true for society as a whole. That Wieseltier doesn’t want the character of society to be determined by engineers overlooks history. Feats of engineering have been a conduit for conversations about the public good and the ambitions of civilization from ancient Rome to NASA. I don’t understand the temptation to hold art or poetry above these endeavors.
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