Monthly Archives: December 2008

Cultural Stasis and Illusion of Modernism

The theoretical extent of the ‘digital menace’, typically described as a book-killer, has often be overrated, not to say generally mistaken, by common sense. Actually, the rise of new media in the Digital Age slightly affected the popularity of the the book as a medium and even more slightly the one of novel as a genre. Basically, Calvino offered a very wise advice when he introduced his «Six memos for the next millennium» stating that he trusted in literature and in its ability to last through the current millennium, because its specific bag of tools is able to do things that are otherwise undoable.
Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed, by web culture and new media, literature has played an essential part in the development of groundbreaking commercial web based services such as Amazon, originally established in order to sell books online. Moreover, literature has found plenty of room in second generation web-based communities, even representing the main interest which very crowded web based communities of enthusiastic readers share through social network services, such as aNobii, LibraryThing, or Goodreads. When it comes to genres, such literary systems emerging from digital shelves of socially networked bookworms look like ‘Estremistan’ as defined by Taleb in his book about The Black Swan, that is as a winner-takes-(almost)-all cultural environment in which the novel definitely plays a hegemonic role.
So, the major environmental shift determined by the rise of digital media did not impacted dramatically neither the popularity of literature, that looks pretty much in a good shape, and the predominance of the novel, that is emerging more and more as a global standard. Predictions about the death of the novel, and eventually literature in general, were simply the wrong byproduct of historical approaches required to stress crucial turning points marking the transition into different, sequential stages of cultural evolution. Such frameworks necessarily periodize cultural phenomena so as to define linear scenarios in which previous stages are paradoxically explained on the basis of what follows.
Such linear continuum works as far as recent facts like, say, TV reality shows are embedded in a system entailing, say, ancient epics as if both phenomena wouldn’t be explainable apart from each other. Instead, the eventual cultural ‘meaning’ of Finnish Big Brother, say the second season broadcasted in 2006, perfectly fits even into a scenario in which Iliad or Aeneides have never been created. The opposite remark is equally true in terms that, say, the ancient Greek Tragedy doesn’t intrinsically  require to be assumed as part of an historical scenario leading to, say, current developments in electronic music.
From a novel-centered explanatory angle, cultural evolution looks like a very long period of stasis, in which events happen on a recursive basis. New genres and new media appear through such historical continuum but they seem to be unable to take over cultural hegemony. For instance, Keitai Shosetsu emerge as stories delivered on cell phones 140 kangis at a time, but they fatally end up in the top ten entries of best selling japanese novels. Readers of Harry Potter or Twilight sagas worldwide are victims of the novel as well.
Before such literary sensations appeared nobody would have bet a single penny on the chances of a novel for the youth to impact global mass markets as a cultural Tsunami right in the middle of the digital era. Cultural analysts would have rather take their chances on videogames like Tomb Raider or immersive massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. Such products are undoubtedly very popular, especially among youth on a global basis, still they convey a weaker emotional involvement in respect to characters and stories told through novels, which keep being more pervasive and deeply rooted into cultural systems.
To some extent such novel-based cultural stasis suggests that modern never happened. Rather, such abused category is a legitimate wish, an aspiration, a need which emerge on a recursive basis. Somewhere and sometimes cultural products arise which seem very modern. Unfortunately, they are always suddenly followed by amazingly not-modern ones. The introduction of utmost silly category of post-modern just testify the typical inability of western culture to finally give up on the illusion of modernism.
For modernism to emerge as an actual outfall of cultural history we should probably wait for the novel to disappear, or at least to be marginalized. But how to kill the novel?  That’s probably the very question cultural engineers should be wondering about.