“The west does not die when nations do.”
In his classic 1991 tome Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Marxist philosopher Frederic Jameson presents a discursive discussion of the ever-allusive phenomenon of postmodernism. One of the elements that Jameson identifies as being postmodern is the importance of the image. Like his contemporary Baudrillard, Jameson views the era after World War II in the West as being saturated with images which can present themselves as being more real than reality itself. As movies and then television washed over Westerners, in Jameson’s words, a “culture of the image” took shape through which reality was filtered. It is important to note that Jameson was talking about the electronic age—the age of VHS tapes, CDs, and cable television. He was writing during a time when a tiny minority of people (primarily in the military) were utilizing what became the internet. There was no Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok. But his reflections foreshadowed the electronic age’s evolution into the digital age where the image now runs amok.
Westerners—Americans most especially—were mesmerized by the image displayed upon the silver as well as television screen. It is difficult to underestimate the impact electronic media had on shaping the minds and hearts of the generations who sat glued watching Star Trek, Seinfeld, and The Honeymooners. Indeed, as Jameson further notes, postmodernism was also a continuation of the process of modernization, of changing the way human nature functioned through technology, social control, and, of course, media. Technology shaped our evolution. Thus, being bombarded with nonstop pop culture images eventually made a Frenchman less French or a Japanese woman less Japanese, eventually helping to create our current global monoculture that reflected the postmodern image writ large.
It goes without saying that the twenty-first century has seen a proliferation of the process of (post-)modernization. People around the world are constantly bombarded with images and sounds pouring from their ever-present cell phone. Films are created and produced in the United States in order to be marketed to a global audience—many twenty-first century films have flopped in the US only to recoup their costs oversees. There is, indeed, a monoculture that primarily exists online, only occasionally spilling into the “desert of the real.” Much of traditional culture, which, at least in some aspects of the world—including the West itself—had survived during the electronic age, is largely being completely erased in this newly minted digital age of hypermodernity.
In his newest work, How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises, Spencer Klavan presents a trenchant critique of the digital age and offers a number of antidotes to the contemporary post-millennial malaise. Klavan notes that ours is an apocalyptic era. It seems that every few months a new phenomenon threatens to topple Western civilization (and America in particular). However, Klavan writes that throughout the 2,000 years of Western civilization, empires, kings, and nations have come and gone but the West itself has endured. Moreover, the West is full of stories of new life being breathed into the civilization as an old order was dying: Rome fell and was conquered by Germanic barbarians but the West lived on through the emergence of the great kingdoms of the Middle Ages which took a certain inheritance from Rome while becoming something better and newer at the same time. On the other hand, however, many are calling not simply for the demise of the French Bourbon dynasty or the toppling of Athenian hegemony, they are calling for the eradication of the West itself. This consciousness of destroying Western civilization does seem new; the barbarians of old weren’t self-conscious about their destructive civilizational deeds like the vandals of today are.
Klavan points to five crises with which the West is suffering: “The Reality Crisis,” “The Body Crisis,” “The Crisis of Meaning,” “The Crisis of Religion,” and “Regime Crisis.” However, he notes that the key problem is the struggle between relativism and objective truth—for this epistemological and ontological crisis runs through all five crises Klavan addresses. Through movements such as transgenderism and transhumanism, postmodern thinkers are attempting to subvert the very nature of reality and create a radical god-like freedom. Curiously and fascinatingly, Klavan argues that such view of the malleability of all of creation in the hands of human is reinforced by a new mythology of “multiverses” depicted in the seemingly never-ending stream of comic book films churned out in the twenty-first century. At the same time, while humans in the twenty-first century are promised radical freedom over their bodies, they are becoming less free than they have ever been. The internet functions, Klavan argues, like a giant surveillance grid in enormous quantities of human data are tracked and traced, making data “the new oil.”
In response, Klavan sees a need to return to the great texts of the Western tradition-especially the classics. In response to the crisis of reality, Klavan argues that Plato himself had depicted the life of slaves chained to a wall and living in an illusory world in Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave.” In contrast to illusion, Klavan articulates the need for the importance of truth and the embrace of reality—even in realities of harshness. Klavan further notes the importance of God to give meaning to life. As philosophers have argued since the inception of the West, without God anything is possible, but without God, nothing has meaning. Humans are not happy being totally free to wallow in material and ephemeral pleasures. We hunger for both truth and love from an Infinite Being. Finally, in his chapter “Political Love,” Klavan provides a variation of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, noting that civilizations are built from the ground up and parents raising their children with love and contributing to their local community can help rebuild the West.
The twenty-first century is indeed a “brave new world” of illusion and fantasy provided by digital means. One could possibly argue that for those “digital natives” of the Zoomer and Millennial generations, the internet is their reality and the real flesh and blood is merely a brief respite from their online lives. Moreover, Klavan is right to note that the West is in a terminal crisis that European civilization has never before faced. Finally, there has been a decline in the practice of Christian belief throughout the West. While these decadent times produce catastrophe, they also produce heroes: men and women who will rebuild what was fallen, using the “worn out” (but still strong) tools of the past, and create something remarkable in the future. Those renaissances of the past which gave birth to a reinvigorated West always drew on the classics—we can take comfort in believing the same cycle will repeat itself.
How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises
By Spencer Klavan
Washington DC: Regnery, 2023; 256pp
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