Julian Young:

What, according to the fourth Meditation, is wrong with modernity? It is, Nietzsche observes, vulgar (gemein) and money-grubbing, its denizens exhausted by overwork so that the typical demeanor of the passer-by in the city street is one of being ‘harried’. This is partly because, whereas formerly we looked at life from the eternal point of view, we now live in a newspaper (media) culture which barrages us with the events and agitations of the moment. Modern culture is permeated by boredom, ‘industrious boredom’ — because presumably (a) work is what we do nearly all of the time, and (b) modern work practices are intrinsically unsatisfying. That we are bored work-slaves generates a specific kind of art, in particular theater. It is forced to become a ‘lascivious antidote’ to the worker’s exhaustion and boredom. What the audience wants – and gets – is ‘bedazzlement, not art’.
…This is what modern German sociologists call the Erlebnisgesellschaft: the society of the frenzied quest for ‘experiences’, for cheap thrills. Without a communal ethos to give aspiration and meaning to one’s life, the only way of keeping boredom at bay is in the frenzied search for cheap thrills.
What, however, is actually wrong with ‘post-modernism, with being dominated by the ‘critical-historical’ spirit? Why should such a spirit be culture-destroying? What is wrong, Nietzsche says, is that by presenting us with a smörgåsbord of lifestyle options but with no evaluative ranking of them, it produces a mood of irony, cynicism and bewilderment which turns us into spectators rather than actors. Our culture becomes ‘senile’ since the critical-historical spirit destroys life’s ‘plastic powers’ — its ability to employ its past so as to nourish its future.
It’s kind of funny to see how the first paragraph describes one of the four essays of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations. Not very untimely anymore, is it? Who hasn’t complained like that at some point? Hell, some people have made a literary name for themselves doing it.
And yet, although I don’t substantially disagree with any of the observations, I’ve never been sympathetic to what I see as the excessively romantic, backwards-looking mentality that almost inevitably accompanies them, especially when it becomes tangled up in some form of nationalism. Young’s book attempts to situate Nietzsche’s thoughts on religion within the context of nineteenth-century German völkisch thought. Of course, we all know what the negative aspect of that tradition eventually wrought upon the world. And how else can you see Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin’s current “restoring honor” project but as the last-ditch attempt of the American völk – i.e. white, socially conservative, middle-to-lower-class Protestants – to stave off their inevitable demographic decline (their cultural decline having been ongoing for a long time now)? Clearly, the answer is not to band together with people who look, talk and dress like me in hope of finding some sort of strength through homogeneity.
Are we just too knowledgeable and sophisticated now to go for these sorts of communal identifications or grandiose ideas? Have we reached a point where “existential meaning” for us simply amounts to living as comfortably as we can while giving as little offense as possible, tiptoeing through life in order to arrive safely at death, having been pleasantly amused, distracted and sated along the way? We can’t think our way back to naïveté or innocence, just like how it’s futile in my late thirties to daydream about recapturing some of the optimism and energy of my late teens. Those days are gone, and we have to move forward with what we know.
Have we ever even had an American culture, for that matter? Aside from the aforementioned white middle-class American Dream, which would have still probably been too shallow, pedestrian and money-grubbing for someone like Nietzsche, has there ever really been a binding myth that could be said to constitute the American identity? I guess what I’m asking is, is there really anything to regenerate in the first place? Or, speaking of Berman, did he have it right in his The Twilight of American Culture, and those of us with different values and visions are just going to have to retreat into semi-solitude, in the society but not of it?