Reflections are only that, reflections, nothing more nothing less. Often these reflections are related to books I read, but occasionally also other things. These are often written very late, very fast,  using notes from my mobile phone, so the grammar and spelling is horrible.

Notes on the Death of Culture, by Mario Vargas Llosa



This book will keep you entertained, but not always in the best possible way. It is all over the place with regards to theme, structure and degree of coherence in the different texts. That might not come as a big surprise as it is a collection of articles, but it is hard to find any common thread that link to the theme of death of culture. Still the pure energy and passion from Llosa addressing a very interesting subject makes an interesting read.

I feel a bit disappointed, as he starts of well and then get’s lost as soon as he ventures into the concrete challenges of the 21st century. Instead of trying to understand the world we live in it looks as he just gets frustrated. The sad thing is that he often confuses his lack of understanding of different things with negative implications for culture. Just because you do not understand something does not mean that it is bad. The result is a text that is a confusing mix of reflections that rage between brilliant and ridiculous. It is like listening to person that can go from a wise old man to a pathetic and confused person, who is just bitter that the world has left him behind, in a few sentences.

The book can be divided into three parts: 1. A general discussion about culture 2. A critique of those who have diluted the concept of culture 3. Concrete examples from politics and "power"

The first part is very well written, interesting and important. It covers a number of key questions, including what does the concept "culture" mean and what are the negative consequences of the (often well intended) culture relativism that dominate the intellectuals of our time. What structures are defending culture and what’s the responsibility of mainstream media?

The second focus on important groups, including media, policy makers, and academics as well as those representing culture (artists, authors, etc.). This brings up some valid but vague points, but as the book lack any framework or narrative it is hard to really find much of substance. The third category is where you have to chose if you want to laugh, feel sorry, or just skip a page or two.

The problem with the book is that about 95% of what is really interesting can be found in two chapters; The introduction “metamorphosis of a Word” that discusses the concept of culture and in “final thoughts” where he reelects on the tension between two characteristics of our time captured in the following two quotes:

“Never before have we lived in an age so rich in scientific knowledge and technological discoveries; never have we been better equipped to defeat illness, ignorance and poverty, and yet perhaps we have never been so confused about certain basic questions such as what are we doing on this lightless planet of ours, if mere survival is the sole aim that justifies life, if concepts such as spirit, ideals, pleasure, love, solidarity, art, creation, beauty, soul, transcendence still have meaning and, if so, what these meanings might be? The raison d’être of culture was to give an answer to these questions. ”

“why is it that the culture we inhabit has become so banal as to be, in many cases, a pale reflection of what our fathers and grandfathers understood by the term?”

The text in these two chapters is really sharp and interesting. I really hope that as many as possible of those who are trying to make the world a better place will read it at it addresses many of the broader trends in society they tend to be ignored. Llosa discusses the implications of a society where nothing is better than anything else and where we no longer accept to be challenged, only entertained. You will not find many original ideas, but it is well written and these basic questions are seldom discussed outside academic rooms.

For the next chapters, it is not very much there. Perhaps part of Llosa’s frustration is that his own thinking becomes trivial when he tries to fit them in mainstream magazines, if that is the case it is something that I would really like to hear him discuss. This is however not the case and in the book he writes introductions to articles he has written for El país over the years and generally the introductions are more interesting than the articles themselves. I actually think it would have been better if he left the old articles out and just expanded the introductions.

For the chapters between the introduction and conclusion I was primarily fascinated with the bitterness, incoherent reasoning and lack of understanding when it comes to new trends and technologies. As it is translated from Spanish it was surprising that the main thing I enjoyed with the book was the language, so I have to congratulate to John King who translated the book. Either he did a fantastic work where he captured a text that was originally very well written, or he made it a joy to read anyway.

Instead of going through all the gems and the strange ramblings in the book I will just comment on a few quotes from the book. First, three examples of the kind of gems you will find. They are nothing special and once I finished the book and went back I realized that I mainly picked quite trivial observations, as I wanted to find something, so most of them feel more like pyrite than actual gems.

On reading a good book: “what is important about reading good novels always happens after the event; it is an effect that lights up in one’s memory and over time. This fire is still alive within me because, without these books, for better or worse, I would not be who I am, I would not believe what I believe, nor would I have the doubts and certainties that sustain me.”

I like the long-term perspective and one reason I stopped writing book reviews in newspapers was that I felt that the rush to comment did not allow me to really reflect on the book. I feel that much of what is out there are books that are written quickly, read in an hour or two and forgotten in a month or two. It is a market for this kind of airport literature and I’m interested to explore the dynamics behind this phenomenon at some stage. The reason I want to do this is that I’m afraid that they might play an important and especially dangerous role when it comes to making society more stupid. Especially as these books are the only things containing some kind of coherent reasoning (then it is just magazines and TED-talks with close to zero intellectual value, but high entertainment value) for many decision makers.

On the problem with markets in relation to culture: “The free market fixes the prices of products solely in terms of supply and demand, which has meant that almost everywhere, including in the most cultured societies, literary and artistic works of the highest worth are under-appreciated and marginalized because they are difficult and require a certain intellectual background and refined sensibility in order to be fully appreciated”

This is one of the most important issues today. Unfortunately Llosa does little more than reminding us that it is an important issue, but there are no real ideas for how to take steps to improve the situation. If you write about a new area it might be OK just to make people aware, but this is not a new area, so something more substantial would be good.

On responsibility of authors “although I believe that literature should be engaged with the problems of its time and that writers should write with the conviction that, by writing, they can help others become more free, sensitive and lucid, I am far from advocating that the civic and moral ‘commitment’ of intellectuals will guarantee that they will make good decisions, support the best options to curb violence, reduce injustice and promote freedom. I have been wrong myself too many times, and I have seen too many writers that I admired also make mistakes, sometimes putting their talents to supporting ideological lies and state crimes, to delude myself.”… “which does not mean that we should not do everything in our power not to make it worse than it is”

This is a very interesting topic and it would have been great to see Llosa elaborate on these thoughts. What does it mean in practice and in what ways has he engaged in different issues? The fact that Llosa has moved politically over the years has been discussed a lot and it would have been interesting to hear his own words on his changes.

Second, a few examples of the weird writing.

On reading digital: “Of course the Web can store Proust, Homer, Popper and Plato, but it would be difficult to imagine that their work will have many digital readers. Why take the time to read the books if in Google I can find simple, clear and approachable summaries of what they wrote in those dense, massive books that prehistoric readers once read?”

I think it is safe to say that the lack of reading classics today has very little to do with the format, physical or digital, that book are delivered in, as long as it is easy on the eye (that was not the case until a few years ago).

The fact that many studies indicate the reading of books is going slightly down (about 10% points last 30 years) should have very little to do with the web (the trends started before the web played any significant role).  Still it is an important issue that should be discussed. Not just from a quantitative perspective, but also quality.

It would be interesting to know how many people today who has read Plato, Popper, Homer and Proust. If anyone knows of such studies please let me know.

You could even argue that the possibility to read other peoples comments and share interesting parts in more complex/demanding books would increase the possibility of people reading the classics. If people only want to read the summary it is because we have a society where this is enough. When people read all books as if they have one idea that can be forgotten in a few months this has an impact on how you read as well as what you read. The easy access for information and the possibility to browsing provides might have an impact on how we read and this have been discussed in many books (some of them I have discussed). The fact that role models today, policy makers, business leaders, pop stars seldom talk about/quote Plato, Popper, Homer or Proust is probably one of the main challenges and that responsibility is shared by many.

On religion in society “But perhaps even more damaging still for the cause that the Constitutional Court is championing is that the only politicians who have thus far come out in its defence have been that handful of shabby and vegetarian parliamentarians, lovers of chlorophyll and fasting – the Greens – whom nobody in this country of dedicated sausage and steak eaters takes very seriously.”

This is an example of when Llosas lack of political understanding and his as well as dated perspective becomes painfully clear. Llosa wrote this in 1995, and in 1998 the Greens became a governing party. When it comes to religion (especially in Germany) I think people like Joschka Fischer, from the Greens, have things that Llosa might learn from… The style is also so conservative that it is hard to take Llosa serious as it sounds like a caricature in one of Houellebecq’s books.

Simplification/entertainment in media/society and Julian Assange “Julian Assange, rather than being a great freedom fighter, is a successful entertainer, the Oprah Winfrey of the information world.”

There is much that can be said about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, but to call him “the Oprah Winfrey of the information world” and accuse him for trivializing the public debate is very strange to say the least. If anything Assange and Wikileaks (and other groups working for transformative transparency for powerful organisations and the right for individuals to protect their data) has contributed to a much needed discussion about information/rights and power structures in the 21st Century. The individual leaks are the less important contribution, the ideas about transparency, civil courage and collaboration that they have helped make part of the mainstream conversation is something to be very grateful for.

There are challenges with Wikileaks, ranging from unbalance in leaks where the most secretive governments and companies (so far) has not come under very much scrutiny, to the protection of privacy (e.g. when private mails from one of CIA chiefs John Brennan). The first Wikileaks has not addressed very much so far, but the later has been discussed.  I should add that Julian have made clear that he want more leaks from countries like China and Russia, but I have not seen a discussion about possible consequences when those countries who are relatively more transparent and have better working legal systems are exposed to leaks, while those where almost no transparency exist and where you can disappear if you say something that the government does not approve of. I have seen this problem in the corporate sector where those with some transparency are hunted by NGOs and media, while the really dirty and secretive are not criticised. This is a difficult question the require serious thinking.

But challenges exist in all areas, and the more important the area is the more significant challenges you tend to get. It is just sad that so many conservative people seem to ignore the problem in the existing system and only see problem when someone is challenging this old system. Of all people to pick as an example for simplicity in media, Assange is probably one of the worst on the planet. Talk about any owner of the main media outlets, talk about the key journalists, talk about politicians (both as regulators of the media and how the participate). The way Assange and Wikileaks have helped open up the closet and let some light in when it comes to some of the most powerful and most corrupt areas today is nothing short of historic.

The one thing I would say that I like about Llosa is that he talks about what Assange has done. So many (especially irrelevant journalist in outlets that have no global relevance and who have done nothing ground braking in their lives) retreat to ad hominem

The whole discussion about entertainment in society is obviously very interesting and relevant. I can see a significant problem when one of the most influential and trusted persons in US politics is/was John Stuart, a comedian who communicates news with slapstick humour. He is very funny and entertaining, like Steven Colbert and other talk show hosts, but if that is the best we have when it comes to serious political dialogue we are in deep trouble.

With regards to John Stewart I would like to recommend the now classic clip of John Stewart at Crossfire, when he discuss the role of journalists, just to make it clear that it is not John Stuart, or Colbert, I’m criticizing, it is the media environment that makes this the best we have to offer in terms of political discussion. This is what I would have hoped that Llosa could have discussed.

To end on a positive note, there those who want to do more than put simple messages when it comes to the challenges we face, and quite a few use new medium. Here are a few (I should not have to say it, but obviously I don't agree with all of them, or even most, that why I like them. They are doing an honest job of trying to take issues serious most of the time).

PS (21st March 2016) I got some feedback about the example I usually give when it comes to media with content, and it is true that I tend to use older examples as references for what can be done. Here are two fantastic examples. They are still better than anything contemporary I have found:

Dennis Potter's last interview

A discussion between Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault - On human nature