Sunday, April 2, 2017

Culture is old men planting trees in whose shade they will never sit

Marginal Revolution is a blog about economics and observation arising from seeing the world through an economic prism. It is run and written by Tyler Cowen (the primary contributor) and Alex Tabarrok and I have been reading it to my benefit for years. There is usually interesting or new information, the commenters are generally terrifically erudite, and there is enough viewpoint diversity to be intriguing without being dysfunctional.

And yet . . . There is an air of preciousness and Acela corridor abstraction that is mildly off-putting. Part of this is that Cowen is pretty comfortable advocating without hesitation conceptual ideas which should work in theory but which have real world negative impacts (open-borders anyone?). The fact that I am both interested and irritated is an odd juxtaposition and perversely part of the blog's attraction.

The Z Man puts into words some of these thoughts, though he is much harsher. I agree with some but not other elements of his argument. From The Null Culture.
Tyler Cowen is one of those guys worth reading in the same way Thomas Friedman used to be worth reading. There’s nothing about his arguments or analysis that is new or interesting. In fact, when he ventures into these areas he reveals a mediocre mind. The value is that he provides an insight into the thinking of the Cloud People with regards to the issues of the day. He’s a weathercock for the Cloud People.

Maybe this is intentional or maybe it is accidental. That can be debated and many of his most loyal fans start from the assumption that it is intentional. They believe his cryptic writing style is to encourage a hermeneutic reading of his posts and columns. Cowen indirectly encourages this by constantly referring to Strauss as if he is a deity. Many of his posts have a “read between the lines young grasshopper? vibe to them.

Another way to look at this style is that it is intended to mask the fact that he has no new insights or ideas to offer, so he puts the focus on the alleged game of expository cat and mouse. In the same way female pop stars dress like whores to hide their lack of talent, writers like Kevin Williamson, for example, rely on bloated prose to mask their lack of talent. Maybe that’s Cowen’s game.
After savaging Cowen, Z-Man moves on to explore foodie culture. He approaches it, again rather harshly, with criticism of it as a null culture. I have always interpreted foodies as simply an advanced form of intra-elite competition and virtue signaling. An implied self-claim that they have the wealth to indulge obscure trends and fads and the cultural refinement to discern that which hoi polloi cannot. From this perspective, while foodies might be somewhat offensive, there is nothing malign about the foodie habits and behaviors.

My other perspective, and not exclusive of the first, is that foodies are simply advanced practitioners of extreme consumerism. They tend to congregate in dense metropolitan areas where traditional forms of consumerism (big houses, cars, possessions) are simply unfeasible. My assumption has been that foodieism is the substitute form of consumption most available to rich urban dwellers.

Z-Man casts a different light. The implications are darker. He argues that foodieism is a symptom of a null culture, a culture fixed in the present and without a future horizon.
Anyway, Cowen is obsessed with food and the so-called foodie culture. He correctly points out that this is a common obsession in the Cloud. He does not phrase it that way as that would require a degree of self-awareness he does not posses. Many of his posts and columns are about his trips to find something new to eat. Whenever he is preparing for a tax-payer funded junket overseas, he posts a bleg for restaurant tips.

So-called foodie culture is interesting in that it is not really a culture. It is the result of lack of culture. The people endlessly searching for a new dish or new cuisine do so because they have nothing of their own or at least nothing they wish to hold up as their own. The endless search for some new exotic cuisine is a distraction from facing the fact that their own culture is dead and its artifacts are now just museum pieces.

Culture is the spirit of the people. Their customs, foods and social structures are the result. The moveable feast that is foodie culture is not a celebration of something holy or sacred. It is shiva for people who no longer have any attachment to the rest of us or our share past. They see themselves as rootless visitors, sampling life in the hope that it will provide their lives with meaning, or at least make them mildly interesting to others.

Foodie culture is a null culture, the abnegation of culture. The Cloud Person going on about the food stalls they visited in Thailand is someone trying hard to not be from here, to not be of here, to not be a part of you. It’s why fusionism is so popular in the foodie world. It lets every person have their own thing, so they can avoid sharing their thing with others and therefore avoid the burdens and responsibilities of shared culture.

It also is why the managerial state and the Cloud People society dependent on it is brittle and fracturing. It has nothing to offer. If culture is old men planting trees in whose shade they will never sit, the managerial state is the burning of those trees in an outdoor fire pit so the imported cook from Thailand can prepare traditional dishes from his homeland. The former outlives the man, while the later cannot outlive the fire.
An interesting perspective.

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