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Narrative Poetics and the Crisis in Culture Claude Simon’s Return to “History” David Carroll IN A 1960 ESSAY, “The Crisis in Culture”—in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1968)—Hannah Arendt focuses on the relation between culture and politics in an attempt to under­ stand the implications of what she considers a particularly modern and acute form of a crisis with a very long history. The crisis, as it concerns culture, involves the relation of culture and entertainment, of those objects that are preserved and set aside to ensure that they endure and those that have a particular function and are meant to be immediately consumed: Culture relates to objects and is a phenomenon of the world; entertainment relates to people and is a phenomenon of life. An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; its durability is the very opposite of functionality, which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The great user and consumer of objects is life itself, the life of the individual and the life of society as a whole. Life is indifferent to the thingness of an object; it insists that every thing must be functional, fulfill some needs. Culture is being threatened when all world objects and things, produced by the present or the past are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need. (p. 208) Arendt is not suggesting that entertainment should be attacked in the name of the supposedly higher values of culture. The opposition between “endurance” and functionality is for her fundamental and cannot be undone without collapsing one term into the other and thus eliminating the specificity of each. Because no society can survive and not consume, the crisis in culture consists then not in consumption per se but in the extension of consumption and functionalism to all realms. Arendt sees the principal danger of “mass society” not to be the opposition between culture and entertainment, endurance and consumption or functionality, but rather that the forces of production and consumption will devour and eliminate the cultural “objects” set aside to ensure that they will endure. A consumer society has less and less time for its cultural objects because they are not produced to be consumed and thus do not function “efficiently” enough. Because of this endurance factor, their effects on society are necessarily multiple, contradictory, and deferred, coming 48 W inter 1987 C arroll often long after their production and in repeatedly different forms. Endurance also means then setting cultural objects apart from consump­ tion and giving them the time to produce their effects, not just the time for them to be appreciated, judged to be beautiful, or evaluated and analyzed in terms of their aesthetic effects, but also the time for them to have historical, political, and theoretical effects as well. For Arendt, following Kant, the issue raised by art is that of “judg­ ment, discernment, and discrimination, in brief, of that curious and illdefined capacity we commonly call taste.” “Could it be,” she goes on, “that taste belongs among the political faculties?” (pp. 214-15).1Arendt clearly answers her own question affirmatively and considers aesthetic judgment, the “enlarged mentality” which anticipates agreement with others but cannot prove the legitimacy of its judgments, to be “one of the fundamental abilities of man as a political being insofar as it enables him to orient himself in the public realm, in the common world” (p. 221). Critical judgment thus anticipates, suggests, and is regulated by the assumption of a universality, a sensus communis, it cannot determine or be determined by. The “community of judgment” is thus never actual but rather a regulating Idea (in the Kantian sense); the “public space” must be a space always to be formed, never the already-formed, existing social space or one whose form can be anticipated or projected. In this sense, critical judgment as a fundamental cultural activity also always implies the paradoxical endurance of art beyond its production and con­ sumption, because judgment is always oriented towards an indefinite unpresentable community, a future whose possibility is always at...


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