Monday, March 14, 2005

Ortega and popular culture

Today popular culture is inescapable. No matter how much one tries to limit one’s TV time, one cannot help but noting the travails of Brad and Jen, of the Friends cast, and of course of the incomparable Michael Jackson. As a true culture vulture, devoted to reading the classics, I try to keep this under control. But one is not a monk.

How did popular culture become so prevalent? Some say it is due to the insidious machinations of a cabal in Hollywood. Surely the matter is more complicated than that.

I have a novel proposal. The key to the phenomenon may have been inadvertently uncovered by the Spanish philosopher and cultural commentator José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). His best-known book is The Revolt of the Masses, which first appeared in Spanish in 1930.

Ortega’s idea of the mass man differs from the earlier Marxist notion of the Masses, a vast underclass of the downtrodden. Ortega sees the new social formation of the Mass Man as a product of the tremendous surge in European demography that began in the nineteenth century. This advance created a large body of citizens who were neither rich nor poor, neither aristocratic nor marginal. Moreover, they are effectively in revolt, for they refuse to "know their place" and accept the directives of their betters. They openly challenge the leadership of the traditional elites.

Ortega is sometimes mistakenly dismissed as an old fogy, longing for the past glories of aristocracy and the ancien regime. On the contrary, he accepted democracy, within the limits of realism. He would surely have agreed with Winston Churchill’s assertion that democracy is the worst system known--except for every other possible system. He did believe that the demographic surge he identified had produced a problem of social coherence.

Controversially for his time, Ortega believed that Communism and Fascism were transient problems, nostrums arising as solutions, inadequate and unstable as they were, to the problems he was to outline. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 he had, some would say, his comeuppance, as he was forced to go into exile. Beyond the grave, however, Ortega had the last laugh, as the long-run perspective proved him right.

In Ortega’s day popular culture was in its infancy, found in tabloid newspapers, the movies, and the tin-pan-alley tunes diffused by the phonograph. As a member of a prominent newspaper-owning family in Madrid he may even have been said to be complicit with this development, though in a minor way.

Today, I think, we need a sequel to The Revolt of the Masses, treating the consequences of Ortega’s insights for European and American culture. As a song of a few years back declaimed, "Shakespeare’s a hack, we read Kerouac." While he shouldn't elbow out Shakespear, reading Kerouac is not so bad, in fact. But what about an addiction to "Desperate Housewives"?

That Ortega is now little known is unfortunate. Some people are trying to do something about it, witness a book by Rockwell Gray, The Imperative of Modernity: An Intellectual Biography of José Ortega y Gasset (University of California Press, 1989).

Ortega’s other big idea, the need to integrate Spain into Europe, has triumphed. Yet Latin America has not benefited. That of course is another story.