September 17, 2009

Conserving Civilization

Justin Katz

Michael Knox Beran raises, to my mind, a cultural reality that conservatives would do well to address when he describes the effects that losing the local marketplace (the agora) has had:

No civilization, even the most bovine, can entirely do without this cathartic machinery. Aristotle credited the poetry of the agora with forming the character of citizens and easing the psychic burdens of common life. Modern scientists have only now begun to catch up with him. They speculate that music and gossip, the lifeblood of the marketplace, meet a human need. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar supposes that music, language, and gossip evolved as "vocal grooming" tools in early hominid groups which had grown too large to rely on touchy-feely grooming techniques to promote cohesion. If Dunbar is right, Virgil and Theocritus were on to something when they made their shepherds use poetry as a grooming tool and music as a means of keeping their flocks together. Plato applied the same pastoral insight to the grooming of citizens. If the herdsman is "the master of the music best suited to his herd," so the agora culture of the polis perfected the music best suited to the human flock that constitutes the community.

Arguably, modern technology is to blame for much of the difficulty that conservatives have in promoting cultural events, because cars and electronics have spaced us out and provided in-home entertainment. Strolling to the town square for a puppet show isn't typically an option, anymore, and high-culture entertainment tends also to be high cost. There isn't the aggregate demand, that is, for average citizens to fund performances of cultural depth in a gathering place, and it ultimately proves culturally destructive — and, in any case, is morally inappropriate — for government bodies to choose content.

So, the conservative might go so far as to accept public investment in functional real estate, and perhaps a public festival here and there, but as Beran argues:

The only hope of regeneration, it seems to me, lies in experiments in civic artistry undertaken by philanthropists eager to refurbish the culture of the marketplace. One thinks of Poundbury, the little city, rich in civic focal points, that the Prince of Wales commissioned the architect Leon Krier to build in Dorset. Poundbury has attracted a good deal of attention, and it and the model towns of such "new urbanist" architects as Andres Duany and Elizabeth PlaterZyberk might conceivably inspire a broader civic movement, much as Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond inspired the environmental movement. Most people today recognize the importance of conserving natural resources, though naturally they differ concerning the means. A time may come when people will insist as passionately on the necessity of conserving cultural resources.

Even as a private endeavor, lines are drawn in a contrary direction:

To infuse new life into the agora, conservatives will need to enlist the energies of people they long ago stopped talking to, but who will be necessary to any effort to revive the poetic-grooming side of the market square. There is a certain kind of person who, like Jude Fawley in Hardy's Jude the Obscure, fulfills his nature in the adornment of a community. When the civic focal point thrived, these artists had a place in the community and a means of getting bread. They carved the stone, frescoed the walls, painted the ceilings, gilded the domes, composed the masques and harlequinades. But the agora in which they might once have become absorbed is gone. They are today rebels without a cause, misfits who dine off grant money and alienation from the marketplace, and create art that is generally faithful to the solipsistic bleakness of their situation. A conservative philosophy of civic renewal could give them the transfiguring work they need.

I have no clever closing, here, but have identified the topic as food for further thought. It all comes back to encouraging conservative principles — and living them out. Getting involved in community events. Seeking and commissioning the wares and productions of artists. Just generally seeing the value in an aspect of social life that's easy to lose in the mad rush of the day to day.

Of course, it's plain to see that folks would be more apt to do such things were more of their resources left to them to disperse.