As Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society subtitle suggests, Llosa owes a bit to Guy Debord. No one would even think of using such a subtitle before Gallimard published Debord’s seminal The Society of the Spectacle in 1967.
But Llosa’s heart lies closer to T. S. Eliot’s much earlier, far more conservative, nay, now considered almost reactionary, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture. Llosa is definitely not a Marxist or proto-Marxist. Though his analysis may echo some of Debord’s most widely accepted notions, Llosa’s conclusions are for the most part almost in complete opposition to Debord’s.
After a few introductory pages re-setting the stage in the context of T.S. Eliot’s definition of culture and George Steiner’s response ten years later, LLosa starts with Foucault and Debord and traces the, what he would call, slide into the Post-Modernist attack on not only the previous notions of what culture is, but to the annihilation of the role of culture and intellectual life in our modern world and our entry into an age that is truly without culture. Llosa wants to reverse this. His crusade and argument would be more convincing if he wouldn’t sound like such an old stuck-in-the-mud reactionary when he gets down to details, the danger here being that slippery slope into the whining of those who are left behind in the dust.
At any rate, it’s still an interesting and easy read and a primary contemporary text on this subject in the Spanish-speaking world and the Americas. In the context of recent political events in the English-speaking world, it now looms with a new-found sense of relevance.
For me to truly respond to my reading of this book, it would require a book in itself as I would have to challenge most of the assumptions made in almost every other paragraph with a level of detail capable of penetrating Llosa’s numerous hidden assumptions. I feel Llosa only gets part of the picture, misses some very critical aspects of the current cultural situation, and has a tendency to load his argument with semi-hidden assumptions that would not hold up under tighter scrutiny.
One thing I like about Llosa is that unlike many of his sources, who tend to be overwhelmingly interested in texts and words, Llosa is definitely interested in and discusses, albeit a bit too narrowly, the visual arts. Ironically, after all, one of the key characteristics of the Society of the Spectacle is the emerging dominance of images over texts, of the visceral over the literary, and the psychological power of the subtext over the text itself; not to mention the predominance of media, with its highly mediated messages, over simpler written and traditional arts.