Is “decadence” even a useful concept?

Is “decadence” even a useful concept?
Image Credit: Wikimedia / Public Domain

How does one experience an era? How much can we “feel” the time and place we are in? In the post-Covid world, it feels as though we live in a time of fear, a time of caution, a time when the future is diminished and each day is a fight through some path-dependent consequence of the last two years of pandemic-induced change.

It’s also a time of decadence, for those inclined to certain strains of analysis such as Ross Douthat’s 2021 book The Decadent Society. There’s a feeling of listless purposelessness, of everyone walking on autopilot from one Saturnalia to another, all while the core foundation of a strong nation is left unattended to crumble. Or so Douthat’s theory posits, along with a whole wing of the bookstore haranguing the intentional decline of the once great nation of America.

Of course, it’s interesting to describe the zeitgeist of a country of 330 million people. Who determines the zeitgeist? Where is it centered? Does it apply to the urban centers or the hinterlands on the periphery? Just exactly how do you “average” the feelings of so many people? In much the same vein as Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an “imagined community” since no one can meet everyone else in the nation, is there such an imaginary as zeitgeist? Does this “feeling” or “sense” of an era have any purchase?

I recently read Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, and while the 1988 book is mostly on societal collapse per its title, one aspect of his analysis that I felt was sizzling was his denunciation of any of these squishy feelings of zeitgeist, which he assails as “mystical factors.” In his analysis, such factors are completely undefinable, and entail value judgments that reasonable people can never hope to agree upon. As he writes:

Terms that are commonplace in mystical explanations further the aura of subjectivism. ‘Decadence’ is a notable one, frequently applied to the Roman Empire. Even seemingly innocuous words like ‘rise,’ ‘fall,’ ‘decline,’ and ‘vigor’ imply value judgements: we all approve of things that have vigor, and conversely. As discussed earlier, the term ‘civilization’ itself falls into this trap.

He later goes on to write that “The ‘decadence’ concept seems particularly detrimental. Although enjoying a patina of long use, it is notoriously difficult to define.” And that’s the challenge: as a social scientist, Tainter evades judgments for the simple fact that they offer no mechanism for falsification. Are we living in a decadent time? How would we know?

Douthat in his book is reasonable about the challenge he is facing. Writing about decadence in cultural production, he says “Like the claim that technological change has slowed rather than accelerated, this claim may not be immediately intuitive, and a debate over cultural repetition is even more inherently subjective than the debate over technological stagnation.” He attempts to make it, pointing to the repetition of Hollywood blockbusters and particularly Star Wars as one obvious example.

It is true that Episode VII of Star Wars was essentially a remake of Episode IV just decades later. But does that mean culture is repetitive? What about the explosion of premier television dramas from streaming services, or the massive expansion of international filmmaking, or the dizzying array of offerings on user-generated content sites like YouTube? Memes and repetition are aplenty, sure, but there’s also overwhelming creativity hiding in the interstices.

Decadence, decline and zeitgeists might be feelings that are shared by many; they might even be objectively true. But there’s no way to define them in a precise way, no index or assessment that could be done to prove that a society is decadent, or even whether it is becoming more or less decadent. China is investing heavily in propaganda to galvanize nationalist fervor: is that decadence or anti-decadence? Arguments could quite easily be made both ways.

Tainter I think approaches the problem the right way. When a concept is undefinable, it fails to be a useful tool of analysis. It’s emotional and not logical, feeling and not deduction. There’s room for qualitative judgment in any analysis of society, of course, but that can’t be a substitute or an excuse for building a theory on a more grounded foundation.