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Alexander Grau
Kulturpessimismus forever

Cultural pessimism was once a potent quasi-philosophical superstructure for morose buzz-kills. Today their default mindset is not compatible with the prevailing ideology of (self-)optimisation. Time for a rehabilitation of cultural pessimism.

By Holger Moos

Grau: Kulturpesimismus © zu Klampen A plea for cultural pessimism, authored by Alexander Grau, appeared recently in a particularly interesting essay series issued by zu-Klampen-Verlag. Grau studied philosophy and works as a journalist. Since 2013 he has been writing columns for the online edition of the magazine Cicero. In one of these columns, as early as 2015, he explored the question of why there are no longer any cultural pessimists to be found and comes to the following conclusion: “Traditional cultural pessimism was the offspring of a homogeneous educational landscape with binding norms and values. This monolithic ideal of a normative culture as the yardstick for rise and fall is being pulverised by the pluralisation of Western societies.”
In his book he has now expanded upon this thesis. Cultural pessimism – or cultural criticism in the wake of Adorno – used to be an educational mission of the political left: “But the left has made its peace with mass culture, with the impositions and demands of the electronic media and the commercialisation of all areas of life.”


According to Grau, cultural pessimism is a disruptor of consensus. These days, however, it is unwelcome. In view of the “unconditional affirmation of the existent” as well as the “transfiguration and celebration of secularity”, there is no longer a metaphysical revolt à la Camus. Postculturality is being packaged as multiculturality, but what has in fact occurred is a genuine cultural loss, “a tangible loss of humanity”.

“Culture is conservative” writes Grau at the beginning of the first chapter with the eloquent title “Nach der Kultur (after culture)”. He argues that it “copes with contingencies” and endeavours to make the world clear and manageable. But culture is unstable and always under threat from the chaotic and the foreign. That is the reason why many norms have been set: “Culture essentially consists of norms, canonisation and standardisation” – and thus of course of the exclusion of what lies outside its norms as well.


Advanced civilisations, however, are dynamic, and this is not compatible with the preservation of culture. Today, according to Grau, we have long since arrived in the age of postculturalism. In art, for example, we find an unconditional will towards avant-gardism, but one that leads to self-annulment. Avant-garde merges with the trash of mass culture. In general, the following can be said: “Postcultural society is no longer in a position to generate content.” The disappearance of culture had been the condition for the emergence of a world culture, which, however, offers people nothing but a “bubble of the present moment”.

Grau works his way through a number of theorists, the most well-known being Gustave Le Bon, José Ortega y Gasset and Adorno. But in the end the thinking of all these cultural pessimists or cultural critics (Grau uses these terms synonymously) leads to “methodical escapism and a historical metaphysics of decline”.

In postcultural times, everything is fragmented and there is no longer any normative, homogenizing stability. Only subcultures exist that imitate culture, but in the end are only committed to the moment and their respective milieu. But: “A culture that exhausts itself in the present is no longer a culture.” Whether things were really different in the age of so-called high culture, however, is questionable.


The postcultural subject is narcissistic and incapable of culture, it aspires to a life of hedonism and to uniqueness. “This is the simple reason why qualities such as imagination and creativity enjoy a downright sacred status in societies organised around self-actualisation.” The narcissistic desire for uniqueness, however, is a form of boundless self-deception. Thus, an apercu of the misanthropist Emil M. Cioran applies to postcultural people: “Life means being blind to one's own dimension.”

Today, as a cultural pessimist, one is quickly pigeonholed as a right-winger. This is also not unreasonable since right-wing nationalist circles see themselves as preservers and saviours of (national) culture of whatever kind – and as gadflies of the mainstream. Marc Reichwein in Die Welt sees precisely this as a weakness in Grau's book: “The author does not sufficiently address the comeback of this kind of cultural pessimism.”

In parts, especially in the chapters “Fortschritt (progress)”, “Niedergang (decline)” and “Postkultur (postculturalism)”, the style is indeed very academic and the references to sometimes more, sometimes less well-known theorists accordingly numerous. All in all, Grau’s plea is highly stimulating due to his wealth of ideas and for the most part easy to read. Nevertheless, the final chapter offers little comfort. For even the enlightened cultural pessimism he recommends cannot reverse the loss of culture, but perhaps it can at least keep alive the Enlightenment project as an emancipation from all certainties of faith, including one's own.

Cherry Picker Grau, Alexander: Kulturpessimismus. Ein Plädoyer
Springe: zu Klampen Verlag, 2018. 157 S.

ISBN:  978-3-86674-582-7