The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Decadence

There must be as many answers to this as there are people, in fields ranging from technology to art to frame of mind. A common one in art is self-reference: a social environment within which a piece of art can no longer stand on its own without direct reference to other works, current or past. Myself, I would be cautious with this one, not least because it implies true creative independence can exist.

I suggest that a nation-state can only truly become decadent after, for a crucial period of time (say a decade or so to approximate a generation, or perhaps less when societal attention span is shorter), it has dealt with its rivals such as to be the dominant power in the known world. Without a constant external striving challenge, the nation-state's focus shifts inwards ... reluctantly, and with continual seeking of external threats to distract it from considering itself too closely. However, that reluctant self-focus -- maybe self-absorption might be a better term -- continues to express itself through four visible effects:
  • A growing emphasis on internal politics, so strong as to absorb and reshape all things societal;
  • A parallel emphasis on monument building, with a corresponding stress on monument-building technologies and supportive belief systems;
  • A single, dominant, driving 'ism which has come to be synonymous with the state, challenges to which are treated as though they were threats to the state;
  • Growth of the personal entertainment industry.
What it means for a nation-state to be decadent might be a rather more difficult question. Practically, what difference does it make in the world fabric if one particular nation-state happens to be caught up in a self-absorption expressed in this way?

Yet the basic premise for decadence within this model is that the nation-state must be (or recently have been) the dominant power in the world. A reluctant inward focus, one which doesn't really want to address internal issues and which seeks every external opportunity for distraction, results in stagnation in every field but the four areas of emphasis outlined above ... and since the nation-state is dominant within its region of influence, that stagnation will permeate to every nation-state within it. Ironically, those resisting that stagnation in any way will tend to be seen as actually resisting the 'ism upon which the dominant nation-state is founded: and thus a threat. Since a period of unchallenged dominance tends to erode negotiating skills, only one way remains to deal with any kind of threat: utter eradication.

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