The provincial attitude is limited in time but not in space. When the regional man, in his ignorance, often an intensive and creative ignorance, extends his own immediate necessities into the world, and assumes that the present moment is unique, he becomes the provincial man. He cuts himself off from the past, and without benefit of the fund of traditional wisdom approaches the simplest problems of life as if nobody had ever heard of them before. A society without arts, said Plato, lives by chance. The provincial man, locked in the present, lives by chance.Allen Tate 1945: “The New Provincialism”
Hollow men, T.S. Eliot named denizens of the 21st century. Are we any less vacuous in the 21st? Or have we been further emptied?
It often proves difficult to describe our situation—our time and place in history and the world—without sounding morose, or, indeed, without falling into that trap of assuming our present moment is unique, or, to take Tate’s criticism farther, that we, as somehow constituting this moment, are ourselves unique. Arguably, our situation is unique. But we remain as human as any and every human ever has or ever will. There are challenges faced in 2023 that were not and perhaps could not quite be imagined in 1945—let alone 1845, or 545. But the uniqueness of these challenges, such as how culture is to be formed or reclaimed in the digital age, leaves us yet with an unchanged nature.
Among the unchanging truths of human nature: we are cultural beings. There has never been a time nor a place in which a human being did not carry some mark of culture—even its absence (say, in a child raised by wolves!), that is, being something distinctly human, visible in its resulting deficiency. But the deficiencies sometimes come not from the absence of culture, but from its own noxious constitution. These noxious cultural vapors are hard to discern when living amidst them. It belongs to the insightful critic, therefore, to give us the perspective from which they can be seen.
Allen Tate (1899–1979)—American poet laureate in 1943, essays, social commentator, brilliant mind and troubled soul—proved himself such an insightful critic time and again. His 1945 essay, “The New Provincialism”, clearly articulates the titular source of a cultural vapor much-thickened in the past 80 years. The term “provincialism” has often been used in criticism of rural thinking. To be “provincial”, it was often said, was to be narrow-minded. The provincial man, in other words, is an unsophisticated bumpkin.
Against the “provincial”, Tate contrasts the “regional”, which he describes as “that consciousness or that habit of men in a given locality which influences them to certain patterns of thought and conduct handed to them by their ancestors. Regionalism is thus limited in space but not in time.” In other words, the regional carries on local tradition. It may carry such traditions on across countless generations. Regionalism focuses not upon the now, but the here. Thereby, it constitutes a cultural place: an innermost boundary within which a culture may be located.
The ”provincial” man, however, as stated above, takes his regional here and extends it into the world, transforming the idiosyncrasy of place into an idiom of time. He becomes “locked in the present”. Do we not hear this all-too-often today? “C’mon, it’s 2023!” Do we not see obtuse historical idiocy trotted out daily?
Our culture today consists little in regional awareness and almost entirely in provincial outlook. We have no place for our cultures. They seem, therefore, to lack solidity, sameness, any transgenerational durability. Buildings across the world look increasingly similar. Dialects disappear. Styles of art—painting, sculpture, music, cinema, one and all—lose their distinctiveness through a flattening refinement of technique and production.
Can we recover any genuine “regionalism” in our modern, hypercommunicative world?
As the Executive Director of an institution founded within the hypercommunicative digital environment, I think often of how our technological tools of culture can be used without contravening the good of our nature. I do not believe regional dissolution follows of necessity from our global communication. But I do think we need better habits of living today, in order that we not lapse forevermore into the “new provincialism”. Come join us (details below) this Wednesday (11/1/2023) to discuss Tate’s essay and the formation of these habits to discover how we might reclaim culture in the digital age.
Philosophical Happy Hour
Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.