In Where the Stress Falls: Essays, Susan Sontag writes that she dreads "the ascendancy of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries" and which has spelt the "undermining of standards of seriousness". Even intellectuals, once prepared to risk themselves for what was right and true, are now addicted to entertainment, reluctant to inconvenience themselves for any cause, and devoted to personal safety. She believes that it is the affliction of sameness, the absence of intellectual friction or counterpoint, that plagues culture. She sees "the devolution of literary ambition and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects" as symptomatic of this retreat from a position of thoughtfulness and the degraded ability to recognise, and desire, greatness and quality in cultural products.
Susan Long presented a paper at the Paris Symposium of ISPSO (International Society for Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations).
She writes: "The second half of the twentieth century produced, at least in the developed countries, an increasingly narcissistic society (Lasch, 1979; Miller, 1999; Lawrence et.al., 1996). This has been commented on by many writers where links to high levels of consumerism and withdrawal into a 'me first' position are seen to have permeated group and organisational life. (...) While socially narcissism indicates a withdrawal from openly collective life and thinking and turns the libidinal instincts in on the self, perversion indicates an exploitative attitude, with the other regarded primarily as an accomplice in the achievement of exploitation. The passage from one state to the another occurs through the purely instrumental relatedness that emerges in narcissistic states of mind. I argue that the culture of private consumerism is based on instrumental relatedness. That is, a relationship where people use one another to gain their own particular ends or fulfil their own specific agendas with little attention to mutual aims or to the quality of the relationship per se (Long, 1999).
“....collectivism is bound to erect barriers to the cultural progress of humanity and to lead in the direction of the ruin if civilization......collectivism implies the formation of an obedient mass with a hierarchy of leaders, which inevitably causes regression among the followers as well as the leaders, resulting in atrophy of mental and spiritual qualities......technological conditions have de-individualized our workaday existence”. Ernst Ferdern. Witnessing Psychoanalysis.
Dumbing Down: Or The Banalisation of Culture
Does it matter and why?
The discussions on this page are only understandable as part of an argument that is developed over the course of the following pages on this site: The Thinning Mainstream, three Evidence pages, two Case Against Pop and Rock pages, and an Opinion page. The snippets on this page should be taken as descriptions, snapshots of selected aspects of culture illustrating the fact of cultural change and a general degradation of culture but making few claims about causation. This issue is left to the end of this page and to the discussions on the pages that follow.
The concept “dumbing down” can point to a variety of different things. It can, for example, mean programming to avoid any intellectual challenge to one's audience (a classical music radio station that plays individual movements, or no contemporary music, no or little vocal music, etc.). It is a term that is also commonly used used to criticise attempts to reach a wider audience through some kind of presentation gimmicks (laser light shows to accompany classical music, crossover pop/classical shows such as the Three tenors, Andrea Bocelli, etc.) The concept always involves a claim about the simplification of culture, education, and thought, a decline in creativity and innovation, a failure to establish appropriate artistic, cultural, and intellectual standards, or even to uphold the legitimacy of the idea of a standard, and the trivialisation of cultural, artistic, and academic products.
In fact, the evidence for “dumbing down” is everywhere: newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip, pictures of scantily dressed young ladies, and football; television has replaced high-quality drama with gardening, cookery, and other “lifestyle” programmes; bonkbusters have taken over the publishing world and pop cd’s and internet connections have taken over the libraries. In the dumbed-down world of reality TV and asinine soaps, the masses live in a perpetual present occupied by celebrity culture, fashion, a TV culture of diminished quality and range, an idealisation of mediocrity, and pop videos and brands. Speed and immediacy are the great imperatives, meaning that complex ideas are reduced to sound bites, high culture is represented by The Three Tenors and J K Rowling, people spend their spare time reading text messages instead of Dostoevsky, and listening to rap bands rather than Bartok and Stravinsky. A culture that values Footballers' Wives more than Frescobaldi or Flaubert is being enthusiastically promoted as democratic and “anti-elitist” leading to the dumbing-down of culture into nothing more than a footnote to market-dominated consumer culture and a poverty of thought and expression.
For the average teenager, what we might call mainstream European culture - Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven, philosophy, linguistics, Dickens, analytical thought, Dostoevsky, Voltaire, musical and literary reaction history and their connections with culture - are alien and unknown because popular culture is exclusive, voracious, uncompromising and self-generating. Postmodernism has elevated 'Dr Who', Wallace and Grommet and Eastenders into classics of equal if not greater apparent value than E M Forster, Schubert and Watteau.
Substitutions for the word “cool”: eloquent, apropos, lyrical, sumptuous, canny, perceptive, fluent, scintillating, apt, majestic, consequential, resplendent, captivating, august, really cool...
Commentators have expressed concern about the media's potential for diminishing the quality of our culture for many years. For example, Regis Debray's Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France (1981), is a powerful polemic against the 'media cycle', which, from 1968 onwards, has reduced intellectual thought to bite-sized morsels of fast food. Hannah Arendt in her influential essay 'The Crisis in Culture', published in 1961, was particularly concerned that a market-driven media would lead to the displacement of culture by the dictates of entertainment. The media has increasingly neglected it’s responsibility to provide people with what they need to know in order to better not only their own lives, but society as a whole, in favour of blowing up out of all proportion the trivial, the voyeuristic, and the sensational. Giving people what they want is not necessarily a good idea when they choose to turn away from knowledge and issues that are important and that actually have a major impact on our lives and instead retreat into fantasy and make-believe.
Social critics have deplored Dumbing Down processes and have excoriated the objectives of education oriented toward encouraging egalitarianism in place of excellence, self-esteem in place of real achievement, or pandering in place of discriminating. Such critiques hark back to Plato's, Cicero's, and Horace's criticisms of democracy or Juvenal's comments about "bread and circuses". They recall Toqueville's critique of egalitarianism, Nietzsche's contempt for the popular adulation of Wagner, Le Bon's cautions on the psychology of the crowd, Goethe's criticisms of public taste, Matthew Arnold's call for "the best that has been thought and known in the world," or T. S. Eliot's defence of "the tradition". Similar views have informed Veblen's attack on conspicuous consumption, as well as the analysis by the Frankfurt School of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Benjamin about mass-produced culture. Comparable aversion to the sensationalising, commercialising, and falsifying role of the carnivalesque as analysed by Bakhtin and epitomised by P. T. Barnum have influenced Ortega Y Gasset's book on The Revolt of the Masses; Greenberg's derogation of "kitsch"; and Macdonald's objections to "Masscult" and "Midcult." Recognition of the newly emerging "Culture of Consumption" and of the roles played by marketing, the mass media, and advertising in shaping the required consumption-oriented consciousness have prompted Boorstin's, DeBord's, Lasch's, Smith's, Postman's, and Ewen's analysis on the ascendancy of the image (surface, spectacle, style, surrogate) over reality (substance, content, depth, grounding) in our media today.
It is beyond dispute that there has been a profound change in our cultural and historical reference points in the past thirty or forty years, and this has accelerated in more recent years. In part, this represents the triumph of the Americanisation of culture: film and music more than the other art forms show the dominance of American influences and attitudes and these are part of the new dominance of popular culture that have increasingly defined the only, and delimited, cultural horizons of the young, the horizons of an increasingly culturally uneducated and challenged youth. The Americanisation of culture has increasingly extended beyond these limits of age and also country to become an influence that has displaced and destroyed other alternative cultural influences. What we see today in our cultural landscape is a uniform consumerist whole that has been partly manufactured by the mass media and business interests and also by the privileging of monetary and capitalist structures and influences, but that importantly arises logically and inevitably from the wholesale dismantling of previously existent social and cultural inhibitions and prohibitions on the expression of narcissistic, individualistic, and selfish desires. The replacement of high art and authentic folk culture by tasteless industrialised artefacts produced on a mass scale in order to satisfy the lowest common denominator has occurred. Mass culture, in important ways, represents the cultural equivalent of the politics of mob rule, of democracy run amok. Consumerism and commercialism are merely one aspect of more general social forces that serve to generate and perpetuate the cultural matrix that I attempt to describe below.
Postmodernism's intellectual assumptions have also infected educational philosophy and technique producing an educational dumbing down. Ideas such as that truth is a matter of opinion, there is no real world outside of language and hence no facts independent of our descriptions of them, render postmodernist assumptions entirely inappropriate as a teaching tool in an era of information excess and complexity. When it comes to the facts about events, there is truth and there is falsehood and we need to be able to distinguish between the two. It appears that there is a contemporary confusion that a justifiable desire to avoid imposing one point of view on others requires a wholesale rejection of the idea of truth and an unwillingness to take up a position. Nor are students well enough acquainted with their own cultural traditions for teachers to justify dumbing down the school curriculum by treating all forms of communication (literature, films, E-mails and even conversations) as texts equally worthy of their attention so that King Lear is the pedagogical equivalent of King Kong.
To take one aspect of these changes: our mass entertainment culture has been best at spreading materialistic egalitarianism but in so doing it has undermined old values and authority, and it has led to a homogenisation and degradation of knowledge and cultural literacy. All too often, 'I blame the media' has served as an all-purpose explanation for disintegrative trends in culture and society. This is not entirely my view, however, since I see the mass media as part cause and part reflection of the demise of Western cultural standards.
At the very least, knowledge gives the power to say no and the ability to give reasons for the rejection. The new cultural amnesiac is marooned on an island where only the ephemeral and evanescent matters and there are no signposts to a wider world. On this island discriminatory powers fail and it is then possible for charlatans and the manipulators of common taste to gain power and influence. The act of thought must be severely restricted by limited access to knowledge, a narrow vocabulary, and limited perspectives on the world. "Discrimination," every anti-elitist tells us, is a bad thing, subversive, and elitist. But the whole point of an education used to be to teach discrimination, to get students to discriminate between good art and bad, good writing and bad, sound science and bad. The dictionary, in fact, defines appreciation, first, as "judgment, evaluation . . . critical estimate"; second, as "sensitive awareness . . . recognition of aesthetic values"; and, only third, as "an expression of admiration, approval, or gratitude. The new populist tendency to aim education at the lowest common denominator; to teach misplaced egalitarianism in the service of unmerited self-esteem; or to encourage attitudes toward aesthetic appreciation that, by failing to discriminate, grant equal but undeserved artistic stature to all works of art and entertainment, fails the student and society in general. However, we live in a cultural climate that is against standards and against judgment so that the worst insult you can offer someone is to suggest that he or she is judgmental.
The bogus, the derivative, and the flashy and gaudy now catch the attention of the mass, who, sans sense, are captive to a superficiality of response based on degraded attentional abilities and the need for familiarity and sameness. A nationalised, homogenised culture has been created in the past few generations, moving from a partially commercialised popular culture and evolving into a more fully commodified mass culture, and leading to the creation of a current generation whose minds are more empty than open. The sources of this full-fledged mass culture emerged after the Second World War and have led to the concentration of mass-culture power in ever larger global media conglomerates.
There are no great figures in this contemporary world: where are the Beethoven’s, the Tolstoy’s, the Freud’s? Instead, there is froth and frantic ferment all around, a tidal wave of vapidity. Despite the benefits promised by high technology and mass education and communications, there seems to be a distinct lack of real creativity. Instead, we see only a lacklustre globalised homogeneity, and cultural standardisation across the world.
Our concern must lie increasingly with younger generations who, in their private lives, are not being supplied with enough resources by their upbringing and education to develop a sophisticated internal life.
'Dumbing Down? Publishing, the Media and the Internet'
The Decline and Fall of Literature
Richard Hoggart. The Uses of Literacy.
This book was first published in 1957 and was the earliest, and most effective, attempt to understand changes in British culture caused by “massification”. In it Hoggart argues that the appeals made by what he calls “the mass publicists” were made “more insistently, effectively and in a more comprehensive and centralised form today than they were earlier; that we are moving towards the creation of a mass culture, that the remnants of what was at least in part an urban culture “of the people” are being destroyed”. He examined cheap novels and magazines, popular newspapers and post war cinema and detected drift in all areas. The old, close, tightly knit working class culture was breaking up. In its place was emerging a mass culture composed of tabloid newspapers, the ascendency of media Barons such as Rupert Murdoch, advertising, and Hollywood. These forces colonised localities and robbed them of any distictiveness, being external to that which they dominated. His critique is not of popular culture, but of mass culture, which he distinguishes from popular culture as something that is imposed on the population from above. The value of “popular culture” is that it is self-created and so has a fundamental integrity, it is broadly sui generis, evolving according to its own laws and dictates rather than at the promptings of the mass media.
We must wonder whether, in this definition, there is any popular culture left, eliminated by the mass culture that has replaced it. In fact, all that Hoggart predicted has happened with speed and depravity. We live in an identikit world defined by the sameness of our high streets, the values we import from the media, and our patterns of behaviour and relating. As mass culture develops, propelled by new technologies, the profit ethic and the push for market share, and the manipulated tastes of individuals, we must wonder where it will take us next.
This book charts the havok wreaked on English popular culture - the culture devised by ordinary people for themselves - by the mass culture imposed on them from above in the second half of the last century. Hogart writes, “These productions belong to a vicarious spectators world; they offer nothing which can really grip the brain or heart. They assist a gradual drying-up of the more positive, the fuller, the more cooperative kinds of enjoyment, in which one gains much by giving much. They have intolerable pretensions; and pander to the wish to have things both ways, to do as we want and accept no consequences”.
This book is ultimately a defence of individual freedom and integrity in the face of the centralising tendencies of the machine age that reduces culture to stereotyped commodities.
“I took down from my shelves the other day, perhaps 20 years after I first read it, one of the most moving and important books of social commentary I know: The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart. With profound humanity as well as with severe intelligence, Professor Hoggart writes of his upbringing in great poverty in Leeds in the 1920s and 1930s, and how he was liberated from it by education. It is a book that unashamedly teems with elitism and seeks no favours. It was founded on an assumption that the state would educate children from the humblest backgrounds to a point where they would not merely be schooled, but civilised. Prof Hoggart, who wrote as a socialist argued the importance of making these benefits more widely available. It was Culture and Anarchy for the working classes, written not by a son of Arnold of Rugby, but by a child of the slums of Hunslet. It is an ambition that, 50 years later and through no fault of the professor, has entirely failed”. Simon Heffer.
The Culture of Selling
How has this occurred? We might look towards the advertising industry to provide a case study that is illustrative of more widespread and general cultural factors that have created a psycho-sociological system of desire, need, and wants and an internal psychological make-up that tends towards the narcissistic. Advertising, as it is described below, should be taken to be only one of the forces that has produced our contemporary cultural climate, but it can be seen as a Weberian "ideal type", and therefore illustrative of some of the influences that have produced cultural change over the past forty years or so.
Advertising is seductive because it bases itself on the evocation of desire, and it deploys every technique and every ideology towards this end. It serves a machinery that that is rooted in capital, the market, commercialism and consumerism, and propagandises for these ideologies in an indirect and tangential fashion that is dangerous because it is not obvious and because it bends every alternative message and ideology towards its own purposes and incorporates them within its own universe.
Marcuse thought that advertising creates a climate within which "luxuries have become necessities that men and women alike must acquire lest they lose their status, whether on the competitive market, at work or in their leisure activities. This leads to the perpetuation of existence’s given over to alienating and dehumanising practices and the need to find jobs that propagate enslavement and its attendant system".
Advertising is all about the manipulation of human beings. It responds to people only inasmuch as they are consumers, and its relationship to its audience is based on valuing them only in so far as they are able to consume. These values and perceptions then enter the culture and influence people's day to day life, their relationships and values. There is no question that advertising is hugely successful but in a way that is not generally understood: it has made the values, and valuing, of consumption and possessing ever more and grander consumables, not necessarily with any effort, the indication of social success. Advertising emphasises pleasure and gratification rather than restraint and repression. It has created, together with other social forces, an expectation of entitlement, and an increasing intolerance of frustration and any delayed gratification, that now pervades the culture. Thus, it values change for changes sake, superficial, surface, and showy change, rather than any deeper move towards maturity or integration. These are the traits of narcissism in the individual which can also be said to characterise a culture or society.
Additional Note, December 2003.
Ask many people in Britain today and they will cheerfully say that they would like to hang Ian Huntley, some will even say that they are willing to do this themselves. Most of these people will also say that their main reason is that he should be murdered by the state because it costs too much to the taxpayer to keep him in prison.
Is this thinking the product of consumerist ideology and twenty years of unchallenged Thatcherism in which the ultimate values seem to be based on selfishness and cost and hang the idea of ethical principles? Or have these primitive tendencies always been possibilities in society, just waiting for an opportunity to become overt? Perhaps thirty years ago someone would have been ashamed to make an argument on the basis of cost, and for good reason: because where do we draw the line if we set out out on this course? Will we kill the long term unemployed, those unable to work because of long term illness, the mentally handicapped, the gypsies, the vagrants, all criminals, perhaps even the stock market millionaires, or even those we choose not to like? If it is only money that has value we lose all sense of human values, ethics and the things that stop us from acting on the basis of feelings alone: in short, the things that separate us from other species.
In Defense of Elitism. William A. Henry. Anchor. 1995.
Henry argues that devotion to the largely unexamined myth of egalitarianism lies at the heart of the ongoing "dumbing of America." He debunks some basic, fundamentally ingrained ideas: that everyone is pretty much alike (and should be); that self-fulfillment is more important than objective achievement; that everyone has something significant to contribute; that all cultures offer something equally worthwhile; that a truly just society would automatically produce equal success results across lines of race, class, and gender; and that the common man is almost always right. Henry makes clear, in a book full of vivid examples and unflinching opinions, that while these notions are seductively democratic they are also hopelessly wrong.
In his view, egalitarianism has triumphed over elitism, thereby eliminating the creative tension between the two that fuels progress in American society and culture. To quote him, "the positive side of egalitarianism, the will to tolerance, [must be] coupled with the positive side of elitism, the intellectual suppleness to tolerate and accept diverse elements in society while holding firmly to one's own values'" to sustain the balance. With no check on its egalitarian tendencies, American culture loses the capacity to distinguish or to judge among alternatives.
Additional Note, April 2004.
A recent YouGov poll suggested that one in six voters would be prepared to support the British National party. This is apparently one product of the misinformation and gutter populism that has re-infected the tabloid press over the previous year in relation to asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. The facts are clearly, when they are dispassionately examined, that Britain benefits from high numbers of foreign workers and this is so for a number of substantial reasons.
The public is only able to be deceived in such numbers because of the low standard of public debate and knowledge. The popular press has become increasingly right wing and crude in their coverage, and there is little real news or information that is not delivered as an entertainment or titilation, or that is not intended to reinforce popular prejudice or belief because this will sell the product. TV has also followed these fashions. The result of this substandard level of public information and knowledge is that reactionary and primitive forces are then able to play on and reinforce fears, prejudice, scapegoating processes, paranoia, and aggression. We live in dangerous times.
Individuals from other countries are frequently unable to comprehend the pernicious influence of the press in Britain simply because the press in other states behave in a more civilised manner or have less impact because they are localised and are controlled by more than a handful of press magnates. The tabloid press in Britain is unrestrained and is hugely influential. It distorts perceptions and knowledge by focusing on the lowest common denominator, reinforcing popular fears, misconceptions and prejudices, it appeals to gutter xenophobia, and it inflames and ignites common large group anxieties and issues about “the other”. It is amoral because its prime interest is on slanting news to sell newspapers. Two recent examples are the coverage of the asylum issue from 2002-2004 and the case of Maxine Carr. A more longstanding issue is the encouragement of a gross ignorance about Europe by the popular press which has played on ignorance, zenophobia, and prejudice to the advantage of extreme political influences. The evidence for this? To take only one example, a YouGov poll carried out by the Sunday Times and published in June 2004. According to this survey, British voters in a referendum would reject the constitution agreed by the 25 EU nations in the previous week by more than two to one - 49% voting no to 23% voting yes - a margin confirmed by a separate ICM poll. Then, though, YouGov asked the voters what they actually knew about the constitution. Here the results produced a remarkable picture of widespread ignorance. Many people believed, for instance, that the constitution gave the EU immediate power to increase taxes in Britain - a wholly unfounded belief. Many also feared that the British passport would be replaced by an EU one - wholly wrong again. A majority thought that it compels Britain to join the eurozone - not true either. Many thought that the constitution gave the EU power to prevent Britain from waging a war, or that an EU representative would now take Britain's place on the United Nations security council - wrong and wrong again. Many voters obviously thought that the constitution was something altogether more threatening and invasive than it actually is. This is a triumph for the propaganda and misinformation of the tabloid press. But it is also a reflection of the power of the press to form public opinion. Referendums, in this climate, only give unelected media owners the power to destabilise elected governments of which they disapprove.
Despite globalisation, Britain is becoming ever more parochial, provincial, and “Little Englandish”. There is less and less foreign news coverage in the newspapers, and even in the broadsheets there is less and less space devoted to world news. TV coverage is even worse. The Independent Television Commission reported in 2002 that current affairs on terrestrial channels had been cut by 50% and foreign coverage was the most affected. Additionally, fewer and fewer people are learning foreign languages and coming directly into contact with other cultures. The lack of knowledge and understanding of political issues, global and world issues, and of other societies and cultures is creating lacunae of ignorance and emptiness in the minds of individuals that can easily be filled with the half-baked, the prejudiced, and the superstitious. This situation, from all the evidence, is worsening year by year.
The “dumbing down” of the population explored in these pages leading to individuals possessing less knowledge and narrowed perspectives and understandings enables the press and other individuals and institutions to have a much greater influence. This is potentially dangerous for society and for democracy.
All Must Have Prizes. Melanie Phillips. (1998). Warner.
British education is in a state of "meltdown". Throughout the system, from nursery classes to degree courses, the relationship between teacher and pupil has been undermined, and the idea that children should be taught a body of rules at all, whether in maths or grammar, is now taboo in many schools. Systematic instruction has given way to approximations and guesswork, resulting in a rising tide of illiteracy. All Must Have Prizes presents the inside story of a social debacle. The collapse of education is not viewed in isolation; at the heart of the problem, claims Melanie Phillips, lies cultural and moral relativism, the doctrine that no values can be judged to be any better or worse than any others. She regards the primary effect of this, particularly in the last 20 years, to be the collapse of the authority of institutions. Sounding a warning, she offers a blueprint to restore authority and meaning to society. Phillips looks firstly at different areas in the education system, examining the erosion of literacy, numeracy, language teaching and science. In the second half of the book, she looks more widely at society, tracing the changes that have produced this breakdown. Phillips won the Orwell Prize in 1996.
The BBC governors have embraced the free market and set the BBC on a course of terminal decline.... The high ground policy smells alarmingly like programming by prescription - the enemy of all good works in my experience. Michael Grade, the 1992 MacTaggart Lecture.
Since the 1960's the quality of British TV output has been increasingly diluted (see “Evidence” page for more information). The BBC's libraries, for example, have been dispersed, it's orchestras threatened, and it's defining purpose of educating and improving has been largely lost. There has been a deliberate attack on good spoken English and literacy - an impoverished language is the outcome, as if the audience is only able to take in simple concepts in simple language, the snippets of speech perhaps broken up with pop music to allow the audience a break of attention so that the task of listening is not too arduous. There has been a relentless pursuit of populism and ratings, and the outcome is that TV plays to the lowest common denominator. In a land where "The Sun" is the newspaper that sells more copies than any other newspaper, TV is becoming increasingly tabloid-oriented. The low, and declining, profile of opera, ballet, music, theatre, world cinema, and the arts generally, is a sign of declining standards.
“Radio Times” is just one example of how the values and the focus of the BBC has changed. For example, in the 7-13 September 2002 edition there are seven pages highlighting pop music - four pages (more pages than any other article) covering the 2,000th edition of that tacky programme “Top of the Pops”, two pages on an interview with a minor pop figure who will be forgotten in twenty years time, and one further page with the title “Sex and Bopping”. The front cover highlights the Top of the Pops anniversary. This issue appeared only weeks after a front-cover feature on Elvis Presley and a similar coverage of this aspect of pop culture in the magazine.
When we turn to the radio pages we find a similar pop music domination. Highlighted choices feature two pop music programmes on Radio 2. The only programme highlighted as a choice on Radio 3 is yet another pop music programme, one of those recent late-night imports to the station that have resulted in massive dumbing down of the station. This is despite the fact that the most important classical music festival in Britain, the Proms, was being broadcast live every day and there were concerts such as Haitink conducting Bruckner, Oramo conducting Neilson, Christophers conducting Handel’s Samson, and so on. Also neglected were plays and features on the arts and culture both on Radio 3 and on other radio and TV channels. The inexplicable decision to withdraw listings of Artsworld (the digital channel covering the arts and culture) from Radio Times seems part of a wholesale neglect of the arts in this magazine. The week I have selected is typical of the focus and coverage of the Radio Times. Width and depth of coverage is increasingly sacrificed to the one criteria of populism.
It is difficult not to reach the conclusion that there is an active downgrading of serious music, art and culture on the pages of Radio Times - this is not just neglect but something entirely motivated and intentional, a wilful exclusion. Serious art and culture has been increasingly marginalised in the pages of Radio Times. It is also clear that there has been a general deterioration in the coverage of more serious programming, such as documentaries and political programmes, and until fairly recent times there was a more even balance between the popular and the serious than exists today. Why has this change occurred?
The Culture of Narcissism. Christopher Lasch.
“The culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, and the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.”
Lasch looked at the contemporary individual and found him or her peering into a mirror, anxiously rating the figure staring back at him and wondering how to combat the inexplicable emptiness felt. As for the causes of this new narcissism, Lasch placed the blame on “quite specific changes in our society and culture — from bureaucracy, the proliferation of images, therapeutic ideologies, the rationalisation of the inner life, the cult of consumption, and in the last analysis from changes in family life and from changing patterns of socialisation.”
The book challenged many of the core assumptions blithely accepted as facts at the time: that human beings would continue to devise more sophisticated means of controlling nature and its effects (such as ageing) through technology and science, and that these would bring inordinately positive results; that democracies inevitably continue to progress in their development rather than stall or regress; that extremes of individualism and secularism would free people from the supposedly restrictive confines of family, religious, social, and political obligation.
Lasch argues that, in the twentieth century, “character” gave way to “personality” and and others such as Richard Sennett and Anthony Giddens argued, then in the twenty-first century “personality” exists only if it is broadcast, rated, praised and consumed by as many people as possible — put on display for strangers as well as intimates.
“The media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the ‘herd.’”
“The only important attribute of celebrity is that it is celebrated; no one can say why.”
It is important to say that Radio Times is just one example of a more general downgrading of serious programming in favour of the glitzy, the superficial, and the popular. Terrestrial TV has markedly declined in quality in recent years and seems to be pursuing the goal of increasingly imitating the commercial channels. There has been a “tabloidisation” of the media, a running after ratings by becoming ever more popular, sensationalist, and superficial. In the case of Radio Times the ambition appears to be to compete with TV Times, the tabloidy and downmarket equivalent of the old Radio Times. Sales and ratings are everything and the BBC seems to have lost its old ambition of educating, challenging, stretching its audience, and upholding quality and depth of presentation.
To my mind, this undermines the central argument of the BBC for public funding. If the BBC does nothing different from commercial TV and radio why should the public fund it? If it does not clearly serve a public good that is any different from the goals pursued by the commercial broadcasters why should it be treated and managed any differently? I did not think that I would ever reach this position, but the increasing commercialisation of the BBC seems to make such thoughts and conclusions inevitable.
Dumbing Down the News nooze.blogspot.com/
Dumbing Down the Audience
Concerns over television and its contents are not new, as evidenced by a letter signed by 110 teachers, psychologists, children's authors and other experts and published on September 12th 2006 by the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.
The experts expressed concern over a number of issues affecting children, including the education system and junk food, but they also commented that too often children are "exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past."
"We are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children's behavioural and developmental conditions," the letter stated.
The experts also suggested that television itself could be harmful. The letter says that in order for children's brains to properly develop they need real play, instead of "sedentary, screen-based entertainment," together with "first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives."
And in January 2007 Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist, warned that state schools risk jeopardising children's progress by allowing them to watch TV in class for educational purposes. He found that private schools were more likely to concentrate on helping pupils get to grips with reading & contributing in discussion groups. State school children are falling behind fee-paying pupils because they are learning from television & computers instead of books, he claims.
Mediated : How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. Thomas de Zengotita.
In this book de Zengotita argues, in common with Frankurt school thinkers, that the media age has crushed any area of authenticity and spontaneity. The result is action, speech, language, posture, thought, and emotion based on cliche. A media-saturated culture has created a new population of narcissists, self-absorbed, obsessed with flattery and undeserved strokes to self-esteem, and -bent on the creation of a perverse sense of celebrity. Our lives are mediated (that is, seen through the lens of various media) to such an extent that we experience reality in a completely artificial way. This makes us resemble method actors always immersed in our roles. Thus, we have lost any sense of quality or greatness. His concept of “performance habitualities” shapes his arguments, tellingly illustrated by his view of the populist word “like”, increasingly used in teenage culture:
“Each "like" is followed by a fleeting pose, held for just an instant -- the whole performance is a string of "takes" -- and the ends of key phrases curl up into questions, seeking audience indications that the visuals have been received: a silent and subliminal call-and-response sort of thing, and woe betide the clunky wannabe who can't follow the nuances, who can't improvise a version of her own... Among such girls, the interrogatory incantation takes on a tentative tone, a tone that reaches perpetually for reassurance...”
“Is there anything you do that remains essentially unmediated, anything you don’t experience reflexively through some commodified representation of it? Birth? Marriage? Illness?” he writes. “Think of all the movies and memoirs, philosophies and techniques, self-help books, counsellors, programs, presentations, workshops. Think of the fashionable vocabularies generated by those venues, and think of how all this conditions your experience.”
Even the quality press has dumbed down over the past 20 or so years. Pre-Murdoch, the quality press would not have stooped to place photographs of pop singers on the front page - these days it is not unusual. It is apparent that there is also less emphasis and effort devoted to foreign news and less genuine investigative reporting together with much more of the kind of prying invasion of privacy that used to be confined to the tabloids. The tone of these newspapers has moved away from serious coverage of issues in depth and away from serious culture towards froth, superficiality, and entertainment.
We slide ever closer to a cultural abyss filled with trash and nothing but trash...Whichever theory one buys, we ordinary citizens are not held responsible [by the critics of culture] for devouring trash the way we do. We are either too malleable or too stupid to be accountable-malleable because we supposedly spend our money on things we really don't like; stupid because we supposedly like things we really shouldn't.
But if malleability and stupidity are the reigning theories of trash culture, it is probably because cultural critics find them preferable to the alternative. The alternative is that Americans have deliberately chosen the vulgar, the profane, the insipid, . . . [This excess of media trash] is a sobering exercise in democracy. Neal Gabler, The Democratic Spirit's Romance with Trash.
Mass culture offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience, for these demand effort. Dwight Macdonald.
The Deliberate Dumbing Down Of America
Free E Book Download of the full text.
Theatre and Music
A recent visit to Prague and Brno highlighted the cultural differences between Britain and the continent. At least half of the audience of a Christmas Day performance of the ballet, The Nutcracker, were children. They were well behaved, quiet, interested and attentive, and they were obviously well used to going to the theatre, in the culture of theatregoing, as it were. Later, in Prague, I attended performances of The Bartered Bride, Libuse, The Barber of Seville, and a Verdi opera. There were children in the audience at each performance, more so for the Bartered Bride, but there were children and teenagers present even at the performance of Libuse, a serious opera aimed at an adult audience. At each performance I was amazed that these children and teenagers maintained attention and interest, they showed no restlessness or boredom, and they were extremely well behaved. Although I am talking here about opera, the above is also typical of theatre going in general. A visit to Poland some years ago yielded a very similar picture.
Contrast this with Britain where the expectation of adults is that children will be unable to cope with a theatre performance unless it is a pantomime, where they can be disinhibited, or a production aimed at a young audience, preferably with TV personalities as actors and liberally sugared with pop muzak. And any visit to a pantomime will yield many examples of children displaying boredom and a lack of attention. Even university students may lack the capacity to pay attention in the theatre: at a recent performance of Sheridan’s “The Rivals” a group of students talked throughout the performance and their main interest appeared to be focused on their conversation rather than on the performance. This behaviour, perhaps generalised from their visits to the cinema, seems to be increasing in frequency and popularity in the young. What was noticeable was their lack of real interest in the procedings onstage, their inability to concentrate and direct their attention, and their lack of regard towards other audience members. Children and teenagers are notable by their absence in the opera house and they are neither expected to attend nor encouraged to do so. Theatre going is not part of the culture of children, even in middle class households, in the way it is in Eastern Europe and perhaps in other continental countries.
This seems to be typical of our general attitude to the arts - that they are difficult and outside the mainstream. There is also a pervasive attitude of pride in philistinism and a lack of interest in culture as if rejecting the arts and culture is a sign of good taste or even normality. This is very sad but, more seriously, it leaves us behind as a society in not being able to compete with the international market in high arts and culture.
Social Pathology: the Deeper Level of Dumbing Down
There seems a remarkable degree of consensus on a definition of today's social evils. Individualism is top, closely linked to greed and the decline in community; also part of the definition is a sense of decline in values and a deterioration of virtues such as honesty, empathy, respect and reciprocity. Family breakdown and poor parenting feature, as do misuse of drugs and alcohol, inequality and democratic deficit.
There have been many research findings, over the past 10 years since the late 1990’s that confirm these findings: a 2007 study claimed that 83% of the UK public felt the country was in moral decline. Recently, the European Social Survey claimed that British under-25s have less trust or sense of belonging than in any other country; it was only the more positive attitudes of older age groups – those over 50 – that ensured that Britain didn't bump to the bottom of the index below Bulgaria and Slovakia.
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. K. Marx. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848.
Neo-liberal iideology is probably partly to blame for these changes in society and personal relationships, based as it is on the doctrine of individual utility-maximization leading to an explosion of unrestrained selfishness. So is consumer-capitalism and the “entertainment” focus of the media. The vast business of selling to which huge sums are devoted; the decline of communal experience as we have become atomised consumers sitting in front of our screens; mirrored by a decline in political engagement as problems become individual rather than afflicting groups. Our lives are now almost entirely mediated and played back to us; we no longer experience the world directly, it is presented to us as a representation. This is a recipe for the psychological phenomenon of dissociation.
Social and literary critics have identified our age as post-industrial, postmodern, and post-literate (among many other labels). But we are actually undergoing a metamorphosis much more sweeping and all-inclusive than these terms imply; ours is a post-intellectual era. We are experiencing a cultural transformation that is reversing four hundred years of intellectual evolution. Post-Intellectualism and the Decline of Democracy: The Failure of Reason and Responsibility in the Twentieth Century. Donald N. Wood.
"What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish." W. H. Auden.
I have found a deterioration in the capacity of students to use language. Just the papers I get require more work on my part. Imprecise writing. There's a laziness too. A kind of disconnect between the mind and the words.
So the capacity to articulate what's in your mind has declined. I just think, even though more people attend school for longer than ever, that people are not as well educated as they once were. We teach them not how to swim, but how to get along in the pool. We teach social and political things well enough. But we still don't know how to read and count. Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theatre and professor of English at Harvard.
Ours is the age of substitutes: Instead of language we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; and instead of genuine ideas, bright suggestions. Eric Bentley.
Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitely exalted and influenced by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov. Susan Sontag.
The television screens may be bright and our comfortable homes may be warm; but outside it is beginning to grow dark and cold. William Lederer A Nation of Sheep.
Never overestimate the intelligence of the public. Don Simpson, Hollywood Producer.
Trash Culture is specifically British. It is the mainstream culture across all of the central lands of the United Kingdom. It is characterised by binge drinking, smoking, stupidity, the active hatred of intelligence & responsible behaviour, fashion-conscious youths, ignorant uneducated adults, misbehaviour at school, petty crime, organised crime, violence, homophobia, racism and xenophobia. Its two main facilitators are peer pressure, trashy tabloids such as The Sun and uneducated, irresponsible parenting. An important element of trash culture is its self-promulgation. All the individual elements of it encourage all the others. Trash Culture in the UK. Vexen Crabtree, 2004.
There is an additional problem, created by contemporary political thinking. Nothing could be more patronising than to decide for our young people that some art is "too highbrow" for them, perhaps because of their ethnic background or an unpromising urban environment. Yet that is exactly the thinking behind recent drives to orientate the GCSE syllabus towards music to which children can "relate". Which really means that we should abandon the attempt to teach, to challenge, to question, and to stretch minds and imaginations in favour of presenting children with what is already known from their already prevalent exposure to commercialised mass media. Few would seriously suggest that we should stuff our children with sweets or chips at every meal. This suggestion would rightly, in an adult world, be considered ludicrous.
What can be done? It seems to me that we need to start with children. Education is a beginning but we also have to get children into the theatres, the opera house, the ballet, the concert hall, and the art gallery. Why don’t opera houses, for example, offer very cheap seats to children? How else can we build an audience? There is also, however, the more difficult issue of the ingrained anti-culturalism of the British and their perverse pride in their cultural illiteracy. It seems to me that, in order to change this status quo, we must not only reorganise our educational system toward teaching stricter standards of production and appreciation in music, in the arts more generally, and in other areas of culture. We must also help to cultivate habits of scrutinising the insidious populist propaganda that surrounds us constantly and so becomes part of unthinking assumptions about quality and creativity.
George Walden. The New Elites: Making a Career in the Masses (Allen Lane, 2000).
In this book Walden writes about the damage wrought by populism, consisting partly in a lowering of standards, partly in a blurring of distinctions, both carried out with the arrogant elitism of the anti-elite. To the extent that "anti-elitism is a euphemism for resentment of excellence, everyone will lose."
“Access has come to mean lowering intellectual as well as other barriers, and, as cultural condescension has become official policy, pissing on the masses -- smilingly, as if dispensing champagne - is now standard practice among persons of authority in the arts.... Under New Labour, a kind of intellectual soft porn has come to permeate the ether, which makes it possible for a BBC arts correspondent to declare... that a photo-montage in a department store by Sam Taylor-Wood bears comparison with the works of the Renaissance because Renaissance patrons, too, commissioned large works for public places”.
Film is a good example of the values that have come to dominate the production of art in contemporary times, partly because of the increasing dominance of commercialisation and money in this arena, and partly because of the increasing dominance of Hollywood culture and values in film production. It should be understood that, in what follows, I am talking about dominant trends in the production of new films, and this critique excludes a relatively small, and sadly diminishing, proportion of films that seek to produce something of greater complexity and thoughtfulness. It is an “ideal type” characterisation, from which specific films may differ.
In the past, then, there was generally more emphasis on working with a good narrative and script: the focus was more on the quality of narrative, the focus on character and relationships, and the quality of writing and dialogue (see, for example, the Hollywood film noir’s of the 1940’s, 12 Angry Men, Citizan Kane, etc. etc. etc.). These emphases have now changed: quality of writing is no longer the main priority, and this has subverted the consistency, complexity and believability of narrative, character, and interrelationships between characters in film. The primary foci in film production now tends to be different: a focus on shock-value and superficial thrill, and increasingly plot is subservient to special effects to the extent that the screenplay often appears to be an afterthought and only the thinnest and flimsiest structure on which to hang the all important special effects. In the new film world the audience is increasingly often invited to gratify their more basic instincts of aggression, revenge, violence, greed, etc., to the detriment of any complexity of plot or character, or any interest in anything that is not merely black or white. The target audience of Hollywood film has also changed, in increasingly many cases, from those past adolescence to productions aimed at the teenage market. Film culture is becoming less mature.
It would be interesting to carry out an analysis of the complexity of characterisation, plot, dialogue, narrative, and relationships in an average film of fifty years ago and and an average film of today - my expectation would be that all of these qualities have suffered a decline in complexity and richness. Today, plots often seem simplistic, a standardised template taken from the shelf, and dialogue is minimal. The idea of depth disappears in the face of this relentless preoccupation with surface. This has something to do with the distancing of film from the world of theatre - the links were dynamic and recent in the 1950’s, and this meant that the emphasis on language, character, dialogue, plot, was at the forefront. The language and skill of characterisation of Shakespeare was a significant influence. Today, the visual seems to be emphasised to the detriment of other aspects of film. It is as if the whole emphasis of home decor were on the loudness of the colours rather than the textural qualities of material, the artful combination of colour schemes, the layout of the rooms, the comfort of the surroundings, the adequacy of storage facilities, or the safety of children.
I recently had the unpleasant task of viewing "The Hollow Man" at the cinema. This film is all about the special effects: a scientist experiments on himself by swallowing a chemical mixture that finally results in invisibility after stripping him layer by layer, first skin, then muscle, sinew, blood vessel, and finally bone. In this modern day Frankenstein cum Jeckel and Hyde story he turns into a human monster and we are invited to accept the crude and unconvincing point that all of us would resort to immorality and to uninhibited satisfactions of our needs and desires if there were no consequences to our actions and they could remain undetected. In this film the characters are shallow and unconvincing, the dialogue is also simple, unreal, and badly constructed, and the emphasis is on action, standard set-pieces, and the special effects.
The reaction of the (mostly young) audience to this modern-day fairy story was chilling: they cheered and laughed at the scene where the invisible man raped a woman because he could get away with it, as they did with every other incident of violence and aggression (and there were many of them) in the film. The audience were not entirely to blame since the film invited them to view the events in the film in this way. This is, in my view, the main problem of this film: although the "good guys" win, the viewer is really invited to identify with the forces of aggression, greed, and the immediate satisfaction of desire with no thought for the consequences.
I saw this film in Zagreb, Croatia, a country that seems to have been taken over by the products of American culture. American pop music blares from every cafe and shop, and pursues you into the street from the multiplicity of speakers hanging from walls, posts and ledges, and Hollywood films have taken over the cinema. As is the case in most other countries, American culture is creating a world monoculture, and national cultural identities are dissolving in the rush to emulate and copy in a "get rich quick" mentality. The whole world is "tabloid-ifying" itself, defining its cultural horizons by the lowest common denominator of what is most popular and most superficially attractive.
It is worrying that this film is representative of many films produced at this time - the exercise of producing films is frequently cynical, based on profits and turnover, and the final product elevates action and excitement above depth, real relationships and mature values. We should worry about the effect that these films might have on the young in particular: an idealising of aggression, violence, action without thought, etc., in the absence of real depth of characterisation and the lack of any opportunity to identify with complex and fully rounded characters seems to me to be a potentially combustible concoction.
Links about maturity and “real relationships”:
Intimacy Capacity; Representational Structures in Psychopathology; Psychoanalysis and the “Free” Individual; Working with Problems of Narcissism in Entrepreneurial Organizations
Links About Modern Film: The New Protagonists In Modern Film; Examining the Media's Influence
The Popular Adoption Of Lurid Nonsense
“The democratisation of education has accomplished little to justify this faith. It has neither improved popular understanding of modern society, raised the quality of popular culture, nor reduced the gap between wealth and poverty, which remains as wide as ever. On the other hand, it has contributed to the decline of critical thought and the erosion of intellectual standards, forcing us to consider the possibility that mass education, as conservatives have argued all along, is intrinsically incompatible with the maintenance of educational quality.” The Culture of Narcissism. Christopher Lasch. 1979.
Popular culture is a debased, trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the simple spontaneous pleasures. . . . The masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products. MacDonald, in Rosenberg and White, Mass Culture, p. 72.
All mass media in the end alienate people from personal experience and though appearing to offset it, intensify their moral isolation from each other, from reality and from themselves. One may turn to the mass media when lonely or bored. But mass media, once they become a habit, impair the capacity for meaningful experience. . . . The habit feeds on itself, establishing a vicious circle as addictions do. . . . Even the most profound of experiences, articulated too often on the same level (by the media), is reduced to a cliche. . . . They lessen people's capacity to experience life itself. Van den Haag, in Rosenberg and White, Mass Culture, p. 529.
...it is necessary to break through to the central fact that most of our cultural institutions are in the hands of speculators, interested not in the health and growth of the society, but in the quick profits that can be made by exploiting inexperience. Raymond Williams. The Long Revolution.
Our anger is all the greater when we think that among the so-called intellectuals runs the widely held prejudice that the workers' movement and communism are enemies of beauty and art, and that the friend to art in favour of creation and the disinterested contemplation of beauty is supposedly the present regime of merchants greedy for wealth and expliotation, who perform their essential activity by barbarously destroying life and beauty. It is the regime of traffickers who appreciate genius only when it is converted into monetary value, who have raised the forging of masterpieces to a national industry,who have subjugated poetry to their laws of supply and demand. While they artificially 'launch' the literary adventurers, they let first-class artists die of starvation and desperation, those whom 'posterity will avenge since, sooner or later, real values will prevail' (a liberal-aesthetic consolation that absolves grocers, corner-shopkeepers and the officials of public security, exponents of the regime, from the crimes committed against the living creators of beauty.....Antonio Gramsci - 'Communism and Art' (1919)
The traditional cultural values of Western society are degenerating under the influences of corporate politics, the commercialization of culture and the impact of mass media. Society is awakening from its fascination with television entertainment to find itself stripped of tradition, controlled by an oppressive power structure and bound to the credit obligations of a defunct American dream. R. Cronk. Consumerism and the New Capitalism.
“This nation (Britain) is relentlessly childish and dresses 15 years too young for its age; if it has a sense of humour at all, it's one of those terribly whimsical ones that isn't funny, or it's only interested in fart jokes”. Zoe Williams, December 16, 2003, The Guardian.
“The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit.” Carl Sagen.
The man who thinks that “Roses are red and violets are blue” is the equal of a Shakespeare sonnet must be either a fool or an advanced thinker. E. H. Bradley.
The Reith Lectures
What have they done to the Reith Lectures? In the past these lectures were undeniably "serious", the speaker talking for 45 minutes, and taking the trouble to develop a reasoned and often complex argument. This was one of the flagships of the BBC, a symbol that the BBC took seriously its role as a purveyor of high culture. It was an example of thoughtful and demanding programming where the focus was not just on entertainment but on education, improvement, and broadening and stretching the views of its listeners.
This year (2002), the BBC has decided to "update" (which almost always means to cheapen and worsen) these lectures. What does this mean? Well, instead of the speaker delivering them from a studio, speaking directly to the listener, the lecturer trails around the country, delivering each talk to a different audience, and it is now called a “road show”. The lecture itself has been shortened to 20 minutes, as if the BBC feels that a modern audience no longer has the attention span to concentrate on a sustained argument for a longer period of time. Moreover, this 20 minutes is also shortened by a new introduction that outlines the arguments of the series. Shortening the time given to the lecture ensures that the speaker does not have the space to develop arguments, to analyse evidence, and to effectively outline complexities, uncertainties, and alternative possibilities.
At the end of each lecture there is time for questions from the audience. This might well have been an opportunity for disagreement and opening up and probing the arguments of the lecturer. However, in practice there is far too little time to do so effectively, and the format, reminiscent of "Question Time" seems to incline all to superficiality and responses that seem to restrict rather than open up.
These new lectures are certainly easier to follow but at the cost of complexity and sustained argument. This seems to be yet a further example of "dumbing down" in the media, and the sacrifice of literary traditions for a multimedia culture in which entertainment values feature highly.
Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America. James B. Twitchell. 1993. Columbia University Press.
This study examines how the changes in publishing, film making and television programming since the 1960s have affected taste, particularly what is considered vulgar. Show business, the industry of American culture, wreaks the most havoc on American taste by pandering to what most paying customers want to see. Twitchell's expose comes not to celebrate popular or "carnival" culture, as much as to answer questions about it: is vulgarity the result of repression or of freedom?; what is the relationship between machine-made entertainments and aesthetic values?; does television carnivalise or exalt cultural norms?; why do certain stories get told, and why do certain stories get told too often?; why are some of the most consistently profitable industries in the world those that transport audio and visual sequences we claim we can do without?; and why are today's "A" movies really yesterday's "B" movies dressed up with $50 million budgets? James Twitchell's book examines the current popularity of the "high take on the low culture" among academics, the contemporary view of taste as oppressive, and the reluctance to admit that something is in bad taste.
Pissing in the Snow: Essay inspired by Carnival Culture
The Infantilisation of Culture
In the media audiences are increasingly treated like children, as if unable to digest any serious issues without massive injections of sugar, short soundbites and large gaps filled with inane muzak, and the complete avoidance of depth of analysis or coverage Audiences are increasingly talked down to as if they know nothing or are unable too process anything too complex. Even Radio 3, which used to be the BBC’s flagship channel for serious discussion and thought now treats it’s audience as if it needed to be educated, and we are increasingly patronised. Being treated as if we were children, with simple views of the world, simple needs, and simple understandings is increasingly the norm in the media. There is a massive sentimentalisation of the issues and the audience leading us further and further into the realms of fantasy and illusion.
Is this cause or effect, or a more complex mutual dance? It is clear that adults seem to have lost the ambition to grow up, instead caught in a web of teenage desire, fantasy, and worldview. Witness the decline in attendance at the serious arts: museum, concert hall, opera house, theatre and library. The cultural ambition to improve oneself has largely disappeared, replace by a desire to find personal satisfaction, wealth, status.
It may not, actually, be entirely surprising that the media treats its audience in this way - witness the evidence on the decline of knowledge, thoughtfulness, and curiosity in the general population. Witness the increase in our chosen cultural psychopathology: narcissism. This is a "me-first" culture, satisfied with complacency because of a fantasy of being fully-formed without work or effort, blaming others and unable to take responsibility for actions. In this culture individuals are becoming increasingly self-involved and believe their "drama" is more important than anything else. Ordinary life becomes a drama and mimics the tinsel of the surrounding culture. For further information, see the research conducted by Dr Jean Twenge on the Evidence 3 page.
..reflects the predominance of narcissistic features in contemporary life and the frequency with which the complaints heard in clinical practice bear the hallmark of narcissistic disorders: pervasive feelings of unhappiness, inner emptiness, and boredom; dependence on external approval and admiration; fears of closeness and intimacy; exploitativeness and manipulation in interpersonal relationships; intense fears of death and aging; and inability to experience love or meaning in life. Efrain Bleiberg. Treating Personality Disorders in Children and Adolescents.
Freedom, democracy, progress, economic theories, scientific concepts: these are all ideas and abstractions. One must be able to handle the printed word in order to understand and contemplate and debate these topics. The more time we spend in the right hemisphere--watching pictures, listening to music, and approaching life with an intuitive or holistic attitude--the less our brains will be able to manipulate written words and mathematical symbols; the less we will be able to deal with ideas, theories, abstractions, and analytic chores; the less we will be able to handle the intellectual demands of a democratic government. The problem is not that television brings us bad programming (which is what concerns most critics); the problem is that television brings us good pictures.
...Because the media are dedicated to attracting mass, popular audiences, the system stifles expression from any but the middle-of-the-road; it becomes increasingly difficult to give voice to any non-conventional viewpoints. Advertisers and media owners think alike. They are all part of the common establishment; consumerism is good; materialism is what makes the economy go round. Advertisers need not dictate editorial policy; their needs are part of the editorial policy.
...DeFleur and Dennis explain that "It is no secret that people with unsophisticated artistic and intellectual tastes far outnumber people with highly developed tastes. Although there are exceptions to this crude law of large numbers, it generally accounts rather well for the low intellectual and artistic level that prevails in American mass communication." As a result, commercial television has trivialised and sensationalised virtually every aspect of culture it has touched--drama, news, religion, politics, education, and sports. Post-Intellectualism and the Decline of Democracy: The Failure of Reason and Responsibility in the Twentieth Century, Donald N. Wood.
The values of 'looking out for No. 1' and 'getting mine' were precisely what was needed to succeed in the capitalist marketplace. Yet those were the very values that taught our children to put material goods ahead of spiritual needs, to develop competitive rather than co-operative skills, . . . The marketplace fostered the development of a narcissistic personality structure adept at manipulating and controlling others." Michael Lerner.
Links Relating to Cultural Narcissism:
The Culture of Narcissism Revisited
Christopher Lasch: writing on the web
Christopher Lasch Online Writings
The Overpraised American
In the past it was possible for experimental and stylistically unusual literature to get published - James Joyce and Samuel Beckett are just two examples. This is no longer the case, not because there are no potential readers, but because publishers will not take a risk. The last decade of the century has seen a serious rationalisation of the British publishing industry, with the larger long-established houses incorporated into multinational conglomerates, editors placed under increasing pressure to maintain a healthy bottom line, and the rise of the marketing campaign. This creates a problem in that the difficult, the non-populist, and the innovative works are increasingly unable to find a publisher.
Increasingly, journalism is trivialising content and coverage. There is a trend to respond to economic pressure by dumbing down, downsizing, and pandering to what are perceived as readers tastes for amusement rather than for understanding. The public, particularly the younger reader, has an insatiable appetite for celebrity coverage so that celebrity news has begun to crowd out legitimate news?
Terry Eagleton. The Illusions of Postmodernism.
The Illusions of Postmodernism sets out to challenge the "sensibility of postmodernism" which has seeped down to become part of the intellectual "common sense" of many young (and not-so-young) people, especially if they have come within a stones throw of a university classroom in the past ten years. As Eagleton explains, "Postmodernism is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of skepticism about the objectivity of truth, history, and norms, the giveness of natures and the coherence of identities."
In condensed form, Eagleton’s arguments against postmodernism are: (i) by denying such notions as totality, essence and purpose, by particularising and reducing all differences to a non-evaluative otherness, postmodernism introduces a new, levelling universalism, and is therefore guilty of a logical contradiction; (ii) more seriously, by thus treating everything and everybody as of equal value, it empties the very notion of value of meaning, and so deprives political action of purpose; (iii) and in thus levelling all values, postmodernism, far from being a critical movement, is actually in collusion with capitalism's spirit of the marketplace, where the value of everything is determined by nothing else than supply and demand, and a person is nothing else than a producer and/or a consumer; (iv) most importantly, an impotent movement of this kind is not in a position to resist the fascist trends that an unchallenged capitalism may increasingly develop.
The dismantling of libraries is just a part of the dumbing-down of our society, part of the prejudice against all standards of quality, against excellence and achievement and ultimately civilisation itself. The aim of libraries should not be to provide ephemeral, cheap mass entertainment that is easily digested but to collect what is excellent and deserving of preservation, and to broaden the tastes of the public, rather than cater to the masses via popular works that are available everywhere. Unfortunately, modern librarians do not agree. When I look in my local libraries, for example, I find that books and sheet music on classical music are being replaced by book about the Spice Girls, Rod Stewart, etc. These books are largely concerned with gossip and fashion and provide little education about music. Similarly with the classics of literature: Tolstoy, Keats, Shakespeare are being replaced with Mills and Boon. The powers that be seem determined to discard the past and exalt a culture of trivia and mass entertainment.
Dumbing down American readers
Stout, M. (2000). The feel-good curriculum: The dumbing down of America's kids in the name of self-esteem. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
This book is a direct indictment of the self-esteem movement in North American schools. Stout's goal is clear and simple: debunk the beliefs and myths disseminated by those "false prophets" who have made self-esteem one of the major goals of public education.
The last part of Stout's book focus on four major detrimental effects of the self-esteem ideology: narcissism, separatism, emotivism, and cynicism. Narcissism is described as an excessive preoccupation with oneself that leads to a diminished interest in other people's ideas. Separatism follows directly from narcissism, making individuals and groups isolate themselves from others. At the group level, too much focus on group identity in the name of self-esteem (e.g., ethnic, gender) often leads to group rivalries and frictions. Stout's antidote: building community and interpersonal relations. Emotivism means "viewing the world primarily from the perspective of one's emotions rather than one's intellect". It fosters anti-intellectual habits, a non-dissociation between (subjective) personal values and (objective) public virtues, thus a rejection of moral education. Finally, cynicism, an outgrowth of emotivism, promotes the post-constructivist thesis that all ideas are equal and that therefore there is no truth, only opinion; consequently, there is nothing to believe in and no point in believing. Stout argues that when students "discover that no one really cares about their achievement, that they can go on to the next grade without even mastering their current curriculum, and that acting out in class is viewed almost with approbation, the seeds of cynicism are sown" (p. 263). She notes that cynicism goes hand in hand with politically correct thinking.
The Church Of England
The old institutions have been disintegrating for some time and there is an associated loss of the old literary culture that used to reach into every corner of society. The Church of England is a case study of this process. In the past, even working class children might have joined a Church of England choir, have been introduced into the mysteries and the theatre of being servers, acolytes, and other accomplices in the services of Holy Communion and Evensong. This was an entry into the middle class world, and an education that facilitated an appreciation of the language of Shakespeare and the complexities of Classical music including plainchant and the use of classical harmony, and exposure to Bach and other composers. An engagement with the Church was an engagement with theatre, with performance, with literary language and metaphor, and with the arts, because the Church was based on art forms that had been fashioned through the centuries. It exposed people to historical traditions and continuities that rooted people in a deep sense of English Tradition: the ceremonies and music that had influenced and inspired composers like Vaughan Williams, for example, and probably many literary styles.
Since 1980, with the introduction of the new prayer book and the ditching of the King James Bible that in turn led on to other changes, this culture has been increasingly diminished. The Church of England has stopped being a force that encourages and develops literacy and the appreciation of the higher arts: it has become increasingly "tabloidified", speaking to a common culture in the language, and with the world-view and assumptions, of that culture. This is the culture of the tabloid press and of the increasingly dumbed-down and lazy media. The following press report (from the Daily Telegraph, November 2001) reports on one protest against these changes. I am not optimistic about the effectiveness of such protests: they need to be made but we are living in a different culture and social forces are, sadly, not in favour of high culture and literacy. We can only hope to chart and record what has been lost.
Daily Telegraph, November 2001
The Prince of Wales championed the virtues of Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer yesterday, comparing it favourably with "painfully inadequate" modern service books. Addressing the Prayer Book Society, of which he is patron, the Prince criticised "the ordinary, the cliché and the commonplace" of modern versions. The Prince was hosting a reception for the Prayer Book Society at St. James's Palace to launch a memorial appeal dedicated to its former president, Lord Charteris of Amisfield, who died last year.
The society is seeking to raise £400,000 to protect the 1662 Prayer Book from being further sidelined by the new Anglican service book, Common Worship. In a highly personal speech, the Prince spoke of the need for "the firm, the familiar and the unchanging in a turbulent and unchanging world". The Prince said: "The inspired genius of Cranmer's Prayer Book conveys in such a powerful way this important sense of the sacred through the majesty and timelessness of its language." He described modern ways of speaking as "inadequate" in expressing "the glory and holiness of Creation". "Things are being redefined all the time," he said. "This sense of mucking about with everything is so dangerous and so many people feel the need for permanence."
Roger Evans, the chairman of the Prayer Book Society and former Tory MP for Monmouth, criticised the new service books as "deeply embarrassing".
Viscount Cranborne, president of the society, said the new fund would help to ensure that the Prayer Book was used and "not consigned to a dusty shelf in a museum". The money will also fund an annual school competition called the Thomas Cranmer Awards in which pupils recite extracts from the Prayer Book they have learned by heart. Other leading members of the society at the reception included Baroness James, the crime writer, and the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, the society's ecclesiastical patron.
The Prayer Book Society
Prayer Book Society of Canada
The Prince of Wales, Anniversary Reception for The Prayer Book Society A speech by The Prince of Wales St James's Palace, London, April 29, 1997
Commentary about “dumbing down” in schools evoked by widespread belief in the “grade inflation” in GCSE and A levels is a common feature of news coverage in the quality press (see Evidence pages for more information). However, correct as this viewpoint might be, it ignores the equally serious problem of what happens to pupils who cannot even reach these heights. The education system manifestly fails to instil basic skills and discipline into the bottom 20 or 30 per cent of all pupils and as a result of Britain has Europe’s nastiest and most ignorant underclass. The fault is not that of the education system alone because cultural and family dynamics must also play a part.
A Dumbed-Down Textbook
Family and Civilisation. Dr Carle Zimmerman.
The research was historical in nature, reviewing the decline of multiple civilisations and empires throughout recorded history. This research showed conclusively that there is a definite pattern to the rise and fall of every great nation, empire, and civilisation. The author asserts that the very same patterns appear in every single case, without fail or significant variance — and one key factor in every civilisation is the role played by men in their families.
At the "front end" of a rising civilisation, men are firmly, decisively in control, sometimes to the point of true, harsh, "male dominance." With the rise of that civilisation, the male changes from strict authoritarian to a kinder, more noble man. It is in this phase of civilisation that society comes to full flower, experiencing great prosperity, stability, and growth. In the third stage, the male begins to disengage from his family, losing his nobility, and abandoning his role of leadership. Females in society are therefore forced to abandon their instinctive maternal roles and step forward to assume the leadership roles that men have relinquished. It is in this stage that society begins a rapid decline, eventually resulting in its demise.
According to this research, eight specific patterns of domestic behaviour have signalled the downward spiral and imminent demise of every culture:
- Marriage lost its sacredness; it was frequently broken by divorce.
- Traditional meaning of the marriage ceremony was lost. Alternate forms and definitions of marriage arose, and traditional marriage vows were replaced by individual marriage contracts.
- Feminist movements appeared, and women lost interest in child bearing and mothering, preferring to pursue power and influence.
- Public disrespect for parents and authority in general increased.
- Juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and rebellion accelerated
- People with traditional marriages refused to accept family responsibilities.
- Desire for and acceptance of adultery grew.
- Increased tolerance for sexual perversions of all kinds with a resultant increase in sex-related crimes.
This page has focused mainly on the mass media but this focus should not be taken to imply that I take up the simplistic position that the media is the primary causative agent in the cultural changes I outline. The media is likely to be both a symptom and only part of a cause. My current model, if I try to be explicit about it, probably runs something like this:
“Dumbing down” is caused by multiple influences such as:
- the erosion of authority (in the text, in politicians, the church, parents, teachers, tradition, etc). The malign influence of cultural relativist propaganda.
- family instability, value shifts, changing beliefs about what life "should" offer and how much "effort" is required, an increasing sense of powerlessness over work in a global economy.
- changing values that give permission to the expression and release of certain personality and behavioural patterns that were previously less acceptable
- related to the above, populism, an apparent democratisation of culture, and the downward trends in taste and discrimination seen in market-directed art and entertainment, produce a culture of consumption rather than a culture of intelligence.
- changes in social organisation to smaller families that have less time for childcare, changing work patterns, and age-stratified social grouping that not only affect family structure but have emotional consequences in the next generation
- the influence and pervasiveness of media influences as discussed above
- the loss of the feeling of certainty, of being rooted in a real community with deep ties to others, together with constant change and a loss of the sense that things are getting better and the world is improving. “Why should I bother” and a hedonistic orientation may be the result.
- the move into a society that values economics above most other values. Neoliberalism since the 1970s has set out to disempower and depoliticise the general population, the better to empower business. Discipline, deskilling, and fear at work have devalued experience and skill and hence age; you survive and prosper through opportunism rather than wisdom.
- changes in educational priorities and philosophies and changes in parenting practices and family dynamics
- a move into individualism and self-centredness: a culture that promotes egotism informed by a sense of entitlement leading to an expectation that everything is permitted and that no limitations should be placed on actions or desires.
- the increasing commoditisation of social life, and the consequent rise of advertising and publicity as the key culture, tend to promote knowledge as soundbite, enjoyment as sensation, and repute as celebrity - all characteristics of adolescent culture.
- the cult of youth has led to a fractured dialogue between the generations, an end of the communicating of vital experience and wisdom from one generation to the next. This has led to a gross impoverishment for society, a loss of shared values, social stability and cohesion. Because young people are seen merely as a market and treated as consumers only, a shallow and banal mass culture has been promoted.
- all these have produced cultural change and an ethos in which narcissistic motives, drives, and behaviour are both accepted and expected.
- these changes produce a cultural background that infiltrates the personality structure of the individual and particularly those who grow up within this culture so that it increasingly becomes the norm - the normal state of affairs which is “the way things should be”. This has led to the dramatic increase that mental health clinicians have charted in recent times in our chosen cultural psychopathology, narcissistic and borderline personality disorders (Increase in narcissistic personality links: www.medical-library.org/j_psych/Narciss.htm).
- thus, these cultural directions are reinforced and intensified over time.
When half the eligible voters do not even bother to vote, students of public opinion — journalists and academics alike — turn to 'culture' as the only field in which individual preferences still seem to matter. By redirecting their attention from public policy to consumer tastes, however, they unavoidably help to sustain the illusion that people can initiate sweeping changes without resorting to politics, merely by exercising their right to make individual decisions as consumers of goods, services and ideologies. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism.