Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Dumbing Down: Or The Banalisation of Culture

Does it matter and why?

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.

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.

Source: Dumbing Down topic from