David Thompson
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November 20, 2007

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georges

Morning, David.

The great prophet of Western cultural decline is Harold Bloom. He blames the fashionable campus leftism so dear to your own heart for much of this - the hostility to the dead white European male, which leads to piss-pauvre writing being promoted as good, simply because it's made by non-dead, non-white, non-European etc.

Only last week I was reading arch-conservative Mark Steyn supporting and amplifying the Bloom line. Here's a link:

http://newcriterion.com:81/archives/26/11/twenty-years-ago-today

georges

Oh dear, it's me that's dumbing down. I just confused Harold Bloom with Alan Bloom. Doh!

David

Georges,

It’s brain fever, obviously. Thanks for the Steyn link.

The people I’ve known who’ve done the most vociferous tutting about trash culture have also tended to be egalitarian in outlook. The link between the two things – egalitarianism and trash - had apparently escaped their notice, as had the contradictions of egalitarian snobbery. Perhaps this is why so much emphasis is placed on the belief that audiences are being “made” more stupid than they otherwise would be by dastardly corporations and market forces. Maybe it’s a displacement activity.

I like this, from the Steyn piece:

“That’s something else that happens in a relativist culture. First, if Tupac Shakur is just as good as Milton, then everybody drops Milton. Then comes the second stage: once Milton’s dropped, and Bach and Keats and Mozart, you no longer have a very clear idea of who exactly Tupac Shakur is meant to be as good *as*. It’s not comparative anymore: he’s all there is… Eventually you dwindle down to a present-tense culture unable to refer to anything beyond itself… And once Mahler’s gone and Schubert’s gone, you can no longer make *musical* claims for rock and rap, so all you do is hail it for its authenticity and its energy and, as John Kerry did, its copious amounts of ‘anger’.”

There is, I think, an analogy to draw with the aforementioned campus leftism and the hiring of people and promotion of work based on ideological categories rather than talent and quality.

steveaz

Goodmorning, Georges and David,
This topic is dear to my heart, guys. I think the popular, and now cliche, goal of empowering of "youth-culture" (which generates the market for "trash-culture") is mostly to blame.

I was once 18 years old once, and, if asked my opinion about the teenagers' franchise back then, I'd have argued vehemently that my adolescent inputs were critical to our functioning democracy.

Now I'm 40 years old, and, boy, was I a mess at 18. Which makes my self-selcting yen for significance in the electoral process at that age look, well, childish.

Two possible solutions:
1. Revoke the franchise from teenagers and grant it only to those twenty or above - and watch the Left's child-solicitors grimace, twitch and drool in response.
2. Prod academe, Hollywood and liberal politicians to temper their products' solicitousness towards adolescent consumers. These enablers are like the child-catcher in the children's classic Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang: they lure suggestive young people into disguised cages with free candy. Point this out, and shame them for it.

Thanks for your blog, David.

steveaz

Oops!
Typos R-Me today. 2nd cup of Java needed...
Cheers!

David

Steveaz,

Well, people are rarely so credulous as when they’re young and supposedly radical. But I’m more interested in the way dumb culture is readily attributed to capitalism and market forces, with little recognition of *why* people choose whatever cultural products they happen to spend their money on.

It’s perhaps relevant to note that a reader of, say, the Guardian is likely to have a much higher IQ than a reader of, say, the Sun, and yet readers of the Guardian are, it seems, more likely to find the idea of IQ irritating or offensive. The idea that, like intelligence, aesthetic loftiness is not distributed equally by default can jar with certain egalitarian beliefs. Perhaps some Guardian readers imagine that readers of the Sun would somehow blossom intellectually and have very different tastes if not for the contents of the paper they choose to read, or the paper’s evil publisher, or the wickedness of capitalism in general.

TDK

David

The fact is much culture is subsidised by the state these days.

The inevitable result being that what is done in the market is described as dirty because it depends upon profit and what is done on the public purse is describe as pure.

I see public subsidy as part of a wider pattern. The state now subsidises those groups that lobby it:

eg.
http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2007/11/noose-tightens.html

Thus it dominates debate both from a cultural sense and from the point of view of which protest groups have the monetary clout to command our attention.

David

Sorry, I was distracted imagining new variants of popular TV shows. I’m pretty sure “I’m A Diabetic… Get Me Out Of Here” has potential. Contestants would have to find shelter and fend off lions, bees and alligators in order to secure the next dose of insulin.

Vitruvius

Sir Humphrey on popular culture and statist elitism:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgDxvaCsZMI

EBD

David

"I'm more interested in the way dumb culture is readily attributed to capitalism and market forces, with little recognition of *why* people choose whatever cultural products they happen to spend their money on."

Well, to the extent that anyone blames capitalism itself for dumb-culture, he'd be casting too wide a net; a dictatorship with total control over all mass-media would foment a different, perhaps less...jiggy... kind of dumb-culture.

But trying to separate the causes of dumb-culture from the inherent, non-directed and therefore blameless amorality of mass-marketing misses the point, too. The question of *why* people choose certain cultural products can't be separated from the marketing mindset itself, inasmuch as a *whole* lot of our cultural products were generated not to meet a demand for a particular product -- before-the-fact, there was never a consumer demand to see a tv show about, say, women in bikinis eating worms in order to win a new car -- but rather to get as many people to sit there and stare for that period of time in which commercials are shown.

I found this statement of Tassano's -- "If cultural deterioration is acknowledged in a mediocracy, it is blamed in marketisation. The implication is that cultural products are somehow traded more than they used to be, which is specious" -- a bit curious. What he's describing as specious -- the idea that cultural products are traded more than they used to be -- seems in fact to be one of the unremovable foundations to his larger point; if, as he suggests, power is "now in the hands of the mass consumer and the state, rather than those of a small elite", doesn't this more than suggest that we are in the thick of an unprecedented degree of trade in cultural products, albeit relatively "uncultured" ones?

I think it's fair game, and instructive to examine, if not blame, the role of the marketing mindset in the creation of mass-culture. There may be no tangible, immediate utility in placing the blame for our "ugly, aggressive and degraded" popular culture on something as discarnate as "marketing", but there's a case to be made that a pure, unfettered marketing mindset, which is one of the bastard-children of capitalism, has been a powerful force for remaking our culture, albeit without any intention or foresight whatsoever. I think it's certainly easy to understate the extent of the force.

The ubiquity and scale of mass-communications technologies -- TV, especially -- turns dumb, prurient entertainment into a social force without a name or a destination, and spawns imitative subcultures and attitudes which over time end up being reflected in our political institutions, our families, our...foreign policy, etc etc.

Just to be clear, I'm not blaming the Spice Girls, say, or pro wrestling for...whoa, hey, Morty, I've got a good idea...the kids'll *love* it...

Cambias

I think a lot of "cultural decline" can be explained simply by the fact that since the 19th Century there is a _hell_ of a lot more "culture" being produced -- scores of songwriters each producing dozens of songs every year, hundreds of artists, thousands of writers, etc. Sturgeon's Law ("Ninety percent of science fiction is crap -- but then, ninety percent of _everything_ is crap") suggests that most of that huge output is worthless.

The big problem I have is that every proposed cure seems worse than the disease. Do we want culture cops deciding what we can watch? Do we want state-funded culture? Neither sounds like an improvement.

Shakespeare wrote his plays for a mass audience, in a highly competitive commercial theater market. They turned out pretty well. (And across the street from the Globe theater was a bear-baiting pit, where people bet on fights between a bear and chained dogs -- forgive me for not getting too outraged about the latest reality-television foolishness.)

If there is a "cure" for this problem, it's at the consumer end. Maybe if we educate our citizens to appreciate the greatest products of Western civilization there would be more of a market for good stuff.

David

EBD & Cambias,

“…a different, perhaps less... jiggy... kind of dumb-culture.”

I don’t mean to suggest some hair-tearing disapproval here. I’ve been known to enjoy trash from time to time. What I found interesting is the assumption that trash is primarily an artefact of market forces and capitalism, rather than of the appetites - jiggy and otherwise - that those forces meet and reveal. I’m guessing large audiences can’t be forced against their will to watch women in bikinis eating worms in order to win a new car. There is, apparently, a hitherto unrecognised interest in subject matter of that kind. Women, cars, bikinis – who’d have thought? (Though, admittedly, morbid curiosity and ironic bewilderment may play a role in some cases.)

Of course there’s more culture being bought and sold than at any previous time; but the point remains that culture has always been bought and sold. The sheer volume may have unprecedented consequences, as may the medium in question, but the transactional aspect in itself isn’t exactly new, and what is produced depends to an enormous extent on who has buying power.

For instance, the Guardian has published several articles claiming that the Big Brother TV show is a terrible corrupting influence on the nation, and that it’s makers, Endemol, are close to pure evil. Most of these claims proceed from an assumption that people can be made to watch a programme they don’t *wish* to watch; that somehow viewers are being coerced or abused by the programme makers, and that the viewers’ tastes are being “manipulated” in some unprecedented way. The idea that a programme may be popular because it accommodates the appetites and preferences of an audience is, apparently, easy to overlook. Thus, the bawdiness and vacuity of some programmes is believed to be some sinister imposition, rather than a reflection of what many people like, or will happily tolerate. The avoidance of this point tends to go hand in hand with an implied belief that some people “ought” to have different tastes to the ones they actually have.

Peter Horne

The Guardian's attitude is simple snobbery. The ruling class must look down on the plebs in order to justify their position. In doing so they fall into the trap of imagining that ordinary people are easily manipulated.

Rather than face the fact that 'dunbing down' might be the result of the promulgation of their bogus and corrosive ideology, it is blamed on 'capitalism', the ultimate straw man.

georges

I haven't kept up with Big Brother. But it seems to me to be touching on several themes from avant-garde high art. Watching the still night camera of contestants fast asleep seems rather like watching Andy Warhol's "Empire", his eight-hour fixed camera movie of the Empire State Building. So Guardianistas ought to love it!

The point is, taste is often a game of one-upmanship, in pop music, opera, literature or whatever. Sometimes that's fun!

Have you seen this?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-MYVv4tgQc

David

“Thou shalt not stop liking a band just ‘cause they’ve become popular. Thou shalt not watch Hollyoaks.”

Heh. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. Hollyoaks does have odd moments of surreal intrigue. Or so I’m told. By people I barely know.

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