The Moronic Inferno

Poetry Nation Review

Jan/Feb 2001

Ivo Mosley ed., Dumbing Down: Culture, politics and the mass media (Thorverton: Imprint Academic, 2000)

T.S.Eliot was a devotee of the music hall, and wrote appreciatively about the performances of Marie Lloyd. He advocated a poetry of primitive depth that would reach down into the roots of the collective psyche. He famously defined culture as a ‘whole way of life’ that included ‘a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar’. So far so good for those who nowadays speak the rhetoric of populism, who frequently invoke ‘the people’ in a vague gesture of generosity. However, Eliot also argued that the social ‘organism’ needed defending against the claims of commerce and bureaucracy, and against a naïve faith in technology. Though his list of representative artefacts stretched humorously yet approvingly across a broad cultural spectrum, it is hard to imagine him constructing one today that would include, for instance, the national lottery, muzak, TV ‘makeover’ programmes, McDonald’s beefburgers, karaoke, the Dome and the latest recipient of the Turner Prize. He might have some doubts about a globalized civilisation (he would withhold the word ‘culture’) which fosters greed and envy, which equates vitality with sensationalism, and which relies on indifference to the environment which sustains it.

Ivo Mosley’s anthology is not compiled with Eliot in mind. Nor, surprisingly, is there any mention of F. R. Leavis or John Ruskin. After all, these three represent a most important tradition of resistance to the adulteration of human experience effected by industrial modernity – a tradition which we might do well to recall in this era of post-industrial postmodernity, when experience is so hard to assess, merging as it does with ubiquitous entertainment. However, in today’s academy, their names are frequently used with defensive flippancy, their moral stance having become something of an embarrassment. Thus, it is perhaps the very fact that any appeal to a canon of critique is so difficult today that makes Dumbing Down pertinent. One can only admire the courage of the editor’s convictions, evident in the very challenge of the title, and express one’s gratitude that at last we have a map of the ‘moronic inferno’ foretold by Wyndham Lewis and apprehended by Saul Bellow. In this ersatz realm, consumerism counts as democracy, choice of commodity as pluralism, publicity as sincerity, and the catchphrase as considered opinion. The result, in the editor’s own understatement, is that ‘a kind of numbness has taken over’.

But Dumbing Down does not counter this numbness with its own nostrum. What it offers is a diversity of objections to ‘dumbocracy’, that is, ‘the rule of cleverness without wisdom’. ‘Dumbocracy’, if unchecked, could spell the demise of democracy. Mosley declares that the sentence ‘Give us your vote and we’ll take care of everything’ has been taken literally, so that responsibility for defence spending, transport policy and the administration of the arts, for example, as well as ‘the safeguarding of basic freedoms’ have been abandoned for trivial satisfactions. Several contributors offer variations on this theme. Redmond Mullen sees ‘the executive machine’ as gradually swallowing up the right to dissent, and proposes that voluntary bodies, notably non-funded charities, might offer a model of ‘constructive disorder’, restoring a sense of initiative and risk. Again, as far as government itself is concerned, Tam Dalyell objects to the replacement of Bagehot’s ‘government by conversation’ by the ‘party machine’, the ‘spin doctor’ and the self-serving servility of members of parliament.

As for the ‘culture’ of Mosley’s subtitle, the consensus here seems to be that trivialisation is the norm. Philip Rieff disapproves of the current cult of Oscar Wilde, in that it honours his capacity for scandal and subversion rather than his concern for social justice and aesthetic standards – the result being a pervasive infantilism. This observation complements Claire Fox’s objection to the impoverishment of higher education, which she sees as surrendering to the ethos of the service economy: with lecturers being obliged to put consumer interests above content, courses that challenge or stretch the minds of students are replaced by a syallabus based on what they already know.

Mention should also be made of a surprising but welcome contributor, Ravi Shankar, who expresses his hopes for cultural diversity and the mutual influence of musical traditions, but voices also his fears that multinational commercialism is foisting an indifferent noise on the young in the name of entertainment. Shankar was, of course, one of the inspirations behind the Beatles’ reinvigoration of popular song, so his misgivings about the quality of today’s youth culture certainly carry weight. But his presence should also remind us that ‘pop’ does not necessarily mean ‘pap’. In recent years there may have been the Spice Girls, but there have also been the Smiths. However, while such discriminations need making, this volume may not be the place for them, as it is not merely another symposium on ‘high’ v ‘low’ culture.

Indeed, the editorial vision would seem to extend, finally, through and beyond the cultural, to address the plight of the planet itself. It is worth noting that Mosley has previously edited the Green Book of Poetry (Frontier, 1994), a pioneering selection of verse which opened up possibilities for the teaching and appreciation of literature from an environmental perspective. Certainly, the organisation of Dumbing Down makes sense in that perspective, culminating as it does in two essays sketching the damage human culture has done to nature, the more so as it claims to be independent of it. Thus, ‘dumbing down’ is not just a matter of hailing the worst of the ‘mass media’ as the norm but involves a willed blankness towards the natural world, a sterile detachment from what Eliot called ‘the life of significant soil’. We may agree that we inhabit a ‘moronic inferno’, but the point of this collection would seem to be that ultimately the reduction of human possibility is inseparable from the degradation of the earth. Perhaps, then, this volume may take its place in the canon of critique. In the middle of the last century, Leavis tried to resist the insane logic of the ‘technologico-Benthamite age’. A century before that, Ruskin declared that, there being ‘no wealth but life’, the destruction of the environment was an impoverishment of the human soul. That logic, that destruction, has almost won the day, as Mosley’s volume reminds us.

Laurence Coupe