Idiocracy, or The Dumbing Down of [Your Country Here]

I was perusing the pages of The Guardian today and came across this novel word “idiocracy” (in, of all places, the sports section of the paper). “An amusing but appropriate neologism”, I thought. My curiosity aroused, I googled up the term and found that it was the title of a 2006 science fiction movie that, though getting positive reviews from the film critics and having since become a “cult film”, was poorly promoted and didn’t do well at the box office. Natch, I just had to order it.


(Love the poster for it).

As the story goes, some “Average Joe” of modest intelligence is put into cryonic hybernation only to awake 500 years later to discover that he is now the smartest man on Earth. You can, I think, imagine the endless potential and satirical possibilities for storylines such a scenario might offer — something that seems to carry on the traditions of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, (although I’ll reserve conclusive judgment on that until I’ve seen the film).

Ten years after, apparently, some people are finding it perhaps not so far-fetched, to the extent that “idiocracy” even seems an appropriate name for what we are now enduring as “post-truth”, or “post-rational”, society and the process of “dumbing down” and lending added poignancy to books like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death or Neal Gabler’s Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.

What, though, has changed since Swift’s satires or since Karl Marx contemplated the “idiocy of rural life” at a time when the vast majority of the human population of the Earth was rural? (Perhaps none too fairly, as I’m sure if Karl had been plucked up from the urbs and deposited in the rus or the pagus, and forced to make his way, he would be the idiotic one). So why now do we have this sense of being overtaken and overwhelmed by “idiocy” such that we even consider “idiocracy” to be the essence of “the New Normal”? In what way is it at all different from the “Old Normal”?

We do encounter the phrase “dumbing down” quite a bit, which assumes that, at some earlier period of time, we were all more “up” than “down”. But today the sense of decadence (or fall or decline) and the decay of standards, qualities, the noble virtues, of intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity, is felt as being much more acute, or much more evident. And we see this sense of civilisational decadence not only in Nietzsche’s forecast for “two centuries of nihilism” (and the grinding down of all “noble values”) but also in W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, while the “Rough Beast” is, seemingly, the coming of the “Idiocracy” and the triumph of the baser, meaner, the more unintelligent and ignoble values. In other words, “idiocracy” means “all higher values devalue themselves”, which is connected, too, with another phrase which we hear quite a bit these days, too — “zombie logic”, or the culmination of Blake’s fear of “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”.

What is “Single Vision & Newtons sleep” but the final triumph of fundamentalism in religion and reductionism in science? Quite evidently, “idiocracy” is connected with Gebser’s estimation of “the mental-rational consciousness structure” now functioning in “deficient mode” and become quite incapable of transcending itself, or of what Nietzsche referred to as the “self-overcoming” of the modern mind. This is what is depicted in the post for the film “Idiocracy” which borrows Leonardo da Vinci’s image of “Vitruvian Man” — the higher inspirations and aspirations that began with the Reformation and Renaissance some five hundred years ago have decayed, finally, into the “zombie logic” of fundamentalism and reductionism.

“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”. That is William Blake’s own theory of the roots of the “idiocracy”, which leads into another of Blake’s ironic statements: “Truly, My Satan, thou art but a Dunce, And dost not know the Garment from the Man”. What Blake calls “My Satan” is his own selfhood, his own personal struggle with “Urizen” who is mind of Single Vision and of merely sensate consciousness because Satan/Urizen only knows “the garment” (the physical appearances or sense knowledge) from the “supersensible” reality of the real human being. 

This suggests an answer to the real meaning of the “idiocracy” — it is the collapse of awareness into a merely sensate consciousness which corresponds to the issue of “spiritual materialism” (but which is but sensationalism by another name). Sense data, though, only gives us an image of the “camouflage universe”, the shadows of the real that Blake calls “Ulro” or Hell.

In those terms, “dumbing down” is real, but in the sense of a fall into a purely sensate consciousness that has become insensitive or oblivious to the supersensible.












18 responses to “Idiocracy, or The Dumbing Down of [Your Country Here]”

  1. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Due to the modern understanding of the root word and its erroneously widespread implications, I’ve hesitated to write the neologism(?) that continually crosses my mind at every mention of the term, “ideological.” Can you guess what it is?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Dunno. Just recall that it was mike who pointed out that “idiot” was originally the Greek word for someone the opposite of “politis” (the Greek for “citizen”), ie, not an active and responsible member of a polis and therefore someone merely self-interested and disengaged from the polis or the exercise of citizenship. From my reading of the polot of Idiocracy that seems to be the general theme of the film too.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Can’t have an Idiocracy without the idiotological.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Given this older derivation of the word “idiot”, I can see why Marx spoke of the “idiocy of rural life” in the much the same sense. The liberal reformers of the last century sought to alleviate that problem by pushing for public education, and there’s no argument that this has greatly improved the general welfare, even if at the expense of something else — (a case of “the operation was a success, unfortunately the patient died”). So any social gains were offset by losses.

        Rosenstock-Huessy’s whole method is based on the teacher-pupil relation — as a dialogical relation — as foundational to any kind of civilised life, and he spends a lot of time discussing in novel ways. Unfortunately, public education didn’t really educate for citizenship, but to instill the principles of “rational self-interest” as the foundational principle of the good society, and that wasn’t (and isn’t) sufficient, because it eventually leads to the very condition of that “idiocy” of self-interest that the Greeks understood by the word.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          No wonder, is it, that metropolitan/rural is now one of our most stubborn chasms?

          I’m going to go back for a moment, by way of example, to the problem presented by bussing in the US. Bussing was essentially the “physical” application of the planned desegregation of our public schools. Unfortunately, the plan presented hardships for a great many of the families affected, regardless of ethnicity, especially among the poor.

          It would seem we’ve no shortage of great ideas, but fall well short in their execution.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    As there is food fasting, there is word fasting. In light of what is going on and in light of reading the article on the philosopher Tim Morton I feel I need a period of words fasting, so I leave you all with my best wishes.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Did he say something indigestible?

    • mikemackd says :

      I will miss you, abdulmonem … perhaps after Ramadan?

        • Scott Preston says :

          Excellent article, Steve. Seems to include confirmation of the “dumbing down” hypothesis, and seems coincident with the advent of radio and television, and raises the question whether we can make these things serve other purposes than “dumbing down”, or whether that’s an inherent consequence of their very nature.

        • Scott Preston says :

          I think I can see why guys like Jeremy Naydler (The Future of the Ancient World) anticipate a recurrence of the kind of consciousness that prevailed in ancient Egypt. Egypt didn’t have literacy either, but it had hieroglyphic (imagistic) forms of record keeping and communications. and we can see also that Gebser’s “transparency of the world” becomes even more critical and necessary where iconic or imagistic forms of communication become dominant.

          Harold Innis did quite a bit of work on this theme of media and communications historically. His books The Bias of Communication and Empire and Communications are essential reading in that respect. Marshall McLuhan was a student of Innis.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          As their houses are foreclosed, as their jobs are lost, as they are forced to declare bankruptcy and watch their communities collapse, they will retreat even further into irrational fantasy. They will be led toward glittering and self-destructive illusions by our modern Pied Pipers—our corporate advertisers, our charlatan preachers, our television news celebrities, our self-help gurus, our entertainment industry and our political demagogues—who will offer increasingly absurd forms of escapism.

          {Gagh} donsalmon hit it right on the head: “Dirge” is the only apt description of Hedges missives these days.

          No doubt some (e.g. the quarter of Americans deeply engaged in and/or fascinated by the vapidity and rabidity of national US politics) will. Others may very well fully awaken from “The American Dream,” in which it might be argued many of us now only half-slumber, if at all, it’s apex having diminished before most of us were born. A rude awakening, to be sure, but an awakening nonetheless.

          I’m honestly quite sick of Hedges’ self-superiority; his constant hammering upon his “will” (this will happen; that will happen; something else will happen); and exceptionally low estimate of the American “masses” along with that of all his peers. (Thomas Engelhardt, et al, definitely not among them.)

          Hedges might want to read up on “The Law of Attraction.”

          seems coincident with the advent of radio and television, and raises the question whether we can make these things serve other purposes than “dumbing down”, or whether that’s an inherent consequence of their very nature.

          The advent of National Public Radio and Television in the US would seem to indicate that it’s not necessarily an inherent consequence of their nature, but as anyone can attest, mediums such as these have been under constant attack (and infiltration) since their inception. I think it’s safe to say, however, that the medium is never the message. The message is the message.

          • Steve Lavendusky says :

            In Phaedrus, Plato decries an “alternate” communication technology:

            The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves.

            The Greek philosopher was, of course, dissing the new “technology” of his day: writing.

  3. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Before I go, I’d like to suggest, if I may, an alternative to “dumbing down,” which I’m certain has occurred to all of us here…and beyond.

    We all know what “our good, educated people” mean by “dumbing down” and it isn’t what Scott has in mind. (At least, I don’t get the impression it is.) “Dumb” might work in a spiritual context, but what we’re actually talking about is a numbing down — quite in the sense of a wearing down under continual assault — of the “supersenses.”

    As Nabil Echchaibi put it in the article linked earlier, “I feel morally and psychologically exhausted.” I distinctly recall confiding the same to a friend back in 2009, only I said, “I am spiritually, mentally and emotionally exhausted.” (Not to worry, it had little to do with world affairs and my condition has much improved since. In fact, I think I just picked up my second (or third) wind. Thanks Steve!)

    ‘Numbing down’ may be the phrase for which we’re actually looking. Certainly Dickinson, Rumi and ‘Isaiah’ (53:5), et al, knew what it meant…as do we all.

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