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.