Magazine article New Internationalist

The Triumph of Triviality

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Triumph of Triviality

Article excerpt

The results of the cultural Indoctrination stakes are not yet in but there is a definite trend triviality leads, followed closely by superficiality and mindless distraction. Vanity looks great while profundity is bringing up the rear. Pettiness is powering ahead, along with passivity and indifference. Curiosity lost interest, wisdom was scratched and critical thought . had to be put down. Ego is running wild. Attention span continues to shorten and no-one is betting on survival.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Half a century ago, humanistic thinkers were heralding a great awakening that would usher in a golden age of enlightened living. People like Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May and Viktor Frankl were laying the groundwork for a new social order distinguished by raised consciousness, depth of purpose and ethical refinement. This tantalizing vision was the antithesis of our society of blinkered narcissists and hypnogogic materialists. Dumbness was not our destiny. Planetary annihilation was not the plan. By the 21st century, we were supposed to be the rarefied 'people of tomorrow", inhabiting a sagacious and wholesome world.

Erich Fromm's 1955 tome, The Sane Society, signalled the début of the one-dimensional 'marketing character" - a robotic, all-consuming creature, 'well-fed, wellentertained... passive, unalive and lacking in feeling'. But Fromm was also confident that we would avoid further descent into the fatuous. He forecast a Utopian society based on 'humanistic communitarianism' that would nurture our higher 'existential needs'.

In his 1961 book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers wrote: 'When I look at the world I am pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic." While acknowledging consumer culture's seductive dreamland of trinkets and desire, he believed that we - those 'people of tomorrow' - would minister over a growthoriented society, with 'growth' defined as the full and positive unfolding of human potential.

We would be upwardly driven toward authenticity, social equality and the welfare of coming generations. We would revere nature, realize the unimportance of material things and hold a healthy scepticism about technology and science. An anti-institutional vision would enable us to fend off dehumanizing bureaucratic and corporate authority as we united to meet our 'higher needs'.

One of the most famous concepts in the history of psychology is Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs', often illustrated by a pyramid. Once widely accepted, it was also inspired by a faith in innate positive human potential. Maslow claimed that human beings naturally switch attention to higher-level needs (intellectual, spiritual, social, existential) once they have met lowerlevel material ones. In moving up the pyramid and 'becoming', we channel ourselves toward wisdom, beauty, truth, love, gratitude and respect for life. Instead of a society that catered to and maintained the lowest common denominator, Maslow imagined one that prospered in the course of promoting mature 'selfactualized' individuals.

But something happened along the way. The pyramid collapsed. Human potential took a back seat to economic potential while self-actualization gave way to self-absorption on a spectacular scale. A pulp culture flourished as the masses were successfully duped into making a home amidst an ever-changing smorgasbord of false material needs.

Operating on the principle that triviality is more profitable than substance and dedicating itself to unceasing material overkill, consumer culture has become a fine-tuned instrument for keeping people incomplete, shallow and dehumanized. Materialism continues to gain ground, even in the face of an impending eco-apocalypse.

Pulp culture is a feast of tinsel and veneer. The ideal citizen is an empty tract through which gadgets can pass quickly, largely undigested, so there is always space for more. Reality races by as a blur of consumer choices that never feel quite real. …

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