Our collective vapidity

April 23, 2009

John Doyle has a surprisingly cynical take on the Susan Boyle phenomenon.  I have to be honest and say I have yet to see the clip but Doyle’s point digs deeper. 

 We think we root for the underdog, but we don’t really. We are a superficial, catty and vapid culture. We aren’t interested in authenticity. We mainly watch TV shows featuring people we’d like to date, touch and have sex with.

To a large extent I believe he’s right.  And like Neil Postman says in Amusing Ourselves to Death this is the ultimate function of television.  It was never going to be that deep, we’ve only reached new heights of superficiality.


  1. And I’m the cynic? To a large extent, humans are obsessed with entertainment, mainly because we no longer have to work hard, in the West, to survive. But there is also a trend in our society that seems to be favouring doom and gloom. All our news is about war, death, economic crashes, top ten ways we are all going to die painfully, diseases, etc. Is it any wonder that so many people tune it out in favor of trash? And what is there to pay attention to? The rights movement has succeeded itself to death, the culture wars are ending more to indifference that victory, and there are so many causes to embrace that one can be forgiven for burning out. As for catty, vapid, and superficial? Well, culture is omni-present, so of course its going to have superficial aspects…as for catty, hmmm, that’s going overboard. People are catty, some people. A culture though? Don’t know about that. Values and morals are still respected as they always have been. Moreover, the fact that we constantly update them and debate their intricacies and roles (for example, Ipod etiquette in public) tells me that they are still important. As for vapid…wow, this dude needs to lighten up. For every Oprah or Doctor Phil episode, there is a discovery channel special. For every gossip girl book, there is a quality piece of literature that will be remembered after its empty counterparts have been recycled. Cultural masterpieces are often not recognized in their time. But think about movies like Stardust and Pan’s Labyrinth (alright, spanish.) These movies are incredible works of art and storytelling. Books like “the Kindly Ones”, fantasy like “the wheel of time” series, even “Harry Potter” are all going to be remembered for their cultural importance as well as enduring ideas and themes. And even in the trash we read (let’s take Twilight, for example) we deal with concepts that are, at their core, profound. Twilight deals with everlasting love in the face of all obstacles, accepting differencing, personal growth and sacrifice through adherence to higher ideals beyond the self. Is it trash? Yes. But does that mean it isn’t an expression of something deep and meaningful? No.
    Every society likes to think it is going into decline and everything will turn out bad after it. This is because we all want to believe we are the pinnacle of human evolution. What an arrogant concept. The only danger to us is the one presented by climate change. Our culture will continue to evolve, to diversify, to absorb and adapt new components. It will change and we will be challenged by the change. But it will not degrade through TV alone.

  2. Oh, and I forgot to mention other movies that are great. “Saving Private Ryan” on war, “E.T.”, cuz it kicks ass, “American History X”, on racism and redemption,…and this list could go on, and on.
    Cheers mate.

  3. First, let me say that I completely agree with you on Pan’s labyrinth. Amazing. I think there can be meaningful movies, there can be good shows. I’m really enjoying the soon to be canned show Kings right now. I’m not completely on board with Doyle but I would say if we introduce a concept of the cultural mean, a sort of baseline of what the average person reads and is capable of handling, and if we use primetime as our example of this, the ever-increasing dominance of reality TV over complicated story lines seems to indicate that the cultural mean is declining increasingly into shallower territory.

    • Another Debate? Good heavens Liam, how will we preserve the “cultural mean” if we keep debating! I agree that most television is pretty bad, you might remember my rants against Survivor back in middle school…I still think Survivor:Baghdad is a great idea, or Survivor:Shark Cage. But my point was that to popular television as the cultural criteria will only give a very incomplete and shallow view of what is at work in culture. Because there are incredible works of imagination and commentary out there, which are made to endure. Reality tv is made to be consumed, then replaced, not to endure. We watch trash to relax, because only a few of us are capable of taking constant mental exercise. These people usually end up teaching physics or Bio-Mechanical-Quantum Engineering. But we all recognize something as trash: don’t no one think that The Young and the Restless is a quality series. The problem, as I see it, is we are on the inside, looking down. What I mean by that, is that when one thinks of a foreign culture, we tend to see the entire framework, from religion to history, to works of literature and art, to political ideology, to family groupings. It comes as a package (even if we only shallowly stereotype it.) The problem is that we are inside of our culture, looking at the ground (crappy tv and books) not the structure. Our culture is in fact still in a process of evolution and change, even if our political system is antiquated. Society, including the people who watch “Dexter” (a great show if there ever was one) debate and construct culture through processing these things. We like nudity, for example, in “the Reader”, but we also really like the idea of redemption and catharsis and mercy explored through the lives of the characters.

  4. I’m not sure we can judge what a culture is capable of by what is consumes to relax. Even the most primitive societies (technologically and politically)can have amazingly complex cultures. Off the top of my limited head, there are the Navajo, who had only limited experience with metal-working when colonists arrived, but had a world view, oral tradition, political system and religious belief that was amazingly subtle as well as staggeringly difficult to comprehend without living in the culture itself. Sorry this getting so long winded, but most of my days are spent conversing in my limited spanish, so it’s a pleasure to exercise my english vocabulary.

  5. I don’t know Matt, I think that culture is largely reflected in the arts, and that T.V serves as a good representation of the cultural norm (broadly speaking).
    If you want a historical example, think of the Greeks. Their perceptions of life, beauty and intelligence, all translated into their artistic expressions.
    I know your response is to say that good things still endure, despite the trash. But I think taking the Television in its wholeness, as a measuring stick against society, presents a fairly accurate picture of western society on the whole. Or at least what our society determines as morally acceptable.
    Also, I am not sure if the scale is as balanced as you suggest. Surely there are good things in modern media, but wasn’t the whole point of Doyle’s article to say that the media is weighing heavy on the side of crap?
    And what of this watching crap to relax idea that you so gracefully propose in your comments? Does that not prove Doyle’s point?
    Personally, I disagree with Doyle. I think the video reveals just the opposite of what he suggests, and what you reference in your own comments- that goodness and morality endure through time. The real question being asked is whether or not Susan Boyle’s video illuminates the goodness remaining in our culture, or whether it identifies the aesthetic obsession of our time. While Doyle argues for the latter, I really do think that it is the former in this case. People respond to Susan’s video because it is transcendental. They are surprised by a musical beauty superior to the aesthetic world.
    Plus, its just a really great song, with excellent lyrics to match her story.

  6. Fair enough Dave. But a couple points come to mind. First, can we and do we judge a culture by its entertainments? The Romans relaxed watching gladiators kill each other in bloody manners. The Greeks practiced pedophilia. The ancient Chinese had gambling down to an art form, with religious connotations. Yet we gloss over these “petty details.” We focus on the advances in science, in politics, philosophy, religion, art, mathematics and architecture. Second, while you may be right that the balance is skewed in favor of crap, I propose that this a short term thing. In the long run, the balance of history is slanted towards the epic, the profound, the revitalizing, and the innovative.

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