Allan Bloom on the Corrosive Effects of Pop Culture

Over at The Weekly Standard, the brilliant Andrew Ferguson assesses the legacy of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind now that it’s a quarter century old.

Ferguson writes:

As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism–of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone–had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.

He adds:

The crisis was—is—a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America—even Jerry Springer—had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.

“The crisis of liberal education,” he wrote, “is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”

He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”

I’ve been reading the book, and while there are many points that leap off the page and demand attention, the ones that particularly resonated with me were his insights about popular culture. Whereas once, reason led students to the discovery of truth, now, the popular culture imposes its truths on its young and impressionable consumers.

Here is Bloom on the pervasiveness of pop culture’s most prominent medium, rock music:

Though students do not have books, they most emphatically do have music . . . It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does; they cannot take seriously anything alien to music. When they are in school and with their families, they are longing to plug themselves back into their music.

(That point is particularly prescient as Bloom was writing before iPods, smart phones, and other portable electronic devices became such powerful parts of the identity and image of young and old alike.)

There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels exclusively devoted to them, on the air nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place–not public transportation, not the library–prevents students from communing with the Muse, even while studying.

And here, on the content of rock:

Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not to love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.

To Bloom, “Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror.” The point of education is “the taming of domestication of the soul’s raw passion–not suppressing or exciting them, which would deprive the soul of its energy–but forming and informing them as art.” Pop culture, to Bloom, works against education’s goal of taming the soul, giving students a cheap shot of bliss at the expense of longer, lasting happiness:

Rock provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors–victory in just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religion devotion and discovery of truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits. In my experience, students who have had a serious fling with drugs–and gotten over it–find it difficult to have enthusiasms of great expectations. It is as though the color has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end, or as the end. They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living, whereas liberal education is supposed to encourage the belief that the good life is the pleasant life and that the best life is the most pleasant life. I suspect that the rock addiction, particularly in the absence of strong counterattractions, has an effect similar to that of drugs. The student will get over this music, or at least the exclusive passion for it. But they will do so in the same way Freud says that men accept the reality principle–as something harsh, grim and essentially unattractive, a mere necessity. . . As long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.

As a young person who loves rock/pop music–i.e., the kind of person Bloom is talking about–I agree that the affect rock music has on the young, emotionally, is generally speaking as he describes it. Rock music appeals to our rawest passions and emotions and creates a world for us that indulges those passions and emotions–like love, sex, heartbreak, anguish, angst, anger, anxiety, loss–often before we have even experienced them first hand. Not only does this create warped expectations for us when we finally do have those experiences, but it makes those experiences seem duller to us when they happen. In a way, rock music demands so much of our emotions and psychological wherewithal that it can bankrupt us of them, so that we don’t have them when we actually need them. It takes the living out of life.

That said, I do think there are certain exceptions, like this song that I highlighted yesterday or these ones I wrote about in February, which harness our emotions in a more sophisticated and meaningful way than, say, the pop-rock stars that Bloom took aim at in his book, like Mick Jagger, Boy George, and Michael Jackson (today’s equivalents being Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Kanye).

Along those lines, while Bloom praises classical music for appealing to the “refinements” and “spiritual satisfaction” of its listeners–he delights in introducing his students to Mozart–I wonder what his assessment of lyric-less jazz music would have been, like Miles Davis’ Flamenco Sketches, which (to me) is closer in line to classical music than to rock.