July 3, 2010
The expatriate dissident Nietzsche, writing at the rise of the Reich, has much to teach us about culture and education today. In contrast to social criticism which amounts to vague negativity, this major work builds on his argument and lays out a particularized explanation of cultural decline reflected in politics, schools, and media.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote substantial criticism of German culture, which he extended to education specifically in What The Germans Lack, part of his Twilight of the Idols (1888). He found fault with Germans of his time for their declining culture—that is, lack of cultural depth and cosmopolitanism, a declining capacity to exercise thought and suspend reflexive conclusions, and a dearth of what he called “spirit” (not in a religious-metaphysical sense).
The Germans, newly nationalized by the victorious wars and machinations of the Prussian Kaiser and the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck of Prussia, formed a more democratic, more centralized and more imperial Deutschland out of most of the geographical patchwork of German-speaking places (most notably excluding Austria). These Germans were transforming cultural consciousness into national consciousness, were forsaking Goethe for the newspaper, were sacrificing Kultur for Reich, proclaimed in 1871. This word for realm or empire, also the traditional word for the kingdom of heaven, would come to refer to a unified nation-state in the modern sense—a collective people’s regime socializing and militarizing for the unified project of common welfare and foreign imperialism, feeding off the great economic engine of industry and disciplined labor.
Enthusiasm for the new Deutsches Reich bridged old nobility, new money, workers, politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals throughout the motley German-speaking component states in the heart of Europe. Few in this Volk could foresee any reason to doubt the rightness of Reich, before the World Wars. The rise of the German Empire brought territorial unity and national pride, and promised imperial glories and profits to match or exceed those of Britain and its slowly waning Empire.
Against this backdrop, Nietzsche sharpened his analysis and cocked his wit (bold emphasis mine):
Note that Nietzsche gives credit to the character he can still see among the people of his country of origin, as we should, too, in likening these passages to any present context. It is out of concern that he objects to the current state of affairs; precisely because he cares greatly about German culture and the potential of German individuals, he must dissent from the popular acceptance of nationalism.
Nietzsche makes it clear that he is concerned with more than intellectual stupidity. By “spirit” he indicates qualities which influence and are influenced by all types of aesthetic and physiological conduct, including music (he complains of “our constipated, constipating German music”) and alcoholism: “how much beer there is in the German intelligence!” Spirit differs from scholarliness; in fact, “without spirit one can still be a great scholar.”  Beyond the means known as intellect, Nietzsche is pointing to aesthetic profundity and refinement, and further, to life realized as living, not merely functioning and performing. Indeed, merely functioning and performing is stupid. Even if a tool works well, it remains a tool. Spirit means perception and creativity beyond scholarly performance, or intellect. Such special potential can lie fallow unless care is taken, and at the same time, passion for living can decline as richness of experience diminishes.
Scientific specialization and achievement therefore offers nothing to refresh the “withering of the instincts of the spirit” for which “our universities are, against their will, the real hothouses”.  Here, Nietzsche introduces accusations of the German educational system (a theme to which he later returns):
The scientific form of education, which subordinates fuller personal development to academic specialization and obedience, fails to serve the special traits of the spirit and the special people gifted with them. Restrictive, unhealthy specialization and conformity are endemic within that system, and the product is “the superabundance of pretentious jobbers and fragments of humanity” who are neither serious in spirit nor whole, come from universities, and teach inside them.
American universities, like German universities, are also at risk of de-spiritualizing subjects of study into occupations that will not deeply affect or excite (“contented and lukewarm”), but train and employ professionals in tasks. Academics should consider whether they provide environments more likely conducive to enlightenment and change, or self-assured complacency.
But his shot across the bow at university education is just an aside in Nietzsche’s argument. Why is it that specialization and regimentation—for a scientific career and scientific tasks, for example—restrict the education of the spirit?
Nietzsche spells out the relationship as inverse. If only because of the finite energy it is possible to contribute, politics costs.
Years earlier than these words in Twilight, Nietzsche had already questioned whether playing grand politics could ever really pay, in Human, All Too Human 481:
Note that in Twilight, Nietzsche is not criticizing economics or trade per se, but specifying fascinations of people under the state, as the rest of his list indicates: “for power politics, for economics, world trade, parliamentarianism, and military interests”. Nietzsche was not trained in economics, nor properly acquainted with free-market economics. Instead, by “economics” he means the sort that never distinguishes economy from state, but wants an economy for the sake of political power, as Bismarck did; he means economics that works to harness productivity to make money for the state, much as “supply-side economics” was promoted in America according to how much tax revenue it could obtain. By the name of “world trade,” he derides the sort of public cause which is actually approved by political deals and regulated by unknown men in the back rooms of bureaucracy, much like the pseudo-free trading WTO and NAFTA in modern day.
This is important to note because as opposed to economies yoked to pull a state behind them, relatively-free economies (relatively unregulated networks of independent individuals) can coincide with ages of cultural rise and political decline, provided that pursuits are varied beyond the financial. In fact there are many historical cases to indicate correlation between productive economic freedom and flourishing culture. Certainly, it is inconceivable that special heights of culture could flourish without sufficient prosperity to sustain them; the work of entrepreneurs and employees is the necessary capitalist foundation for high culture because it creates superfluous wealth which can be invested in materially-superfluous interests, some of which will in retrospect seem superfluous in every sense, and some of which will become priceless. Fertile cultural realization is made all the more likely without politics competing for resources also, via the state.
But Nietzsche is concerned with culture aside from economics (despite his arguments from scarcity); he is primarily concerned with spirit. Considering his tight focus elsewhere upon realizing spirit in the individual, it may not be immediately clear quite what he means by “German culture” on a generalized scale. Although sometimes he speaks broadly in a dashing and rhetorical manner, we probably ought to be more careful with terms.
Although they are metaphorically useful in language, generalizations introduce imprecise assumptions, and have a tendency to derail thought processes unless they are carefully justified. Collective ideas about social groups compound this risk with double-generalization. It is imprecise of Nietzsche to discuss a people or a culture, such as that of a nation like Germany, like an actor on a grand scale. We have since had ample reason to learn that such personifications can be dangerous. To speak less loosely, in fact in the strictest sense which is due some qualification: rather than people being the product of a culture, culture describes a product of people. Individuals make culture; they are the origin of culture; they define culture. Culture simply exists because of individuals. Culture creates nothing. It is not an agent.
Yet, in an important anthropological sense, pointing to the atomism of individuals does not say enough about their interrelations. Culture is not spontaneously generated by individuals from thin air, but continued by the ongoing reinforcement of precedents, traditions, and habits acted out among networks composed of individuals, one individual to another. (And for that matter, people are reminded to continue their culture from moment to moment and constrained by all kinds of manufactured physical constructs, and furthermore culture is carried over in media storage.)
Culture, insofar as it does name a phenomenon with ongoing properties, describes a sort of ballast effect: inertia and stability. Reciprocity between individuals, competition between individuals, as well as asymmetric relations (such as subsidy-and-dependence, vaunting-and-submission) and all forms of relationships between different individuals mutually-reinforce types of complementary patterns that tend to stabilize particular affairs of culture—to maintain certain forms instead of others. For example, educational relationships such as those between teacher and student absolutely reinforce modes of culture. The political institutions of the state, to go further, actively seek to maintain a status quo through asymmetric relations.
Any of these patterns of reinforcement can indeed become typical among a group, such as the population of a nation-state. In that sense collective culture can be said to play a role (figuratively), although any such shortcuts of description could in theory be taken apart to show individualized processes.
Nietzsche, of course, doesn’t mean to include all of this when he says “culture.” He doesn’t mean culture in the broadest anthropological sense, which attempts to be neutral toward different cultures included in its study, not excluding a statist political culture, which is not Nietzsche’s idea of “culture” here at all. In this context he means high culture; a culture in which the spirit can develop. He means a culture endowed with a superfluity of energy, so that individuals might flower (and seed) abundantly.
Nietzsche knows perfectly well that such vitality (“the quantum of understanding, seriousness, will, and self-overcoming which one represents”) is strictly locked away in individuals, not nations. Though he speaks freely of groups according to national characters—an effusion typical of the time—and figuratively about cultures and peoples as wholes, he is really concerned with fostering exceptions to them.
Thus, Nietzsche arrives at a decadent assessment of German culture (“German culture is declining”). In The Revolt of the Masses, the Spanish Nietzschean José Ortega y Gasset reminds us to question what we really mean by the overused concept of cultural decadence: “It is useless to talk of decadence without making clear what is undergoing decay. […] There is only one absolute decadence; it consists in a lowering of vitality, and that only exists when it is felt as such.”  Nietzsche means decadence measured by a standard that is hardly neutral toward all types of cultural emphasis (which, broadly understood, would include the regimentation of Reich) but is also not nebulous at all; his meaning of decadence is as specific as the Kultur he values. Ultimately, it is grounded in the vitality of singular individuals, whose welfare has repercussions, whose energies must not be misspent on a waste of spirit.
The accuracy of Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the German problem, which must have appeared hysterical and bizarre to proud Germans at the time, has become assessable in retrospect. We can look back at what happened to German politics versus its culture. Within just one generation after Nietzsche’s warning, German culture will be eclipsed by the Kaiserreich, with its aggressive politics and militarism. In the next generation, German culture will come very close to dying, so that the Nazi state can revel in a tremendous excess of totalitarian power at the expense of all else.
A reprieve seemed possible during the interwar Weimar years, when the government was discredited. Many Germans grew pessimistic about politics after the devastating First World War and the ensuing political and economic crises. There was a brief time for artistic and intellectual experimentation, a strange renaissance, fiercely critical and desperately subversive, typically anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist, and anti-militarist. Ten years earlier than Twilight of the Idols, forty years before the German defeat in 1918, Nietzsche had noted:
The supposed return of the Germans to national greatness—rebuilding the army and national pride, and subordinating the economy to the state—put energy back into what had imperiled them in the First World War, and paved the way for the Nazis and millions of graves. Great figures fled persecution before the Second World War, often to America, contributing in no small way to the enrichment of culture there.
A reader in this century might take Nietzsche’s critiques for historical curiosities. Mainly it is the extremes of German history after his death, and specifically the black-and-white images and good-and-evil tales of Nazis which fascinate people. After all, what does, for example, an American of this year 2010 know or care about subjects of social criticism in central Europe during the nineteenth century? What can that matter to him or her?
The astute reader will have inferred how it matters, and observed the irony. Few Americans do care to know about subtler things, and that is significant. Much like the Germans of Nietzsche’s day, proud Americans are typically much more interested in the public affairs of national politics than in knowing and understanding things, even things that mirror their current concerns.
Many of Nietzsche’s complaints (and a few of his compliments) about Germans might remind readers of Americans, particularly those readers outside of America. The German Empire of the late nineteenth century bears more than a passing resemblance to America of the early twenty-first. In America, heedless jingoism finds a huge audience, while sophisticated ideas find a small one. Like Germany, America was once based on stressing culture not nation. Like the people who became Germans in Germany, they once took part in a higher culture. More Americans-by-geography once spent more energy on understanding and questioning, on creating culture beyond mass-production, than on politics and staking claims to America for partisan identities and interests. Thus they once enjoyed considerable culture instead of considerable power—state power to be more precise, leaving individual Americans impotent. Today many Americans only know how to respond to challenges with calls for national action, such as war on this or on that, war on poverty or war on criminals, or war on being scared of terrorists, or immigrating foreigners. America has forsaken thinkers and writers of great sensitivity for activists and politicians of great clout, as Germany once did. Today, Nietzsche might lament What The Americans Lack.
I hasten to remind, lest some reactive critic of America begin to feel superior, that no place and no time resides above or apart from this pattern of decline. This is not a German and American problem, just as it was not a German problem. The infinite variations we may see in the different forms the pattern can take should never confuse us about the general principle. In Germany, in America, in France, in any place, wherever you are—whenever you are—political consumption could erode your culture if you do not grow it. The need for advanced awareness of the problem applies to you. It is likely the pattern has already struck your ancestors in the past, if ever they have had a high culture to squander.
The pattern recurs across place and time. It only continued to worsen for Germans who had no ear for understanding Nietzsche. After his death during the Second Reich (the Kaiserreich), during the Third Reich of the National Socialists with their ultra-nationalist drivel and book-burning, the state finally grew hungry for every last scrap of culture it could devour. Only from this nadir was recovery possible. We can expect the problem to continue and worsen in America unless the tide soon turns from aping to thinking, from what Orwell called “the gramophone mind”  to the independent mind, from nation-state to civilization, and from Reich to Kultur—or more precisely, unless the keepers and advocates of Kultur have turned the tide before catastrophe threatens its virtual annihilation.
Who could imagine that so few generations would lead “the people of thinkers” to burning books and men? American culture is not yet bankrupt; German culture was not until Germans were prepared to embrace Hitler, even though the path leading that way was laid down long before they came to its end. But according to pattern, American culture will become bankrupt if Americans continue marching along for Reich and Staat.
Resolving the peril of civilization comes back to education. Civilization depends on retaining culture, not only by saving it in cultural forms, but by representing culture to individuals of each new generation. Education is the beginning of culture and civilization because it introduces culture to the individual, in whom the great work of the past must be rejuvenated.
In America, as before in Germany, social, political and professional goals have incorporated individual goals, and streamlined personal development into mass industriousness. It is no coincidence that education has wilted where politics has thrived, where the unique experience of one’s own life gets less attention compared to the social stage. Nietzsche explains:
The German university system of this excoriation was a system others wanted to emulate. The same is true of the Prussian monopolization of education by public schooling, with its aims of conditioning children for a social response, making them uniform, and emphasizing memorization over exercises of thought, all with the goal of encouraging normative national unity under the state. American schools were modeled after the admired Prussian system. 
By no means has the goal of civil service training noted by Nietzsche been unique to the Prussian or German state. The modern glut of university students on their way to becoming lawyers, officials, bureaucrats or some form of public sector employee will be familiar to anyone exposed to American universities, or indeed any university today. This is an old reason for schooling with a ‘venerable tradition’ dating back far earlier than Germany; it has taken a variety of forms from teaching literacy to the scribes of ancient Sumer and Egypt to imperial examinations in China, but it remains the state’s reason. The aim is not only to manufacture bureaucracy for the state, but cogs for its existing bureaucratic machinery.
In the production-line training required by mass education in public schools, the student is not an end in himself, but a means. Nietzsche might be talking about the recent history of American schools when he continues: “Our overcrowded secondary schools, our overworked, stupefied secondary-school teachers, are a scandal” . And yet they are serving their purpose to turn out youth as a product and as a tool for social aims. The product need not be very good; actually, it may be desirable for some social aims if the output is as “stupid” as possible, as long as its Bildung has brought up sufficient obedience, killed off curiosity and difficult questions, and dulled cases of potential to manageable levels.
In fact, Americans turn out phenomenally ignorant in a number of important subjects, far more than Germans of Nietzsche’s day—and this is to back up to intellectualism, never mind spirit. In the nineteenth century, Nietzsche had the luxury of less concern for intellect than we do. Comparing scholastic expectations as reflected in exams from then and now can confirm disparity. Even the baseline of competent literacy was far higher in America before compulsory schooling. If people today believe they have picked up anything from school or even university about facts of history or economics, philosophy, logic or scientific thinking, they are often worse off than those who admit they have little idea; the distortions, falsehoods, and misleading impressions they will have absorbed in lieu of facts and in lieu of education in how to think for themselves are ruinous. Are we to believe this is what happens when schools seek to nurture, inform and improve minds?  Not even government is that inefficient.
Aside from self-serving bureaucracy, and even before it warped education, imposing ideologies on the young through education reinforced their status as traditions, maintaining continuity for the state. But dynamic culture contradicts any idea of holding still under the firm grip of power. This was Nietzsche’s focus in Human, All Too Human 474:
The rulers who compose the state want to perpetuate their own version of order versus the ‘chaos’ of culture coming into being. Just as the state is a threat to culture, culture is a threat to the state. That is why state-sponsored education is typically conservative, in restraint of culture and change, except for accommodating different but also statist ideologies of rising political agendas which will also be conserved subsequently.
But Nietzsche turns us in a more encouraging direction when he points to what education should be able to develop:
This is “to see” with a suspension (epoché) of reactive judgment. It has been pursued figuratively by philosophers (by the skeptics and the phenomenologists), and literally by critics and historians of art and archaeology.
Who can doubt that impulsiveness is a typical modern-American malady? And “vice,” cast not in moral terms, but a “time preference” (as economists neutrally phrase it) geared to immediate results, instead of long-term investment in greater potential satisfaction?
Nietzsche continues to explain the remainder of his three tasks:
A great deal of evidence attests to the claim that “logic as a theory, as a practice, as a craft, is beginning to die out” and the problem may be called endemic among purportedly educated modern people without risk of hyperbole. Anecdotal evidence is so continual, so unrelenting, that referring to any one example in isolation seems pointless. Suffice it to say that anyone trained in systematic thought, who can rely on instinctive command of deliberation and logical argument, senses violations all around. It would utterly consume one’s time to object during the occasions one encounters in which someone sincerely believes they are speaking logically and bringing up evidence to support a claim, but offers only personal feelings, anecdotes, and trifles, overestimating scant information and their naïve point of view, mistaking parts for wholes, biases for objectivity, or straw men for arguments, even putting forth the most outrageously-gullible stubbornness as skepticism. In these exchanges, imprecision and inaccuracy go unremarked out of emphasis and exaggeration.
It is clear that courses in “how to think” or other experiences to teach the same are direly needed by everyone who has pretensions to intelligence, if only to make certain that they know thinking well is not a instinctive proficiency gifted by rough potential. The promises of not only avoiding outright errors of logic, but also raising awareness of common and perilous philosophical errors  beckon from an educated future.
Writing ideas down today unfortunately means anticipating erroneous assumptions by the reader. This means not only illogic and overreaches based on what is said and not said, but basic errors of reading comprehension—the reader replacing what is written with the reader’s impression. Nietzsche’s own writing has been subject to functionally illiterate readers misunderstanding the word Macht or its closest English equivalent “power” as political power without attention to the contexts of the word. They have read Nietzsche into a fascist extolling naked power in politics, despite his fierce criticism of politics, the state, and nationalism, and his even more intense disgust with anti-Semitic racists like those who tried to take over his legacy and adopt it for Nazism. Such treatment is quite unfair, but it has become part of a philosopher’s job, if he writes for others, to exaggerate clarity, to over-explain, and to employ vivid metaphors at his own risk or announce them as such.
Nietzsche also speaks of the refinement of thinking as dancing, of dancing with words. But this is actually a metaphor for getting beyond words; those educated in words use them as tools, but see beyond them. Nietzsche is probably correct to suppose those without the necessary experience would consider this enigmatic. For those who demand specific labels, it would seem too ambiguous to match them.
The dance is a fine metaphor for wisdom—to choose the closest word—and the only way to “attain” that is to do it, and practice it. Wisdom is a dynamic, interpretive, and flexible process of holding multiple poses in a flow, not a single position one can attain and hold. Wisdom is not contained in any one method, and it is certainly not a thing or quantum. The dance of wisdom is praxis as opposed to theory; it needs rhythm, and a lightness.
The Syndrome in Formal Education
A number of points might indicate a decline in education linked with a decadent culture (“decadent” again not in moral terms, but understood as enervation), including:
These roughly correspond to three tremendous, recurring obstacles to human society. But evidence can also be found in:
And furthermore, evidence can be found in the typical curriculum:
The Syndrome in Media
Whether American or German, people who lack the education to properly see, think, speak and write—as Nietzsche’s synecdoche puts it—lose their senses for things that make greater demands upon one’s faculties: finer, more delicate, subtler, and more indistinct things.  Upon these the refinement of culture depends, both in the makeup of people and in their creations. Signs show a waning sense for ambiguity that leads to wondering and questions, for mysteries, for intimation and connotation in conversation and in books, cinema, television, and other media, to instead prefer that each train of thought should proceed without delay to pat, immediate answers, even if it follows a rapid succession of maladroit steps.
Thus modern Americans and Germans of Nietzsche’s time both read mainstream, reflexively orthodox and pro-state newspapers and press; Americans watch mainstream TV news, rarely considering the interests of the media to protect their close access to the famous and powerful, or the aims and biases of those who own wire services, newspapers, and networks which filter and sell information (individuals like the Hearst family, Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Moonies cult, Rupert Murdoch, or Conrad Black; corporations like General Electric, a titanic military-industry contractor). Judgment cannot be suspended for “independent” media sources either, which have their own ideological biases, and many of which little more than reflect each other. What appears in front of them, Americans see as either a straightforward provision of information, or low-cost or cost-free entertainment telling them a story; they do not see.
Americans—to generalize once again in the interest of exceptions, on the basis of lacking education, keeping in mind the ballast effect in culture—have characteristically short attention spans, preferring truncated experiences to come in self-explanatory packages. If Nietzsche were alive, he might apply his biting wit to call them thick, even when they are not consuming.
It is all-too-easy, though, to criticize mass culture. Certain Americans hold themselves above a presumed “lowest common denominator.” But this cultural criticism is as much a common trend as anything else, and by itself such criticism does not elevate. Perhaps it is always a bit unfair to assess the health of culture according to popular culture, or to expect high culture from popular media—we may expect this will remain an exercise in hunting.
The fitness of exceptions has more significance than assessment of popular culture per se. Taking exception is one task of what Nietzsche unabashedly calls a “higher kind of human being” who is himself an exception. Are the processes generating exceptions robust, or are the exceptions more like the surrounding culture, more affected than they would care to admit? It is with this question in mind that we may productively examine some tendencies of popular culture in America. (Remember, once again, that when Nietzsche identified a syndrome of cultural decline and lacking education, he did not mean only formal education—which has most certainly failed—but the holistic, formative Bildung of the environment rearing individuals.)
Americans buy many narrative books, and love movies, but become rattled by plots that cannot be summarized. Cadres of jaded reviewers classify even perfectly understandable, but relatively complex or deliberately ambiguous plots as “incomprehensible.”  This has the effect of helpfully warning their readers that understanding would require effort, consideration, and maybe multiple readings or viewings; accessible amusement or visceral engagement, not enduring enjoyment (much less enduring edification) is the typical goal of stories in a popular medium.
On television, Americans have long been advised to consider a story which does not end in thirty minutes or perhaps an hour (including commercial breaks) to be a “cult phenomenon” with limited appeal. This means: the viewer is to be congratulated for an unusual attention span, and the “cult” deserves credentials for special understanding. Even makers of the would-be mainstream science fiction shows Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine discovered this when they extended their plotlines beyond episodic format into epic themes. Creators of serialized plots such as Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) have been under great pressure to keep them episodic. Even sensationalist soap operas require summaries so viewers can drop in and out.
In contrast, epic-length spans were once actually palatable popular entertainment, and in much more complicated forms, such as Homer and Virgil, they were once enjoyed by literate people all over the English-speaking world. Even serialized storylines in periodicals that provided popular entertainment in the nineteenth century, by writers like Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle, now mark an unusual capacity for paying attention and signify discerning culture.
And isn’t it indisputably the case that “watching the movie” is more popular than “reading the book”? Whatever this may say about the appeal of films to conjure up an experience, it should not suggest a small badge of honor for those who actually take the time to read popular novels, as though they are substantial literature—and yet, in modern American culture, it does.
Americans of course consume much useful nonfiction: manuals and references and so forth. While not problematic by itself, this can only remind the historically-minded of the nineteenth-to-twentieth-century stereotype of utilitarian, industrious, but unimaginative Germans.
At the same time, escapist fantasy can also be found in large amounts, implying that people find their normal lives inordinately boring or dissatisfying enough to require escape. To seek to avoid the present, to neglect investment in the future—i.e., change capable of cultivating greater interest and stimulation in the long-term—has historically suggested cultural decadence to social observers. Recall Nietzsche’s compulsive, impatient “vice.”  To labor and suffer, and then to escape, only to have to return to the same labor and suffering again, without deliverance—that is hardly uncommon, and yet it is shortsighted enough to indicate impulsiveness, and paradoxically, lack of imagination. This reminds us that hard work and improvement of living conditions are not synonymous simply because productivity can contribute to the latter.
Musically, perhaps an unusual number of Americans today prefer remarkably simplistic and unchallenging popular music which conforms far more than it innovates, and panders to sensational tastes; debatably, the same trends infect unusually much sub-cultural music. The pop music of the past was once opera, which has now passed into pretentious status. Jazz and even classic rock seem to be well on their way. From the modern point of view, it seems absurd that in Nietzsche’s day, he critiqued the coarse sentimentality of Wagner pandering to the public. Today, it is all the more self-evident that the goal of popular music is not memorable musical quality, but to compel a reaction; to be catchy enough to sell, even if its consumers will consider it disposable afterward.
Successful music is not only played often, it often plays the audience. That means the audience must be playable—of a type that is prepared to be played, meaning they must respond to compulsion, and have to react to what they hear, to move to the music or to get it stuck in their heads. Is such an audience sensitive to nuances any more than they retain the attention spans to listen to operas? Can they follow the systematic structure of music any better than they sort out logic or language, when they have not learned to hear attentively and systematically? For isn’t it the case that they do not know how to hear much better than they see—to suspend judgment, to hold things at a distance and take a moment for scrutiny?
Taken distinctly, such evidences might not suggest larger trends; certainly the syndrome has suffused the products of culture unevenly and with exception. But together, they do suggest that something like what happened in Germany has been happening in America, and for some time.
Arguably a more central symptom, certainly one with bitter sociopolitical repercussions, can be found in the common insensibility to irony and sarcasm beyond the conversational sort which supplies blatant intonation. Terry Gilliam was once asked what he would like to give Americans, and said: “A sense of irony. What predates the ability to understand irony is a certain amount of wisdom, knowledge, awareness and intelligence”; in the same interview, he explained why Americans don’t understand symbolism:
As Gilliam has cause to know, that literalism extends to missing even that pointed form of irony, satire. When a great many Americans (supposedly-literate reviewers and audience) could not even fathom a transparent satire like the popular film revision of Heinlein’s militaristic novel Starship Troopers—a highly relevant imitation war-propaganda film which bears trademark Paul Verhoeven bluntness—there is an unsubtle problem with education quite beyond being poorly informed about any specific subject; cultural upbringing is lacking. Far too many Americans are far too literal, far too straightforward, and far too gullible concerning face value.
Atrophy of suspended perception in the form of literalism may help to account for how so many oblivious Americans today can ignore or accept the most outrageous lie, the most suspicious cover-up, the most blatant fear-mongering, and the most cynical, opportunistic betrayal from politicians, technocrats and public figures with lethargy, as if they were not being tricked and exploited. They are not seeing through things, to continue Nietzsche’s metaphor. Similarly, the Germans faced the kitsch of the Kaiser’s farcical posturing and blustering with all the pious seriousness which so many Americans have lavished on the scoundrels, fools and buffoons of the presidency, military, and even punditocracy. Both backers of the Reich and backers of the Republic have readily interpreted rough scheming and easy language as signs of national greatness and imperial majesty—for that is the ready explanation provided, the one suggested by see-through dress of dignity and sophistication. (Among the Romans, at least it took aristocrats with bearing, like Gaius Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, to make imperium palatable—at first.)
Exceptions in Culture
But wait, the reader may object: what about such-and-such exceptions to the mass culture generalized as dumbed-down? It may be tempting to cite exceptional subcultures, people, or creative works which call negative cultural generalizations into question.
People can debate the relative merits of cultures in different times and places ad infinitum, frequently over-emphasizing unique developments which cannot be compared in parallel with others, such as the rise of new media (in the twentieth century alone: movies, television, graphic novels, electronic music, video games, and internet media). I am not inclined to bother with such debates here.
Any culture, as the production of multifarious individuals, includes some brilliantly artful, sophisticated, or profound exceptions. Exceptions provide the remarkable, by definition. Therefore it is predictable that some subcultures within the wider scope of popular culture attain the important role of supporting remarkable exceptions. There are subcultures harboring individuals who reject the mainstream decline in culture or seek to reform it through honest dissent or new creative visions.
But in any case I am not so much examining some distilled assessment of the culture and finding it wanting compared to something else, although one could make that argument, and many have.
Rather, I am suggesting we observe decline through assessment of exceptions, and potential exceptions—even if we cannot aggregate them into a generalization, but must simply assume they exist. Secondly, we may find instructive popular reactions to worthy exceptions, even fairly modest exceptions introduced into a popular culture apparently quite unprepared for recognizing and supporting unusual depth. These help to establish the total Bildung for prospective exceptions. Do processes of development, learning, and cultural environment provide an upbringing conducive to spirit, and surround spiritual individuals with inspiration, guidance and support for their endeavors—or conversely misunderstand potential, suppress exceptions, muddy perception, and raise obstacles to creative realization?
It is true that by some measures, modern American education and cultural achievements appear to pale in comparison to those of the past, such as literature in nineteenth century America (William James, Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Twain, Thoreau). But a generic measure misses an important point that the exceptions are the sources of the most creative forces within a culture. Exceptions may arise despite general lapses, and (to some extent) despite regimented or superficial education—an inhibitive rather than encouraging environment. We should expect some high-cultural exceptions to appear in any large culture; even the Soviet Union had some writers its thought police did not crush before they created great works.
Besides, with culture we must not speak only of the moment but of the past; the present culture continues feeding on the energies and qualities of the past for some time. The parasitic system of the Soviet Union came to power upon the foundations of Russia, which before communism had not only extraordinary Tsarist liabilities but tremendous wells of strength. This was clear from the affirmation of great individuals, shown in the affection for great artists and thinkers held up as cultural champions. What we might wonder is how many great thinkers, writers, visionaries, artists, and educators will emerge from all the young trapped in American schools right now?
Orwell speculated that little if any great creative work could be produced under totalitarianism. In fact, he said, “when the lid is taken off Europe, I believe one of the things that will surprise us will be to find how little worth-while writing of any kind—even such things as diaries, for instance—has been produced in secret under the dictators.”  He was largely correct, with some dissident exceptions, but he was in error to apply such a short timeline to cultural degeneration. Cultural developments can and usually do reflect changes more gradually.
We must hold in mind the ballast effect in culture. A superficial estimation of the relative achievements of culture may attribute to the moment what was earned in the past century or centuries. (We might liken this to short-terming economic cause-and-effect, which even attributes economic growth or decline to whatever administration has recently entered office.) There is much carry-over in culture, which binds the efforts of individuals into media and other cultural products, and communicates them in the process of education (including holistic upbringing by environment) for some time into the future. This is true of subculture as well as wider culture. 
Generative forces of individuals who create culture should be our greatest concern. If American culture has been declining, it has been because the holistic education of those with rejuvenating potential has failed them; indeed, suitable education has almost vanished in lieu of mass pseudo-education. This problem is only exacerbated because those with rejuvenating potential to uplift culture might appear from almost any origin. Thus they might happen to be subjected to the most antithetical sort of environment: the worst formalized schooling, and a local cultural wasteland around them.
Conclusion: The High Price of the State Paid in Culture
The state has been an antagonist to culture because its collectivism disregards and contradicts culture as the product of individuals, and education as the fulfillment of individuals, and because our attentions to commit to all aims are finite.
Despite the rise of population, technological inventions, increases in technical efficiency, and vast resources (including extraordinary sums of money thrown at education) we always rely on limited personal energies and are compelled to prioritize. No matter how enormous and how maximized is the sum of our energies to expend on priorities over the course of time, antagonistic aims must compete at each other’s expense for our attention. Even those who involve themselves in politics in order to combat various machinations perpetrated through state power do so at risk of consumption. We must ultimately pay for what is being squandered on political consciousness and its superficial causes by having little left for deep culture and education worthy of it.
Politics is a consumption in these terms, but the state is more than a squanderer. It is also an aggressive destroyer of rival culture capable of seeing through it, a pillager of fine education for its own purposes. Much collateral damage is inevitable, and eventually the elite themselves fall into decline with their education. The state is parasitic upon society which sustains it, including its culture.
The state is not only a political institution of hierarchical rule by means of political power with a monopoly on force. Particularly in its aggregated, bureaucratic, centralized, socialized and democratized modern forms, it is a formula for scarcity of education and shallower humanity to better sustain itself. It is the poverty of culture, the poor being easier to rule.
1. What The Germans Lack 1 in Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Penguin, 1977. [back]
2. What The Germans Lack 3 in Twilight of the Idols, ibid. [back]
3. What The Germans Lack 2 in Twilight of the Idols, ibid. [back]
4. What The Germans Lack 3 in Twilight of the Idols, ibid. [back]
5. Nietzsche himself was the recipient of an extensive formal education, particularly in classical languages, literature, and linguistics (philology), but he felt constrained due to his real interests in a comprehensive philosophy which were not supported in academia. He had personal experience with an institutional hierarchy which tended to subordinate the over-work of the individual young scholar within an established structure, which seems to be his meaning here. Nevertheless, there were both disadvantageous and advantageous consequences for his sacrifices of youthful energy and health to intense academic work, during which he at least attained rare intellectual discipline. He would afterwards put emphasis on leisure in order to philosophize, but there can be no doubt that his work was also the product of a prodigiously disciplined mind. [back]
6. What The Germans Lack 4 in Twilight of the Idols, ibid. [back]
7. The political rise of France marked the cultural rise of Germany, and the political rise of Germany marked the cultural rise of France. France is chosen for comparison no doubt due to the historical relationship of political competition between the two, which Nietzsche recasts here in a different light. [back]
8. Nietzsche says European as one might say world today, as in “citizen of the world.” [back]
9. The Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset (authorized translation), Norton, 1932, p. 43. [back]
10. Human, All Too Human 465 trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1996. [back]
11. “To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.” — George Orwell, The Freedom of the Press, intended preface to Animal Farm; http://www.orwell.ru/library/novels/Animal_Farm/english/efp_go [back]
12. Bildung includes not only formal education, but a holistic process of formation; the whole development of individual character within an environment. [back]
14. cf. G.I. bill tuition assistance. [back]
15. What The Germans Lack 5 in Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Penguin, 1977. [back]
16. Chapter 3: Why There Are Public Schools in Separating School & State: How To Liberate American Families by Sheldon Richman, Future of Freedom Foundation, 1994; http://www.sntp.net/education/school_state_3.htm [back]
17. About the American public schools, we need not speculate. The designers of the American public system were remarkably outspoken in their desire to produce industrious citizen cogs, and propagandize them; it was these “progressive” social goals that made the Prussian system appealing. This was not as original as it may appear, however, and followed a certain amount of precedent, as a secular, statist second act to centuries of propaganda delivered in many religious schools and molding education around tendentious treatments of subjects such as bible study. [back]
18. What The Germans Lack 6 in Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Penguin, 1977. [back]
19. Also see The Gay Science 104, on the influence of Prussian soldiering on the sound of the German language, regimenting speech, writing, and literature. [back]
20. What The Germans Lack 7 in Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Penguin, 1977. [back]
21. This too was a Nietzschean project, although his list in Twilight of the Idols was limited to four. [back]
22. It is also worth adding to this explanation that a not-inconsiderable aspect of modern culture regards delicacy (in the senses of sensitivity, good taste, and elegance) as vulnerable, if not also weak, because it lets down its guard and does not continually project power, and as effeminate, if not also homosexual. A delicate constitution, delicate perception, or its subtle creative products are not necessarily acceptable to those who overcompensate for inner vulnerability with blunt reactions against non-threatening traits, precisely because they are not threatening. (Note that Nietzsche himself has been accused over the years of effeminacy, eroticism, perversions, and homosexuality in order to disqualify or qualify his ideas.) This aversion to delicacy is obviously a position derived from insecurity, yet it leads to overreaction even among those who know this. Homosexuals may feel the need to (ap)prove themselves through indelicacy. Some women attempt to show strength by exaggerating power plays, and sometimes, affecting “masculine” aggressive qualities. [back]
23. Two examples in film: the artistically ambiguous Photographing Fairies, and the more simple but bewilderingly “slow” (atmospheric) The Ninth Gate, with respectively angelic and diabolic approaches to transcending unexamined belief and faith. The response making a few really hard-to-map films such as 12 Monkeys or Pi successful is likely that viewers simply accept them as “trippy,” quirky, and odd—in short, nonsensical and not requiring comprehension, just the bemused enjoyment appropriate to the fun houses and freak shows of yesteryear. When the audience perceives that challenging movies are making serious meditative demands of them and they are unable to sort out discrete meaning, they suspect their entertainment has betrayed them and is simply insulting their intelligence. Even an extraordinary, rich journey such as The Fountain could only hope for cult appeal amidst popular irritation with its pretensions to art. [back]
24. Nietzsche mentions self-drugging Germans in What the Germans Lack 2 (ibid.)—“nowhere have the two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity, been abused more dissolutely”—but to the list of potential narcotic escapes into sensation, the consumption of media must be added. [back]
25. Interview by David Wallis, Salon.com, June 5, 1998; http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/int/1998/06/05int.html [back]
27. To return to the Reich for an example from military (sub)culture: much effort during and after the Second World War went to explaining away the perception that the German army appeared to have the more adept commanders (aside from the notable incompetent interference of Hitler himself), and seemed to fight more effectively man-for-man. This wasn’t due to the recent application of National Socialist mass ideology to the ranks, and it certainly wasn’t anything to do with racial superiority. But it wasn’t imaginary, either; it followed not only from superior training and equipment, but from a longer tradition of excellence through individual initiative within the German officer corps, which Nazi politicians unfortunately inherited, along with an intentional abdication from involvement in making political decisions or second-guessing them by many officers after the First World War. [back]
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