How ironic that the Western ideals of the Renaissance and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions came to fruition in Europe’s conquering of the New World and in the power of American democracy, capitalism and technology, while American popular culture is glaringly infantile. Why is the serious business of honouring and preserving the ideals of the Age of Reason hindered by a relentlessly infantilizing culture in the country that’s supposed to be leading the revolution of modernity?
Daydreams of Superheroes
Here are three examples of American infantilism. First, there’s the monopoly of Walt Disney Company in the entertainment industry. The Disney brand was established decades ago by a series of animated cartoons and movies for families and children. Disney extended its reach by buying Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. Superhero movies, in particular, have dominated the box office and pushed out more serious story-telling into the streaming television market. But the coverage of the entertainment industry gravitates to Disney and to superheroes, because the earnings of those movies have shattered records and the corporate media thrive on access to the biggest movie stars.
The comedian Bill Maher pointed out how strange it is to see the mainstreaming of comic book culture for adults. He wrote in a little article called “Adulting” that, “twenty years or so ago, something happened — adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” He went on to say, “I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.”
Of course, Maher received backlash on Twitter, which only supported his criticism because Twitter is notorious for being childish, due to the limitations of its medium. With its 280 character limit, Twitter could be expected to flourish in a society with a low attention span or that has a schoolyard fetish for zingers. So Maher observed that grown men obsessing over superheroes and even dressing up as them at comic book conventions are obvious, bizarre signs of mass infantilization, and he was refuted by a Twitter mob that speaks in baby bursts of outrage that can’t help but miss the point. Maher’s critics castigated him for stomping on the freshly-dug grave of Stan Lee, whereas his point had little to do with Lee, but with the dumbing-down of American culture.
True, by appearing in the Marvel movies, Lee abetted this trend, but he’s not a primary cause of it, not even if we take into account his years of promoting Marvel comics, since he couldn’t have foreseen not only the advances in computer animation that would make these movies possible, but the adult demand for them.
The point isn’t that the superheroes movies are worthless. But Marvel comic books were sold primarily as fantasies for teens who could think of puberty and their emerging adult responsibilities as equivalent to the acquiring of superpowers. That type of narrative shouldn’t be as interesting to someone who’s gotten used to being an adult. Yet there’s obviously an enormous adult market for superhero stories in the United States. The implication is that many American adults don’t feel like adults. Their maturity level or role in society has somehow been infantilized, and I’ll return at the end to the question of possible causes.
ASMR, Hypnotism, and Roleplaying
Another example is the ASMR phenomenon on YouTube. ASMR is a type of euphoria associated with a tingly sensation on the skin, having various triggers such as soft-spoken voices or tapping or paper-rustling noises. There are millions of videos currently on YouTube meant to induce this euphoric state in the viewer.
I have some personal experience with ASMR. Like many, I used to watch Bob Ross painting on PBS and zone out to his soothing voice. On another local TV station, a woman gave Tarot card readings to listeners who called in and I found the cadence of her voice also oddly relaxing. Once when I was shopping for clothes, an employee with the same sort of calming voice and mannerisms showed me various options and I found myself wanting to stay there just to prolong her personal attention to me. This is now a subgenre in ASMR, that of the host who bathes the viewer in mock concern, such as by roleplaying as a massage therapist or a librarian or a travel agent.
Indeed, I found that I have the strange ability to trigger the ASMR experience at will, just by focusing my attention on the back of the neck. So I believe I have some idea what’s at the root of the mainstreaming of ASMR, and it’s pure infantilization.
Arguably, all ASMR experiences are recreations of the near-universal childhood comfort of having curled up with Mom or Dad as the parent read you a bedtime story. There you have the soothing voice that was meant to prepare you for sleep, the page turning, the relief of being safe in bed with your parent whom you likely worshipped at that age, and the feeling of being the center of attention since the story was being read just for your benefit. That’s the ur-ASMR experience, and notice the asymmetry of it between parent and child.
The exploitation of a nostalgic longing to return to that state of childhood innocence predates Bob Ross and ASMR, since salespeople have likely always used this trick to bypass the consumer’s faculties of rational decision-making. Think of the sing-songy jingles that are meant to stick in your memory but that are also reminiscent of nursery rhymes. Think of the scene in the film Glengarry Glen Ross in which Pacino’s character bags the ultimate sale in a bar, with a soft-spoken heart-to-heart chat with the customer or victim, played by Jonathan Pryce.
But think even of how aristocrats used to be babied by servants who would dress them and take care of all the other menial chores. Today’s celebrities likewise have a staff of “assistants” that effectively infantilizes the person at the center of their attention. In some sense the celebrity must be a mature adult since he or she alone can afford to pay for that elaborate, round-the-clock spa treatment. But the reliance on the personal attention of servants makes for a retreat from adult responsibilities.
Reality TV shows such as Below Deck feature the infantilization of the wealthy. In that show, wealthy guests charter a luxury mega-yacht for a few days and are catered to by a staff of stewardesses and deckhands who superficially adore the guests but secretly hold them in contempt. It’s as though your mother were reading you a bedtime story when you were child and she smiles and uses a soothing voice to make you comfortable, but privately she’s disgusted by your weaknesses. Children can’t help but be as they are, but rich guests on a yacht who behave like spoiled children can be loathsome, because here we have an inversion of the stock character of the spooky child in horror movies, who’s an adult or an ancient spirit trapped in a child’s body. The adult body that behaves like a child can seem just as eerie.
What unites ASMR and the salesperson’s and servant’s manipulations is mesmerism. The goal is to lull the targeted person into a childlike feeling of innocence, comfort, and pre-rationality, using techniques familiar to hypnotists. Needless to say, going to such lengths to pretend you’re a baby is antithetical to the ideals of the Age of Reason.
Information Silos and Tribalism
A third example is the fragmentation of American society, due to the commercialization of the news and the internet’s feedback loops so that you needn’t step out of your information bubble or have your worldview challenged by contrary perspectives or evidence. The profit motive incentivizes news providers to addict their audience by sensationalizing the news and generating conflict to fuel the viewers’ resentments. This polarizes the national audience, creates a tribal mentality and exacerbates the culture war.
In the middle of the last century, there were far fewer national sources of information, with only a handful of major newspapers and television channels. The internet democratizes content, eliminating intermediaries and allowing everyone to broadcast their opinions to the world. But thanks to algorithms designed by Google and Facebook, the internet’s search functions filter out most of those opinions, keeping your eyes glued to the screen rather than scaring you off, by feeding you more and more of what you’ve already seen and implicitly liked. Again, the incentive is commercial, the point being to maximize the time you spend using the internet and viewing ads and informing companies about your preferences.
The result is more infantilization. Again we recreate the safe space we enjoyed as children when our parents’ home protected us from unwelcome influences on our development. In most households in developed countries, the parents control what their children eat, wear, and watch. We’re supposed to grow out of that cocoon and learn the critical thinking skills needed to handle encounters with foreigners and rival viewpoints. More than that, we ought to thrive from such encounters, since we learn to improve ourselves by challenging our assumptions. This is a principle of the Age of Reason, going back to Plato’s dialogues.
But safe spaces don’t end with news bubbles. American universities have become infamous for their coddling of the students’ minds. Perhaps exacerbated by overprotective parents, Millennials and Generation Z whine about “microaggressions” and the need for “trigger warnings,” retreating literally to “safe spaces” rather than recognizing that the academic world is the Great Conversation that requires engaging with opposing arguments out of a common search for the truth.
The impact on the political left is a reversion to a sense of childhood helplessness. By contrast, the siloing of information has monstrified American conservatives. Together, these dynamics enabled the populist con man, Donald Trump to climb to the top of American society where his egregious narcissism and other regressions epitomize the infantile culture over which he presides.
Turbocharged by their feedback loops on Facebook, Fox News, and talk radio, American conservatives radicalized themselves to the point of welcoming an outsider who promised to bring down the American “establishment” and “deep state.” Were Trump’s campaign promises made in good faith, the effect of his policies would have been anarchical, but of course the substance of his campaign was a fraud; all that carried through was the simpleminded protest against foreigners and elites, and Trump did manage to harass and embarrass those hated sectors of society. If you’ve seen a child throw a temper tantrum, you know the essence of the Trump supporter.
Meanwhile, the wimps on the left who are afraid of conflict and who don’t appreciate the direness of their situation shirk their obligation to destroy the monsters in their midst, as it were. Democrats’ rhetoric is woefully understated and their legalistic tactics misunderstand the country’s postmodern condition. One reason for that apparent political weakness is the fostering of timidity and naivety in the liberal electorate.
Digitization and Childlike Aliens
The symptoms of mass infantilization are pervasive in American mainstream culture. Here, briefly, are a few smaller-scale examples. The digitization of media has made songs, books, and art disposable, because they proliferate through legal and illegal copying, leaving the content producers in the lurch. There’s so much free content on the internet that it’s a miracle anyone is still paid a livable wage for creating anything that can be digitized. This disposability of content infantilizes the consumer, because the carefree child is naturally fickle. Children rapidly go through phases and fads, because their interests are only superficial. As the adage has it, whatever’s easily obtained isn’t worth having, so we surf the internet like babies who take it all for granted.
Paradoxically, however, there’s a converse way of instilling a childlike mentality in consumers. Television and streaming platforms encourage the endlessness of content. Sitcoms and more recent, cinematic television shows are often not planned with any end or narrative arc in mind, but are meant to go on and on, season after season until the profit runs out. The consumption of this part of popular culture, too, is infantilizing, because children are also eager for games and stories to be repeated to them ad nauseum. Likewise, consumers often can’t get enough of a program even when the show’s production is cynical.
In these and other respects, the trend is captured in the animated film WALL-E, in which far-future humans are helpless, overweight blobs that are wholly dependent on their technology. The pop cultural icon of the little green or grey alien, a creature with a potbelly and atrophied toes and senses apart from its giant bug eyes seems less like an accurate report of what anyone witnessed and more a premonition of where we’re headed as a late-modern society. Notice the childlike features of some of these aliens, including their small nose and mouth and oversized eyes and head, and their dependence on technology. Children, too, are dependent on their parents and on their household. The iconic alien may indicate our dawning fear that we’re losing our sense of adulthood.
The Childishness of the Age of Reason
There are numerous causes of these aspects of popular culture, some of which I’ve already explained. One other underlying cause might be that Western liberal societies are in decline, so the infantilization represents a retreat into senility or feigned innocence, a turtling-up to evade guilt and responsibility for our short-sightedness and collective misdeeds. Whatever our society’s moral status may be, though, given our destruction of ecosystems and the holocausts we perpetrate against livestock, I doubt that status is causally linked to the phenomena in question.
The reason has to do with the word “popular” in “popular culture.” If you were to walk into an American college classroom, laboratory or boardroom, you would be greeted with highly sophisticated, adult conversations and behaviour. What’s increasingly infantile is the mainstream culture. The majority’s demand makes something popular and the tastes of the majority reflect most people’s average or below-average intelligence.
The majority, then, is prone to being infantilized because most people lack cognitive defenses against societal parasites, whereas aristocrats and celebrities revert by succumbing to the corruption caused by their immersion in a life of luxury. This implies that popular cultures have always been infantile, relative to the intellectual elites who stand apart from both popular culture and the ruling class. If there’s been a recent increase in the childishness of mass culture, this may be due to the expanded reach of the entertainment industry, afforded by advances in social media. It’s harder to escape the childishness now because the low-grade content is only a click away on your smartphone.
There is, though, a more profound underlying cause. The irony is that the infantilization seems baked into the Age of Reason. In one respect, early modern culture was quintessentially mature. The narrative was that scientists and philosophers and artisans and merchants would finally be independent of the obsolete dogmas bequeathed by the ancient world. From the European Renaissance onwards, the synthesis of Neoplatonism and Thomism collapsed under the weight of empirical scrutiny and freedom of thought. Just as children are bound by their parents’ rules but are supposed to outgrow them and be free to explore and decide for themselves how they should live, so too the modern world outgrew the childish conservatism of the feudal and ancient eras.
However, by crushing that ancient, totalitarian worldview and winning that freedom from dogmas, moderns lost their respect for the traditions that used to guide people so they wouldn’t be paralyzed by the question of what they’re free to do. If you’re free from the past, you’re free to do whatever you want, which raises the question of what you should want. Science and philosophy found themselves unable to answer that question, for fear of committing the naturalistic fallacy. Nietzsche thus famously said that moderns killed God and would be stultified once they figured out the disastrous consequences for morality. A whole myth-laden value system that propped up liberalism and modern ideas of social progress collapsed along with the defunct God of the ancients, and the modern search for a stand-in purpose has been an exercise in futility.
In any case, this limitless freedom to do something we can no longer revere, to wait in absurdity for Godot is a mark also of childhood. As bound by their parents’ rules as young children are, they don’t often feel constrained because they’re also naïve and lighthearted. Children don’t understand rules and responsibilities, and their primary occupation is just to play, to go where their imagination takes them. The modern preoccupation with personal liberty is comparable to that childhood innocence, in that both are rudderless.
What late-modern American childishness may represent, then, is an emerging transparency of what was implicit all along in the modern enterprise. The Age of Reason may be less heroic than vainglorious. Advances in technology have only accelerated our reckoning with the implications of our “postmodern” disenchantment with all myths and authorities and institutions. We boast that we’re mature and independent rather than beholden to superstitions and corrupt regimes, but we discover that it’s possible to have too much liberty.
The too-free, spoiled adult behaves like a child because she has no idea what she really should be doing. She can travel the world and consume a smorgasbord of products, but with only vacuous corporate advertisements and a cacophony of competing voices in the noosphere to replace the old world’s monolithic word of God or of the emperor, she’s like a child who plays to forget that she doesn’t understand what’s happening around her, why her parents are fighting, why they took away her stuffed animal, or why they have to move. Superhero movies, ASMR, and news bubbles, then, amount to our retreats to childhood familiarities, because the modern world is self-destructive.
This can’t be the whole story, though, because there is, after all, a modern enterprise rather than just absurd aimlessness. The benefit of the Age of Reason was that we would finally have the means to control natural processes — that being the agenda of our species going back to the earliest inventions, from spears to shamanism. We would unleash subversive, objective reason, master the secrets of the universe, and build a better world. That is the modern enterprise, although our idolizing of reason ensures that we can’t trust in that or any other purpose.
But the point is that this purpose is yet another, more cynical cause of late-modern infantilization. Fulfilling the purpose requires the industrial machine, which in turn is based on capitalism. We gain power over nature with ingenuity, which is maximized by the profit motive that taps into our inherent selfishness. This capitalist logic produces the boom-and-bust consumer culture and the frauds perpetrated by unscrupulous businesses against the hapless consumers whose short-sighted purchases power the societal machine.
The word “consumer” is virtually synonymous with “adult baby.” After all, the infant, too, is a professional consumer, since that’s all the infant does: she eats and expels waste. Of course, the infant does this to physically grow into an adult. The question, then, is whether the adult consumer is meant to grow into something more or whether she’s only being exploited by savvy predators.