What Is The Middlebrow
May 26, 2011 § 8 Comments
Thinking a bit about the hype/backlash cycle, attributed by Benjamin Kunkel to the ambivalences of “mass affluence.” Essentially, the complaint goes, under consumerism, culture is reduced to participation in status markets. Not only does this degradation of art teach us ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing,’ but it renders us unable to comprehend the very concept of non-market value, a disability that extends to politics. “The extent of the hype cycle’s corruption of our minds,” he writes, “can be measured by the frequency with which you hear people complaining that environmentalism has grown so fashionable, so chic, so trendy. Try to imagine a similar complaint from another political era: “I was totally into democracy—before they extended the franchise. I was all about socialism—but it became so working class.” The loss of aesthetic discernment deadens us even to the value of the authentically popular.
There’s an apparent fact that seems to follow from this observation that undermines it at the same time. The ‘hype system,’ inseparable from angst about said system, is driven by the greatest fear of any self-respecting petit-bourgeois — to be caught being ‘bourgeois.’ To be truly cultured, ‘cool,’ etc., is to exist beyond categories. But with a few exceptions that prove the rule, one can’t even be in the running unless one is (gross!) in the running to become bourgeois. To specify by focusing on literature: from Lukàcs through Jameson and on to Kunkel (!), a novel written today that reminds the critic of 19th-century realism is considered both less decadent and less ‘contemporary’ than one that takes its cues from the modernist demand for the transcendence of form over content, and is a clue that the writer is not, through no fault of their own, white, first-world, or (80% of the time) male. Whether that’s good or bad is up to the individual critic, but in either case the Euro, the American, the late capitalist, whiteness, and maleness just happen to converge on the center of historical progress. An interesting piece reflects on this bias here.
There is a handy classification scheme to mark those who don’t agree with the position one takes in cultural debate. I’m talking about the ‘brow system,’ developed by a Sun journalist’s use of phrenology as not-quite-just-a-metaphor for taste, opposing a “highbrow” elite to “lowbrow” plebes, marking them both as slightly freakish. The system was completed in the British comedy magazine Punch (the ancestor of MAD and National Lampoon as much as The Onion) with a flourish of self-reflexive irony — the “middlebrow…consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.” Virginia Woolf, the middlebrow’s favorite modernist, famously later used it to insult the BBC, the middlebrow’s favorite news source.
Of course, the entire ‘brow system’ is itself middlebrow, and that is because it locks every object formally eligible as ‘art’ within the market of formally eligible opinions of what ‘art’ is. Like the petit-bourgeois/middlebrow assessment of global warming, the problem is always that there are too many people involved: quality sinks, authenticity is forgotten, all is replaced by competitive self-interest and banality. The important thing to keep in mind is that not everyone can be judged in this way — it would be the height of poor taste to call the proverbial starving child in Africa (or New Orleans, for that matter) ‘lowbrow’; one only attacks those who should know better. The whole racket evidently exists for people who think of themselves as ‘middle class’ to police each other.
This great debate perpetuates an unspoken assumption that participating in it is an inevitable result of coming into wealth, or simply living in proximity to wealth (“under the conditions of late capitalism”). It’s all about making bourgeois culture seem normative rather than particular, and the world divisible into three categories in which highbrow and lowbrow are complementary Others (which is not to say that no one ever tries to embody them) with middlebrow an equally self-confirming form of autocritique; the system is only transcended when those who should be middlebrow are mysteriously not.
The fear of a world constantly in danger of being consumed by kitsch is a bit like the colonialist assumption that your slaves would do the same to you if given half a chance. ‘Middle class’ identity assumes it has proved what the ‘average person’ will be like given the resources necessary for a certain level of comfort. Leaving out an explicit class dynamic means one can’t see how that class identity is formed by more and less stable systems of exclusion, not just the consumption and appropriation of resources by homo economicus. The bourgeois class and its petit-bourgeois support staff see themselves as utopian, and that (for them) dissolves the possibility of a real utopia.