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.


§ 8 Responses to What Is The Middlebrow

  • great

    something about pov, that the middlebrow excludes any Other pov on itself…

    the BostonReview essay was surprisingly good…and hints at why there are fierce battles within middlebrow


    for centrality. There are equivalents in other genres:


    and this is really what Gayatri Spivak is often trying to expose.

  • There’s something really funny about the fact that


    was first published in The New Yorker.

  • W.Kasper says:

    Middlebrow is shrinking as quickly as the (western) middle-class itself. What ‘distinguishes’ it now is its utter narrowness of perspective, its suffocating criteria of ‘taste’, its ongoing denial of collective mortality, its paranoia at its own fragility. No matter what world-historical horror it may depict, it still largely withdraws into a western metropolitan ‘moral vision’. ‘Post-colonial’ novels etc. are expected to conform to this vision for space on the review pages.

    Then you get ‘lowbrow’ (genre fiction) or ‘highbrow’ (neo-modernist, often set during modernism’s heyday, or at least nostalgic for its ‘big picture’ cohesion) loudly staking claims for ‘middlebrow’ recognition; as though an ongoing injustice is being done to it. This even happens when its practitioners are making millions. It increasingly brings to mind the claims that politicians make for ‘the centre’. It may be a claim to utopia – but it’s a negative utopia, reflective of how the real middle-class is rapidly moving to being an ‘invisible city’ – or second life, and so as kitsch as anything. Reading discourses on the middlebrow/class novel can be as ‘anthropological’ as reading tabloid reports on Pop Idol contestants.

  • traxus4420 says:

    thanks all –

    “something about pov, that the middlebrow excludes any Other pov on itself…”

    yeah, or consciousness of itself outside its own special perspective on the cultural hierarchies it’s mainly responsible for reproducing. and interesting too that despite the marginality of novels, the debates about The Novel, are still so important to the question of what is middlebrow/mainstream, what is the best total representation of the culture they so love to hate.

    here’s an nyrb piece on how franzen’s ‘freedom’ works abroad to ‘sum up’ america and the world, as if they were the same thing:

    To be a masterpiece of American fiction is to have hit the top. “A masterpiece of Swiss fiction” does not have the same ring, and if, say, a work by Pamuk is declared a masterpiece it will not be “a masterpiece of Turkish fiction.” Tanenhaus then quickly explains Franzen’s achievement, which is to gather up “every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.”

  • traxus4420 says:

    i’m probably as sympathetic to horror of kitsch as anyone, including kunkel, and probably for similar reasons, though his identification of causes seems willfully naive. seabrook’s ‘nobrow’ idea takes as obvious something everyone else in this genre either misses or seems shocked by – commodity culture’s ‘deconstruction’ of the arnoldian culturalist ideology – but has the same lack of awareness as his opponents kunkel or zadie smith of what they’re trying to define/defend and why. ‘nobrow’ seems to be a redefinition of middlebrow as a kind of educated but noncommittal brand savviness. perfect for the new yorker!

  • traxus4420 says:

    @kasper – i like that idea of the center as negative utopia/invisible city/second life, it’s just right. it’s funny how left utopian rhetoric nowadays always says the centrist politicians of today are anti-utopian — but they’re really not, and it’s impossible to say that after hearing an obama speech. the whole point is to do the same old things while keeping the dream alive. not to give up hope in favor of dead-end fatalism, but to preserve hope as an ideology while acting like a fatalist.

  • W.Kasper says:

    This may be reflected in the reduction of voter turnouts. This little ‘utopia’ – nothing too changing: just stuff like being able to buy a house, or increase earnings and advance offspring’s prospects – the belief that the system can ‘work’, and especially ‘make sense’. First principle of anything middlebrow: a Jon Stewart definition of sanity, or 90% of Best Picture winners. It’s this ‘2nd Life’ that separates centrism from the Left and even the Republican Right.

    Tony Blair successfully appealed to this at the beginning. His wars (and subsequent home ‘fronts’) threw notions of ‘centrism’ into disarray – from every corner, common sense allegiances to notions of ‘centre’ got irreparably reshuffled. The British middlebrow began to look very alien indeed, as did the assumptions of liberalism.

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