16 jun 2005

I think the existence of something we might call the "middle-brow" is incontrovertible. The problem is that any description of it will sound derogatory. Since it is a term of cultural distinction, the word itself is likely to cause defensiveness. So let's not call it middlebrow. Let's call it "la culture moyenne." A mainstream culture with some pretensions to art but which is addressed to a wider audience that wants to "improve itself." Let's look at some examples.

Masterpiece theater. Well-produced versions of classic works of literature designed for BBC or PBS audiences. "Quality television."

Starbucks. "European"-style coffee in American sizes. Hint: Venti is Italian for 20 but Italians don't drink 20 oz. cappucinos.

Michael Graves designs for Target. Bulging teapots that look "stylish."

NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross." Conversation with movie actors, singer-song-writers, journalists who've written nonfiction books. It's "cultural," but it rarely asks you to think about ideas in a very profound way. She can cover so many bases because she can always fall back on a personal question. (I love Terry Gross, by the way; I just wish she'd interview Ron Silliman. He lives in Philly after all. Bob Perelman and Chas. Bernstein also teach at Penn and might be available.)

I want a word for all these phenomena, which are linked in my mind. It's not that I feel superior to people who shop at Target, listen to NPR, and drink at Starbucks. That would be difficult since I do all of these things myself. We are all middlebrows on an everyday level. Hell, I even read the New Yorker from time to time.

Now what is the equivalent in poetry to all these cultural manifestations? For me, this question is pretty easy to answer. All I have to do is imagine who Terry Gross's favorite poet is likely to be, or imagine who that Michael Graves teapot would be, if it were a poet.

Now why do I want to insist on this distinction? I could say there are just pomes, pmoes, and poems, and not think about the level of "brow' of each case. Those who tend to say there is just "smope," not high-brow smope and middle-brow smope, tend to be the same ones who denigrate the kind of smope I like. It is too intellectual, elitist, avant-garde, "academic," etc.... Thus the middlebrows feel free to denigrate "highbrow" culture, while at the same time refusing to see themselves as implicated in these distinctions at all.

20 comentarios:

Henry Gould dijo...

There's an op-ed by David Brooks in the NYTimes today about this very subject - "middlebrow".

Came out of phrenology by way of journalism - high kulcha attacks by Clem Greenberg & Dwight McDonald.

Brooks has a positive attitude toward the phenomena (though he sees it as a thing of the past, probably wrongly). Part of American-democratic ideal of educational self-improvement.

Sure these things exist. Depends on how much time you want to spend looking down your own nose.

Jordan dijo...

Terry Gross has had Hal Sirowitz, Li-Young Lee, Sekou Sundiata, and Dana Gioia on her show.

Poets are inordinately proud of their refusal to invest in public relations.

Henry Gould dijo...

the Big Question for Today is : how do we Distinguish between Middlebrow & Kitsch?

fairest dijo...

This was wonderful. You are right to include "improve itself" in your definition. That is key.

And making the pronunciation of "Target" French, of course.

Jonathan dijo...

I recommend Umberto Eco's essay "The Structure of Bad Taste" on Kitsch. The two phenomena are difficult to distentangle. On self-improvement in middlebrow taste, see Bourdieu's Disctintions, the chapter entitled "Cultural Good Will." Finally, who is Hal Sirowitz? Someone I should have heard of? Off to tarr-gée...

Henry Gould dijo...

Bourdieu, hmmm... est-ce que ca le chapitre apres l'un s'appellait "Academic Bad Will"?

Jonathan dijo...

Your French needs a little work, Henri.

Henry Gould dijo...

Mais non, Professeur! C'est le Rhode Ile dialect de la Franco-Americaine!

Kasey Mohammad dijo...

Good book I've just started reading on this subject is Curtis White's _The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves_. Terry Gross is one of his big whipping persons.

Anónimo dijo...

"middlebrow" is a meaningless concept, a little ink blot.

It reveals more about the speaker than just about anything else. "middlebrow" has often been a codeword for inauthentic (however you slice it, or identify with it, it's a derogatory term.) The "middlebrow" is just a little man in a suit, blindly treating art like commerce, asking for the "payoff", the self-improvement.

The middlebrow, unlike the highbrow you identify with, "rarely" thinks about ideas in a very profound way. Strangely enough, all of the novels I can think of use low- or middle-brow characters to do just that kind of thinking, but I guess that will change once writers realize that middlebrows don't do that sort of thing.

For you, being middlebrow is about what you buy. Presumably, a different set of purchases -- Walmart NASCAR stickers and KISS 108 or something -- makes you "lowbrow", although, since you consider yourself "highbrow", I doubt you would extend the same courtesy to the other end of the scale.

That's what the game's all about, after all.

Joseph dijo...

I listen to Terry Gross occasionally in the car, and am amused by the reviews and commentary of her critic John Powers (even as he annoys me), but I was always under the impression that the show exists for one reason: to sell books (or CDs, or DVDs). Barnes & Noble is a sponsor and her guests are usually stopping by during the course of their media marketing cycle: from the Today Show to Charlie Rose to the Daily Show to Terry Gross. I don't get the sense when I listen to, say, Leonard Schwartz's Cross-Cultural Poetics that the primary reason of the conversation is to sell something. Maybe it's this that makes Fresh Air so "middle-brow".

Jonathan dijo...

Did you even read what I wrote, or did you just have reflexive reaction to the word "middlebrow"? I never said that middlebrows don't think profoundly, but that this particular radio show, much as I enjoy it, doesn't demand much of the listener. Nothing wrong with that, I'm an NPR junkie myself.

Sure, middlebrow taste can be about consumer purchases too, if the purchase carries with it some notion of cultural edification. The "I'm with Stupid" tee-shirt is not middlebrow, because it's not expressing the buyer's desire to be a more cultured person. Buying the Graves teapot from Target carries with it that added baggage: the product has been prepackaged as "good taste."

All the novels you can think of have middlebrow or lowbrow characters? That's an amazing statement. I can think of numerous novels that feature intellectual protagonists. Maybe you should read more novels, starting with Paul Auster, Philip Roth, Marcel Proust, and Saul Bellow. I do hate the novels where the protagonist is deliberately "dumbed down," but that's just my taste.

Anónimo dijo...

"I never said that middlebrows don't think profoundly".

You said that NPR was an example of the middlebrow, and that a characteristic was that "it's "cultural," but it rarely asks you to think about ideas in a very profound way." So, yeah.

"Sure, middlebrow taste can be about consumer purchases too, if the purchase carries with it some notion of cultural edification."

Presumably, your "highbrow" class also purchases things for cultural edification, if only from subpress? Maybe you need to explain better what you mean by "middlebrow".

I've never found the need to read Auster. Roth and Bellow I love. I'm confused by your invocation of Proust: are highbrows literally aristocrats? But perhaps you'd better better explain what you mean by "middlebrow." For example, Herzog seems to me -- according to your discussion -- to be a classic middlebrow, looking to literature to "improve himself."

Jonathan dijo...

How can Herzog be the classic middlebrow if the term is meaningless? That is, I've lured you evilly into using the term as though it had some meaning. Sorry about that. :} I agree that Bellow often uses middlebrow characters, as well as others of higher "brow." I'd just like to be able to be able to make the distinction. What does it mean for Updike to write about Rabbit, a man of much less "cultural capital" than himself? That's different say, from Roth, whose character might be named Philip Roth.

If the protagonist of Proust's novel isn't a "highbrow," I don't know who is. He himself is not an aristocrat. How about To the Lighthouse? Aren't Virginia Woolf's characters highbrow rather than middlebrow in this case? I'm not trying to score easy debating points here, but it seems to me that novelists use characters of a variety of levels of intellectual and cultural capital. There's no upper limit.

Sure, the highbrow defines his or her taste through purchases too. I would never claim otherwise. Everyone's purchases have cultural meaning. Bourdieu is merciless in his description of "highbrow" culture, condescending in his description of the middlebrow. Nobody gets off easy. Nowadays people are so afraid of being elitists that they want to deny the existence of the middlebrow completely.

How about Garrison Keillor? You've got to give me at least Garrison. He's got to be the classic NPR middlebrow, even more so than Terry Gross.

Anónimo dijo...

Hey, you get to define the terms, I just follow along.

I guess what bothers me most is not the idea that one can class someone's intellectual worth based on their purchasing decisions, but the sneering at the idea that reading literature is to "improve oneself." Maybe you're just free associating, but I find that this kind of sneering is a prelude to either mystification or some weird crankish obsession ("reading literature is to fight the political system of the accumulation of capital.")

(I get that you "identify" in part with middlebrow culture, but let's be real here: from the etymology of the word to your examples, being "middlebrow" is something to be avoided in serious matters.)

I get the feeling that Garrison could do a show making fun of people who buy teapots at Target. Middlebrow contains multitudes! (Hence its inkblot nature.)

Maybe you should tell us what you take to be "highbrow"? Silliman, or Swann? Is the highbrow a kind of Oscar Wilde aesthete? Or maybe he's an anarchist, smashing Starbucks windows?

Jonathan dijo...

I get your point, Simon. Sneering aside, the American impulse to improve oneself is undeniable. I am prone to it myself. Nobody I know is a high-brow by birth. We are all autodidacts, even (or especially) Silliman. It's hard to have that sense of high culture as an automatic possession of a class into which one is born. Maybe only a James Merrill?

Ernesto dijo...

As always, I'm late for the discussion. Just wanted to say I use the term continually in my classes, and, yes, at first there are a lot of hurt sensibilities. Tell people that there's so much more than García Márquez, Neruda, Benedetti and/or La oreja de Van Gogh or whatever mainstream pseudo-indie "pop" band and they see their world collapse.

Mexican reality is very different from U.S. one, and these terms should be revised for each context. It is pathetic to see what status of "highbrowness" gets Starbucks over here (the price of a cappuccino alto down here is the equivalent to a decent meal in a cocina económica, where most of the urban working middle-classes will eat).

I think that the discussion is pertinent and therefore interesting.

Jonathan dijo...

Thanks Ernesto. While I agree that the discussion has been interesting, I must concede defeat at the hands of the formidable Simon DeDeo. Basically, the terms implicate the speaker's speaking-position in such a way as to not allow much room for manoeuvre. In other words, to use the term middlebrow is to make oneself a highbrow, and thus an elitist. The terms have no neutral valence. Just gently suggest that Benedetti is a middlebrow poet and you become an elitist simply by suggesting that this is meaningful statement. Better simply to offer some alternatives and let them gradually see that Benedetti is not the be-all and end-all of Latin American poetry. One day they will wake up and be ashamed to have liked him so much. Or maybe not.

Paul Adrian M dijo...

there are great minds and there are not. the terms speak for themselves. I think you conceded too easily, or rather, you should not have looked at it as a concession, but a challenge to explore the terms further, to see if a place can be created with such neutrality that still describes those who full culturally into that set or sample of the population.

start talking about it more, you were on a good track, but people tripped you up on the words, which, may in fact be what you needed to eventually come to saying what you "wanted" to say.

best to you

paul a.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, Paul, thank you for that. I am just tired of getting beat up (metaphorically speaking) whenever I attempt such an analysis. Obviously there is a level at which I'm correct, or I wouldn't provoke such defensive reactions.