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Highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow?


What brow(s) are this?

When I hear the word "middlebrow," I always think of Frida Kahlo. But, wait, that's something else. This post is in preparation for a pending one about "Speed Racer" (and the brilliant appreciations of it by Glenn Kenny and Dennis Cozzalio) -- a movie I naturally assumed would be (re-)viewed as the product of high (avant garde), middle (auteurist work-for-hire) and low (soulless corporate entertainment commodity) culture. It was.

So when I read this in the New York Times Book Review over the weekend, it reminded me of "The Middle Mind" (a book I'd read about five years ago) and it, um, inter-helixed with some thoughts I'd been having about "Speed Racer." (If you saw the movie you'll know what I mean.) But you can read it however you like.

From Rachel Donadio's back page essay, "1958: The War of the Intellectuals":

It’s hard to generalize about any historical moment, but in the intellectual journals of the era, some central themes emerge: a debate over the merits of the Beat movement, and the attempt by some influential critics to preserve the quickly dissolving distinctions among highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow culture that had previously held sway. At the same time, the distinction between artistic achievement and commercial success, which American intellectuals had long assumed to be mutually exclusive, was losing its hold.

From their redoubts at “little magazines” like Partisan Review and Commentary — whose cultural authority far surpassed their low circulation — writers like Leslie Fiedler, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Podhoretz and Lionel Trilling were trying, in their different ways, to preserve the idea of serious literature against the rising tide of mass culture. “The ’50s really was a period when to be a highbrow meant that you had to really have problems with middlebrow and lowbrow and commercial culture,” said Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker who is writing a cultural history of the cold war. Among the intellectuals, for example, “there was a feeling the Beats were not serious,” Menand said. And back then, “serious” was the benchmark of high praise. [...]

The highbrow New York intellectuals... found the Beats intellectually bankrupt and politically incoherent. In “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” an essay in Partisan Review, the young Norman Podhoretz wrote that “the Beat generation’s worship of primitivism and spontaneity is more than a cover for hostility to intelligence; it arises from a pathetic poverty of feeling as well.” Podhoretz detected a “suppressed cry” of “brutality” in the Beats, which he summarized as “kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.”

Yet for all their differences, the Beats and their intellectual critics were both in open rebellion against middlebrow culture and values, which Dwight Macdonald saw epitomized by the Book of the Month Club and the New York Times best-seller list. [...]

[Dwight] Macdonald would go on to defend this line even more vigorously in his 1960 essay “Masscult and Midcult,” an exhaustive taxonomy of the American cultural scene, from high literature to middlebrow magazines to low arts like television. This was a moment of uncertainty for critics. The leveling process taking place in the culture “destroys all values, since value judgments require discrimination, an ugly word in liberal-democratic America,” Macdonald wrote. Masscult, he added, “is very, very democratic; it refuses to discriminate against or between anything or anybody.”

There's a battle that's still going on half a century later.

In Curtis White's 2003 book "The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think For Themselves" (interesting and provocative book, woefully ignorant on movies -- about which more some other time), White proposes that what he calls "The Middle Mind" is "a form of management" that reinforces the (capitalist) status quo:

The dominant order arranges for the appearance of a "serious" culture, apart from the entertainment biz, but what it provides is usually not all that different from the entertainment industry in the end. The great vehicle for that duplicity is what I call the Middle Mind. The culture informed by the strategies of the Middle Mind promises intelligence, seriousness, care, but what it provides in reality is something other. What the Middle Mind does best is flatten distinctions. It turns culture into mush. [...]

Let me say this directly: the high/low culture distinction is not what I'm interested in and does not provide a useful or revealing register for talking about contemporary culture. [...]

To get to a point where freedom and centrality for the imagination are possible and the kind of corporate culture represented by Clear Channel can be meaningfully confronted, we will also need thought.... Instead we endure a situation in which we are free to think and say what we like so long as what we think and say doesn't matter, doesn't threaten the dominant state/corporate/military narratives. In a world dominated by [the likes of] Clear Channel, it is very difficult to say something large and loud enough that it might begin to matter.

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