Whence Middlebrow?

By: Joshua Glenn
October 21, 2009

Here at HiLobrow.com, we agree with Bourdieu that aesthetics and lifestyle choices aren’t entirely independent of social class. Though (along with Carl Wilson) we reject the reductionism of his Distinction, we do rely on Bourdieu’s notion of the “disposition” (a tendency to act in a specified way, to take on a certain position in any field) and the “habitus” (the choice of positions in a field, according to one’s disposition).

We’ve named and located 10 bourdieuian dispositions — 4 heimlich (Highbrow, Lowbrow, Neo-Aristocratic (Anti-Lowbrow), Quasi-Populist (Anti-Highbrow)); 2 gemütlich (High Middlebrow, or what Dwight Macdonald called Midcult; and Low Middlebrow, which Macdonald, following Adorno, called Masscult); 2 unheimlich (Nobrow, not to be confused with John Seabrook’s confused use of the term; and HiLobrow, our own coinage); and then there’s Unbrow, which Van Wyck Brooks confusingly called Lowbrow. There are various habituses possible within each of these dispositions, but since the mid-17th-century, these dispositions have formed into an invisible matrix of influence.

[This is a version of comment that I posted, earlier this morning, to John Holbo’s recent post at Crooked Timber about Russell Lynes, Virginia Woolf, and Carl Wilson. Holbo is brilliant, but — like Wilson, whom we also consider a friend — he seems to be pro-Lynes and anti-Woolf, whereas HiLobrow.com is anti-Lynes and pro-Woolf. Too bad! But perhaps we can change their minds.]

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Our hypothesis is that the 4 heimlich dispositions formed in the mid-17th century and after because of Spinoza and the so-called Radical Enlightenment. Before that time, Highbrow and Lowbrow were united, e.g., in a figure like Shakespeare. For two centuries after this Shevirat HaKeilim-like moment of shattering, Highbrow and Lowbrow remained fond of one another, copacetic and complementary; but as recounted by historians like Lawrence W. Levine, in the late 19th century a wedge was driven between High and Low. Virginia Woolf’s essay is a lament about this suddenly widening gap; unlike those intellectuals of her time who celebrated Middlebrow for bridging High and Low, she blamed Middlebrow for the divide. Writing a decade earlier than Woolf, Van Wyck Brooks also deplored what was happening to Highbrow as it lost contact with Lowbrow. However, Brooks made two major errors: he confused Lowbrow with Unbrow (philistinism), and he called for Middlebrow to close the divide.

Whence Middlebrow, the uncanniest of guests? We’re still trying to track it down — we’re pretty sure it existed before it was named in the Twenties. It might have been born in the very late 19th or very early 20th century, per Woolf and Brooks. I think Christopher Lasch is likely analyzing the disposition High Middlebrow — though he mostly isn’t discussing taste — in his The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963. But in “Masscult & Midcult,” Dwight Macdonald blames Low Middlebrow on the industrial revolution, and traces its origins back to mid-18th-century England.

At HiLobrow.com we’re interested in tracking Middlebrow’s origins, but the critical thing is our discovery of its true role and position within the matrix of modern dispositions: Middlebrow does not mediate between Highbrow and Lowbrow; and therefore it should not be championed by those who are attempting to champion social mobility (i.e., from lower to upper class) in the sphere of culture. Lynes was misguided in this effort — and, as previously mentioned, so are Andrew Ross, Susan Jacoby, A.O. Scott, the author of a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed essay titled “Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor,” and even our friends Alex Beam (author of a recent history of the Great Books series) and Carl Wilson. Despite what sounds — to our ears — like her snobbery, Woolf was dead-on when she claimed that Middlebrow was only making it more difficult for Highbrow and Lowbrow to reunite; and Macdonald and Adorno (also branded as mandarins) were also correct about this.

Where does Middlebrow sit on the matrix of modern dispositions — and where do all these other “brows” that I’ve named sit? We’ve got it mapped out, and we’re revealing the answer slowly, whenever we get a spare moment (because we have day jobs) right here, on this website.

PS: HiLobrow may not actually be a disposition that anyone can actually inhabit; it might be more of an ideal — Highbrow and Lowbrow, reunited and it feels so good — that can only be articulated negatively, by saying what it isn’t. “Let me admit frankly that I have not in my experience encountered any certain specimen of this type; but I do not refuse to admit that as far as I know, every other person may be such a specimen. At the same time I will say that I have searched vainly for years….”

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).

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What do you think?

  1. Healy’s post — which was cross-posted to Crooked Timber — is what got Holbo going on brow-ism. There’s nothing more middlebrow than those eye-popping LIFE Magazine charts, you know? That was really middlebrow’s heyday, at the height of the Cold War. Though it enjoyed a resurgence during the most recent Bush administration, it’s gone into stealth mode now.

  2. Would it be possible to provide an example of a modern middlebrow pundit or critic? I’m still wrapping my head around this whole highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow thing (and the various permutations) and examples would help.

  3. David Brooks and David Denby are High Mid, Malcolm Gladwell and the guy who does “Dilbert” are Low Mid.

  4. I find myself thinking of the S.I.’s paranoid-ideological concept of “recuperation,” whereby items that are too hot for public consumption in their raw form get gelded and repackaged. The idea seems to imply some sort of control board at work, but couldn’t you say that middlebrow critics, etc., are volunteer recuperators? The obvious example is someone like Adam Gopnik, but there are scads more examples. To pick one at random, couldn’t you say that “world music” is an attempt to package the exotica and family-of-man factors in the music of Africa and South America minus such inconveniences as anger or sex?

  5. Yes, Luc, I think that’s exactly right. It’s one of those conspiracies without conspirators. The panopticon relocated inside our own heads, etc. Thanks for mentioning World Music — a friend of mine who liked actual South American music and hated stuff on the Putumayo label coined a very funny phrase to describe World Music: Putumayo’s Revenge. (Like Montezuma’s Revenge, get it?) Well, I thought it was funny, anyway.

    Nobrows hate world music, too. Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” (the ultimate nobrow show) where Kramer and his girlfriend get really into world music — I think they end up crashing through a glass-topped coffee table…

  6. …champion social mobility (i.e., from lower to upper class)

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Somewhat more seriously, the mobility (mobilization, in some cases?) between and among brows appears far more fluid and less obviously vectored than for class. But is this inevitably a pretense? Can we truly escape our browed disposition via mere aspiration?

  7. A tip just in from HiLo friend & contributor Peggy Nelson: Gladwell self-identifies as high-middlebrow in a recent Guardian interview:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/oct/26/malcolm-gladwell-tipping-point-blink

    He calls himself middlebrow after describing a spectrum of understanding that lies between that of the postdoc and the ten year-old. But that’s the problem we’re trying to identify at hilobrow: the notion that middlebrow is like some kind of middle ground, some lukewarm setting on the cultural thermometer. Maybe good warm & cozy, maybe refreshingly cool, but *nice* above all. And what we’re saying is, *that’s not even wrong.*

  8. Now I’m confused. You said up top that middlebrow was “gemutlich” which means cozy, but later you said middlebrow was the “uncanniest of guests.” But Unheimlich means uncanny, and you said that described nobrow and hilobrow. So which is it? Is middlebrow home-like, or un-home-like?

    Also, has anyone actually used the term “world music” since 1999? This problem seems like something from 15 years ago. Much like the Seinfeld episode you mention.

    PS- Sorry to be tardy to the party.

  9. For some reason I just noticed Julian’s comment — over a year later.

    My hypothesis is that there are four home-like dispositions, and five uncanny dispositions. The genius of the two Middlebrow dispositions is NOT to mediate between Highbrow and Lowbrow but rather to attach themselves parasitically to the four home-like dispositions and turn those energies to Middlebrow’s own purposes — subverting and warping those dispositions in the process. Sometimes I even think there are four other dispositions: Highbrow which has been warped by Middlebrow; Lowbrow which was been warped by Middlebrow; and so forth. This would explain, for example, why a highbrow like Susan Sontag goes to such lengths to critique the highbrow disposition in her early manifestos — she’s trying to exorcise middlebrow from highbrow.

    Regarding Luc’s mention of “recuperation,” in the situationist sense, this is what the middlebrow dispositions do to the other uncanny dispositions — quatsch is the recuperation of nobrow by middlebrow.

    Middlebrow is gemutlich — cozy — a term Matthew Battles suggested to depict uncanny middlebrow’s ability to slip past the home-like dispositions’ defenses. Gemutlich is not the opposite of uncanny, nor is it a synonym for home-like. Gemutlich is the unheimlich in heimlich’s clothing. Baudelaire provides another metaphor in his 1862 prose poem “To Each His Chimera,” in which the narrator encounters a line of men shambling nowhere, each obliged to view the world through the eyes (literally) of a puppet-master creature clinging to his shoulders, and each not despairing but “condemned to hope forever.” Cozy!

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