Double Exposure (4)

By: Joshua Glenn
June 23, 2009


“I am the sum of my small steps,” announce the handwritten-style notes in an advertisement torn from a recent issue of Oprah Magazine. Ecce Middlebrow’s ideal American woman, forever in pursuit of a clear (un-anxious, that is, not lucid) head, healthy heart, toned legs, tight abs, and pretty toes.

Taking these steps, according to Sun Chips’s groovy avatar, permits you to “live brightly” — as good a euphemism as any for what HILOBROW recognizes as the contemporary middlebrow version of enlightenment. But don’t call it that — doing so reminds us of Kant’s demanding definition: “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.” Instead, call this contemporary state of mens inanis in corpore lentesco “upliftment” — or perhaps “enlightening,” an awkward but unthreatening adjectival noun favored by Oprah and her spiritual teacher, motivational speaker Eckhart Tolle. Ugh.

Enlightening [middlebrow enlightenment] is attained not in a flash, but step by step; you’ve attained it when you’re having fun, eating right, de-cluttering, doing yoga, taking walks, achieving orgasm, filing-not-piling, and maintaining your sense of self-esteem (“I deserve it,” e.g., a pedicure). Oh, and make sure not to sweat the small stuff — like your job, family, community, or environment — sorry, but “going green” barely counts.

Thus writes Middlebrow’s moving finger, in “funky” handwriting — and in a sassy, sisterly first-person singular. (NB: Sarah Jessica Parker’s enduring appeal can only be explained by her mastery of the spoken form of this mode.) Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll notice Middlebrow’s sentimental lettering everywhere. Like, for example, in this ad for Turning Leaf wine, spotted in the current issue of Real Simple.


Here we discover the inverse of enlightening. If middlebrow enlightenment apes highbrow enlightenment (it’s progressive, cumulative, attained through effort and willpower — though perhaps not of the variety demanded by Kant), then the middlebrow ecstatic apes romanticism. The middlebrow ecstatic counsels “taking a minute,” demanding some You-Time in which to shed the burdensome construct of your adulthood. Sun Chips Woman may be the sum of her small steps; but Turning Leaf Woman is not the sum of her responsibilities.

Which is not to suggest that Sun Chips Woman and Turning Leaf Woman are actually different; in fact, they are exactly the same. The former never really gets a grip on herself, never emerges from her self-imposed immaturity; her version of striving and effort are thoroughly infused with what Nietzsche called “letting yourself drop.” (Self-esteem is the dialectical synthesis — a middlebrow operation — of effort and letting yourself drop.) The latter, meanwhile, never really cuts loose, never risks existential vertigo by peering into the void.

Enlightenment is highbrow. Ecstasy is lowbrow. The hilobrow doesn’t want to synthesize these modes; she doesn’t want anything to do with lukewarm, feel-good enlightening or middlebrow ecstatic. Instead, she wants the impossible: enlightenment and ecstasy, sincerity and authenticity, simultaneously. Because you’re worth it, ladies.

This is the fourth in a series of posts reviving the ancient practice of extispicy — i.e., divining the outlines of our invisible prison (formerly known as Fate) via a close study of anomalies in animal entrails. Only instead of sheep livers and cow lungs, we’re using magazine ads and other middlebrow media images.


MORE SEMIOSIS at HILOBROW: Towards a Cultural Codex | CODE-X series | DOUBLE EXPOSURE Series | CECI EST UNE PIPE series | Star Wars Semiotics | Icon Game | Meet the Semionauts | Show Me the Molecule | Science Fantasy | Inscribed Upon the Body | The Abductive Method | Enter the Samurai | Semionauts at Work | Roland Barthes | Gilles Deleuze | Félix Guattari | Jacques Lacan | Mikhail Bakhtin | Umberto Eco

What do you think?

  1. The handwriting is the key! Building on what Leonard Shlain so helpfully pointed out for us, women have been turned away from their essential nature by language, losing their intuition and femininity and obedience and, oh, I just can’t think of any more big words right now bat, anyway, losing all that stuff by internalizing the Borg of text. I guess we should only murmur, how about mm-hmm and nodding? But anyway since this has happened we must be led gently back to a pre-language state, and what better way than by loopy back of the notebook style curly handwritten letters? They don’t even look like letters, look, that one is smiling at me! And then they devolve to pictograms and then to scribbles and then, well, actually maybe it’s time to make something in the kitchen and kick off my crocs, until finally we’re safely back in our non-feral without-a-pen pen.

  2. Comment box deleted my eye bat tags! here they are in “natural” language: bracket bat end bracket “bat” bracket bat end bracket

  3. But the old-left (and new green) critique of materialism still rumbles on…..that the masses are hooked on having stuff. They haven’t caught onto the fact that capitalism has been flogging experience, enlightenment and E-numbers aplenty for the last 30+ years.

  4. “Middlebrow Enlightenment is attained not in a flash, but step by step…”

    Indeed, there is nothing at all decisive about Middlebrow, whether in ethics or politics. It creates enough of a vacuum to push products and lifestyle choices as somehow valuable or worthwhile.

  5. Any mode of enlightenment or ecstasy that can be commodified and purchased is middlebrow by definition, right? I didn’t even mention anti-highbrow ecstasy (losing yourself in the multitude, as opposed to the solo flight into the void), and so forth. One day we’ll map it all out.

  6. I think creating a website called (is that a “funky” url or what?) for wine is super-lobrow.

  7. Negatory! Lowbrows don’t worry about breathing; it comes naturally to them.

  8. Re: “Any mode of enlightenment or ecstasy…” etc.

    I think one big problem with the commodification of ec-stasis/-sy is that, rather than being in a state defined by being out of control (“standing out,” or “into the void” if there can be such a thing as in-to a void), the commodified ecstatic is transported to some other PLACE, a PLACE is defined by a commodity. In the cases above, the commodities are a bag of chips (“all that and a bag of chips”, anyone?) and a bottle of wine, and how are these ecstatic?

    A similar extrapolation could be made for enlightenment.

    Sorry for all the Mark-Taylor-hyphens.

  9. Another thing about commodifiable and purchasable ecstasy or enlightenment is that it fundamentally goes against the grain of freedom. Commodities are intrinsically part of a supply/demand system (triangle trades of guns-slaves-sugar, or arms-drugs-money come to mind). Commodities are made for purchase rather than existing per se. Squeezing things into such finite purpose really puts a damper on enlightenment and ecstasy, even if those things are touted as liberating. (Would a flight to outer space be the same if commoditized?)

    (Or, how about a “Win a seat on the Argo!” lottery?)

    (Ouch –

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