On the difficulty of identifying Hilobrows

By: Joshua Glenn
August 5, 2009

hilobrow-ancestor

Nobrows are easily recognized, for their gait is dancing and bold. But HiLobrows frequently deceive one because their bearing is curiously like that of a class of people heartily despised by Nobrows as well as by HiLobrows — the Middlebrow.

So wrote one of HiLobrow.com’s predecessors, a daring and perceptive seeker pictured above, in a cruel caricature. NB: We might not have the translation of this material exactly right; that is to say, we’ve seen other translations.

Our intellectual ancestor continues:

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…. As I said, I have not met with such a one; but I can easily imagine her. Here she is. I make her acquaintance and am introduced to her. The first moment I lay my eyes on her I push her back, leaping back myself, I hold up my hands in amazement and say to myself: ‘Good Lord! That person? Is it really she — why, she looks like [Ellen DeGeneres]!’ But it is really she.

Ellen DeGeneres? Well, close enough. You get the idea.

This is a tricky business!

***

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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About Josh, Browbeating

What do you think?

  1. Tricky business indeed. Recently, I was having this very conundrum with respect to Kanye West, though I’m uncertain why. While in many respects he is a quintessential hilobrow (note the dandiness, his penchant for experimentation in production, and finding uncommon collaborators), I pestered by the question as to whether his hilobrow-ness has gone supernova and passed over into the middlebrow. Any suggestions?

  2. Kanye was definitely a problem when I was formulating my forthcoming Hilo Hip Hop ven diagram. While he has elements of hilo as well as no-brow (his “apartness” is a little too studied, his facade too rigorously maintained) I ultimately put him in middlebrow. There’s just something about his popularity that seems to have co-opted him in the process.

  3. And yes, there was the no-brow element of him that I think is attributed to his attempts transcend his genre.

    While it’s healthy to be suspicious about popularity in this case, I wouldn’t necessarily credit that for his trip over to the middlebrow. It’s something in his project that pushes him there: his preening or his own quest for fame and recognition that no amount of his self-proclaimed candor can pass off. He lacks impersonality.

  4. Richard might need to write something for us… It’s a very good point that middlebrow can’t co-opt the unco-optable — there has to be something there already, a flaw in the design. Makes me feel like West is probably nobrow, because nobrow is easiest for middlebrow to coopt. With highbrow and lowbrow, middlebrow has to really put in some effort, sanding off all the rough edges, ironing out the eccentricity until nothing remains but quatsch.

  5. Yeah, it’s something beyond narcissism that does him in – I like the impersonality idea; being a willing participant in your own fame can definitely run you down into the middlebrow.

  6. I just saw a video of his for a recent track, “Heartless” which brings me closer to affirming the nobrow assessment. There’s this very jumbled quality to the video’s aesthetic that is simultaneously everything and nothing at all. Nobrow as almost ready-made for middlebrow.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWzlD7Lc6w8

    You raise an interesting point about middlebrow’s task of removing eccentricity, Josh.

    A question about middlebrow: it doesn’t necessarily undo personality, right? One could say it creates it. It’s as if the middlebrow requires some kind of personality to embody the product for a consumer to ‘relate’ to it. It plays out the drama of the commodified person as a fetish: an office worker is no longer a businessman but a business, man.

  7. Yes, great point. Baudrillard helps us think about this: He distinguishes carefully between an “individual” (a middlebrow construct — not that he uses brow-ish terminology — seen most clearly in a phenomenon like the Spice Girls, where each Spice Girl is like, really, really different from the others) and a “singularity” (not the kind we often hear about that has something to do with living forever). I don’t want to try to define Baudrillard’s term, here, but if an individual is a node (not like any other node!) in a social network, the singularity is that which damages networks. Or something.

    Hm. One of Derrida’s last interviews is about the possibility of creating a community in which everyone can be a singularity — he uses the term “seriature” to describe this possibility. Something to do, he says, with “the necessity of linking gestures or moments that do not let themselves be linked, which are absolutely singular every time. And one has to link singularities, that is, put in a series things that do not let themselves be put into series. This can be a definition of negotiation. Why one must repeat and put into a series, in a kind of serial generality, things that do not let themselves be serialized, which are singular and nonnegotiable every time.”

    I shoulda used that line in my Argonaut Folly essay.

  8. Singularity!!!

    I like the part about singularity as damaging networks: they have a de-creative function, arresting things, bringing them to a halt.

    Your mentioning Baudrillard, Josh, called to mind with what’s possibly a central issue distinguishing an ‘individual’ from a ‘singularity’: representation. Please indulge me the long digression.

    It seems that personality, as we’re using it here in that it’s tied to the individual, is a spatial, representational concept. You can identify a certain type of individual’s characteristics, place that individual in an order, and manage its habits.

    On the other hand, singularity (at least in the way I understand this philosophical tradition) refers to the event of some being, whatever it is, occurring– an explosion in a mineshaft. It’s temporal. That ephemeral occurrence of singularity, in contrast to the individual as a self-consistent representation, is unrepresentable. Unrepresentability, in turn, makes appearance possible. In a nod to our dear Dr. Extaticus, pictured above, it’s the only reason I can think of why Genesis begins in the dark and waste.

    Derrida’s seriature, at first blush, almost feels like a certain co-optation or stabilization of the unrepresentable event of singlarity into a regime or strategy, bringing it tantalizingly close to the middlebrow. It sounds like the political field to me. As much as I have my suspicions, I respect the general direction he’s gazing towards.

    How does all this ontology tie into the middlebrow? It creates images and representations to sell us while making us think that they are inherent to a normative way of life ‘linking’ people together, networking them in blissful self-satisfaction. (That way of life conveniently ‘coincides’ with the company’s agenda.) Your analysis of those lifestyle ads a while back makes that super-clear. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell whether corporations sometimes want to sell you a product (and turn a profit) or save the world (and your guilt-sodden soul).

    Maybe middlebrow ontology is stuck in a forward-moving, accelerating, and cumulative trajectory. The past in this paradigm only emerges as an ominous and ‘dangerous’ return of the repressed to be domesticated with a few good tweaks and turned into the next major label release, reality show, romantic comedy, or transgressive scholarly work.

    And maybe ontology can help distinguish the middlebrow from the others.

  9. Can’t respond adequately to your very good post at the moment, but just want to say that, yes, in his later years Derrida moved pretty darn close to traditional liberalism — I think of the early Derrida as an anarchist — while still attempting to preserve aspects of the perennial hilobrow model of a non-totalizing social totality. Hence his talk of “seriature,” or a structurally incomplete series.

    This tool of which you speak — ontology — it does sound useful in the Hunt for Hilobrow. Please keep deploying it, in these discussions!

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