High-Mid shenanigans

By: Joshua Glenn
September 9, 2009


In today’s Wall Street Journal, Thomas Frank wittily and intelligently notes that high-middlebrow pundits have whipped their ground troops up into a backlash against a highbrow (or, really, an anti-high-middlebrow) upsurge “that maybe should have happened but that didn’t.”

Though Frank doesn’t use these terms, high-middlebrow neocons and neoliberals in the Bush administration, and at the Securities and Exchange Commission, led us off a cliff. But High Middlebrow has managed to make itself nearly immune to criticism and reform, much less abolition. So instead of slinking off in disgrace, high middlebrows have manipulated the Beltway’s Ayn Rand-worshipping anti-lowbrows into joining forces with their natural enemies, i.e., lowbrow populists and anti-highbrow zealots, in order to funnel American fear and rage towards the (relatively) highbrow Obama administration. And it’s working!

Frank writes:

Today, from the floor of town-hall meetings and the heights of the Republican Party, alarmed Americans fret about secret socialists and denounce the president as a dictator. They make plans to pull their children out of school rather than have them exposed to his hypnotic oratorical powers. They quail at imaginary death panels, storm at imaginary threats to gun rights, and froth at an imaginary birth-certificate scandal…. The most notable literary response to last year’s financial crisis was not to turn to the obvious genre — books about Wall Street shenanigans in the 1920s — but to skip several historical stages and to go straight to Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, in which heroic titans of industry are persecuted by a meddling government.

This is how Middlebrow operates — outside the Highbrow/Lowbrow/Anti-Highbrow/Anti-Lowbrow rubric that we’ve all been trained to accept as natural and sufficient. Because it exists on the uncanny margins of this classic but outdated four-square rubric, Middlebrow is uniquely able to beguile highbrows, lowbrows, anti-highbrows, and anti-lowbrows alike. Middlebrow adopts aspects of each of these traditional, familiar dispositions as needed, cynically using them as leverage for its own ends.

Deploying anti-lowbrows, lowbrows, and anti-highbrows against highbrows, Middlebrow remains uncriticized. The following video making the rounds today, for example, amusingly attacks anti-lowbrows and anti-highbrows in the name of highbrow and lowbrow alike. Videos like this are fun! They make highbrows feel good! This kind of ideological back-and-forth sells newspapers and bumper stickers. Alas, because they’re blinkered, such efforts will never rid us of Middlebrow.

What do you think?

  1. But is the video giving voice to high-mid’s uncanny, above-it-all mien? I think of Jay Rosen’s coinage, “the church of the savvy,” which he uses to describe the know-it-all mainstream journo which refuses to take a stand, & cynically levels debate to mere gamesmanship: “it’s only politics, & it’s *all* politics.” But that’s not what’s going on in the video—which plainly promotes the “public option,” the boon to high-mid of which isn’t clear to me. School me!

  2. My post is very convoluted and hard to follow! Sorry for the confusion. I do not think this video is promoting High Middlebrow’s cause. The video is promoting Highbrow (Obama) and Lowbrow (uninsured people) causes against Anti-Highbrow kooks and Anti-Lowbrow elitists. That’s what I meant when I wrote that the video “amusingly attacks anti-lowbrows and anti-highbrows in the name of highbrow and lowbrow alike.” However, in doing so, the video fails to go after the cabal of High Middlebrows who are pulling the strings… I don’t mean to suggest that the video was produced by High Middlebrow, though. What I’m suggesting is that High Middlebrow has put the blinkers on us all — so debates like this one over health insurance are framed as four-sided (High, Low, Anti-High, Anti-Low) when it’s more complex than that. So complex that it’s tricky to explain clearly, especially when one doesn’t re-read one’s blog post before hitting PUBLISH.

  3. Oh, and I don’t think that High Middlebrow presents itself as being above it all. Neocons and neoliberals are quite idealistic, in their semi-cynical and anti-utopian way. I just think that when things aren’t going well for High Middlebrow (after a bubble bursts, or when a war becomes a quagmire), high middlebrows tend to fade into the woodwork and stir up the passions of romantic, extremist Anti-Highs and Anti-Lows — i.e., against High Middlebrow’s critics.

  4. I’m also a little confused: I can see the High Middlebrow’s use of jingoistic language and fears to control the low brow and anti-high brow, but how does the High Middlebrow move up the ladder? Isn’t peasant-fearing the natural inclination of the High Brow anyway, especially in the public sphere?

  5. Highbrows and lowbrows actually get along just fine. All the best highbrows are a little lowbrow, anyway, and vice versa. This is one of the important misconceptions that this website will clear up if we ever find the time to publish our Brow Gazeteer. In fact, back when the four central dispositions (High, Low, Anti-High, Anti-Low) came into being, during the Early Enlightenment I mean, highbrows and lowbrows made common cause against the extremism of anti-highs and anti-lows.

    Middlebrow — which is a disposition outside and parasitical upon the four central ones — couldn’t make significant inroads until it convinced everyone that there were really only three dispositions: High, Low, and Middle. It aligned these dispositions with the upper, middle, and lower classes (as with all Middlebrow bullshit, there is a grain of truth in tbhis — but only a grain) and therefore the emergent middle classes championed Middlebrow. A neat trick.

    This misconception (disconception) has been with us for a long time now. Though Virginia Woolf tried (with some confusion of her own) to dispel it, at least since mid-20th century the tripartite model has been regarded by most journalists and intellectuals as common sense. Even most critics of Middlebrow have accepted the model — and been dismissed as elitist highbrows. A neat trick! Hats off to Middlebrow for that one.

  6. PS: We believe there are *nine* dispositions. The central four: High, Low, Anti-High, and Anti-Low. Two uncanny parasitical dispositions: High Middle and Low Middle. Two uncanny but un-parasitical ones: Nobrow and Hilobrow. And then there’s everyone else, uninterested in ideas or religion, apathetic about forms of government and social orders, perhaps literate and educated but can’t be bothered to read: Van Wyck Brooks called them lowbrows, but that’s not right. They’re unbrows. Unbrows are not on our eight-part diagram; they’re the void that surrounds the diagram.

  7. I want to locate the “Church of the Savvy” in middlebrow. It’s the disposition of the punditocracy, which (in Rosen’s formulation) puts “will it work?” above “is it true?”, which effaces questions of ideological commitments with pseudo-wit and analysis of politial gamesmanship. It’s a decadent phase of middlebrow, I’d say: where once maybe the middlebrow question might have been “is it proper?”…

  8. I guess you’re right that it’s not apathy, not disengagement. So yes, I buy what you’re saying.

  9. Diagram? Diagram! Your readers would very much love a multidimensional Diagram, to guide and accompany their journeyings along ever more finely-‘browed pathways . . .

  10. We do have one. We diagrammed while at our local watering-hole, Doyle’s, one afternoon. In crazy sloping handwriting (because of awkward angle) so it looks like a piece of outsider art. But the concepts need rigorous working through before the diagram can be revealed.

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