Upper-Middle Brow

I’ve been a little obsessed with the ideas in this article by William Deresiewicz this week: Upper Middle Brow: The Culture of the Creative Class {american scholar; via andrew sullivan}.

He begins by positioning the term “upper middle brow” in our cultural caste system. There’s mainstream (“masscult”), middle brow (“midcult”), highbrow, and now something inbetween:

It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).

As a devotee of at least three of the aforementioned shows/publications, my defenses were up. Happily, that wasn’t the crux of his argument:

The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world.

It’s that last part that gets me: art that seeks not to disturb. Yes, I’m delighted and provoked to think deeper about politics, the environment, and the world-at-large when I listen to NPR and read things in The New Yorker. But are my pre-concieved views challenged when they post a letter imploring readers to vote for Obama? Was there a possibility that they’d suggest anyone else? There’s no mention of the Patriot Act in the endorsement, which is intact in virtually the same form as it was when George W. Bush signed it into law in 2001, and a host of other issues like the ones brought up in Glenn Greenwald’s segment on On the Media this week:

…and we didn’t even talk about one of the worst ones, which is the incredible  and unprecedented persecution of whistleblowers, prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act of 1917, more than double the number of all prior administrations combined…

No, The New Yorker knows I’ve already made up my mind, else I likely wouldn’t be reading The New Yorker.

And the issue of self-congratulation could be resolved by exposing myself to opposing  points of views, something the self-congratulation bubble often promotes; but that’s still an activity occurring outside of the bubble, by definition. And that advice is usually relegated to the realm of politics—Deresiewicz is talking about something bigger than that.

I’ll leave you with a video from a person who I think is aware of this, and exploits it in his comedy (in a way not altogether different from Portlandia). It’s Bill Burr, talking about Steve Jobs and how he doesn’t get what the guy actually invented.

And go here for his longer riff on Jobs {youtube}.