Running Over the Pedestrian (to shake his hand)

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Never forget that the boot on your neck is either there for your own good, a figment of your imagination, what nature intended, or an unfortunate accident of history, whichever you happen to find the most convincing in a moment of weakness.

The Devil’s greatest trick, the old platitude goes, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. In today’s Globe and Mail, Russell Smith argues that the distinction between ‘brows’ is no longer real or significant. As he writes:

It interests me that a commercial magazine thinks these are points that still need to be scored. This question of what is an embarrassing taste refuses to go away. Despite all the postmodern theorizing about the erasure of high and low, despite the triumph of mass culture, people still feel guilty or inadequate about their lack of intellectual cool.

As far as I’m concerned, the ‘postmodern erasure’ he mentions did little more than sanction a certain rhetorical egalitarianism, one where, in the course of teaching students what to take seriously, you have to make sure not to discriminate against the silly. The serious is still serious, and the silly is still silly, it’s just no longer as polite to openly laugh at the latter. The kernel of the quote, the one that betrays his basic misunderstanding of the phenomena, lies in the last line – the fact that people still feel guilty.

He talks as though the theoretical delegitimation of  our traditional attitudes regarding high and low art has dispatched with the problem. The problem, however, is one of actual attitudes, not theories. And as he states himself, those attitudes still exist. So the quote, which suggests that the problem has been solved by theory, therefore the attitudes are unjustified, actually inverts the situation. What he is actually saying is that the theory changed little or nothing.

The problem is that people use cultural products to identify themselves over and against other people. This is human nature, which is to say, it will always be endemic in contemporary culture. The solution has to be institutional and educational: both must be designed in such a way to mitigate this paleolithic relic of human psychology. My argument is that in their present form both seem designed to aggravate the dysfunction rather than solve it.

The fact that high-brow snobbery seems to poke through so many corners of Smith’s piece illustrates, I think, just how pernicious this trap has become for his tribe: the postmodern rhetorical commitment is used obscure actual evaluations. His preference for things highbrow, his disdain for the ‘entertainment spewed at you by massive corporations,’ fairly oozes from the text. (I guarantee you the vast majority of ‘highbrow’ cultural products he identifies with are also some kind of corporate spew – just the good kind). Still he remains unconcerned, because he thinks his theoretical commitments preclude the possibility of highbrow chauvinism.

This is when cultural attitudes become genuinely aristocratic: there is no assumption of cultural superiority more complete, and more toxic, than the one that pretends to make no such assumption. The value attributions are just as automatic, just as thoughtless, but lie beyond the pale of self-criticism because of the conviction that the criticism comes ready made. ‘I’m a critical thinker, therefore my attitudes have to be critical.’ There is no chauvinism more inescapable than the one that confuses itself for openness.

What Smith is arguing is the cultural analogue to, ‘I’m not racist, but those x…’