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September 18, 2004

Will Middlebrow Ever Return?

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

As Terry Teachout and many others have noted, the fragmentation and proliferation of new media voices correlate with a decline in Middlebrow Culture. The Era of Broadcasting is replaced by the Era of Narrowcasting, as illustrated quite well by the damage to CBS' credibility in l'affaire Rather.

But, to use contrasting metaphors, how does one distinguish in a cultural moment whether it is a case of genies escaping bottles or a case of a pendulum reaching the end point of its arc? Under the former metaphor, circumstances prompt a permanent change; under the latter, we are all slaves to human nature, and the fights that we fight have a tendency to move in large, barely perceptible, circles.

The current conventional wisdom seems to be that the former metaphor--the genie escaping the bottle--is the correct one. Teachout himself states--ruefully, in a way--the ability to frame a common culture "is now splintered beyond hope of repair." The signs point in that direction, but a contrarian bet in cultural matters if often the correct one, so I wonder.

I agree that the tools we have to communicate with one another are influential in shaping what we communicate. But is it the case that the ability to watch a wrestling channel 24/7 will lead permanently to a wrestling caste, cut off from public affairs, Oprah's Book Club and Sibelius? People play with new toys, to be sure, but might it not be the case that they will sooner or later find themselves in need of a new recentering?

[temporary diversion to urbanism theme: my dad loved his 900 square foot ranch house and had no need for Main Street--actively avoided it in fact--but new urbanism is not a bad bet for the next several decades. what people yearn for can run in cycles.]

A possible signal in this regard:

Bill O'Reilly has been taking heat from the Right since the Rather thing blew up. He's been using the "fair and balanced" argument to pontificate against "right-wing talk radio hosts" and "far-right bloggers" in a semi-defense of Dan. That has gotten said hosts and bloggers mad. Laura Ingraham showed up on his show two nights ago, crying "Bill, how could you??!!" And she had an article to this effect in yesterday's New York Sun as well (subscription required). In her view, bloggers have changed everything--it's a utopian moment in which the new media have altered everything forever, and Bill, an old media guy, just doesn't get it. What's going on?

I think Bill, a very savvy guy, simply figures that the cultural moment is being recentered. Tussles usually take place on the extremes--Ladies and Jemmin', Michael Moore versus Jerry Falwell in the fight of the century!--but the terrain at stake is usually the last few inches in the center of things. It's not that O'Reilly is looking to "take Rather's place at CBS", as some have speculated. Rather (so to speak), it's a matter of a shift in what constitutes mainstream opinion, whether enunciated at CBS or Fox. The bloggers have helped enable that shift, but that does not mean there will no longer be a mainstream voice. Indeed, you can argue that the cleansing, self-correcting nature of blog media will in the long run enable, not undermine, a mainstream view.

Teachout was happy to accept a certain cultural authority from Middlebrow elitist media while growing up in Missouri. But was this voluntary, happy act only a matter of one individual consuming cultural product? If so, narrowcasting would do the trick since high art is readily available in narrowcasting format. But what if Teachout's satisfaction had other roots? What if there was an exchange going on, a shared cultural moment dealing with issues of authority and cohesion, not just consumption? If so, that yearning may bring back some newer form of Middlebrow, even if the content is already available in narrowcasted form.



PS Of course it could be the other way round.

posted by Fenster at September 18, 2004


Back at the midpoint of the 20th century and through the late 1960's or even early 1970's large L Liberalism was the American religion.
At that time the Main Stream Media truly were main stream.

That faith, for the overwhelming majority of Americans is now dead. But it continues (it would be too much to say lives on) in the so-called MSM. What will follow the passing of Rather-Jennings-Brokaw I do not know. But I do know that the present powers will not bend with the times. They will hang on, brittley breaking to the end.

Posted by: ricpic on September 18, 2004 4:40 PM

It's an interesting question. If and when a dam bursts, what happens? Do you wind up, after a lot of sloshing around, at a new equilibrium? Ie., once the digital revolution has ended, will we return once again to a calmer life, with perhaps even its own new "middlebrow"? Or are we entering a new state altgother, where flow and sloshiness (rather than stability and equilibrium) are basic? If it's the second, then maybe no new middlebrow will emerge -- maybe we'll wind up with ever-forming and ever-unforming niche markets and a lot of herd behavior. But if it's the first, maybe there will emerge a new middlebrow, or a new consensus of some sort. But, with no good reason, I'm betting that we're going to wind up in the second state, the one of endless sloshiness and no middlebrow, at least not in the old sense. Maybe there'll be a niche market/audience for "middlebrow" products -- how could there not be such a thing? But maybe that won't mean the same thing it once did. Maybe middlebrow won't be sitting there, hand on the wheel. Maybe it'll just be one particular taste-set among many.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 20, 2004 12:16 AM

The problem with middlebrow culture as embodied in authority figures such as TV networks and "newspapers of record" can be summed up in one sentence: "The dangerous thing ain't what ya don't know, it's what ya know that ain't so."

Most of the so-called common truths of middlebrow culture are simply not correct, and yet are endlessly repeated as if true. (A very few examples: government intervention saved capitalism during the Great Depression, Modernism/postmodernism is the only true artistic expression of contemporary society, religion is always a manifestation of reactionary irrationalism, etc., etc., etc.)

I suggest that the demise of middlebrow culture is a great step forward for mankind intellectually.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 20, 2004 11:42 AM

Doesn't middlebrow culture assume the existence of highbrow culture? I thought that in the classic position (maybe never fully realised), the middlebrow think pieces were watered-down, popularised versions of what the real intellectuals were thinking, middlebrow art recycled the cutting-edge highbrow art of five or ten years earlier or imposed dumbed-down interpretations on the canonical highbrow stuff. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, I'm pretty certain it's a good thing.

Once highbrow culture walks off a cliff, middlebrow loses its bearings, and becomes steadily mushier and irrelevant. The point is, middlebrow fractures and loses its hegemony after, and because, highbrow does the same thing.



Posted by: Chris Burd on September 28, 2004 12:51 PM

I couldn't agree more. It is important that we have a media that is concerned with being fair. I believe that the US should reinstate the fairness doctrine and move toward getting the media to be more representative of the population. We don't need further fractures in our culture.

Joshua Montgomery

Posted by: Joshua Montgomery on October 8, 2004 2:16 PM

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