I Forgot My Mantra
David Brooks makes a good observation in today’s NYT about the change in mainstream middle-class culture, but misses an opportunity for thorough diagnosis. He notes that, in the 50s and into the early 60s, “There was still a sense that culture is good for your character, and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has been thought and said.” The popular newsweeklies “were pitched at middle-class people across the country who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York and Boston elite.” Brooks offers two reasons why “serious culture matters less now than it did then, and artists and intellectuals have less authority”: one is that in the 60s, many intellectuals, resentful perhaps, or threatened, criticized the mainstreaming of culture – he cites as an example Clement Greenberg, who “called the middlebrow an"insidious" force that was"devaluing the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest and stultifying the wise."” In addition to the assault from the highbrow, Brooks says, the popular culture itself changed: “Readers felt less of a need to go outside themselves to absorb works of art as a means of self-improvement. They were more interested in exploring and being true to the precious flower of their own individual selves.” Brooks here misses an opportunity to explore this more fully. Why would this have become the case? Part of the explanation, I think, has to do with the rise of relativism. The old idea of self-improvement as character development presupposes some objective standard by which the development can be assessed. If virtue and good and right are all meaningless or relativized concepts, then self-improvement would merely be a matter of self-exploration – hence est, situation ethics, communes, coke-laced disco sex orgies, all the usual suspects of 70s narcissism. Another part of the explanation as to why artists and intellectuals have less authority today is that they abdicated. (I say “they” because I was in grade school at the time.) When the paintings and sculptures were all abstracts or “conceptual” pieces, when the music was atonal and disharmonious, when the literature was inaccessible to the mainstream reader, that’s when artists lost their authority. Brooks was prompted to write today’s op-ed by finding a Time Magazine from 1961 with Hemingway on the cover. While Hemingway is commonly taught by lit teachers both in high school and college, and people get PhDs studying Hemingway, it’s also the case that anyone can read Hemingway and enjoy it. Pretty much all of what is now classified as great literature was once also popular: from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Hemingway. Now the highbrows sneer at “airport novels” or “genre fiction,” while the virtually-redundant category “literary fiction” has become the home for highbrow stuff that the middle class doesn’t read – is it because they’re too stupid now, or is it because the “serious” authors write inaccessibly? And so also with the intellectuals: the version of relativism that took hold in the mainstream was a trickle-down from the academy. I used to fume about how this decadent society refused to pay any attention to philosophers. It still irks me, but I have come to realize that part of the blame for that lies with the philosophers themselves, who have made philosophy irrelevant by embracing first linguistic analysis (exclusively – there’s nothing wrong with it per se, what’s wrong is the sort of Vienna-Circle move that says that ethics is all hooey because it can’t be expressed with quantifiers, which probably isn’t even true anyway) and later postmodernism. It’s not about getting it all right – it’s about posing questions people care about. But “relevance” has to be combined with seriousness for the inquiry to be effective. The first wave of “popular culture studies” was derided for treating pop ephemera as if it were a cache of brilliant medieval texts to be “decoded” or deconstructed, and was written by the elite for the elite. The new wave in popular culture philosophy, which I’m proud to have been part of from day 1, is about using the popular culture to motivate old-school highbrow reflection in the mainstream audience. Even today, too many philosophers are ceding to Tony Robbins and Phil McGraw territory that we can work more effectively, just as the literati are making themselves irrelevant by dumping on Beethoven and Shakespeare and praising abstraction and obfuscation. The academy needs to return to its senses, then I suspect the mainstream might also. I’d be really interested in a productive comments thread here, so fire away.