Syndrome Syndrome

In an article at Commentary, Fred Siegel argues that much of the decline of popular culture can be traced to a sort of snobbery among the intelligentsia of the 20th Century. He observes that

The [literary intellectuals] —Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Waldo Frank especially—had “a vague belief in aristocracy” and a sense that they were being “oppressed” by the culture of Main Street. But they believed America could be rescued from the pits of its popular culture by secular priests of sufficient insight to redeem the country from the depredations of the mass culture produced by democracy and capitalism. They were championed not only by leftists such as Cowley, but also by Nietzscheans such as H.L. Mencken, the critic and editor whom Walter Lippmann described in 1926 as “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people” who famously mocked the hapless “herd,” “the imbeciles,” the “booboisie,” all of whom he deemed the “peasantry” that blighted American cultural life.

I submit that we continue to see this sort of attitude from a significant portion of the Codevillean ruling class — to test this hypothesis, mention Fox News in a faculty lounge some time. The conversation will turn Menckenesque in short order, and not in a good way.

Siegel then observes that post-WWII America, with its unprecedented prosperity and rising standards of living, which brought comforts and cultural opportunities to the masses that had not previously been available, meant that high culture was now no longer exclusively for the self-appointed mandarinate. This brings us to my post’s title: in the movie The Incredibles, Syndrome (the antagonist) claims that his technology will give everyone superpowers, and when everyone is super, then no one is.

The overwhelming new medium of television was particularly decried by critics of mass culture. But as the sociologist David White, co-editor with Rosenberg of Mass Culture, noted, NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million viewers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours. White went on to note that “on March 16, 1956, a Sunday chosen at random,” the viewer could have seen a discussion of the life and times of Toulouse-Lautrec by three prominent art critics, an interview with theologian Paul Tillich, an adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Hook, a documentary on mental illness with Dr. William Menninger, and a 90-minute performance of The Taming of the Shrew.

At the same time, book sales doubled. Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, a National Book Award winner, had only modest sales when it was published in 1953. But it went on to sell a million copies in paperback—the softcover book having been introduced on a grand scale after the war. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, published in 1934, sold modestly until the advent of the paperback. By the mid-50s this assault on Victorian moral absolutes in the name of cultural tolerance had sold a half million copies.

In 1947, notes Alex Beam in his recent book A Great Idea at the Time, Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, and the autodidact philosopher Mortimer Adler launched an effort to bring the great books of Western Civilization to the people. In 1948 Hutchins and Adler drew 2,500 people to a Chicago auditorium to hear them lead a discussion of the trial of Socrates. By 1951 there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting “all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, Chamber of Commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases,” and even prisons. At the peak of the Great Books boom, Beam writes, 50,000 Americans a year were buying collections of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, and Hegel at prices that “started at $298 and topped out at $1,175, the equivalent of $2,500 to $9,800 today.”

This was the danger against which critics of mass culture, inflamed with indignation, arrayed themselves in righteous opposition.

How, then, is a would-be cultural elite to distinguish itself from a mass that suddenly likes the same stuff? Siegel argues that (thanks to Susan Sontag, for one) the mark of superiority would become not what is enjoyed, but the manner of enjoyment — ironic smugness (never in short supply in faculty lounges, for instance) would become the appropriate shibboleth, the extended pinky on the teacup of cultural consumption. This meant in turn that the old distinctions between high and low culture were obliterated, and in fact, a race to the cultural bottom (tattooing, for example) could provide even more opportunity for ironic detachment and proper boho/elite status.

It’s an interesting, provocative article, and worth a look.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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8 Responses to Syndrome Syndrome

  1. Huck says:

    This subject is one that is of particular personal importance to me, as I come from very humble working-class roots, only to now be tarred as a member of the snobbish elite by virtue simply of my success in making it to the “Faculty Lounge.”

    I do get uncomfortable when the “Codevillean ruling class” asserts a thoughtless and dismissive elitism in referencing the “hoi polloi” when that reference is made exclusively and only from a class-based perch of inherited privilege. But that is generally not what I see happening and certainly not what often gets criticized by the supposedly anti-elitist right wingers. What these folks on the rightwing like to criticize are often times legitimate critiques by educated people (whether liberal or conservative) of an unquestioning and even prideful embrace of ignorance, and a general disdain for critical thinking, research, and scholarship — i.e. the fundamental intellectual project.

    I get furious with these rightwing anti-intellectual cultural ideologues because I see them as the biggest obstacles to an embrace of higher education (and particularly education in the humanities and liberal arts) as a vehicle for upward social mobility. It really is a slap in the face of the values that my non-college-educated, working-class parents sacrificed for and embraced for me and my siblings. It is a wholesale diminishing, if not a complete rejection, of the value of a broad-based liberal education. That bothers me.

    And I have to admit, ProfMondo, that there is also a not-so-hidden manifestation of an equally distasteful version of cultural snobbery at work in knee-jerk criticisms of smart people in faculty lounges who see the glorification of ignorance and the disdain for critical thinking on FoxNews as evidence of Gatsby-esque elitist privilege rearing its ugly head. Most of the folks in faculty lounges these days are decidedly not part of the entitled “Codevillean ruling class.” It’s very rare to see “old money” aristocracy among most college and university faculty these days. We are really mostly folks from the middle classes who bought into the idea that getting a Ph.D. represented a worthy accomplishment. And I posit that the Menken-esque reactions you observe there are nothing more than results of anger and frustration in recognizing that the folks attacking their very success as part of the academy are none other than people from the old neighborhoods who started out in the same socio-economic and class context as they did, but who never did the hard work in school to raise their station in life and are now showing some sour grapes and resentment at the uncool neighborhood nerdy kids who – gasp! – made it out of the hood and now sit behind a desk getting paid to think and to write, and to help new generations of kids do the same.

    • profmondo says:

      Hey, Huck — thanks for joining in. First off, I don’t think the faculty is monolithic by any means. All you have to do is attend a faculty meeting and you’ll realize it’s nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on what time it is, much less the other stuff. Furthermore, I’ll cheerfully agree that snobbery can/does go both ways. Human beings tend to have an urge to feel superior to somebody.

      However, my own experience in grad school, meeting folks at conferences, and so forth, does indicate to me that the “ruling class” (or perhaps to use a less loaded term, folks with high cultural capital) attitude does make a point of distinguishing itself from the rabble, and artistic/lifestyle signifiers are a part of that. I think one point on which we differ is the notion that the ruling class is purely a function of inherited privilege. While that may once have been the case (and who knows? It may remain the case within the class), I’m willing to stipulate that there are alternate routes, and ways to become a member of the cultural nouveau riche, if you will.

      In fact, this discussion has led me to a question that popped into my head on my way back from Wal-Mart a few minutes ago (and interestingly, I do see that as a cultural signifier, insofar as given a choice between Wal-Mart and, say, Whole Foods, I’m going to feel much more comfortable at Wal-Mart. Ultimately that’s academic, however, as I don’t think there’s a Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s/etc. within 50 miles). Might it be useful to consider this from a Postcolonial perspective? What sort of issues arise when folks like you and I enter/are colonized by the world of academic culture? What are the costs and benefits of assimilation? Is there hybridity at work? At what point does a working-class person who enters academic culture turn into (for a really extreme example) a V.S. Naipaul, turning on his or her benighted “natives”? Hmm… we could co-author an article on this. I’ll even let your name go first, as Huck precedes Mondo alphabetically. 🙂

      • Huck says:

        Heh! As usual, ProfMondo, your reply is witty, classic, and excellent. I don’t know if you grew up in a working-class environment, but if so, and if we were in the same hood, I bet we would have been pretty good friends.

        Important point: we don’t differ in our notions of the ruling class. I certainly believe that there are alternative routes and ways to enter the ranks of the nouveau riche. Where we differ, I think, is in how we compare the aristocracy and the nouveau riche as a ruling class. I got the impression that you consider them functionally one and the same, and that this merger is both a threat to the hegemony of the aristocracy and its claims to “ownership” of high culture as a marker of class distinction and a path for the masses to join the ranks of the “super heroes” through the greater accessibility of high culture and a greater preference to actually consume high culture. I, however, do not ascribe to the notion that one who has been able to straddle the worlds of the masses and the elites through a process of upward social mobility must feel more comfortable shopping in Whole Foods or in Wal-Mart, and that this sense of comfort defines his loyalties. That is a Sarah Palin “real America” dichotomy that I just don’t buy. I feel just as comfortable in a Wal-Mart as I do in a Whole Foods, though I had to grow into a sense of comfort with Whole Foods while a sense of comfort with Wal-Mart was a part of my life from birth. So, yeah, I was “colonized” into the Whole Foods culture, but not because anyone demanded it of me for entrance into the aristocracy/nouveau riche. I just opened myself to something new and found that, just like everything in life, there were things I both liked and disliked about it. Finally, I have to note that a ruling class (in the broader sense of the successful and powerful) is inevitable; and I always thought that to aspire towards it was a very conservative, capitalist, and American individualist idea. The quintessential American dream, if you will. So I still don’t get why many conservatives would look at my story and not think of it as such. The only thing that makes any sense why conservatives would look at my story with disdain would be because the end product of my efforts found me landed in that reviled thing known as the academy and leaning left ideologically.

        Shifting gears a bit: I find especially clever your suggestion of applying Pomo/Poco claptrap to the issue. And, yes, I find much of that stuff nothing more than hot air. I guess it’s interesting at a philosophical level, but beyond that I have very little use for it in my daily living and find it quite pretentious. Just because I am a liberal academic doesn’t mean that I’ve drunk that koolaid! But riding with your idea, I’d say that I haven’t been “colonized” by the world of academic culture any more than I’ve actually wanted to be and chosen for myself, not because of any deception on the colonizer’s part, mind you, but rather because I have come to the conclusion, by my own free will and reason, that there’s something about the nature of the academic culture/project that rings true.

        If the right wing were really to believe in the value and agency of the individual to know what is in his or her best interest, as they so loudly and often proclaim, then I would think they’d give us smart, working-class people who enter academic culture a little more respect for and deference to our choices instead of thinking of us as either brainwashed tools and class tribal sellouts, or colonizer wannabe’s.

  2. Huck says:

    To start another conversation thread, let me respond to the question you posed in the final paragraph of your original posting. You asked: “How, then, is a would-be cultural elite to distinguish itself from a mass that suddenly likes the same stuff?” It’s a fair question, but it’s a question that doesn’t, I think, address the problem of the mass vs. elite dynamic that currently defines the culture wars. What is really happening is something of the opposite: the unwashed masses are creating a culture, buoyed by the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, among others, that actvely despises the “stuff” the elites like, just because it is what the elite likes, irrespective of whether that stuff is actually and objectively awesome stuff. It seems like the hoi polloi, and its crude anti-intellectual populist right wing apologists, will cut off their nose to spite their face in protest of what you call the new shibboleth of “ironic smugness.” And they are being told they are better off for having done so, when the reality is that all they are truly left with is a deformed face and their own ironic self-righteous smugness. For instance, I almost could not believe my ears when I heard Rick Santorum encourage working-class folks not to send their kids to college just because Barack Obama thought that improving access to college and attending college were good ideas. And why did Barack Obama think these were good ideas? Well, as Santorum put it, the answer to that question is because, as we all surely must know, college will make kids into brainwashed liberals, just like the President, so of course the President would be speaking positively of college education. Think about it: If a modern day Robert Hutchins (prestigious college president) and/or Mortimer Adler (autodidact philosopher and intellectual) were to launch a thing similar to the “great books” project, or hosted a discussion about the death of Socrates, or proposed some other fancy “high culture” movement for the masses, what do you think the response of the intellectually incurious populist right wing leadership would be?

    • profmondo says:

      First off, you certainly won’t catch me agreeing with Rick Santorum, which fills me with dread as 2016 or 2020 may be “his turn”, based on GOP history. However, as frequent commenter Jeff Sypeck has noted, there does seem to be a genuine hunger for good stuff out there. The history section at my local frappuccino preserve is larger than the mystery section. When people find out I do medieval lit, they proudly recite the first sentence of Chaucer’s General Prologue (speaking of shibboleths) as if they were doing the neck verse that would save them from the gallows. While I’m not sure if this remains the case, when I was in the magazine biz in the mid-90s, I discovered that more people went to museums that year than went to all pro sports combined.

      However, folks aren’t the least bit hungry for Baudrillardan claims that 9/11 was something we had coming (or Jeremiah Wright’s similar claims), or for deconstructionist efforts to plunge into an abyss of relativism. We can discuss how prevalent such things actually are — they’re easily cherrypicked by demagogues like Beck. But what results is a case of snobbery and counter-snobbery, and smug doesn’t look good on anybody, and I think everyone winds up losing.

  3. profmondo says:

    (Sent this last night, but it didn’t show up for some reason.) So here we go again…

    I’m sure we would’ve gotten on well. My background was kind of weird — my mom’s people were Tennessee farmers who moved to the city just before WWII; my grandfather was a fire fighter (primarily an engine driver), and my grandmother worked as a drugstore cashier. My paternal grandfather was a soldier in the 40s and 50s, and a cab driver after he was mustered out (he died before I came along, while Dad was in high school). My grandmother was a Tennessee Williams character — the last daughter of a declining Old South family, with a finishing school mentality (and sense of entitlement) and a fondness for cough syrup. Dad and Granny lived in the projects in East Nashville after his dad died, and he met Mom at a technical high school where they were both commercial art students. They married the day after Mom graduated and I came along a couple of years later. Dad was brilliant and Mom was no dummy, but they were dead broke.

    My first home was an apt. over a drugstore where my mom would pick splinters out of my feet from the unsanded floors. Mom worked at various points as a waitress in a beer joint, a babysitter, a housecleaner for my richer classmates, and a Fotomat employee until the MS disabled her. When I was 2, my dad applied for a job on a loading dock, having lost gigs at a furniture dealer, a florist’s, a bakery, and I think a few other gigs. Well, this was in the days of IQ tests for job candidates (which are now illegal), and the company told him he was too bright for a loading dock gig — but would he like a job hanging tapes on computers? (They called him a “spool coolie” — it was 1967.) After that he was promoted to keypunch, and then taught himself to program. Along the way, he moonlighted as a motorcycle mechanic, freelance writer, and custom painter of van murals in the 1970s. He finally got his B.A. the year before I graduated from high school, from the same non-traditional program that awarded me my B.A. in 1987. He didn’t really start making money, though, until the 1990s, by which time I was out on my own. This was compounded by some heavy medical bills (my brother had heart surgery when he was 6 months old, and it took years to pay those doctors while we ate fishsticks and turkey pot pies). What money was left went for books; Dad had a book-a-day jones, which I inherited as well.

    What all this meant was that I grew up in a weird stew of bohemian art and culture and working-class lifestyle. My folks made sure we lived in neighborhoods with good schools, but I was typically one of the poorer kids, wearing my grandfather’s fire department uniform shirts and Sears catalog jeans. Fortunately, I was non-conformist enough that I wouldn’t have wanted the fashionable stuff anyway. But there was always a ton of stuff to read, and when it became obvious that I was unusually bright (I started reading at 18 mos.), they made sure that I’d stay supplied. One of the coolest summers of my life was in the early 70s, when Dad found a coworker who was getting rid of 10 or 20 years of Readers’ Digest. He brought them home and that took care of at least part of my summer. Another summer, he found a complete 5-foot shelf at a garage sale. An interesting note: Despite our constant cash flow issues, we were always the house where my friends would hang (or more — the Mad Dog damn near lived with us during some of our college years.) We might have been eating hot dogs or fish sticks, but somehow everyone would get fed. And my folks built a life that allowed them to live quite comfortably by the time I was an adult. Their lives taught me that working hard and doing the right thing works. I learned the value of self-reliance and a distaste for dependency from them.

    In many ways, I think I’m a product of the middlebrow culture Siegel describes in the Commentary article. My mom’s folks and my parents were aware of the power of culture and education, and there was never a question that I was going to go to college (although I might well have to work my way through, because they weren’t going to be able to give me any money.) But at the same time, I was immersed in the popular culture, from heavy metal to SCTV. And I never really developed elite tastes, I guess — we couldn’t afford “nice restaurants” or travel; I’m 46 and have still never been to New York (much less Europe), for example. I’m still thrilled when (as happened today) I get desk copies of literature anthologies.

    And as I’ve recounted in other posts, I’ve spent a sizable chunk of my career feeling a dissonance between my own tastes/interests/experiences and those of the culture in which I now participate. I’m much more comfortable in a Waffle House than a wine bar. I’m a burger guy in a sheep’s milk cheese world.

    But at the same time, I was reared with the democratic belief that I’m just as good as anyone else. (Once when I was working at Sears, a customer asked to speak to my superior. I said I didn’t have any, but I’d be happy to let them talk to my boss.) Consequently, I’m extremely skeptical of authority, particularly if that authority is claimed by someone from an elite background.

    Man, it’s getting late. But I do want to mention that I think that my story, and what you’ve told me of your story, is in fact further evidence that the system can and does work. You’ve earned a heck of a career, and you seem to be a happy person. It won’t surprise you, of course, that I think a process that allows the Hucks and Mondos to do what we’ve done is one with which we shouldn’t lightly tamper.

    • Huck says:

      It won’t surprise you, of course, that I think a process that allows the Hucks and Mondos to do what we’ve done is one with which we shouldn’t lightly tamper.

      To which I say, AMEN! But, here’s the thing… at least for me and my family, that “process” at times included food stamps, ROTC scholarships, Pell Grants and federally subsidized student loans, and low-interest, low-to-no downpayment FHA loans. If it were not for these elements of our “process,” I can confidently say that I would not be able to have gotten where I landed. And that forms part of my liberalism.

  4. Jeff says:

    Prof M: Thanks for the callback to my previous comment!

    I have to admit, though, when I look at a conversation like this, I realize that I have no idea what terms like “working class” or “elite” even mean in 2012. Is a construction foreman “working class” because of his job? What if he takes English lit classes at night and secretly listens to opera? What about the member of my family who fixes airplanes for a living who doesn’t have a college degree but does have a 4,000-square-foot house, a boat, and two new-ish cars in the driveway? What if even the dumbest, laziest male between the ages of 18 to 24 has more pull in our culture, thanks to the priorities of advertisers, than a brilliant “elite” 60-year-old woman with a Ph.D from Yale and tenure at a state college? What “class” is a gay hotel manager in rural Louisiana who didn’t finish college and who loves football nearly as much as he loves the local Thai restaurant? Is he different “class” at the local and national levels?

    It seems to me that what we’re talking about here are several bands or strata of cultural preferences in which we all participate to different extents, like the results of a sort of multidimensional Myers-Briggs test made all the more complicated by the ways we tell others, honestly or not, how we *want* them to perceive us.

    (Re: academic culture, a topic all its own, I saw it assimilate and deaden so many potentially interesting but ultimately timid people in the early 1990s, particularly in English departments. Ugh.)

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