The critical impulse has long been the most disreputable desire in the great sensorium of our culture, since sating it usually means short-circuiting a host of other, more lucrative reflexes in the consumer body politic. From the solons of civic journalism to the touts of the tech market, criticism is the one form of information that is just a little too free. This goes double for all the weights and measures of the critical vocabulary—the ranking of content and audiences, the groupings of high and low forms of expression, and most of all, the scandalous notion that some kinds of culture could actually be better than others.
At the same time that criticism looks ever more retrograde (and, in the post 9/11 polis, unpatriotic), its distant cousin, taste, is everywhere. As fops and critics are flogged off the American scene, faith in mass judgment spontaneously rises. Taste is the great property of consumer sovereignty, the maker of market demand, and, to hear a growing chorus of postideological sachems tell it, taste has swallowed whole all prior schemes of social rank and differentiation. Conservative pundit Joseph Epstein, in his recent book Snobbery: The American Version, charts the triumph of uptrending American tastes—and the swarthy, striving middle class that makes taste matter so much—by casually waving away all mere material determinants of social rank in America. “Somehow measuring other people—above, below—from a middle-class perspective seems an irrelevance in the world we now live in, and therefore without much point.” Oddly, though, the flattening of material hierarchy somehow reinforces cultural snobbery, the means by which we parade and protect our hard-won and vigorously contested taste: “Taste ranks high in the scheme of what we value—higher perhaps than anything else—and gives our lives a nervous quality,” Epstein declaims in a typically sweeping aside. But taste is no longer “what people in possession of social power said it was”; it has, rather, become massified and massaged into shape by “the professional tastemakers, those editors, designers, decorators, museum curators, critics, etiquette handbook writers, movie and television producers . . . who ignite fads, set trends, keep the rest of us. . .guessing, hopping, jumping.” Taste is, in other words, a simple contractual exchange between free agents and their hired advisers. “Snobbery . . . doesn’t seem to be carried on in anything like the traditional context of social class,” Epstein argues. “In snobbery, as in so much else in contemporary America, everyone is in business for him- or herself.”
Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, David Brooks has likewise hailed, as part of his never ending ritual discovery of the “Bobo” class, the downward redistribution of snobbishness. Brooks, a colleague of Epstein’s at The Weekly Standard, claims that “we have democratized elitism in this country . . . . Everybody gets to be an aristocrat now. And the number of social structures is infinite. You can be an outlaw-biker aristocrat, a corporate real-estate aristocrat, an X Games aristocrat, a Pentecostal minister aristocrat . . . . And everybody can be a snob, because everybody can look down from the heights of his mountaintop at the millions of poor saps who are less accomplished.”
Taste has acquired paramount importance to conservative thinkers because taste is impervious to criticism.
Reassurance is the primary aim of such pundit patter. Class, it tells us, is not a matter of widening wealth and income gaps, narrowing access to public goods such as education and health care, or—least of all—the relations of power in the workplace. It is rather, a mere posture of the self, to be taken up or relinquished as casually as one’s outlaw-biker persona, and limited only by the “infinite” range of consumer taste preferences. Funny thing about this “infinite” selection of choices, though: To judge by Brooks’s pop sociology, it generates remarkably flat and stereotyped portraits of the American character. Rather than bothering to write even anecdotal depictions of our actual shifting social attitudes, Brooks simply gives us an imaginary portrait of ideal-type lifestyle snobs: A lesbian community college professor, besotted with authentic Latino culture-trinkets, and a suburban dad, obsessed with college football and parking spaces. We have infinite choices, it seems, only so long as we choose to be a character from the Drew Carey Show.
Such is the final payoff of this skylarking school of social commentary. Taste has acquired paramount importance to conservative thinkers because taste is impervious to criticism—Brooks and Epstein’s lifestyle menageries are insular, solipsistic groupings, addressing no issue or public that doesn’t also proceed from their own principles of consumer self-selection.
Although this conservative fantasy may not square with reality in most parts of American life, it does describe with eerie accuracy both the thought and experiences of the cultural / academic left, a truly enfeoffed lifestyle enclave, which speaks only to itself in its own professional argot. The difference (and it is a slight one) is that leftish academia imagines itself a collection of heroic anti-snobs, adjudicating cultural disputes on behalf of entire disenfranchised taste communities. Long before the lifestyle-spotters on the right got into the act, after all, the cultural studies movement had been conducting a decades-long retreat from meaningful quality judgments, hailing no end of cynically produced masscult product as emblems of audience-appropriated dissent and subversion. Nominally, of course, these iconoclasts occupy the opposite pole in these debates that the sunny rightward snob-spotters do: they want to infuse trivial taste choices with at least a whiff of ideological conflict. But the exercise in each case yields identical results.
The revolution’s not only been televised—it’s bound, gagged, nodding off, and drooling.
While the conservative reflex is to elevate us all as consumer-aristocrats, the leftish impulse is to empower us all as fans. Take, for example, Hop on Pop, a doorstop-sized anthology of writings from “the first generation of cultural scholars to be able to take for granted that popular culture can be studied on its own terms.” This giddy self-image in turn prompts the book’s editors, Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc, to compose a “manifesto for a new cultural studies,” which is largely devoted to reiterating all the weary shibboleths of the old culture studies. But the authors do press one novel claim: that as sinecured culture critics, they need no longer be encumbered by the act of criticism. For not only do they form a new generation of cultural scholars, they are those purest and bravest of culture-war foot soldiers: They are fans. The intellectual and the fan “remain too closely related for a clean separation,” they write. Nevertheless—oh the indignity!—“as academics, we are told that our affective relations to popular texts must be cast aside so we may fully understand ‘how they work on us.’” The solution, of course, is to “embrace our immediate engagement of popular culture as the source of our knowledge and the motivating force behind our projects”—though how one embraces an engagement, even an immediate one, is a cognitive puzzle on the order of lassoing a cloud. But never mind. The thing is, you see, that “being a fan represents a collective cultural and political identity which links us to other communities. Our cultural preferences and allegiances, no less than our racial, sexual, and political identities, are difficult to shed when we write.”
Alas, they do not lie. As any casual detour into a Star Trek convention or a Phish show will quickly demonstrate, people who stake their identities on their fandom make for rather monotonous company, and so it is with most of the essays in Hop on Pop. There are earnest meditations on the “participatory” nature of karaoke clubs, on the sexualized performance aesthetic of professional wrestling, on the subcultures of Myst and lo-fi. And with the introduction of each feeble, tiny taste community comes the same grand claims to agency, authenticity and liberatory promise, so that the whole enterprise starts to feel a bit like trying to film a sequel of Jurassic Park inside a terrarium. Here, for example, is co-editor Shattuc, describing the rhetorical savvy of daytime TV talk show audiences:
The talk show relied [in making its arguments] on the tangible proofs offered by emotional testimonies and bodily signs (laughter, facial expressions and tears.) These are the forms of argument available to the nonexperts or underclasses . . . . In this postmodern age of simulations talk shows of the 1980s demanded a belief in the authenticity of lived experience as a social truth. Perhaps such direct appeal to raw emotion is what makes the educated middle class so uncomfortable with the so-called “oprahfication” of America. As one Oprah audience member stated on April 14, 1994, “Don’t tell me how to feel. I am my experience.”
Cogito Oprah sum.
There is a world of dishonest condescension (not to mention a galaxy of anti-intellectualism) in Shattuc’s assertion that “nonexperts” as well as the unwashed “underclass” rely on the “authenticity of lived experience,” “raw emotion,” and “bodily signs” to express themselves. The main point, though, is that the claim at the heart of Shattuc’s apologia, like the inviolate lifestyle determinism of Messrs. Epstein and Brooks, admits no point of critical entry. Who, after all, doesn’t believe in their lived experience or use gestures to make points, and what in those broadly asserted conditions is worthy of any public attention or debate? Suggesting that any of the hundreds of obvious objections to these assertions arise merely from “educated middle-class” discomfort is another pernicious canard, steeped in crude psychic reductionism—particularly since no end of educated middle-class writers, from Elizabeth Wurtzel to Dave Eggers, have also written self-narrated accounts of their own critic-resistant experiences.
The crowning gesture of critical disarmament comes from the United Kingdom, where writers and critics once hewed rather reliably to class coordinates in matters of taste. But ever since the Birmingham School midwifed the birth of cultural studies, British academics have been in frenzied search of the political subjectivity buried beneath the trivial stuff of culture preference. And so the New Left Review, a magazine generally not given to such enthusiasms, has been raging with debates over the efforts of art theorists Dave Beech and John Roberts to push beyond both the critical theory and cultural studies movements to the lowest levels of aesthetic-cum-political praxis. But even though Beech and Roberts take great pains to distance themselves from the theoretical labors of the cultstuds, their actual argument reads as though it’s a transcription of Roland Barthes on an especially bad acid trip. Beech and Roberts come to praise the philistine—or at least to theorize his revolutionary cultural position, and their labors, together with responses from several British leftist critics also published in the New Left Review, are collected in one of the most depressing and reader-hostile tomes in a long left tradition of glum insularity, The Philistine Controversy. The philistine, they argue, “is partisan of the excluded pleasures, the excluded body and ‘inappropriate’ forms of attention. The philistine refuses to take a disinterested stance towards a culture which stands as a judge over the philistine’s pleasure without the philistine’s consent.”
Never mind that the philistine, by definition, refuses to do much of anything. Indeed, as several of Beech and Roberts’ interlocutors point out, when described this way, the philistine is largely an ideal type, and as a strict proposition doesn’t seem to exist. Yet this is perhaps the philistine’s strongest selling point—since, like Shattuc’s noble Oprah-watching savages, the philistine can be the obliging repository for no end of reveries on the part of enterprising interpreters, and doesn’t complicate matters by speaking for him- or herself. So, yes, “the philistine defence of the voluptuous body bursts the banks of the decorum of aesthetic experience,” and ipso facto “we arrive at the political.”
And also at sado-masochistic porn. Having somehow, using only his channel changer, managed to overthrow bourgeois notions that identified certain sexual practices as perversions, the philistine now boldly brings us to the brink of “an inclusive, anti-moralistic and generous sensitivity to the untold variety of desire and play . . . . The perverse has moved out of the shadows . . . . In an important sense, pleasure (and pain) and politics are not what they were in the 1970s and early 1980s, when it seemed that taking pleasure in what was harmful or not in your best interests, was to be challenged as bad faith or false consciousness.” Now we know better. Today, hallelujah, “pleasures and pastimes can no longer be challenged in this way.” The shortest path to revolutionary consciousness, we now know, is a convenient matter of gorging all your lesser appetites, either on your AM dial or with your sweaty remote pointed at the Spice Channel. It follows that
philistine modes of attention—for instance, the love of distraction, dissipation, relaxation and idle thrills—cannot be so confidently censured for being culturally impoverished, politically worthless, and philosophically deluded . . . The culturally downgraded activities of cultural inattention find a new political status and role. That is, if the philistine is not someone who exhibits certain traits but enjoys particular kinds of pleasures, then he or she is not imprisoned by distraction, dissipation, relaxation and idle thrills. Instead, philistine modes of attention become subject to choice, modification, customization just as much as ironization.
And where might these choices and this new political status find characteristic expression, you ask? Why, in “TV viewing, radio-listening, moviegoing, watching football and sex-shop browsing.” The revolution’s not only been televised—it’s bound, gagged, nodding off, and drooling.
One is tempted—Good Lord, is one tempted—to dismiss this kind of race-to-the-bottom cultural posturing as a remote British analogue to Alan Sokal’s famed Social Text hoax, an effort to discredit the whole fatuous cultstud enterprise by claiming to find ultra-revolutionary qualities in the most obviously reactionary corners of life. But there’s a stubborn sticking point in Beech and Roberts’s philistine special pleading: the notion of cultural choice as the pre-eminent political virtue going. This is also the pleasing fiction that animates the musings of Epstein, Brooks, and Shattuc and Co.: A host of grandly leveling market forces have turned us loose into a realm of gloriously shifting identities and unassailable, freely chosen taste preferences.
But the awkward fact about social class is that it is about economics, about the foreclosure of choice, about living in worlds we do not make. While we dream happy dreams of X Games snobs, Oprah empowerment, and porno-radicalism, the market conducts an ugly siege of our public lives. More and more of our economic and political institutions are being hollowed out and removed from any possible exercise of civic volition: education, affordable housing, welfare—even prisons—are all private growth markets, and often the subject of outright corporate takeover. Wage and job protections—to say nothing, in many instances, of the basic right to form bargaining units—are dead letters in most American workplaces. Pensions, financial services, employee compensation, and household debt are the playthings of lobbying concerns and investors and the political leadership they bribe. These are not matters of taste or consumer self-image; simply to apprehend the scale of the present sacking of the public sphere demands an act of criticism. And in an age when everybody’s empowered, nobody’s a critic.