What are the bearings that Seabrook takes? Even though he is a self-declared ‘hegemonoculous’ (a wonderful-horrible appellation meant as a homage to a traumatic seminar with Raymond Williams at Oxford in the early 1980s), he knows that the old map of oppositions – high and low culture, Modernist and mass art, uptown and downtown – no longer corresponds to the world. So he makes a chart of his own, and devises a lexicon to go along with it: ‘Nobrow’ (where ‘commercial culture is a source of status’, not of disdain); ‘the Buzz’ (‘a shapeless substance into which politics and gossip, art and pornography, virtue and money, the fame of heroes and the celebrity of murderers, all bleed’); ‘Townhouse’ and ‘Megastore’ (‘in the Townhouse there was content and advertising; in the Megastore there was both at once’); ‘Small-Grid’ and ‘Big-Grid’ (‘the America of you and me’ and ‘the America of 200 million’; ‘what lies between is a void’). In the end, as Seabrook sees it, the law of Nobrow is simple: the Arnoldian criterion of ‘the best that is known and thought’ is long gone, and what rules is the Buzz principle of whatever is hot. No more ‘is it good?’ or even ‘is it original?’, only ‘does it work in the demo?’ – ‘demo’ as in ‘demographics’, not to be confused with ‘democracy’, much less ‘demonstration’. Incidentally, for Seabrook Clinton is ‘the perfect steward’ of this ‘numbers and spin construct’ of ‘polls, focus groups and other forms of market research’ – he was, after all, the first President to appear on MTV – though George W. could make Slick Willy look positively unkempt.
Not surprisingly, Seabrook’s findings boil down to hypotheses about identity and class. ‘Once quality is deposed’, he argues, identity is ‘the only shared standard of judgment’. For Seabrook this identity must be ‘authentic’ (somehow authenticity survives as a value), and it can only be made so through a personal sampling of pop goods at the Megastore: ‘without pop culture to build your identity around, what have you got?’ [emphasis added] For an old guard of American highbrows like Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg, this statement would be grotesque: mass culture is the realm of the inauthentic, and there is no more to be said. For Seabrook (and here he has learned from cultural studies since Williams), it is not absurd at all – in large part because he views pop culture not as mass culture but ‘as folk culture: our culture’. Yet this semi-paradoxical turn of phrase doesn’t solve a basic problem: given his account of the Megastore, is the ‘sampling’ of an identity à la hiphop any different from the ‘branding’ of an identity à la George Lucas? British cultural studies gave us the notions of ‘resistance through rituals’ and ‘subversive subcultures’; American cultural studies has given us the Post-Modern subject that is ‘performative’ in its construction. But with the near-instantaneous time to market from margin to Megastore (or from Small to Big Grid), how much resistance or subversion can subcultures offer today? And is the Post-Modern subject so different from the consumerist subject, that ‘perfect hybrid of culture and marketing’, as Seabrook calls it, ‘something to be that was also something to buy’? This approach represents one of several recoupings of critical positions in Nobrow: call it the revenge of the hegemonoculous on the identity-line in cultural studies.
In an eagerness to not stake out any claims that there might be aesthetic criteria in themselves that the arts could endorse, what do we get? That's another element of the high, mid, low cultural question and the matter of consumption of cultural artifacts as identity can have. What a shared aesthetic may lack in being able to unite those who don't share that aesthetic value it can make up for in being something that can be agreed upon regardless of social strata. Thus for a leftist like John Halle "Nothing is Too Good for the Working Class" can be a defense of why classical music isn't too good for working class people. But then if that's the case what about the high/low divide as an actual class divide? One of the tropes in high culture is that the learning curve required just to appreciate the stuff can be pretty big. It's one of the problems of thinking of the high and low as too fixed and why there may always be some middle.
Without a set of agreed on aesthetic ideals in the arts for an arts community what else would be left but the slipperiest and slimiest of buzzwords, authenticity? Something we'll be playing with a bit in future blog posts.