If one thing has preoccupied me since my college days, it’s the distinction between high and popular culture. I have never been impressed by theories that disparage this distinction as a deluded reflection of hegemonic oppression of one kind or another, nor by those that purport to oppose an authentic popular culture to the “mass” culture purveyed by the elite as panem et circenses or “repressive tolerance” in order to divert the proletariat from its true revolutionary vocation. On the contrary, the opposition of high to popular art belies demystifying analyses of the social order as a mask for the will to power. High art has an elevating quality that it seems to me churlish to deny; in contrast, popular art, whatever its pleasures, is self-indulgently resentful. This is not the end but the point of departure of my analysis, but I cannot accept a model of culture that fails to account for this opposition.
More recently, I have come to feel that the postmodern era no longer tolerates the notion of high art, and that what is left of its heritage–in music, poetry, the plastic arts–has become so narrow in its appeal to “specialists” that it can no longer claim to elevate the soul. This artistic heritage has retained the ascetic relation to desire that has always characterized high art, but the askesis it asks of us seems to prepare us less for a chastening of our desire in the real world than for a demonstration of our superior esthetic sophistication. Asceticism become its own raison-d’être is just inverted hedonism, as Baudelaire recalls to us in a deliberately archaic mode: …la Sainteté / Comme en un lit de plume un délicat se vautre, / Dans les clous et le crin cherchant la volupté […Sainthood / As an esthete stretches himself in a featherbed / Seeking sensual pleasure in nails and horsehair]; and ultimately, the hedonism is transformed by the iron laws of mimesis into mere snobbery. No doubt this has been a feature of modern art since the days of Proust’s Mme Verdurin, but by now this feature has come to dominate all others…
But the passage of the years (I turned 56 this week) has led me to revise this perspective. I would make a case for the persistence of the impulse to elevation rather than of high art per se. The notion of esthetic “height” that implies invidious comparison with “low” or popular art is no longer tolerable; an impulse to elevation is a movement, not a fixed location, a goal rather than an a priori given. Above all, the esthetic question of elevation comes down to the ethical one: what is elevation for? what model of human interaction does it contribute to? And once again, I find this model not, as in the past, in public relationships but in those of intimacy, as epitomized by the communication-structure of lyric poetry, although by no means limited to it.
The originary moment of high culture is the movement of renunciation, of deferral through representation; that of popular culture, the movement toward the division of the sacrificial spoils, the sparagmos. The latter is, we should not forget, still a movement-toward and not the real thing, although in the orgy of the “carnavalesque” it can get pretty close. Just as, in Northrop Frye’s schema, the tragic is part of a cycle represented in toto in “romance,” the ascetic high-cultural moment is part of the same overall sacrificial movement as the appetitive popular one; hence its foregrounding calls forth accusations of hypocrisy. But high culture does not deny sacrificial violence; it merely asks us to stand back from it enough to accept our complicity in denying the (real or virtual) humanity of the victim, whose position it forces us to understand from within.
But the tragic lesson of high culture has been put in question by the postmodern age, when there is no locus of authority. The old high culture depended on the unreflective acceptance of the public esthetic scene, whose “classical” esthetic authority beyond the esthetic subject himself enforced the refusal of desire. This authority of the esthetic reached its highest point of tension in the modernist era and was destroyed, no doubt forever, in the Holocaust and its victimary aftermath.
But now that the dust has settled, we realize that we cannot simply renounce the high-cultural ideal. In the first place, we continue to cultivate its works as a “canon” that, whatever the contortions of modern cultural politics, is far from abandoned. As has been pointed out by astute commentators, in recent years, Hollywood has given more emphasis to Shakespeare than many English major programs. Classical music continues to flourish, even if its audience is not vast. We must therefore ask ourselves into what ethical context the lessons of these high-cultural works are being inserted–without one, they would lose their audience and become mere objects of antiquarian study–and what works are being or might be created specifically for this context.
In recent Chronicles I’ve been developing some ideas on lyric poetry that I won’t rehearse here in detail. The core of my argument is that our postmodern era is characterized by (1) individual specialization, which in itself requires of each individual a certain “elevation” above the general norm, and, concomitantly, (2) globalized mass media, which render the public scene incapable of giving the individual spectator more than “symbolic” hints of ethical liberation or, in other terms, whose “stars” can no longer be exemplary in any full-bodied ethical sense, so that (3) the intimate world of the couple becomes a minimal cultural unit required to generate its own set of meanings, supplying a new “private-public” model of cultural elevation to replace the traditional high-cultural public one lost to the mass media. The intimate world thereby becomes the ethical context for a new concept of cultural elevation centered on one’s privileged conversation with the Other rather than the community as a whole. (More on this in future columns.)
In this model, lyric poetry, already structured by intimacy, becomes the exemplary high art of our time. But the model can and of necessity will be extended to the other arts. The apparent contradiction of an art that circulates among the public precisely because it denies its public nature is in fact a productive paradox typical of market society, which never tires of selling us the authenticity of the noncommercial–where “the priceless costs a little more.” The blare of the media brings to consciousness the “private-public” specificity of a genre like poetry. And the new medium of the Internet supplies the ideal means for “private-public” communication, of which, dear reader, this Chronicle is a perfect example–written for and read by a few hundred people, yet virtually accessible all over the world. Still in its infancy, the Internet’s virtues as a medium are handicapped by the difficulty in finding and sorting what it makes available. As increasingly better indexing services develop in the coming years, theoretical activities like this column, as well as the Net’s many and varied esthetic ventures (numerous in the domain of lyric poetry) will increasingly be matched with their potential audience.
What is the relevance of all this for Cultural Studies (CS)? The very name, historical considerations aside, suggests the utopian ideal of a universal method for studying cultural phenomena, high, low, or “middlebrow,” without an a priori judgment of status. In practice, of course, CS has tended to emphasize popular phenomena generally neglected by university scholars and, perhaps even more characteristically, has attempted to juxtapose these phenomena non-hierarchically to the works of traditional high culture. But these operations presuppose a still-unquestioned structure of scientific “study” in which the “student”–modeled on the (etic) ethnologist rather than on the (emic) interpreter of sacred texts–is fully independent of the “culture,” even if the latter be the student’s own–as if we could have our “own” culture in the postmodern age.
The place where “elevation” enters cultural consciousness is in the (emic) relationship between a member of a society and the sacred means by which that society defers violence. But with the decline of public high culture, the old “emic” style of cultural analysis declines as well. To study culture is increasingly to externalize it, to “eticize” it–in a word, to do CS.
But the very self-consciousness embodied in CS calls forth, in good Hegelian fashion, the antithetical self-consciousness of “emic” cultural intimacy. “My own” culture becomes the culture that cannot (yet) be studied, that mutates into ever-new forms as soon as the legions of CS catch up with and formalize it. This self-conscious doubling of the general anthropological relationship between the “irrational” cultural and the “rational” economic spheres implies a heightened cultural acceleration in which CS becomes the cultural self-consciousness of the rationalizing marketplace, killing and packaging a living culture that continually recreates itself anew.
Today it is only in the smallest units, for which the couple provides a minimal model, that the continuity of such creation can be assured. But this is also to say, in more positive terms, that increased economic rationalization provokes the indefinite proliferation of cultural creativity in these smallest units. An incipient “post-postmodern” era may well be devoted to working out the consequences of this new situation.