If the fundamental difference between high and mass/popular culture is that popular culture indulges resentment and high culture defers it, what does this imply about the defining intersubjective relationship between creator and consumer? The sacrificial system is run by the center for the benefit of the periphery; the central deferral of resentment permits the indulgence of resentment by the peripheral sacrificers, who are nonetheless under central control. The victim is an embodiment of the sacred sign whose destruction reaffirms its timeless meaning as the “name of God.” Popular culture has the structure of the “inauthentic,” that is, of resentment: the periphery depends on the center, but this very dependence provides the security to attack it. In order to understand the possibility of popular culture, we must show how the resentful peripheral mind can become the master of the esthetic scene. It is not enough to identify with the perpetrators of the sparagmos; we must explain how one of their number can tell his story of the sacrifice, and why this is the version most of us prefer to listen to.
The original cultural dichotomy is that between sacred and secular, preserved in modified form in that between tragedy and comedy. The “absolute” difference between sacred and profane cannot prevent its reduplication within the profane domain itself, involuntarily in the structure of desire, voluntarily in that of art. In religious ritual, one follows the dictates of the central will; the lesson is deferral, and whatever pleasures are experienced concurrently or subsequently exist in order to instill this lesson. The ritual moment exists in order to liberate the participants from the sacred scene; thus the profane world is not in the first place “cultural” at all. But the scenic structure of desire is independent of ritual; it is the fundamental structure of the human. The scene of secular culture is that of private desire, desire that does not collect the entire community behind it. Love-songs go back to ancient Egypt and beyond; it is too simple to say that their purpose is seduction, but not too simple to point out that their function is the inverse of that of religious ritual; not to use appetitive satisfaction to teach the lesson of deferral, but to make the deferral effected by representation a means to the satisfaction of appetite.
Whereas the solidarity accomplished by religious rites is obtained by a turning away, however temporary, from the appetitive, the festival makes the appetitive itself a source of solidarity, on the condition that it be contained within a context furnished by ritual. A festival is not a secular event in the modern sense of the term; it is a profane complement to sacred ritual, Mardi Gras before Lent. Festival is a ritual conducted from the point of view of the periphery, where deferring appetite can await its later imposition by higher authorities. Thus the festival does not tell a story, but enacts its own loosely structured temporal sequence. Its typical manifestation is the parade, with a beginning and an end, a semblance of linear progression, but no narrative series of meaningful events that occurs in and defines a life. Traditional popular culture does not deal in totalities; like the satyr plays added to tragic trilogies, it offers comic relief from high-cultural rigor. High culture reinforces and justifies the social order as a whole, whereas popular culture leaves the totality to those in charge and concentrates on relieving the resentments of those who are, whether justly or unjustly, excluded from major responsibilities. The traditional approach to popular resentment, what Bakhtin called the carnivalesque, is incompatible with the development of individualized characters whose experiences in the world of desire are objects of cumulative mimetic identification, so that we “live their lives” rather than experiencing their resentments and satisfactions as a series of singular events; the concept of “plot” is a high-cultural notion.
In bourgeois society, economic and political power is more diffuse than in traditional society, and one might therefore expect the high-popular dichotomy to become less sharp. This is indeed borne out by the history of bourgeois genres such as the novel or the melodrama. However, the “rivalry of all against all” in a society where caste distinctions are blurred revalidates the notion of a high secular culture that is not merely aware of its sacred responsibility to the totality but anxious to impose a hierarchy of cultural prestige–as witness the long-ambiguous status of the novel, the supreme bourgeois genre, which consequently lacks inherent signs of such prestige. The cultural hierarchy superficially reinforces social distinctions, but its real effect is to permit their diffusion, just as the sign permits the common possession of the sacred center. Because cultural representations cannot withhold themselves from anyone who acquires the knowledge to understand them, culture is essentially democratic: the arts are “liberal.” But cultural knowledge is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and a little learning is a dangerous thing. It should therefore not surprise us that the bourgeois era gives rise to mass popular forms that emulate the structures of high art. It is in fact in this era that high-popular tension begins in earnest.
The mass popular culture that emerges in the nineteenth century with the generalization of literacy as well as of at least nominal political power is more than a naive expression of popular resentment; it imitates the cultural forms hitherto reserved to the high culture. We encounter here for the first time a popular version of life-destiny that, whatever its crudeness, provides existential models for everyday life rather than limiting itself to the punctual realization of resentful fantasies. These latter are by no means excluded, but they are integrated into a storyline with pretensions to temporal continuity. Complementary to the high-cultural deferral of resentment through renouncing the illusions of desire, there appears a mode in which resentment is not simply discharged in carnivalesque fashion but recuperated by a worldly praxis.
This phenomenon corresponds on the cultural plane to the development of a “legitimate” left-wing politics–the parliamentary liberalism decried by Marx and his Bolshevik disciples. No doubt liberals exploit the existing social order by calling on it to favor those who have its overall interests least at heart; but precisely, a democratic society is one whose primary purpose is fostering the desires of individual citizens rather than the other way around. Such a society gives priority to recycling the most passionate resentments in order to assure the maximal circulation throughout its citizenry of desires as well as the goods and services that satisfy them; the more effective the society, the more “irresponsible” its Left can become.
Popular culture itself is not from the beginning on the left. Right-wing populism is its dominant mode up to World War II and beyond; the Left’s definitive triumph occurs only after 1968. Even today, the zero degree of popular narrative is the thriller where a few good guys destroy countless bad guys. Sometimes, of course, the bad guys are working for the CIA, but their adversaries are as a rule patriotic citizens, not disciples of Noam Chomsky. The right-wing populist is suspicious of high culture, always suspected of falling into decadence; he seeks to renew the solidarity, and to revive the cultural legacy, of pre-cultural, “compact” societies.
Yet right-wing populism stricto sensu, usually coupled with antisemitism, is not a stable mode in mature market society. (Its–relatively non-virulent–recrudescence in Europe today reflects the fears for this “maturity” provoked by the influx of large numbers of immigrants seen rightly or wrongly as unwilling to integrate themselves within it.) In contrast, socialism on the Left–in principle more radical, since its ultimate intention is not simply to create communal solidarity but to abolish the market–in fact accommodates itself easily to the parliamentary system as soon as it becomes something less than fanatical. Socialism’s victimary attitude is well-suited to legislative debate, particularly in the postmodern era where victimary rhetoric is a reliable source of votes. In contrast, right-wing populism, anchored in the pre-WWII era, is not essentially victimary; it uses the sense of injustice to stir up its partisans, not to impose white guilt on its adversaries, of whom it asks no favors, treating them with contempt and worse.
Mechanically separating inside from outside, central from peripheral esthetics misses the real point of the distinction between high and popular culture in the modern era. Whatever one can say about the naiveté of the “masses” in traditional societies, in modern society everyone has access to more or less the same insights about the overall social structure. The peripheral consciousness with which we identify in modern popular culture is not naively so; the esthetic choice of peripheral resentment is also a political choice. The reformulation of a temporally coherent praxis from the perspective of the social periphery not merely ignores the sacrality of the social order, it denies it by appealing to the originary intuition that reciprocal exchange is the essential mode of human interaction.
Because in modern culture, the ostensibly distinctive forms of high or low culture are consciously chosen signs rather than organic emanations of their content, there are consequently no reliable formal criteria by which to evaluate a given work’s adherence to a total or partial vision of the social order. The high-low distinction itself, and even its survival, become thematic elements of the works themselves, means of situating them in the cultural marketplace. Rather than consecrating the ordre établi, the artwork has the task of imposing via the esthetic effect its creator’s vision of the social order. This does not prevent rereadings of the latter, as exemplified by the recuperation of Balzac by Marxist criticism. It should not be forgotten that when Lukács transforms Balzac the conscious monarchist into an unconscious revolutionary, he is reinterpreting a subtext, demonstrably present in the novels, that contests the social order in its present form. Significantly, this approach cannot be extrapolated without a good deal of question-begging to the interpretation of pre-modern texts, for example in Lucien Goldmann’s controversial readings of Racine’s “Jansenist” plays–and even then, the implicit critique of worldliness is transcendental rather than political as such.
The most striking indicator of the parlous condition of high culture today is that the more the artwork calls attention to its “high” status, the less esthetic effect it produces. The plastic arts, whose emphasis on the singular artifact effectively excludes the general public–museum-going treats the spectator like a student; galleries intimidate those who can’t afford to buy; public art is seldom experienced as “ours”–notoriously present as artworks, in a “democratically” snobbish gesture, objects chosen to demonstrate that art is not inherent in the work itself but is an effect of its presentation. This is also true of the more radical forms of music, experimental film, theater and the like.
I think the best place to find masterpieces in our era of “no more masterpieces” is in the cinema. Film is the only medium not stifled by absolute masterpieces set beyond competition. No one can hope to outdo Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Michelangelo, Leonardo… or even Proust, Joyce, Stravinsky, Cézanne. But film is still open; for my money Claire Denis’ Beau travail, made in 1999, is as good as any French film ever made. I will deal with the distinctive qualities of cinema in a future Chronicle.