Just “Brow”sing –Melville, Menand, Macadam & More on the “Middle”
(Soundtrack: New Kingdom — Heavy Load)
Made It Ma!
In an essay on film critic Pauline Kael, in American Studies, scholar Louis Menand problematized the pop culture pundit’s mission thusly:
The problem Kael undertook to address when she began writing for the New Yorker was the problem of making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular entertainment is not art. This is usually thought of as the high-low problem–the problem that arises when a critic equipped with a highbrow technique bends his or her attention to an object that is too low, when the professor writes about Superman comics. In fact, this rarely is a problem: if anything profits from (say) a semiotic analysis, it’s the comics. The professor may go on to compare Superman favourably with Tolstoy, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.
The real high-low problem doesn’t arise when the object is too low. It arises when the object isn’t low enough. Meet The Beatles doesn’t pose a high-low problem; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does. Tom Clancy and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” don’t; John Le Carre and Masterpiece Theater do. A product like Sgt. Pepper isn’t low enough to be discussed as a mere cultural artifact; but it’s not high enough to be discussed as though it were Four Quartets, either. It’s exactly what it pretends to be: it’s entertainment, but for educated people. And this is what makes it so hard for educated people to talk about without sounding pretentious–as though they had to justify their pleasure by some gesture toward the “deeper” significance of the product.
I love Menand, but you can imagine what think of that! The bogeyman of “pretension” has stifled criticism of mass culture since the dawn of the phenomenon in the 19th century–everyone’s so terrified of “elevating” work A by discussing it in the same breath as Tolstoy. Give me a break! All art is “entertainment”. Ditto philosophy, scholarship, etc. It’s all offered as a stimulus to mental activity. The real problem, as always, is the human desire to sacralize. We’re only hurting ourselves by agreeing to treat Plato’s Dialogues (for example) as “great works” (i.e. closer to “the truth of things”/God) rather than exciting pieces of writing. Instead of a man who did some energetic thinking–“Plato” becomes the alienated product of our own self-abasing labour. And this sets up moronic skirmishes between those who feel compelled to defend the Ol’ Master’s prestige and those driven by ressentiment to piss on his memory.
The last thing a critic ought to be concerned with is situating a work in a hierarchy built upon such insecure foundations. If you reference The Symposium in a comic book, and the mental line I connect between your dot and Plato’s is a live wire, then the whole thing was worth it, no?
Anyway, Larry Young, Matt Smith and Charlie Adlard’s Astronauts in Trouble Trilogy is exactly the kind of work that Menand considers difficult to discuss… So look out–this could get “pretentious”!
Very early on, Hayes, the “rich man with a plan”, invites an audience of reporters to “call me Ishmael, everybody does.” This is a madman who wants to seize control of a planetoid and reign over it like Lucifer in Hell–shouldn’t it be “call me Ahab”? Does Larry know his Moby Dick?
You bet he does!
This trilogy is a blur of Ahabs and Ishmaels–daemonic protagonists and their choruses–flipping roles on page after page. The will to power and the power of the press become hopelessly entangled as the series progresses. The co-dependent relationship between newsmakers and newsbreakers is at the heart of Astronauts in Trouble.
That’s what you do with “greatness”. You don’t “pay homage to it”–you investigate it, riff on it, enter into a dialogue with it by complicating aspects of it. The record of all this mental activity is your story. That’s how tradition works!
Good Day Friends!