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!

Tomorrow–the story!

Good Day Friends!



  1. isn’t it possible to create something inaccessable to a general audience? something that could only be appreciated by those with the correct education and awareness of what is actually being done in the work? i have friends tell me things about the operation of music i would never have given a second thought to that made me reconsider its value (not translate it from worthless to genius, of course, but if the subtle mechanics were the first thing i heard listening to music, i have no doubt i would have a very different aesthetic experience and system of valuation). whether we need to call creation for a specifically educated minority “high” (with its generally accepted position as linguistically positive, although certainly this position can be subverted) is still open for debate, but i am still not convinced that discrete categorization is impossible, even allowing for the existence of multiple nodes/modes of aesthetic criteria.

  2. sure Alex, I would never dispute that there are levels of accessibility in art–my problem is with the idea that, let’s say, a superhero comic cannot be spoken of in the same breath as a “Great Book”…each work expresses something to me, and if I feel that it’s pertinent to juxtapose them, I’m gonna do it!

    The other thing is that there is no reason to suppose, merely because you are targeting a more specialized/sophisticated audience, that you actually have anything more interesting to say! The manner in which you chose to communicate your insight doesn’t lend any prestige to the insight itself–and vice versa: extremely complex ideas can be transmitted in a very accessible manner (such as in the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man)


  3. it seems like you’r saying that style is a transparent carrier of content and i guess i don’t think that style and content are such separable things. it is impossible to express something in an interesting way without interesting content; i mean, what is the content of music? are the notes content, is their timbre content, their organization? this is a very old form vs. substance argument. on the most basic (post-modern) personal level, i think telling something in an interesting way is the insight.

  4. i also lend my support entirely against the forces of evil who try construct a value distinction between accessibility and encryption. i think much of this sentiment comes from academics who have spent so much time and effort learning and surrendering to the jargon of their field(s) that they can’t help but try to (misguidedly) elevate their social position by keeping others out of the loop.

  5. “on the most basic (post-modern) personal level, i think telling something in an interesting way is the insight.”

    I agree wholeheartedly Alex. I wasn’t really doing the form/content thing–they are indeed inseparable–and I don’t have a problem with addressing expert readers either, believe me–after all, my dissertation deals with the emergence of a new class of literary exegetes in the silver age lettercols! My one concern is with a restricted (reified) understanding of which means can be used to communicate a valid/genuine/imperishable insight, and which means cannot. You are not required to riff on Harold Bloom’s heroes in order to say something interesting–you can do it with Stan Lee’s if you want to!


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