épater les bourgeois

Experts An anthropologist who studies America is struck by the fact that there are some people in this culture who believe they know better than other people in this culture.  It’s not always a delusion and when indeed they do know better, we are well served.  Smart, thoughtful people give us the benefit of their advice.

But too often the critics act as if they are they only ones who "get it," that without them the rest of us wander without light, unable to see what is wrong, unable to see that something is wrong, and certainly unable to put wrong things right. 

Here is A.O. Scott in today’s New York Times

[T]he phenomenon of family viewing – the mothers and fathers of American taking their children to the movies – has become a central cultural activity consistent with the highly participatory style of parenthood currently in vogue.  I would not wish it otherwise, but I also worry that the dominance of the family film has a limiting, constraining effect of the imaginations of children. 

Here the film critic presumes to know what happens in the interaction between child and family film.  Mr. Scott may actually have done research here or consulted those who do, but I would be very surprised if this were the case.  No, this is the almost certainly something that has just occurred to Mr. Scott.  It is his little worry, a stray thought.  Now, lots of us have lots of stray thoughts and some of us are shameless in our efforts to blog and flog these thoughts.  But only a few of us presume to issue a "cultural advisory" of this kind, as if Mr. Scott were a tweedy version of the Director of the Center for Disease Control and called upon here to put the nation on alert.  ("Honey, where’s that Jules et Jim DVD? Tommy’s seen Shrek so many times his eyes are starting to roll back in his head.") 

But that the real problem is not the alert, it’s that the alert is always the same.  Oh, look out, popular culture is dumbing down and bottoming out.  In this case, that movies has fantastically imaginative as Nemo are putting our children at risk. Evidently, these critics believe themselves to be the canaries in the coal mine.  When they exercise their higher faculties it is to see what we cannot, that our culture is in trouble.  It is this presumption (this arrogation) of superior knowledge that puts my teeth on edge. 

Oh, sure, I’m sure there are moments when warnings are in order.  But warning is the critic’s penny whistle. Really, there are only so many tunes it can play.  The trouble is there is a lot of other, more pressing, critical work to do.  Indeed, the warning function of the critic is now so reflexive, it does not represent a genuinely analytical or explanatory accomplishment.  Now, it’s just yet another blast on dime store plastic.  The anthropologist can help feeling that there are other things to observe, but as long as the critic is captive of critical orthodoxy, the real work of anthropology (or whatever one calls one brand of pattern recognition) goes undone. 

We know where this comes from the what Lionel Trilling called the “subversive” role of the critic: “to detach the reader from habits of thought, giving him ground from which to judge and condemn the culture around him.”  Now that the culture has escaped the uniformities and conformities of mass culture, this work is done. (I wonder if it was ever necessary.  I think popular culture rehabilitated itself.  Aaron Spelling lived long enough to see TV transform itself.  What displaced or at least transcended him, was the likes of Homicide’s Tom Fontana and The Wire’s David Simon, and not Lionel Trilling’s intellectuals.)

Anne Thompson has a great column today in the Hollywood Reporter.  She described the new novel by Tolkin, Return of the Player.  (Tolkin wrote The Player the Altman made the basis of his famous movie of the same name.  Anne is very  kind but it is hard not to suppose that Tolkin is not applying old model criticism to a new model world. 

Return of the Player provides a moral dissection of the values of the entertainment world’s moneyed elite.  It’s about how panic, selfishness, greed and fear can "drive you to do things you shouldn’t do," [Tolkin] says.  "It’s about the difference between panic and social responsibility."

This is boiler plate and the very stain that every word smith wishes to inflict about tinsel town.  But when we read on we discover that some of the fear and panic comes not from greed but something else. 

"The entertainment industry has been unsure of where things are going, how to conduct business, what movies should be or what entertainment is. It is TV, or a download?  Everyone was grabbing at what the Next Thing should be.  I was interested in that anxiety, fear and panic.  That’s what the book is about."

Hmm.  If this is what the book is really about, it’s not about Hollywood, it’s about all the world. Everyone is grabbing at what the Next Thing will be.  Our professional lives depend upon it.  At least the Hollywood execs are coming to terms with the world as it is, which is more than can be said for the camp that promotes critical orthodoxy. 

But am I not the author of a massive contraction?  Do I not presume to know better when I criticize critics for presuming to know better? No and here’s why.  I never think its my job to give warning about what is happening in contemporary culture.  (Let this blog be entered into evidence.)  It’s my job to describe it and to have a go at explaining it.  My private feelings are a private matter.  I may be appalled by My Super Sweet 16, but that doesn’t matter.  The last thing the world needs is another Mr. Smarty Pants rendering judgment.  I can’t believe our patience has held out so long.  Surely, the time will come when we repudiate the experts.  (For a wonderfully quiet act of repudiation, see the article by Chris Hedges on Mark Chrispin Miller.)

No doubt I feel too passionately about this issue because I’m Canadian.  Wha?  I was raised on the West coast of Canada where we were the constant recipient of moral advise and policy directives from the mandarins in Ottawa.  We thanked God we were thousands of miles away from the center of things, and a little sorry that telegraph, telephone, and newspaper distribution stretched far enough to reach us.  We hoped that one day Canada Post would break down, that mountain paths would fill in, that train tracks would twist and buckle, that cloud cover would prove inpenetrable, and that finally our betters would just shut up and leave us alone.  I don’t know what we thought we would do with our little village in the rain forest but at least our mistakes would be our own.

But I digress.  The point I wish to make here is that fantastic intellectual resources are now locked up in the "critical" school of cultural commentary.  We can only release these resources when we persuade the offenders to give up judgment and take up the work of explanation, or at least investigation.  More plainly, no more pony rides on the high horse of righteous indignation.   No more cultural advisories from the Center for Disease Control.  Cease and desist judging us from on high.  Or as my dear friend Hargurchet Bhabra used to say, it isn’t popular culture anymore, it’s our culture.  Judge it if you must, explain it if you can. 


Hedges, Chris.  2001.  Public Lives: Watching Bush’s Language, and Television. The New York Times.  June 13, 2001. here

Scott, A.O.  2007.  And You’ll Be a Moviegoer, My Son.  The New York Times.  January 5, 2007. here.  

Thompson, Anne.  2007.  Risky business: Tolkin’s new "Player" in everyman territory.  The Hollywood Reporter.  January 5, 2007.  here.  subscription required.

Thanks to Zyra for the image.  See Zyra’s website here.

3 thoughts on “épater les bourgeois

  1. steve

    Many, many “intellectuals” have long held the opinion that only pessimism is wisdom, any change is bad, and that the choices individuals make when turned loose by a liberal order are invariably dangerous and threatening. Any other attitude is taken to be shallow and/or irresponsible. For example, if one points out the benefits to be had from a corporate innovation, then one is an apologist, or complacent, or unserious, or some such epithet. I have my own curmudgeonly culture peeves, but I’d rather not inflate them into moral imperatives.

  2. Peter

    Another reason to aim for neutrality in the description of contemporary culture is that we almost never know the long-term and wider consequences of things. It is common — at least, amongst educated people over 40 — to bemoan the change from a text-based to an image-based culture that we have seen these last decades, with the rise of computer games, CGI, personal videos, TV advertising, etc.

    But, one consequence of an image-based culture is a rise in the numbers of people capable of holistic, abstract thought. Unlike text, image-culture encourage non-linearity, random connections, holism, and the big picture rather than the details. This is perhaps a key reason why average IQ scores in the west continue to rise (despite the regular re-calibration every decade or so) — each generation of kids is better at abstract thought than the one before.

    Moreover, this change from text to image is not the first such major transition in western culture. Having a university education in Shakespeare’s time meant one could recite long stretches of poetry from memory, undertake both prepared and impromptu speeches, engage in debates and dialectical argument with others, and (especially if one attended a Jesuit-run college) act in theatrical productions. The switch from oral disputations to written examinations (at Cambridge University, this took place in the mid-18th century) created generations of people LESS competent in all forms of public speaking and oral engagement than their ancestors had been. We forget just how contingent our cultural tropes are.

  3. jens

    do you want to take “discourse” out of “culture”?
    …that might call for a slightly longer paper

Comments are closed.