Monday, April 5, 2010

The Middlebrow Bites Back

John Guillory wrote an incisive review of literary critic Harold Bloom's The Western Canon a while back.

Bloom's book, apart from being a summary of the great works of Western literature (Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, etc.), contained a caustic introductory essay and a biting conclusion, accusing the contemporary professoriate of destroying standards in the humanities and bitterly dismissing aesthetic value in the arts.

How does Bloom think they did this? By daring to look at the social and political contexts in which the great works of Western literature were created, and asking how canons themselves are formed.

Bloom's complaint partly rested on the notion that great literature's "greatness" was wholly dependent on aesthetic value, something that only dedicated and gifted ("deep") readers could access or experience. Any other question about it was either beside the point or actively subversive to the appreciation of great works.

Guillory brilliantly cut through Bloom's rhetoric, assertively showing who Bloom was aiming this book at, and why.

Bloom was not aiming at "deep readers" of Western literature, Guillory surmises. He was aiming at middlebrow readers who would never, ever actually read through any substantial portion of the canon. He told such an audience exactly what they wanted to hear: great literature is great, period. He gave them capsule summaries of great works so that they could feel, at some level, conversant with its topics, plots, and characters.

And he played right to their prejudices: great literature frustrates all attempts at analysis or interpretation. There are no politics here. Aesthetic greatness transcends history. In short, shut up and appreciate! And if you can't appreciate, just shut up!

Bloom -- despite being a professor himself -- plays to the anti-intellectual tendencies of a public that deeply mistrusts intellectual work. He accuses his colleagues of asking the wrong questions, teaching the wrong works of culture, undertaking studies that undermine, rather than buttress, the "old" way Western culture was taught.

Guillory argues that Bloom ended up creating an elitism that doubles as populism. Bloom seems to argue that the greatness of high culture needs to be protected from elite intellectuals, the very guardians and teachers of that culture. Anxiety about high culture -- what it is, who it is for, what it means -- is assuaged by assuring the middlebrow reader that it doesn't belong to anyone in particular.

Intellectual work on popular culture, interestingly enough, is sometimes met by the layperson with the kind of response Bloom encouraged: the charge is often that intellectuals over-analyze and miss the point of what they study.

One review of a recent popular music study (not mine) even states this outright, admonishing the author to just "shut up and play your guitar." But really, the reviewer was incensed that certain questions were asked, that critical reflection was undertaken, rather than discussing the music on its own (fan's?) terms.

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