Wednesday, March 23, 2011


A problem in thinking about taste hierarchies is the impulse for the reformed elitist to wish to embrace the low, popular, mass, vulgar, etc., and yet - in the process of vocal exculpation - recuperate these objects for the high.  Specifically, the low objects are (re)integrated into a kind of high grammar.  One of the privileged instances of this is the heroic mythos of the Cahiers du cinéma critics, who "realized" that Hitchcock and Hawks could be spoken of like Racine or Shakespeare. 

They realized it.  Apologies for the very poor Derrida imitation, but let me suggest that my deliberate use of this word (to realize) is meant to convey something of the double meaning that is buried in this mythology of taste.  The evident meaning of this "realization" is a recognition and subsequent acknowledgment.  But what it actually entails is the making real of a value judgment.  The Cahiers critics put these ideas into circulation.

The recuperation of the popular artist for high tradition (Shakespeare is the ultimate example) is, itself, an "always already" excavated gambit for anyone who wishes to defend the legitimacy of a particular, relatively contemporary piece of popular culture.  "Dude, you don't think Two and a Half Men has a particular type of genius?  You dismiss it just because tons of people watch it?  Well look, Shakespeare was popular, too."  Substitute Harry Potter or any number of objects for Two and a Half Men.  The logic at work here is that, time and again, prevalent elitist tastes have been shown to have "wrongly" dismissed or at least unfairly pigeonholed popular works of their era.  We see it over and over again.  Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Guiding Light.  "It's an objective pattern, don't blame me if I'm a little further ahead of the curve than you are.  It's history ... but as logical and predictable as a science experiment!"

I don't propose that a rigid, reductive high-middle-low scale is any better than this operation.  For my part, do bring on Bourdieu, and while you're at it bring on White Chicks.  (Coherence and reason are great things when discussing particularities.  But I neither require nor desire my own tastes to be subordinated to the laws of coherence or logic.)  But I do think this rhetoric of realization has survived too long as a truism, a crutch, a replacement for thought, and a lazy & unearned badge worn to denote anti-elitism.  And it's always convenient to pose as an anti-elitist in terms of cultural tastes when you exist in the heart of capitalism.  The signification of tastes is indeed a political question, but perhaps more politically pressing is when that question comes to eclipse any & all others as the only political question.


JeanRZEJ said...

This 'recuperating' phenomenon is odd. There's the critical aspect which is great in that it opens up new ways of looking at things. When new ways of looking at things are opened up it opens up a social aspect, in that people read about it and there is a common increase in appreciation among people, which can be a good thing, but when it turns into a cult of personality that leads to a deluge of redundant criticism on one subject with ever diminishing returns it becomes something else, including spawning the ugly taste-posturing that both 'elitists' and 'anti-elitists' (which are one and the same, and the former tend to be entirely illusory until they become the latter) fall victim to, it becomes truly awful. That's the nature of the beast, though. I prefer to remain indifferent to others' taste except on a level of acquiring knowledge of new works and acquiring new perspectives on known work. Aside from that, there is no hell worse than uninformed feelings about another's tastes (or informed negative feelings, really). This is all a social phenomenon, though, not one that actually alters the art itself, so as long as the recuperation aids the art then the extenuating details of social posturing are just petty annoyances.

By the way, is that a recommendation of White Chicks or just a passing reference?

ZC said...

I do think, though, that since we're always experiencing art through a material context, that we're never not primed for it in some respect, these social phenomena are not inseparable from the art itself. I'm not saying they're one and the same thing - but I do think that they go together and there's little we can do about it except work to understand the connections better.

As for your White Chicks question - a little of both! I've actually not seen the whole film, but watched the majority of it on TV a few weeks ago. I thought it was pretty funny (and I like dumb comedies). Terry Crews, as usual, is fantastic.

JeanRZEJ said...

I'll agree with that, although I think that, once understood, the social aspect can be manipulated to one's own needs (including tuning out what amounts to nothing more than white noise). It's a two way street - the social aspect presents an additional element which colors one's perceptions, but it is also something which can itself be perceived and placed in its proper context.

I think White Chicks relates to this whole conversation well, seeing as taste in comedy seems to be a particular spot of social contention (and few get recuperated!). I think if more comedies were recuperated then people would begin to distinguish between the high-minded 'buffoonery' and the low-minded 'dumb comedy', which is really more a matter of camp. Many brilliant comic minds have used 'dumb comedy' to make higher implications, whereas some dumb comic minds are simply incapable of anything else. Perhaps this is all nonsense. This is the problem with all of this social stuff, it's so difficult to parse (and may all be white noise). I'm constantly recuperating Zoolander, myself. Nobody believes me. And nobody ever seems to get the central conceit! It's buffoonery, not dumb comedy! Ahh, what's the use. Hitchcock: Master of suspense. Much easier.

ZC said...

Sorry for the slowness of my interactions, JeanRZEJ. Your distinction between buffoonery and dumb comedy is a useful one. (I admit that I'm still happy to watch dumb comedy from time to time.)

But I, too, love Zoolander.

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