Getting Myself in Trouble: Some Thoughts on Aesthetics and Culture and the Revolt against the Intellectual

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187 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    Most people stay in their safe zones even if what they like is high culture. If you are a jazz fan ( high culture) but only listen to bop then that is pretty darn safe zone nowadays. How many jazz fans ( i’m one myself) pull out Ornette Coleman as opposed to Davis or Rollins or Dizzy. Sure some people do, those who really dig free jazz which ends up being a safe zone for them. There is nothing wrong with that. If anything people are far more eclectic in their tastes now then just a couple decades. It is so much easier to hear and see a variety of media now. When i was in college( mid 80’s) hearing a new band out of the UK might mean plunking down 12 $ for an import EP just to hear what the NME said was the next big thing. People always play in their comfortable play ground. But lots of playgrounds are bigger nowadays.

    It is true people dont’ really believe some people like “high culture”. Small minds have always been around. Dont’ take it personally. What we call high culture hasn’t been really popular in several decades.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Jaybird observed or believed that a belief in the Latin Maxim would or should lead everyone staying in their cultural safe/comfort zone.

    The implication is “would”.
    “Should” seems like such a silly thing to be arguing here. It’s like saying “oh, you don’t like black olives? You should like black olives.”

    Why in the hell should I like black olives? Because you like them?

    As for “When did culture decide that this was how we are going to proceed with issues of culture, aesthetics, and tastes?”, I’d say it was in the 50’s and 60’s when the counter-culture became the culture.

    This is another thing we can blame on the Boomers.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      It is all our fault. The music/comics/movies of the 60s and 70s was so awesome, that it left the generations since no room for innovation, which is why all you can do now is play variations on rock and make movies based on old comics and TV shows. It’s funny: we worried about using up all the oil and fresh water, but never realized that what were were really depleting was creativity.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        This isn’t an argument about “creativity”. It’s an argument about when we, as a culture, decided that making distinctions between “high” and “low” culture was snobbery (and, as such, shouldn’t be done).

        It happened at some point between Lenny Bruce being arrested and George Carlin appearing on The Midnight Special.Report

        • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

          Low culture thrived on thumbing its noses at snobbery. It would be lost without it. That is until boomers ( wearing socks and sandals) could look down on every band from the ramones to NWA for not being as great as someone from 1967 that they never saw in person.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

            There’s more to it than merely old people saying that Justin Bieber ain’t as good as Leif Garrett.Report

            • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

              Lief Garret was no Elvis.Report

            • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

              A big part of the separation of high and low culture is tied to the rise of youth culture. Youth ( or Yutes) began to have separate media in the 50’s which, since it was aimed at teens, was aimed at being different from adult culture. That youth culture took many forms some of which grew and developed into things that could be considered art and maintain the interest of adults for their entire lives. Pre 50’s there was much less, or no, youth culture so young people liked what adults did since that is all there was. That isn’t all of it, but it is a lot of it.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

          I’m just wondering why, if it’s our fault, everything went to shit on yall’s watch.

          Also, neither Lenny Bruce nor George Carlin is a good representative of low culture. When did Adam Sandler become the most successful living comedian?Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Lenny Bruce and George Carlin are great examples of the counter-culture becoming the culture, however.

            My argument is that *THAT* is where the tipping point happened.Report

            • Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:

              George Carlin is a weird case because he spent a good part of the 1950s and 60s as a fairly conventional comedian for middle-class people who were too old for rock n’ roll. You can find old routines of him making fun of hippies while wearing a suit. Around 1970, he decided to change his image and he hired people to help him do so according to his wikipedia entry. Now that he did this was very counter-culture though but perhaps he saw it as a long-range investment. He knew where the culture was going and the 250,000 a year he made from playing to the Greatest and Silent generations (he was in the silent generation was not going to cut it in the long run.)Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                Doesn’t George Carlin prove something of Jaybird’s point? He was an entertainer and artist that deliberately changed his style at least partly in the service of commerce. When Carlin saw that the audience for comedy wanted something more transgressive, he ditched the suit, grew a beard, and started getting subversive. Maybe he really wanted to be this type of comedian all along and tastes just happened to change towards his natural inclination.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

                I’m listening to the “seven words” bit and it’s interesting and insightful. He’s downright poetic.

                But I live in a severely coarsened culture. I have no way of listening to it at the time.

                Here’s how Mad Magazine saw George Carlin at the time.

                Which seems so strange for Mad to have that particular take, doesn’t it?

                What disconnect do I have that I can listen to Carlin’s bit and hear the poetry in his description of the words but Mad, being connected, just saw Carlin as, effectively, writing down sentences that he saw written on the side of the stall in the men’s room?Report

              • Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:


                Is now the time to reveal that I never found George Carlin that funny?Report

              • @saul-degraw Hey, we agree on something!Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                Which seems so strange for Mad to have that particular take, doesn’t it?

                I expect that the writer of that piece identified with the Chevy Chase character: I barely get by doing new bits of clever satire every month [1], but Carlin is making all that money going “Man, am I stoned!”.

                1. To this day, I have no idea how Mad survived charging less than a dollar per issue for a magazine that didn’t contain any ads.Report

              • Doctor Jay in reply to Jaybird says:

                It was poetic at the time, for some. But many others, myself included, couldn’t get past the transgressive part. That was my loss.

                And make no mistake, the transgressiveness was part of the sales pitch. How else can you explain a record that had a comedy routine about “Words you can’t say on television or radio”?Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Jaybird says:

                Jaybird: What disconnect do I have that I can listen to Carlin’s bit and hear the poetry in his description of the words but Mad, being connected, just saw Carlin as, effectively, writing down sentences that he saw written on the side of the stall in the men’s room?

                little bit of class war too? While it was well on its way to being just another cog in corporate publishing machine by the late 70s, it still was under the control of Al Felstein, Brooklyn-born mostly self-educated and self-made man. Even though Carlin had mostly the same background (in Manhattan instead of Brooklyn, both in the Air force, both ‘paid their dues’), does the association with SNL and Lampoon – and ‘colleges’ i.e. Ivy League 7 sisters, etc – make him part of the crowd that’s trying to learn rather than earn their way to success?

                Just a theory, probably wrong.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kolohe says:

                I don’t know. If it’s class war, it’s a strange context for it to have shown up.

                The vibe I get is more of a “hey, you don’t have to work blue!”

                When searching for the Mad magazine images, one of the articles I found talked about how Mad was being “hypocritical” in their satire of Carlin which… well, I suppose that that attack makes sense in 2015, looking back, but when I try to look at it from the time in which it happened, I get confused because I’m trying to wrap my head around what Mad was doing.

                The closest I can find in my databases is Groucho saying something like “anyone can get a laugh with a dirty joke, tell a clean joke and get a laugh and then you’re a comedian!”

                (I can’t find the video of it, though.)Report

              • Ken S in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m not sure that Mad had a take on Carlin or anything else. They were in the business of poking fun at everything, and, for the most part, they did it brilliantly. Except this piece — it’s as cynical as I expect a Mad piece to be, but I don’t see anything funny in it.

                My view of Carlin is that he was hilarious in his early mainstream days and also in his late inconoclastic days, but there was a period in between when he got lazy after noticing that he could get a big laugh just by saying the word “marijuana.”Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Jaybird says:

                I was thinking of this conversation when Colbert’s first non-self-referential joke in his new show was Hey, did you know that Wille Nelson *loves* marijuana?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:


                OR!, maybe Carlin was very excited by the breakdown of Establishment Norms and just gravitated in that direction through the natural processes of him (as an individual) interacting in a changing world.

                One of the things Intellectualism! loves to do is provide a deep and compelling analysis states of affairs that are more than likely pretty mundane, seems to me. And almost as a matter of definition, the analysis will not reflect the subject matter as much as the psychology of the analyzer. That’s not to say that all analysis is bad (or incorrect), but rather that analysis is a tool to help us understand reality and as such, is not reality itself. Yet, intellectuals suffer from a disease of confusing the two.

                As an example, on NPR I heard Howie M. provide an analysis of what constitutes a “Screwball Comedy” and apply that analysis to a contemporary movie all to conclude that the contemporary movie is not a screwball comedy!!! But who – other than an intellectual! – gives a rat’s ass if the contemporary movie is, or is not!, a Screwball Comedy???!!!???Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Stillwater says:

                My definition of an intellectual is somebody who takes delight in abstract thought, so naturally intellectuals are inclined to over do things sometimes. Intellectuals perform an important function even if lots of other people will roll their eyes at the analysis. The analysis is a good way to preserve the good of past culture while reducing the trash.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:

                The analysis is a good way to preserve the good of past culture while reducing the trash.

                “Mistress America is NOT a Screwball Comedy!!!!!” (heh)

                THe type of analysis you’re talking about presumably has already determined what’s good and what’s trash, yes? Is there a circularity problem inherent in that analysis account of analysis?Report

              • I haven’t seen Mistress America. Is it a comedy in the tradition of Bring Up Baby, as What’s Up, Doc was? (Even if Ryan O’Neal is no Cary Grant.) If so, I’d probably want to see it, if only out of curiosity.

                But that’s because I’m an intellectual. I’m not salivating at the prospect of a new Star Wars film even though there hasn’t been one worth watching for at least 35 years like a, you know, normal person.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Mike Schilling says:


                Hell, I don’t know. Howie’s review of the movie began with the assumption that Mistress America was presenting itself as, or being billed as, a Screwball Comedy and that – given an analysis of what the term Screwball Comedy means! – fails miserably.

                All I can say is that if Howie got the analysis correct, then Mistress America isn’t a screwball comedy. Nor, I should add, is it trying to be one. My wife and I both heard the review the day after we watched the movie and we both felt like he reviewed a different movie, one that we didn’t see.

                Oh, and I liked MA very much, FWIW.

                Adding: if you enjoyed Frances Ha you’ll like Mistress America. If not, then probably not. Same stuff going on.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Stillwater says:


                1.) The term “screwball comedy” may have been included somewhere in the marketing materials critics get, and said materials are not always 100% under the creative control of the artists, to put it mildly. I get suspicious when I see the same term pop up again and again.

                2.) I’ve seen more than one review make reference to the screwball-ness of the film. This either supports my 1 ^^, or it’s an accurate taxonomy descriptor – sometimes a thing is what it is, and everyone can see that.

                Portland Oregonian
                Jeff Baker:

                Mistress America is a different kind of channeling, straight through the screwball comedies of the 1980s, “After Hours” and “Something Wild,” back to “Bringing Up Baby,” where Katharine Hepburn sang “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” to a leopard while Cary Grant looked for the last bone (the intercostal clavicle) for his Brontosaurus skeleton.

                New York Daily News
                Joe Neumaier:

                Full of smarts, sly insight and New York personality. As a feather in its jaunty hat, the movie also reinvigorates the art of screwball comedy.

                Ian Freer:

                Noah Baumbach’s great run continues. Sharp, fast and witty, it’s old school screwball comedy with a cool modern twist.

                Chicago Tribune
                Michael Phillips:

                Mainly it’s about fast and brittle talk, a lot of it peachy. The dialogue has one ear on the screwball ’30s.

                The A.V. Club
                A.A. Dowd:

                Mistress America is a kicky hybrid, marrying the filmmaker’s gift for quotable youth satire—first honed in his first feature, Kicking And Screaming—to an old-fashioned screwball energy.


              • Stillwater in reply to Glyph says:

                Ehh, OK.

                I’m not sure how that changes what I said upthread, Glyph. Which is that according to Howie M’s definition of “screwball comedy”, which he uses to bash the movie, MA simply isn’t a screwball comedy. But his review only makes sense by applying that intellectual analysis to the movie, one which – as I said – doesn’t seem to apply (even by his own lights). So the whole review takes place at a meta-meta level.

                I mean, take that for what it’s worth, acourse. But part of my point here is the rejection of highfalutin analytical tools to make sense of movies. Just watch the damn things!

                Edit: And I say that as someone who usually really enjoys Howie M’s movie reviews. He’s the only reviewer I pay any attention to, and the next best since the passing of Ebert.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

                According to TVTropes:

                The Screwball Comedy is a very strict story form: a comedy film — usually in black and white, although some were made in color — in which an uptight, repressed, or otherwise stiff character gets broken out of his or her shell by being romantically pursued by a Cloudcuckoolander (or a similar character type).

                They then go on to list many films that doesn’t describe at all.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Mike Schilling says:


                Here’s Howie Movshovitz’ definition:

                Screwball comedy is a phenomenon of The Great Depression, when filmmakers, among others, blamed a kind of cold male rationality for the collapse of the economy. In the films, it becomes the job of women and socially powerless men to break down that rigid thinking with free association, anti-rationality and all sorts of manic carrying on.

                If you see the movie – just as if you saw Frances Ha – it’s plain ole obvious that THAT is not what the film is about. Yet he cannot help but criticize the movie for failing to live up to the requirements under which that concept applies.

                And oddly enough, my wife, who felt like Howie completely missed the point of the movie, accounted for his having so missed by saying that the movie is primarily critiquing the exact type of intellectually-based, culturally reinforced thinking Howie demonstrates in his review. So of course he couldnt’ see the point!Report

              • That’s a terrible definition too. It includes the Marx Brothers, and shouldn’t, while it doesn’t include Bringing up Baby, unless you think the Depression was caused by implausibly good-looking paleontologists.Report

              • By the way, Howie’s argument is pretty much the same as the Sad Puppies’, which is that they know what SF is (spaceships!), and all these crappy books that nefariously keep winning Hugos aren’t SF.

                I would not call them intellectuals.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I would. I might refrain from calling them “smart”, tho.Report

            • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

              There’s a long tradition in America of satirists who are embraced by the people they make fun of: Along with Lenny Bruce, there was Mort Sahl, who could be very pointed indeed but was never in any trouble with the police because he didn’t talk dirty, before him H.L Mencken, and before him Mark Twain. The War Prayer was more vicious than any bit Carlin ever did.

              And during his life Mark Twain wasn’t considered high culture: that was his buddy William Dean Howells and lots of other people we’ve barely heard of.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                And during his life Mark Twain wasn’t considered high culture

                Hell, Shakespeare was downright disreputable in his day.Report

              • Saul Degraw in reply to Glyph says:


                I think this is true to the extent that all theatre types were disreputable but it is more something that we want to believe than is actually true. There are plenty of dirty jokes in Shakespeare but plenty of the rich and important also went to the theatre. Many of the rich and important fancied having their own theatre companies. Shakespeare wrote mainly for a company called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the company was under the patronage/ownership of the First and Second Barons Hunsdon.

                Shakespeare had a proper funeral and burial. He was not denied a Christian funeral like Moliere was denied a Christian funeral.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                Hmmm…dirty jokes, love of language, remixes of prior sources, violence, rich and powerful patrons…

                “Quentin Tarantino as Modern Shakespeare Analogue. Discuss.”

                (Also, the “rich and important” can certainly also be disreputable, or support the disreputable. But that’s just a nitpick.)Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Glyph says:

                There is actually a lot of scholarly debate on this. Play writes and actors were held in lower esteem than poets but a lot of working people did not have time to go to the theater. The audience at plays would need to have some measure of leisure time and it was usually the well-off who had it.Report

              • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

                I think a lot of us, myself included, would be shocked at how crude the highbrows of, say, 400, 300, or even 200 years ago were compared with how we are today. At least those of us in the West who aren’t living in poverty. I mean, those were brutal, filthy times and places to be alive.

                Take Donne’s “The Flea.”. Whether he’s just having a joke or is trying to be serious, the fact, by itself, that he and his unrequited love are both being bitten by fleas is not considered particularly remarkable.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                It depends on how you define crude @gabriel-conroy. Upper class people placed great currency on good manners for hundreds if not thousands of years. During Tudor times it was called courtesy rather than good manners but the upper classes were expected to carry themselves with a certain level of elegance and refinement at all times. They might not have been physically clean by our standards, Louis XIV treated plumbing as an afterthought at Versailles, but their behavior was apparently impeccable.Report

              • greginak in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                Or another way to look at it, is that highbrow and crude often go together. It is a modern and inaccurate view to see highbrow as straight laced, tame, not emotional and prudish. Highbrow includes all the same basic human elements as low brow, just with less yakkity sax.Report

              • True enough, and maybe my flea example wasn’t the best. I just think a lot of us–myself, again, included–would find these people to be less….whatever than the image we might have in our heads. Or maybe I shouldn’t say “we” and should just focus on myself.

                As for upper-class people placing “great currency on good manners,” you’re right, but all classes of people do and have done so. Every social class and enclave has its own social mores, and of course, the upper-class of Tudor England was no exception. Of course, not all manners are created equal, and those of the upper-class were probably comparably as effective at putting and keeping lower-class persons in their place as those of whichever class rules the US does today, allowing for folk practices and other methods to combat the pretensions of the rulers.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to greginak says:

                @greginak high-brow traditionally saw itself opposed to middle-brow more than low-brow.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Wait a minute. Just a few days ago Saul was complaining about a cultural rebellion against high art and now it appears high art has been in rebellion against middlebrow all along.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Mort Sahl was *SAFE*, though. He was square. He was not even *CLOSE* to counter-cultural.

                Insightful, witty, trenchant… but establishment. He’s changing nothing, challenging nothing.

                He’s square.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                He made fun of Ike! Only dangerous radicals made fun of Ike..Report

  3. Murali says:

    Isn’t there a class prejudices masquerading as aesthetic judgment thing going on?
    That is to say, you are looking at a very particular moment in time where there is a reaction by one generation which has fully internalised a set of postmodern attitudes towards art against an older generation who had older, less relativized notions of art. There is thus an older generation (usually of uppermidde class background) who believes that fantasy, science fiction, comics etc are stuff to be left behind as one enters adulthood. As such, they will criticise you for being childish in your tastes and urge you to hide the fact that you like reading David Eddings and to never admit to it. Instead the authors that you are to admit to reading should be people like Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. And to be clear, one of the reasons behind the exhortation is, rather explicitly, to acquire some culture, to comport oneself as a gentleman. But this reveals the humbug: The particular hedonic reward for the consumption of those books is irrelevant, what’s relevant is the ability to signal that one is cultured and respectable and this ability is acquired by being able to mansplain Nietzsche (or the latest “intellectual” du jour) at high class cocktail parties or by being seen at opera productions which are affordable only to those upper-middle class and above. Thus, if you have been urged throughout most of your adult life to publicly consume high culture for signalling reasons, it is reasonable to think that it is likely that any given person who consumes high culture is more likely to do so for those reasons than hedonic ones.Report

    • greginak in reply to Murali says:

      What we call high culture and is associated with middle/upper class types used to be popular across classes. There are all sorts of old mining towns across the west that built opera houses when the money rolled in. They were very popular even generally working class miner types. Classical music was popular with poor folks for years. Times have changed with more choices and some of those choices divided on class lines.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to greginak says:

        Yes and no. Those opera houses in mining towns were putting on vaudeville and comic operettas, not Rossini and Verdi. True, what we consider high culture Italian opera was popular with the masses in Italy. And The Magic Flute was Mozart writing for mass appeal. But mass appeal in America is a different matter.

        That being said, it is true that classical music had wider appeal in mid-20th century. There is a story about the crew of a battleship turret that wore out their recording of [insert classical piece here: I don’t recall which it was] on the way to the North Africa landing. That being said, it isn’t clear just how wide or deep the popularity or how poor the people we are talking about.

        It also has been pointed out that classical music is still widely listened to, but now we call it “film scores.”Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Murali says:


      What you are basically saying or it seems to me is that you are saying is that it is impossible to prove that one sincerely likes high culture?

      Are there class signalling issues? I think it is more complicated than yes and no. There are always people who like things for the wrong reasons or who think “liking X will show I am part of class Y.”

      But does this totally negate the idea of sincere enjoyment of anything that can be called high culture? I don’t think it should or does. Classical music used to just be music. And there were probably generational fights. Jazz was the dominant music before rock and you had the safe stuff that was acceptable for a white, middle class audience (often called sweet music) to the more avant-garde stuff. Bebop was the underground/indie music of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The original hipsters were upper-middle class kids who went after what they saw as being authentic jazz as played in Harlem over anything they could hear on the radio.

      Literary culture is harder. Our Rufus (where is he anyway?) seems like he grew up in a working-class or lower-middle class household has pretty high-brow tastes in literature and is a PhD holder but works as a janitor according to his own words. Is he upper-middle class or not? There are plenty of people from humble backgrounds who discover the arts and high culture and do so without signaling?

      My issue with signaling here is that it seems to be a one way street. How about a rich kid from the suburbs who likes to listen to hardcore and thrash about in a mosh pit. Isn’t that a form of signaling? Or do we merely use signaling as a charge against things that we personally dislike?Report

      • Murali in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        You missed my point.

        1. It doesn’t completely negate the idea. It does count against strongly. Its just going to take a lot of evidence. Thus its only once people know you very well that they believe that “Saul really likes it, unlike all the other people who pretend to like it for status”.

        2. All you’re seeing is a reaction to the older generation and distrust of your sincerity is a product of that reaction. A younger generation will probably get a lot more comfortable with themselves and thus really be okay with anybody liking anything.

        3. My point is that signalling seems like a good explanation in this case given that a) one dislikes the music and b) one’s parents asked one to develop an interest in it explicitly for signalling purposes.Report

        • Guy in reply to Murali says:

          Well, there’s the older generation that doesn’t believe it, and the younger generation (hi!) that’s a little miffed that Saul keeps implying his taste is better. His habit of picking (in quality terms) unremarkable or downright bad examples is also worrisome.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Guy says:


            Where and which are my examples “unremarkable or downright bad?”Report

            • Guy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

              I suppose “unremarkable or downright bad” is unwarranted; sorry about that. My main complaint remains, though: you keep making these posts where you call entire genres and mediums as “for kids” or “lowbrow”, or otherwise implicitly not worthy of consideration by intellectual people (or perhaps worthy of consideration/study on a psychological level, but certainly not in a literary way).

              Take anime, for example. Anime is “all Japanese animation”, and there is a lot of Japanese animation out there. They have published more diverse (and also just more) shows than Americans and Europeans have and they’ve been doing it for a good 35-40 years now; anime went mainstream in Japan in the ’80s and has been there ever since. A lot of what gets dubbed is the stuff for teenage boys, because most American TV people think TV is for teenage boys, but there’s plenty of stuff around that goes in directions other than explosions and yelling. Dismissing all of anime as for kids would be sort of like dismissing Irish literature as nothing but pseudo-erotic modernist retellings of Greek legends.

              It’s fine if you aren’t into that stuff, or if nothing’s caught your eye lately or you’ve found your tastes changing or whatever; I just have a problem with your claim to have “outgrown” any kind of interest in multiple artistic mediums.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Guy says:

                Most Japanese people see anime as being for kids and geeks who don’t grow up. The difference is that the Japanese have a very broad definition on what is appropriate for children because they don’t seem to fear the idea of monkey see, monkey do as much as other parents. This is why Detective Conan can have elementary school kids solve very serious and deadly mysteries rather than Scooby Doo level mysteries.Report

              • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

                The key difference being that there are a LOT of geeks in japan who don’t grow up.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

                America has a lot of geeks that do not grow up to. The real key difference is geography. Japan’s dense residential geography, where tens of millions of people are centered around Tokyo or the Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe metropolitan areas, creates concentrated areas of geekiness that allows for a larger geek culture to develop. America’s more disbursed geography means that American cities have fewer geeks even if they are very big cities. America’s automobile dependent transportation system also makes it harder for geeks to get together in large numbers because you need parking for everybody. The urban geography of the United States also doesn’t provide a lot of areas where you can be geeky in public.

                The greater concentration of geeks in Japan allowed for the creation of a more elaborate geek culture than what was possible in the United States. In Japan you could go cosplaying every weekend while in the United States you could only do this on special events like conventions. Most Japanese cities have places like Harajuku in Tokyo where the cosplayers can get together one day a week while if you tried to do something like this in public park in the United States you might get some unwarranted police attention during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Most geek culture took place in private places in the United States while Japanese geek culture was more public.

                These geographic factors led to Japanese people deciding to monetize Japanese geek culture earlier than American business people. As the recent explosion of Comic Con demonstrates, American business people are not adverse to making money from geeks. Its just that the disbursed nature of geek geography in the United States and Canada created a lower key and less elaborate geek culture that prevented an earlier monetization. Japanese corporations are also more willing to turn a blind eye to thinks like doujinshi while American corporations tend to be a bit more aggressive when protecting their copyrights, which hindered the development of geek culture.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

                Another big difference between American geek culture and Japanese geek culture is that American geeks perceived themselves as being counter-cultural. Since many of them were Baby Boomers, American and Canadian geek culture seemed to have inherited something of an anti-establishment world view. Even though many American geeks have a libertarian and pro-market orientation, they would probably have resisted corporate monetization as an intrusion just as much as leftist geeks. It took a younger generation of geeks to be open up to corporate monetization.Report

              • Guy in reply to LeeEsq says:

                I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Or at least it’s a bit overbroad. Maybe Japanese culture looks down on adult geeks to some degree, but they also acknowledge that there’s a market for something like Shin Sekai Yori, which would never come close to getting made in America (it’s an adaption of a novel, but still).

                The American animation industry produces shows for kids, absurdist humor, and sitcoms, and the proportions are very much weighted towards the first. Even when the animators are targetting an older audience, they still have to spin it as something for kids and get it running on a kids’ network (Avatar, Young Justice). There’s a great deal more breadth to the Japanese animation industry.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Guy says:

                The easiest way to tell whether an anime is targeting kids or not is to look at the time schedule on television, the advertisements that air during the show, and the merchandise for the show. If the anime is based on a manga, you look at the target demographic for the manga. Even things that wouldn’t fly in the United States are clearly aimed at kids in Japan when you consider these things.Report

              • Guy in reply to LeeEsq says:

                A quick google takes me here (not exactly SFW), where I see, at times ranging from 6:00 PM local time to around 3:00 AM. In no particular order, I find some heroic fantasy stuff, an example of the oddly popular “card game takes over the world” genre, a parody of the above mentioned heroic fantasy stuff, some things I recognize, some near-porn (clearly labeled as such), kids’ shows of various types (also labeled), and a whole bunch of different types of comedies, and a show about gangsters. Also a show about a dining journalist called Eikoku Ikke, Nihon o Taberu*. It is apparently based on a real book by a real (British) person.

                I can’t sample the ads or tell you what channels these shows are airing on, but it looks like a relatively broad spectrum of targeted ages. Broader than American animation, at least.

                *The show appears to have an international title along the lines of Sushi and Beyond, but Google Translate and a supplemental look at a Japanese/English dictionary gives me something more like “UK Family, eating Japanese food”. Perhaps @krogerfoot can enlighten?Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Classical music used to just be music.

        Yes and no. Classical music is in origin a combination of liturgical and court music. Look at any composer up to Mozart’s day and he is an employee of one or both of these. In the 19th century classical music’s popularity was wide enough that some people could make a go of it independently, mostly through the sale of sheet music. And the interaction of “high” art music and popular music has always been complicated, in both directions. But no one confused what Mendelssohn was doing with what Stephen Foster was doing.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Yeah, sorry I haven’t been around. I actually work two jobs and one of them, kitchen hand, becomes insanely busy throughout the summer months. I haven’t looked, but I would say that I’m over 80 hours/ week at this point. It should be better in a few months.

        One interesting thing- I’ve recently moved in with a friend who’s an artist because we sort of get each others’ schedules and eccentricities. I also find that the high/low culture distinctions don’t hold as much with the artists I know. They just seek out things that don’t bore them, which might come from all over the spectrum. We do a lot of pairing though. So last night was a part of our Kenneth Anger kick and we were listening to the Iggy/Bowie records, which seemed to go well.

        My current reading is Thomas Wolfe, who I got to in the usual way- he was friends with my great-grandparents (for Christ’s sake, why didn’t they keep a journal about this?!) and was fairly blown away by. It’s fairly literary stuff, but again I think it would appeal to the artists I know most because he’s good at capturing an overstimulated, somewhat purple view of the world around him.Report

  4. aarondavid says:

    Saul, my wife and my mother both have degrees in Art History. Both love art and all its attendant worlds, but neither of them go to that world as their only entertainment. My wife watches superhero movies and TV to relax, reads, well, everything from Harry Potter to Patrick Leigh Fermor. My mother tends to read pop lit, and watches anything she can get her hands on.

    I tend to read higher brow lit, having a great love for 20th century British fiction and existential lit. But at the same time I love SF, and can dive into (literary) thrillers and crime novels with great abandon. The movies I tend to watch are ones like The Baader Meinhof Complex or the Decalogue by Kieslowski. But I love cartoons like Bobs Burgers or Frisky Dingo for simple relaxing. I will also sit and read RPG pdfs online for fun.

    All of this is to say that we consume the media we do because at this point we enjoy it. At this point most peoples work life is intellectually stimulating and plenty taxing emotionally. They don’t need additional stimulation, but if they do it is still there for them to pick up and put down as they choose. The canon is broken and that is one of the great things that happened in the sixties. We don’t need it anymore.Report

    • greginak in reply to aarondavid says:

      Agree but i’d say the canon started to break in the 1920’s from the destruction of ww1. Styles of culture changed and has kept changing faster and faster. It took a long time for Hemingway and Fitzgerald to become the new canon. At the time they were part of a lost generation with different styles and modes of life. The 60’s is the part we remember but hippies were an extension of the Beats. The shrinking of the world, technology and mixing of peoples has given us so many more choices.Report

      • aarondavid in reply to greginak says:

        I can go with that @greginak I am sure that if you looked closely, you could find breaks like that going back to the beginning of time.

        Roman #1 “Those new fangled Christians, worshiping just one god…”

        Roman #2 “who do they think they are, Bohemians?”Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to greginak says:

        I am not so sure about this. Hemingway and Fitzgerald generally received favorable notice from the serious critics of their day and were best sellers. The Great Gatsby did underwhelm critics though but his other books were favorably noted. A lot of people knew the Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and many others were on to something important during the 1920s. We don’t remember all of them but I don’t think anyone but the most reactionary critics saw Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and company as being flashes in the pan.

        The same is true for the art world. You did have older establishment critics saying that it was no good but an equal number saying all the modern art was the real deal. MOMA was founded in 1929, a mere sixteen years after the famous armory show.

        The Rite of Spring had a large number of supporters when it debuted in 1913 including the composer Ravel. The Ballet Russe were celebrated during their time even as they turned the postures and conventions of traditional ballet on their head.

        Basically I think that the modernists were already becoming a new canon during their time.Report

        • greginak in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          The modernists were a break with previous art. Just like rock/pop/etc is a break with and development from previous forms. Hemingway wasn’t “the macho dude you have to read” for quite a while. Every lost generation finds and creates new types of culture. That was done in the 20’s and at times before than. Per my comment above, since the 50’s we have had a strong and stable youth culture. Youth culture is always sort of lost and is also big money so there has been a lot of effort into finding new things to entertain the rebellious generation.Report

        • Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Well, I think that Minecraft got a huge following…Report

  5. krogerfoot says:

    I know people who stress out about the idea of subtext in literature but can look at a Kandinsky painting for hours and analyze every bbut I don’t think that this should turn into an anti-Intellectual exercise of “Come on, you don’t really like Ravel’s solo piano work, do you?” There seems to be no way to explain that I sincerely find Ravel’s music to be really pretty and wonderful to listen to.

    If people can’t understand why you like what you like, could it have to do more with deficiencies in your explanation, rather than deficiencies in their taste? What went wrong in the passage I quoted above, for example?

    I know that “high art” is a term with a specific meaning, but as an experiment maybe you could try expunging it from your vocabulary for, say, the rest of your life. Imagine Ulysses to be an exemplar of Franco-Irish extremo-fic, or Shostakovich as poly-style symphonocore. Try to remind yourself that Joyce and Truffaut are not niche figures but are well known in literally every corner of the earth, and are enjoyed by millions of people who are no more or less special for their artistic tastes.Report

  6. InMD says:

    I see the phenomenon Saul describes as the natural result of mass/pop culture in a globalized economy. Super-hero movies, for example, are conceptually simple, translate easily into other languages, and do not challenge the audience politically or socially. The same can be said about most pop music. If you’re in the entertainment business, why limit yourself to millions of dollars in the American (or even Western) market when you can make billions globally? Combine that with a post-modern American culture that sees itself less and less tied to religion/culture/community and you get people who treat the entertainment they consume as a deeply rooted part of their identity. To criticize the entertainment is to criticize the person. In such an environment, when the pop culture gets particularly insipid, the people who love it follow suit.

    I do see it as part and parcel with an infantile streak in American culture that I think will be destructive in the long term, but that might be beyond the scope of this post/discussion. Of course I will cop to my own potential hypocrisy on this issue as a huge fan of cult horror movies and underground metal. Not pop culture, but certainly not high culture either.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to InMD says:


      I think you are partially right that globalization does play a role. Superhero and CGI translates very well and can often escape the wrath of censors in less democratic countries.

      “I do see it as part and parcel with an infantile streak in American culture that I think will be destructive in the long term, but that might be beyond the scope of this post/discussion. Of course I will cop to my own potential hypocrisy on this issue as a huge fan of cult horror movies and underground metal. Not pop culture, but certainly not high culture either.”

      What I see my generation often explicitly try to do is redefine the terms of adulthood. There is an explicit statement of “I have a job that I do well. I pay my bills. Why should adulthood be defined by how I like to spend my free time.” Which is fair enough in many ways.

      The anti-intellectualism seems to come out when there is an explicit complaint about what an establishment and upper-middle class media source chooses to cover in their arts and leisure sections. Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen’s on-again and off-again war is an example. She had two points. One was an entirely valid observation that the NY Times could spend more time reviewing books by authors who were not white men. Her other observation was a more explicit anti-Intellectualism that rebelled against the New York Times Book Review covering books that few people read. I think her hypothetical example was that the NY Times should not give serious coverage to a 800 page Woodrow Wilson biography because very few people are going to read that. More people read books like the type Jennifer Weiner writes, therefore the numerical popularity demand more coverage. I’ve seen others join in. Noah Bertlasky wrote an essay in the The Atlantic that said the NY Times should just admit it is a fanzine for literary fiction. Notice how using the word fanzine is meant to highlight the obscurity and non-popularity of literary fiction like 1970s Punk Rock and 1980s Hardcore.

      This is an explicit anti-Intellectualism that I reject and reject strongly.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        The type of books that Jennifer Weiner writes does not give themselves to criticism in the same way that a very long biography of Woodrow Wilson does even if more people read Jennifer Weiner books. A lot of reviews of genre fiction read more like Consumer Reports. The ultimate question being answered is this book, music, movie, or TV show entertaining enough for a small investment of money and time. Beyond that, you can’t really do anything more substantial outside an academic review of the genre. Many New York Times book reviews are more substantive than a simple review, they often cover broader and deeper questions in addition to judging the merits of the book in question.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        Before we can define anti-intellectualism, how are you defining intellectualism?Report

  7. How does one prove sincerity here and why is it so seemingly hard to do? Every now and then someone will get a realization and make an exclamation along the lines of “Wow! You really do like all this high culture stuff” and it seems like it never occurred to them that people might like high culture sincerely.

    I don’t think you should have to prove your sincerity when you say you like something. If you say you like something, and some people say, “you don’t really like it, you’re just pretending,” what’s it to you? I mean, I know there are such people out there (I have been one of them when it comes to some of my friends who claim to love jazz or blues [ETA: and shame on me for doing so]), but at the end of the day, you like what you like regardless of whether others believe you do.

    get the point of rereading books or watching movies more than once. You pick up on different things. But why read Tolkien for the one hundreth [sic] time when you can find a new form of novel or a new author? I will never be able to read all that I want in my lifetime or see every theatre production that I want to see. I get bored too quickly by the same stuff.

    Some people find that their enjoyment of a piece literature increases or ripens the more they engage it. You seem to accept as much when you say (it seems approvingly) that “I know people who stress out about the idea of subtext in literature but can look at a Kandinsky painting for hours and analyze every bbut [?????]” Why shouldn’t someone reread Tolkien if they want. I have reread Dubliners several, several times, some stories more than others. Same with Tolkien, some passages more than others. Same with “Journey to the East,” “Sun Also Rises,” and “As I Lay Dying.” Have you enjoyed the “enchanting” but “melodic” feel of Ravel only once? Or do you occasionally revisit it and listen to it again? Not that you have to. Maybe you’re more of a fox than a hedgehound. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    You’re chief objection seems to be that it’s Tolkien that some people are reading for the 100th time. I’ll be the first to claim that by whatever standard I accept for judging literature, I find that Tolkien doesn’t quite rise to the level of some of the other literature I enjoy. And while I’m uneasy about setting objective standards for what literature counts as better, I can for the sake of argument concede that Tolkien wouldn’t place as high as, say, Joyce. In short, I’ll concede for the sake of argument your interpretation of Jaybird’s comment and say, so what? If I want to read Tolkien for the 100th time, as long as I don’t try to force you to read it, it’s not much of your concern. Similarly, whether you’re into highbrow culture just so you can claim to be educated–and I’m not saying I believe that–is not much or any of my own concern.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    There is a phenomenon where a person communicates that their image of their own self relies heavily on the products they consume. Above and beyond stuff like vegetarianism where, arguably, less harm is done as a result of their consumptive choices.

    “I don’t enjoy *THESE* products like *THOSE* people do. I enjoy these *OTHER* products!”

    When the enjoyment of a particular entertainment has less to do with the entertainment and more to do with how one is able to see oneself in light of entertaining oneself is a particular way, dude… that’s totally meta.

    I’m not sure it’s better than the mere enjoyment of consuming a product that fits one’s own taste, though.

    I wouldn’t even know how to measure that.Report

  9. Stillwater says:

    So the Maxim fails because it is not so much a statement of welcoming and relative subjectivity or “different strokes for different folks” but a weapon used in defense of pop culture and for the destruction of whatever can be part of high-culture and avant-garde culture.

    The Weaponization of a Maxim!! Maximally Weaponized!! (Kant should have considered this in his moral theory.)

    There seems to be no way to explain that I sincerely find Ravel’s music to be really pretty and wonderful to listen to.

    Oh, I really don’t think that’s the issue here, Saul. You don’t explain that you find something enjoyable, you just do. It’s a bare fact. What people object to is that you think liking Ravel makes you a better person, or reveals better taste in art. *THAT’S* the thing there’s no way for you to explain to others, cuz they see it as the rubbish it is.Report

  10. Probably the last thing you want is another comment from me, but here goes.

    I think part of what the OP is arguing for is the notion that some literature (or art, or music, but I’ll just stick with literature for this comment) can be better than others, that it’s not all about subjective enjoyment. I’m skeptical, but I’m not prepared to say definitively that it’s wrong.

    There’s a more modest and therefore more defensible claim the OP could make, but it doesn’t seem to. That is, by certain standards, standards that most of us probably share to a large degree, some literature is better than others. That claim leaves aside the question of how we arrive at those standards in the first place and whether the standards themselves are defensible. But by standards that most of us share–say, standards about internal consistency of storyline and plot, about rich versus stereotyped character development, about whether, when, or how often to use certain plot devices, and about probably many others that I’m not thinking of–we can probably arrive at a rough agreement over how to grade or rate literature. Or if we disagree, at least we have something by which to measure disagreement.

    Take this down to, say, Tolkien. Tolkien’s LOTR, in my view, really suffers in the character development area. It’s not that there’s no richness in the character development. There are indeed internal conflicts among characters and some characters change or demonstrate the possibility of change. Smeagol/Gollum for a time seems to turn a new leaf. Samwise is tempted by the ring and almost succombs. Frodo turns traitor at the last minute. But the development seems, to me, less rich than what we see in at least some of the stories Dubliners. Maria, Mr. Kernan, and (ahem) Gabriel Conroy are much fuller characters than most of what we find in LOTR. By that standard, perhaps, Dubliners merits more critical praise than LOTR. (I’m neglecting other areas where I think LOTR holds its own better, such as admitting subtle readings of its good vs. evil ideas or the way moral choices are presented to the characters. Maybe still not enough to compete with Dubliners, at least in my estimation, but stronger than when it comes to character developmebt.)

    That’s just one example, and I suspect that some here who know LOTR better than I can arrive at a different critique, perhaps sussing out more subtle points of characterization that elude my simple analysis.

    If we do want to argue about whether some forms of culture are better than others, the above might be one way to do it. Or maybe there’s a better way. But my point is, if we want to argue that one work is better than another, or one genre is better than another, that argument requires engaging that work/genre directly. It’s not enough merely to denounce the philistinism of “you aren’t really interested in that,” something that merits denunciation but that is probably rarer than the OP suggests. There needs to be a positive argument.Report

  11. J_A says:

    There’s a great sci-fi novel, Ringworld, that has the best description of this issue:

    (Paraphrasing) “Louis became aware of the background music. Beethoven. Or the Beatles. Something classic”

    When Mozart wrote music, he wasn’t composing classical music. He was doing music. Contemporary, as it happens. But sometime in the early 20th century it was decided that classical everything was stuff made by dead people or in the style of dead people. Anything made by someone not dead was not and could not become classical, even if the guy subsequently died. And posh people could only like classical stuff, because otherwise they would not be posh.Report

  12. Doctor Jay says:

    I think the popularity explosion of geek culture has to do with two things: Money and the Internet. These things are related. By making the internet, a lot of geeks got rich. Which meant that a lot people realized that they could make a living selling the things that those rich people liked.

    Also, once you’ve changed the world, you can kind of realize that you don’t need to worry about being made fun of for what you love. In fact, it probably helps you change the world if you realize that beforehand.

    And the internet let these people find each other and be less isolated. The cornerstone of geekness is enthusiasm. It’s the opposite of being cool. And that enthusiasm has found an amplifier in the internet.

    I’d downplay the “faker” part of this – the part that says “those people” don’t “really” like it but just pretend to. Popularity is a reason to try something, but I don’t know all that many people who stick with it because everyone else is. Sometimes they do, though, because they are lonely.Report

  13. krogerfoot says:

    The premise of this and many of Saul’s posts is, he has a sincere love for the best that the art world has to offer, but his appreciation is constantly derided by people who think him a snob and a phony.

    Forgive me if this has been discussed before, but: Who is doing the deriding? Friends? Online commenters (obviously the worst people in the world)? Random strangers on public transportation? I don’t want to be one of those people who says “this phenomenon has never happened to me, therefore it is a figment of your imagination,” and others have written about some strains of the anti-intellectualism that Saul may be talking about. Candidly, I have no idea whether in 21st-century N. America it’s common to have your Edith Wharton dashed from your hands by someone dressed as Spider-Man.

    I (unfairly?) presume that the anti-intellectual guff that Saul has to deal with is in fact a defensive reaction, given the way he, in his own words, presents himself and his tastes. I can’t imagine telling someone at the video store that they’re a poseur for liking Truffaut, but I might get lippy if they first tell me they hope that copy of The Three Amigos is for a ten-year-old boy’s birthday party. (Of course it is—I’m not leaving my personal copy of The Three Amigos with those monsters.)

    I am curious to hear Saul’s or anybody’s tales of being abused by the forces of anti-intellectualism. I’m not being a jerk, or not trying to be, at any rate. As I’ve stated before, I don’t get out much, and if real-life culture has gotten as reflexively confrontational and huffy as it is on the internet, I’d like to prepare myself for that.

    For my part, while flying from Atlanta to Buffalo with a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, a beautiful woman sitting next to me chatted me up about it. I have worn out several copies now, carrying it around hoping to run into her again.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to krogerfoot says:

      I think it easy for some folks to look at an unpleasant interaction they were involved in and absolve themselves of any responsibility. I think this is aided if one can attribute the interaction not to the other person’s unique awfulness but to a broader trend. It amplifies their victim status and further insulates them from accountability.Report

    • Glyph in reply to krogerfoot says:

      “while flying from Atlanta to Buffalo with a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, a beautiful woman sitting next to me chatted me up about it. I have worn out several copies now, carrying it around hoping to run into her again.”

      Ordinary Times turned into the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist so gradually, I hardly even noticed.Report

    • aarondavid in reply to krogerfoot says:

      “Edith Wharton dashed from your hands by someone dressed as Spider-Man. ”

      ZOMG I want that job!!111!Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to krogerfoot says:


      I will try.

      What I’ve noticed about cultural debates and what glyph has backed me up on before is that it seems perfectly acceptable to tell someone to go down the cultural latter but a gentle encouragement of broadening horizons or trying something avant-garde or a bit high-brow is looked upon as snobby. So people have told me that “No one is going to think you are less intelligent for liking a silly movie.” The silly movie in this case was something by Adam Sandler who is someone I find unbearably vulgar when doing his own shtick but a surprisingly good actor when being under supervision of others. Give me Adam Sandler who can do Punk Drunk Love, not Grown Ups 1 and 2. I admit that my sense of humor goes towards the dry.

      Yet trying to get people to go see something art house, however slightly, can be like pulling teeth sometimes. Even for someone as wonderful and light as Truffaut. I don’t see what makes Truffaut high-brow except the Frenchiness. His films are narrative, they are not Goddard at his most avant-garde or even partially avant-garde. They are also often done with a light touch.

      Other things people have said to me include “Ewww. That is the kind of book you need to read for school.”

      And I pick up on subtext. Maybe it is too much but I think it is rather anti-intellectual as an argument to say that something should not be reviewed because it is scholarly and not read by the masses. Not everything needs to be a popularity context and financial success should not be the ultimate touchstone of artistic merit.Report

      • krogerfoot in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        You’ve responded to my questions with quite a bit more kindness than I posed them, and I appreciate that.

        Regarding trends toward a broad acceptance of pop culture, it’s something that’s been going on for at least fifty years, as you’ve noted yourself. Even as someone who has zero interest in comic books and video games, this broadening is generally a good thing, I think. (I also secretly relish telling people who imagine I live in Japan because I’m a huge anime/manga fan that I’ve never deliberately watched/read either and probably never will.)

        Personally, though, if someone turned up their nose at you over the books and movies you like, I would advise you that that person is a jerk whom you should not be worried about impressing. I’m not a fan of Truffaut, but I freely admit having never giving him much of a chance, so watching one of his films with an honest-to-God fan would be an opportunity I’d leap at.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        It is acceptable to get people to try things from pop culture but not high culture because of reasons of politics. When your encouraging a person to play a video game or watch and enjoy a gross-out comedy, your implying that the tastes of the masses are fine rather than dumb. It’s democratic.. Trying to get somebody to go into high culture carries the opposite connotation. Your implying that which is enjoyed by the masses is no good and that there is better art and entertainment out there for people to enjoy. This goes against the cultural zeitgeist that existed since at least the 1960s if not earlier.Report

      • Guy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        So, what happens for me at least (in reacting to your posts) is that I see your defensiveness and go into defense mode myself. When I take a writing class, I have to deal with the fact that the instructor doesn’t quite believe the novels I like are in fact novels*, that he would consider it impossible for a work involving more than one drawing to convey a story worth thinking about. And the way you talk about this stuff kind of reminds me of that, because you keep going on about that cultural ladder and the place on it where your preferences sit (which is often a proxy for where you* sit, at least on some level).

        I don’t think that really makes sense; even if we take @gabriel-conroy’s argument that some works are better than others (and I do, at least in the sense that one work can be better at “being what it is”, Ebert style, than another), I think we would need to find two bits of media we had both consumed and start from there, and even that might not work because we both come from very different contexts. I bet you know why I should like Gatsby, even though I found it insufferable when I read it***. Similarly I have some sense of what Tolkein did right that someone who doesn’t read more heroic fantasy might not get.

        If you just want to commiserate about people telling you your interests are fake and/or unworthy, hey man, that sucks, and I’ve been in the same boat. But you’ll probably get more sympathy if you do it without reminding me of all the people who told me my interests were unworthy.

        ETA: also, just want to join everyone else in saying that the person who told you to watch an Adam Sandler movie instead of what you like (implicitly or otherwise) was a terrible.

        *This is, at least in part, “literary” fiction and related genres attempting to make exclusive claims on generic terms like, well, “literary”. It’s pretty obnoxious, but I’m not really sure what to do about it. The closest I can come to a solution is for them to keep implying that they’re the only ones with anything to say about reality, and for me to keep calling them boring, and that’s obviously wrong.

        **This is the generic “you” here, not you Saul specifically.

        ***The best I can say for Fitzgerald is that his prose was inoffensive. In some ways this is a high compliment; I have a very low tolerance for clumsy prose. But, then, good prose is like good wallpaper: only obvious when you go looking for it, and otherwise not a distraction.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @saul-degraw — Are we talking about suggesting a particular book, or an invitation to a particular museum, or a suggestion that one check out this composer that is kinda like this other music they like? Cuz that seems entirely fine.

        In fact, when I was late teens, I was way into speed metal — cuz there was this thing in the mid 80’s where it became okay for punks to listen to metal and for metalheads to listen to punk. It was kinda cool. Anyway, I had a friend into classical music, and she said, “Hey veronica (except my old name), you should listen to Stravinsky.” Cuz she could kinda imagine how someone who liked the virtuosity of metal could like Stravinsky.

        I said, “Sure, I’ll try it.”

        She loaned me a Rites of Spring cassette, with Bernstein conducting. Of course I liked it. It was fucking amazing. I actually started listening to a lot of classical music about that time. It was fun.

        If instead she had said, “Hey veronica, you should listen to more ‘high art,’ expand your horizons into the smarter, classier stuff.”

        Well, I mean, how should one respond to that?

        If someone tells me to read Ulysses, I’ll tell them I fucking hate Joyce.

        Cuz I fucking hate Joyce. Deal with it.

        On the other hand, I like Woolf, in small doses. I can see the appeal.

        What a lark! What a plunge!

        But I can’t take much of that. I like plot.

        Anyway, blah, blah, blah. If you invite someone to the museum, and they don’t like museums, then too bad. Find something else to do. Or not. Your choice. But don’t get fucking smug about it. OMG.Report

    • Kim in reply to krogerfoot says:

      I deride him on certain things based on his notable unwillingness to invest in discussing them…Report

  14. Kazzy says:

    The struggle I have here is with the very concept of “anti-intellectualism”. This implies that there is some agreed upon definition of “intellectualism” which I both reject and have never seen explicitly articulated. Mocking classical music in “anti-intellectualism”. Mocking sports is… what exactly? It isn’t anti-intellectualism. Not by the seemingly standard definition. And yet athletes demonstrate an absurdly elite form of intellect, albeit in a non-traditional area.

    Defining this as an issue of anti-intellectualism begs the question that there is a certain form of art that is inherently intellectual and until that can be demonstrably proven, I cannot engage with that part of the argument.

    As to what is and is not okay to mock… Jesus… how about you just aim to not mock anyone for their choices and hope they return the favor?Report

    • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

      You kidding me?
      Let me tell you what intellectualism is…
      It is the art of understanding the elements behind the story, understanding the elements that comprise the music.

      The non-intellectual says “That music sounds purty, and it makes me happy when I listen to it.”

      The intellectual says, “I like the counterpoint, and the “accidental” entrance of the trumpets is a perfect prank” (Beethoven was a prankster, didn’tcha know?)

      The film critic doesn’t laugh or cheer at the movies, his level of appreciation is … deeper and less broad than the film neophyte.

      It’s not the art form that is intellectual, it is the style of enjoyment.
      I can be just as intellectual over Chinese Checkers as I can about “Who is Camus Anyway?”Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

      Intellectualism is best understood as a delight in abstract thought. While many people will think abstractly and deeply about something on occasion, the intellectual does so constantly and on many different topics and areas of study. In history a lot of non-intellectuals who like history tend to view it as a string of interesting events. The current incarnation of the History Channel is a good example of a non-intellectual perception of history. A lot of it is rah-rah American patriotism type dramatic documentaries like Sons of Liberty. None of the deeper questions of what caused the American Revolution, like the people of British America wanting to venture further West for land but being prevented from doing so by the British authorities is asked. Instead, we get the Founders as superheroes.

      Like Kim said, intellectualism is one who can think abstractly about something and understand on a deeper level than most people. You can look at a painting and see how the Impressionists are trying to do different thinks than previous painters rather than just say the painting is pretty, meh, or ugly.

      Anti-intellectualism is a hatred of this style of thought. It emphasizes the literal, plain meaning of things and events.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Of all of the words that I, myself, would use as an umbrella under which to put “intellectualism”, “delight” doesn’t make the top 3.

        Actually, none of the words are particularly emotionally evocative.Report

        • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

          That seems more like a negative stereotype than anything else. When i think of all the intellectuals i’ve known it appeared they absolutely loved, loved, loved the thing they were into. Baroque music, 16th century yak poetry, Indian fabric patterns from just north of Delhi made by left handed women in the 1850’s, they were over the moon about their thing. That is why they could spend their lives and careers focused on things that most people weren’t into.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

            Sure, fine. Let’s define intellectualism in terms of enthusiasm, happiness, and love.Report

            • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

              Would there be a problem with that other than that is goes against a stereotype?Report

              • Maribou in reply to greginak says:

                It goes against the definition of the word. Intellectualism is, precisely, the raising of the intellect and the denigration of other aspects of human experience (particularly the emotional, the social, and the kinetic). As a word it’s a close cousin of “rationalism”.

                I think people get knotted up because “anti-intellectualism” is not “against intellectualism” (cf racism and anti-racism) but “anti-intellectual” + ism? And intellectuals (fairly obviously other than by stereotype) are not necessarily, or even majoritarianly, intellectualist. (Though plenty of them are. There was also a goodly mingling of intellectualism and sexism, historically, which would take me way off topic but which I can get quite incensed about.)

                Anyway, I’m mostly writing this comment so Jaybird’s head doesn’t explode. He’s kinda intellectual, you see, and he’s really passionate about what words mean and how to use them properly…Report

              • greginak in reply to Maribou says:

                Well i’ve seen some intellectuals have their heads nearly explode over some arcane bits of info that only matter to them and a handful of others.

                Definitions are nice, who can be against them. But i think you have to love something and revel in its details and complexity to get really into it. That would seem fine if we were talking about 70’s chop socky movies but if is about 18th croatian poetry supposedly it doesn’t. Intellectual just sounds like a fancy name for people who really love to geek out about a certain set of bits of culture.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:


                Based on that definition of intellectualism, I am unabashedly anti it. And Saul should have little question as to where the hostility comes from if the idea itself is predicated upon denigrating others.Report

              • Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

                @kazzy @greginak

                As I tried to point out above, there’s “being intellectual” or “love of abstract thought” or “intellectual delight”, which are one sort of thing – a thing that I think (contra Saul) most of the regular commenters here including both of you display from time to time.

                Then there’s intellectual*ism* as a philosophical school and/or a system of thought and/or a set of prejudices, which has had a decent amount of historical influence (mostly but not exclusively through the Catholic church -eg Thomas Aquinas’ scholasticism) and which I find deeply icky.

                I have found in practice that anti-intellectualists are generally against the first type of thing (ie, they are anti-intellectuals-in-general) but claim to be against the second thing.

                Other than perhaps Saul, I don’t know many people who make intellectualist pronouncements. Most of my less-intellectual friends seem to find intellectual geeking-out rather charming and sometimes useful, and, as greginak says, more or less comparable to other kinds of geeking out. My friend Andy knows EVERYTHING about transmissions (it seems to me) and I know EVERYTHING about theology (it seems to him) and so on…Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:


                I think I get what you’re saying. I have no objection to folks who want to read Joyce or listen to classical music. I do object to folks who think that makes them better than those who don’t. I’m very much a, “Do what ya do,” kinda person with regards to art (and other areas, too).Report

            • Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

              Intellectualism is cold, slithery delight and curiosity — the mind dancing in the moonlight.

              It’s not an affective sport. It’s not about feelings.Report

          • Guy in reply to greginak says:

            “…16th century yak poetry…”

            Do you here mean 16th century poems about yaks or 16th century poems by yaks? Or some other meaning I’m not aware of? Had these yaks yet developed saxophones?Report

          • veronica d in reply to greginak says:

            From Johnstone’s Impro:

            One day, when I was eighteen, I was reading a book and I began to weep. I was astounded. I’d had no idea that literature could affect me in such a way. If I’d have wept over a poem in class the teacher would have been appalled. I realised that my school had been teaching me not to respond.

            (In some universities students unconsciously learn to copy the physical attitudes of their professors, leaning back away from the play or film they’re watching, and crossing their arms tighdy, and tilting their heads back. Such postures help them to feel less ‘involved’, less ‘subjective’. The response of untutored people is infinitely superior.)

            I dunno. It seems vaguely on point.Report

            • Kim in reply to veronica d says:

              Tis, at that.
              There’s points to be said for both, of course.
              But I’m no extrovert, not even while watching truly sad stuff. I prefer the quiet and the trees to the laughter and the forest.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

      I agree, @kazzy . Too often, “anti-intellectualism” is used as a cudgel to (try to) end debate, or at the very least as a catch-all or shorthand for a large set of arguments that the user cannot be bothered to make. I think in theory we could have a pretty good discussion about what anti-intellectualism and is not and in what ways it’s bad and in what ways it’s good. Unfortunately, we don’t. (But then, if I really wanted such a discussion, maybe it’s one me to initiate it.)Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Oddly enough, a great example of anti-intellectualism that is actually anti-intellectualism is Charles Barkley’s rant about analytics in basketball evaluation. Barkley specifically attacked people for being smart, arguing that such was actually reason to discredit their perspective. And not in a “They’re so stepped in a specific perspective that we can’t trust them to see the whole picture kind of” way but in a “Fucking nerds just hate us cuz they ain’t us” way.

        So, yea, I won’t deny that there exist some group of people who are actively hostile towards the types of things we tend to brand as “intellectual” in nature.

        I just think that a conversation that relies upon branding things as intellectual or not is problematic from the get go.


        • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

          A perfect example.

          Also one that seems to imply STEM stuff isn’t anti-intellectual or childish.Report

        • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

          Yes, that seems like an example of anti-intellectualism. I’d say that even if he was saying “they’re so stepped in a specific perspective that we can’t trust them to see the whole picture,” that could be anti-intellectualism of a different sort, one that I’d say is potentially healthy (we shouldn’t always automatically and uncritically trust experts).Report

  15. Sam Wilkinson says:

    I’m not wading through the hundred plus comments you’ve already gotten, but this…

    There seems to be no way to explain that I sincerely find Ravel’s music to be really pretty and wonderful to listen to. The music is enchanting but also has a melancholy feel, a wistfulness and fleeting sensation that one does not find in many other places.

    …strikes me as quite silly. If you like Ravel, like Ravel. (I like some Ravel too.) Where I think you should draw the line is jumping from, “Here is this thing that I like…” to “Here is this conclusion which is factually true about the thing itself.” So you can like Ravel without insisting that Ravel is somehow the superior to somebody else who has also created music.

    If you’re running into people who don’t think that you should enjoy what you enjoy, you should run away from them. If you’re running into Batman fans who as insisting that Batman is better than something else – Superman? Aquaman? Ravelman?- then they’re a bunch of dummies that you should run away from screaming.Report

    • Are the majority of the titles of your television reviews lately tongue-in-cheek, then?Report

    • Murali in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      Of course Batman is better than Superman! What’s wrong with you?Report

      • Glyph in reply to Murali says:

        I’m finally watching the Daredevil Netflix series now, and I have to say, I like (this) Daredevil better than (recent cinematic) Batman.

        Basically, this Daredevil IS Batman, in terms of dark gravelly-voiced thug-pummelling (which makes sense, as this Daredevil is apparently based heavily on Frank Miller’s stories, as is recent cinematic Batman) – BUT, that tone of gritty ‘realism’ is more easily-achieved when (aside from Daredevil’s superpower-esque senses, which could just as easily exist in a kung-fu movie) Daredevil is in fact just a pretty regular (if obsessive) street-level detective/crimefighter guy without access to multi-billion dollar toys, and who accordingly gets the crap kicked out of him on the reg.

        The casting is fantastic, the fights are good.

        But holy crap, is it ever violent.Report

        • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

          They tone down the violence a bit in later episodes, though it certainly doesn’t disappear entirely. The first 2 or 3 episodes pushed right up to the line between violence within the story and gratuitous violence, though I think they managed to avoid crossing that line.Report

          • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

            I don’t say “violent” as a complaint – I think it has worked, within the confines of the story (there’s a scene in episode 2 which is an Oldboy homage, and if you enjoyed Oldboy, then cinematic violence is not an inherent problem for you). In some instances they’ve used the violence to illustrate the characters, which is how it should be used, unless you’re just going for splatter-shock (which can be its own reward).

            I’ve just been a bit…surprised by it, and think anyone considering the series should get fair warning that it doesn’t mess around.Report

            • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

              Yeah, that’s mostly what I meant: it can be off putting if you’re not ready for it. I mean, most people who watched Oldboy knew what was coming, but when I watched Daredevil, I was unprepared. Like I said, I don’t think it crossed the line into gratuitousness, because I do think they worked it into the story, but man was it jarring.Report

            • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Glyph says:

              There is one death – and depending upon where you are in the series, you might not yet have gotten there – which seems to be completely over the top in terms of its gore, although it was clearly in service of, “Hey, this guy is a real bad guy, huh? Like, if there are good guys over here, and bad guys over there, then this thing that this guy is doing puts him way out there!” *gestures wildly in a direction beyond where the bad guys are*Report

              • Glyph in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

                I watched ep 9 last night. Fisk’s head-smashing-by-car-door introduction was certainly something.

                But I do think it informed the character – this is someone who, for all their soulful (even sympathetic) pain, is barely-containing their inhuman rage at all times – we later see that the mode of killing even echoes his “origin story” with his father.Report

  16. Tod Kelly says:

    @saul-degraw @kazzy @sam-wilkinson @krogerfoot @everyone-else-i-guess

    I’m going to go out on a limb here, after finally having read the OP and all (most?) the comments. I think there is a disconnect here that is due to an unspoken between-the-lines reading I take from Saul’s piece(s) on this topic. If I’m righ,t I think I might be able t clear up that disconnect.

    Much of these conversations here revolve around one of two themes: what should/shouldn’t one “like,” and queries of who, exactly, is attacking Saul for his (for lack of a better word) highbrow tastes. And to be true, I think this is because this is the was Saul sets the table thus. But what I hear when I read Saul’s posts and comments on this topic is in fact something different, something more in line with his posts on the actual career of law vs. the dream of a law career. I think his posts doubt his law career and his love of the arts are in a similar vein, even if he himself is not aware of it.

    And here is where I go out on a limb…

    I think for Saul it’s not actually a question of what people like or don’t like per se. Instead, I have a sense that for Saul there has been a promise broken about the rewards of being what he calls an ‘intellectual.’ I’m not entirely sure where this dream came from — his parents perhaps, or his community, or even the books he read; I’m not sure where it came from is all that important. What is important is that I think Saul has invested a great deal of time and passion in his growing up becoming the type of person he was promised would gain a certain type of status based on his tastes and opinions of the arts. And now he’s done a rather remarkable and indeed admirable job of gaining those skills, learning, and experience, and is finding that the status promised him is something of a phantom. It doesn’t exist, and likely never did.

    Or to sum up more quickly: It’s not about intellectualism, I think ; it’s about a proposed status not delivered.

    A big limb, as I said. I may well be way, way off, and if so apologies in advance to Saul.

    If I am right though, I would encourage Saul to be thankful for the path he’s chosen and embrace it for the sheer wonder and beauty of the works he’s allowed himself to witness. A life surrounded by the kinds of arts Saul loves is a treasured one for it’s own sake, I thinkReport

    • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Hmmmm… interesting angle. As if the rug was pulled out from him.

      “They said I should grow up and stop reading comic books. Now I’m a grown up who stopped reading comic books and all I have to show for it is a boss who loves Spider Man.”

      At the risk of piling on, there is something remarkably non-liberal about that, in large part because the dream that Saul bought into is one steeped in racial, economic, and gender privilege.Report

      • RTod in reply to Kazzy says:

        @kazzy Maybe, or maybe not.

        Well, maybe not the racial and gender privilege anyway.

        I think you can be someone who, say, reads James Baldwin and George Sands and still not understand what people see in Batman merchandising without that having anything to do with White Male Privledge.

        In fact, I’m not at all convinced that a lot of “lowbrow” stuff like comic books, gaming, pulp novels, etc. do a whole lot better on the white and male privledge bugaboo than most dead white men cannons.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to RTod says:


          What I meant is that Saul (seemingly!) chose a path that has largely been reserved by rich white dudes for rich white dudes to perpetuate rich white dude culture. (Thankfully, in my opinion) we are dismantling that structure — something I think Saul genuinely wants to see happen — but it has left him in a bit of a lurch.

          As you said, it used to be that reading Joyce and getting a JD and going to the opera were ways to signal that you “made it” because the powers that be decided that those were the signs of “making it”. The powers that be were those old rich white dudes. Now other folks are involved in defining success and they are less impressed with a knowledge of baroque music, golf handicaps, and well tailored suits. They’re cool with playing hip hop or indie music in the break room, hosting work events on a bocce ball court, and wearing flip flops to the office.Report

    • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      @tod-kelly I have no objections to anything you’ve written, and I certainly join you in not knowing, and I would add only this:

      A life surrounded by the kinds of arts Saul loves is a treasured one for it’s own sake, I think

      I think that’s true for everybody. A life surrounded by the kinds of arts we love is a treasured one for it’s own sake. Where we run into problems are the third parties who insist on reminding those people that their arts aren’t good enough for whatever reason. As if it isn’t simply enough to love the things we love, as if they’re not good enough if somebody somewhere else is equally loving the things that they love.Report

      • RTod in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        @sam-wilkinson I would sort of disagree. I’ve known too many people who have gone through life not wanting to explore any art at all, or who won’t let themselves experience any art outside of a very small and limited bubble. Which is different from no *liking* things outside of a very restricted bubble.

        I actually do think those people miss out on a lot, in the same way that I think someone who never travels outside their home town or who never gets information from any source but the Christian Broadcasting Network miss out on a lot.Report

        • Sam Wilkinson in reply to RTod says:

          @rtod Well then, we disagree, but I doubt there’s any bridging this gap, nor any reason to.Report

          • Glyph in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

            If being deprived of varied experiences is nothing to be avoided, we are doing prison all wrong.Report

            • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Glyph says:

              @glyph I do not buy into the, ‘He wasn’t having varied enough experiences, and he suffered for it…” line of thinking, and besides, there is a difference between choosing limited experiences and having them limited for you.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

                I agree on your second sentence, but disagree on your first. Else I would think that someone blind from birth is no worse-off than me.

                That’s not to say that they might not be luckier, or happier, or otherwise better-off than me on net balance – they might!

                But all else equal: if they never ever see a sunset, IMO they are a little worse-off in *at least one respect* than I am.Report

              • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                If we can agree that more enjoyment is better, and could show that more varied experiences tends to lead to more enjoyment, I think it would be hard to argue that more varied experiences is not a good thing.

                I’m not sure that more varied experiences leads to more enjoyment, but I’d be willing to bet that for most people it does.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Glyph says:

                @glyph Yikes! “You’re worse off than me because you’re not experiencing what I am,” ignores the very real possibility that another person might not experience a sunset in the same way that you do. This strikes me as a dangerous and unproductive road to go down, and that’s before we get into the possibility that a blind person’s appreciation of everything that accompanies a sunset might allow for his/her enjoyment of the same thing in an albeit different way.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

                I’m not saying they are worse off because they are not experiencing what I am – plenty of sighted people might look at a sunset and go “eh, doesn’t do anything for me.” And that’s fine! After all, there are no guarantees that my experience will be the same as yours (we wouldn’t want that to be guaranteed, anyway – said guarantee would actually work AGAINST variety, which I posit as a good).

                But the loss of your *opportunity* to experience what I do (or more accurately, “to experience your own personal edition of whatever this experience might trigger for you”) seems certainly something to be lamented.

                Isn’t that the motivation of the American dream? The land of opportunity?

                I agree that denying oneself opportunity is very different than having opportunity denied for you; but an opportunity denied is still an opportunity denied.

                If a kid never progresses past the “happy to dig in the dirt with a stick all day, to the exclusion of all else” phase of their development, you could get to a Zen acceptance of that fact – at least they are happy, and there is almost always a brightside to almost any situation if you look hard enough; but there would always be a part of you that might lament that they never grew to experience greater joys (or greater heartbreaks) than that, right?Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to RTod says:

          Are you intentionally posting with two different names?Report

    • Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      This is, at least in part, how I read it, with some lashing out and projection and maybe some other things that there’s no point in me getting into.Report

    • Krogerfoot in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Tod, I would have said most of us were probably thinking along exactly those lines, but it’s not my place to phrenologize Saul, who’s always been pretty gracious to me even as I grouch about his writing.

      Shrugging off anxiety about what others think about your preferred diversions is an important step toward enlightenment, or whatever Buddhists call not giving a shit. I’m also trying to survive knowing that Saul and others do not think I’m right at all times, however impatiently I stamp my foot.

      Other times @glyph holds incorrect opinions on pop music. This I cannot abide.Report

    • Guy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      There is nothing quite like the wrong kind of nerd.Report

  17. Glyph says:

    For some reason, the third and fourth strips here seemed apropos.

    ETA: I know a lot of people don’t like Bolling, but I think he’s really, really funny when he stays away from explicit politics. When he gets political he gets pretty didactic.Report