Sebastian's Reviews > Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain

Masscult and Midcult by Dwight Macdonald
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Sep 02, 2011

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Read from October 17 to November 27, 2011

I went to a book talk to see Louis Menard, the writer of this book's introduction (which is largely the same as his New Yorker piece that drew my interest in the first place) and John Summers, the book's editor, and was interested in their shared views on the declining relevance of MacDonald's core critiques in today's world. I'm, however, not so certain we're all that far past concerns about profit over quality or obligation over merit when it comes to the types of art and culture we consume. (Speaking of, that very verb is a problematic, and very 21st century, term that captures a sliver of these issues.)

Sure, we've seemingly merged two worlds, high and low brow through, among other things, postmodernism and the increasing access technology gives most of us to a broader spectrum of arts and true, we no longer fear declining cultural literacy as the leading edge of the end of our way of life (or worse still the beginning of the slippery slope towards totalitarianism). After all, the trope of "TV as the new novel" seems pretty well accepted amongst even what is left of the chattering class.

Nevertheless, there is absolutely a continuing vitality to the need for resistance to, and indeed attacks upon, the vulgarization and commoditization of culture and art. Snobbery (which, arguably, at its best could be better described as strong-minded, well-informed and vocal discernment) may have never been less popular, but passionate and reasoned dissent from the tidal wave of common sentiment (even if sometimes it's cheekily contrarian for its own sake) will always have a place on my bookshelf. I think reading this book and Adorno in a cycle for a couple of months would make me despair (even more) of the state of culture today, and perhaps expose me as hopelessly outmoded, but damn if I don't at times long for these sort of well constructed, poison-penned cultural assessments. These writers are not, and should never be, ultimate cultural arbiters (any more than the false cultural beacons they skewered), but revealing takedowns of hard things made easy (a phrase that might be both an oversimplification of midcult and a shorthand description of the internet age) are more important now today than ever.

All that said, MacDonald is far from perfect, as even one who has sought out venom begins after a while to tire of relentless negativity when critiques morph into somewhat overdone rants. Moreover, there are sticky and potentially quite regressive implications as to issues of privilege and class embedded in some of his big ideas that ought not be as glossed over as I have here. For a much more complex and complete view of the book and the man, the Salon article linked in another review above is highly recommended.
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10/17 page 190
06/07 marked as: read

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