Lowbrow Culture and Guilty Pleasures? The Performance and Harm of Academic Elitism

A professor of gender and women's studies questions the arbitrariness and biases of scholarly standards for so-called lowbrow subjects and activities.

February 22, 2019
 
 

On Jan. 25, Times Higher Education reporter Jack Grove tweeted:

Hi academic Twitter. I'm looking for some scholars who would write for THE about their guilty cultural pleasures/unashamed love for supposedly "lowbrow" subjects/activities. Dubious TV & literature choices are most welcome. DM me if you have some creative ideas.

As a queer woman of color, lover of pop culture and scholar of contemporary literature including speculative fiction and children’s literature, all my critical thinking flares went off. So I tweeted the following comments as a threaded response:

Can I instead write an article about how the concept of guilty pleasures is based in classism, racism and sexism instead? Because “low brow” often means poor/working class, racialized or feminized things? How bout that article?

Further, half the things people are replying about -- sci-fi (my own research), reality TV and gaming -- are things people do actual real research on already.

I also feel like this article concept is another way of performing that academics can’t embrace pleasure, that work cannot be pleasurable. I say fuck that and read @adriennemaree’s new book Pleasure Activism next month when it drops.

Within 48 hours, my response had nearly as many likes and retweets are the original question -- though with far fewer replies. Many folks said they wanted to read this proposed essay of mine, so here it is.

There are two general issues with Grove’s request for article pitches. First is the unquestioned or uncritical use of terms like “lowbrow” and “dubious” as descriptions for cultural subjects and activities and the biases embedded in such descriptions. Second is the implications of the term “guilty pleasure,” particularly for academics. My comments here draw on a large body of existing scholarship in this area; as many folks in the Twitter responses noted, cultural studies and popular culture studies scholars have long resisted the assumptions I aim to expose and explore in this piece.

The term “lowbrow” means “not highly intellectual or cultured” and, according to Perry Meisel in The Myth of Popular Culture, it comes from phrenology, the pseudo-scientific, racist, sexist study of the shape and size of skulls to determine mental abilities and character traits. Phrenology was used against women, people of color and certain white ethnic groups to demonstrate their supposed mental inferiority to white men. Similarly, “dubious” refers to things considered suspect or not to be relied upon. As I suggested in my tweets, much of what is considered low culture is associated with poor and working-class people, women, and racialized groups. Of course, this isn’t always the case -- sci-fi is often associated with nerdy white men and boys -- but the general trend stands: rom-coms, romance novels, fan fictions, reality TV and soap operas are all devalued through their association to racialized and gendered outgroups.

If Grove’s original tweet had instead been framed as: What is something you love that society tells us is not valuable, intelligent or cultured? If the question had been about resisting rather than remaining complicit in the high/low culture divide, I would have been on board. But instead, the framing seemed to reinforce this elitist boundary. The dynamic I’m highlighting played out in the replies to Grove’s original tweet. One person asked if playing in a band, going to football games and watching geeky television counted. Grove said it did not. That’s “more just general leisure activity outside of work,” he explained. Another person asked if tarot-card reading and astrology counted. Yes, Grove said. This dismissive and random categorizing is something that would infuriate my many queer witch friends and healers of color who have worked to resist the devaluing of these very subjects and have used astrology and tarot-card reading as antiracist, queer-friendly, feminist practices.

So, Grove, who appears to be a white man, is telling us what he will and will not consider lowbrow for this article based on his particularly arbitrary standard of high/low culture. Never mind that scholars have written about every single thing that people were claiming as their lowbrow, dubious guilty pleasures. Further, these supposedly less cultured, less quality objects have massive cultural impact. As academics, if our work does not aim to be relevant in the world, impacting and helping people in some way, then what’s the point? I crave scholarship that helps me understand my world and how to navigate it. I adore research that seeks to improve human life and reduce our negative impact on each other and the planet. Devaluing mainstream cultural objects devalues the world we actually live in and differentiates academics as being special humans and not just another group of people with a specific skill set and occupation.

This is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t be critical. One person, for example, sarcastically asked me if they should start considering the Kardashians high culture. There is a difference between saying certain things, particularly entire categories or genres of cultural objects, are good or bad and being critical of the messages and effects of specific cultural objects. I’m not saying everything out there in the mainstream is high quality, but our assumptions of what is good and what is bad are often based on racist, sexist, classist norms that I want more academics to interrogate rather than leaving these standards unquestioned.

This brings me to the second major issue I have with the premise of Grove’s tweet: the idea that our work cannot or should not be pleasurable and that pleasure should make us feel guilty. That’s some Protestant BS right there. I write about pleasure as political in the conclusion of my book, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race & Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, and I want to share a bit of that here:

In advocating increased, nuanced engagement with speculative fiction in this book, I also want to advocate for pleasure. Pleasure does not exist outside of oppression because none of us exist outside of these systems of power, but pleasure can nonetheless arise in the midst of oppression, in the face of it, in spite of it, or sometimes even because of it. I understand pleasure here to be a broad category of positive feelings and emotions, including joy, pride, affirmation, love and hope. For instance, I felt joy seeing Beyoncé’s video for her song “Formation” (and later, her performance of the song at the Super Bowl in 2016), but the pleasure of that video for me was deeply entwined with oppression. In the “Formation” music video, there are references to Hurricane Katrina and police violence against black people, references which draw on the incredible antiblack racist violence in the United States that repeatedly marks black lives and bodies as less valuable. Yet for me there was pleasure in seeing those references to oppression in the music video because they were also an affirmation of the need to value black lives, and these images were coming from an incredibly popular mainstream artist who was forcing racial politics into the faces of many Americans who would prefer she keep singing and dancing about love and breakups instead. Beyoncé used that video -- and the later visual album Lemonade -- to affirm black people, her place among us and her love for us. There can be pleasure within representations of oppression because there is joy in seeing oneself represented, even one’s oppression represented, after so much denial. Seeing reflections of ourselves in representations often means feeling seen as well, knowing we are not alone.

I want more academics and more people in general to embrace pleasure and reject the idea that we should be overworked, unhappy, performing exhaustion at all times, that pleasure is bad, and that enjoying something means you aren’t working or working hard enough. (A good place to start with this might be reading adrienne maree brown’s brand-new collection Pleasure Activism.)

I love my job. I take a lot of pleasure in it -- the teaching, the lectures, the conversations with colleagues at conferences, my writing, all of it. I also hate grading and institutional paperwork and a lot of other parts of the job. Because this is a job, like any other. Academics aren’t special. We simply have particular skills and abilities that are rewarded in our culture -- in part because academia has long been the bastion of white male intellectual superiority. People of color, women, queer folks and disabled people have had to fight to be here and to demonstrate we can do this work. As we make strides to be here in larger and larger numbers, we also change and challenge our fields and disciplines. Hell, we challenge the idea of disciplines at all, as many of us are in women’s and gender studies, sexuality studies, critical race and ethnic studies, and disability studies. Our work is called soft or me-search or biased or too political to again devalue both our knowledge, our process and the objects we choose to study, the cultural objects we find valuable and, yes, pleasurable. I refuse to participate in this devaluing by labeling activities and cultural objects as lowbrow, dubious or guilty pleasures. I question the very assumptions embedded in these terms and the original tweet it appeared within. I hope that as more marginalized folks become scholars, take over academia and change its culture, we will worry less about the appropriateness of our pleasures and more about how to use our knowledge and skills to end oppression, violence and harm in every arena.

Bio

Sami Schalk is an assistant professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on disability, race and gender in contemporary American culture. Schalk is the author of Bodyminds Reimagined (Duke University Press, 2018) and is currently working on a second book on disability politics in post-civil rights black activism.

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