Intellectual Affairs

Masscult Studies

Dwight Macdonald didn't suffer kitsch lightly. Scott McLemee revisits a cultural critic with attitude.

November 30, 2011

It seemed for a while during the early 1990s that every new anthology in the burgeoning field of cultural studies contained a paper concerning a subculture devoted to writing and circulating fiction in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were in a sexual relationship. (I am not making this up.) One's memory is selective, and I suppose there were cultural-studies anthologies that neglected the matter, but the scholar in question sure got a lot of mileage out of her research.

As the Roman playwright Terence said, “Nothing human is foreign." That said, the topic did not exactly seem inexhaustible. But it was exemplary of the main emphasis in cultural studies at the time: the insistent argument that people were not merely passive consumers of the products of mass culture, but found ways to invest them with meaning that were creative, subversive, unpredictable, and otherwise just very interesting indeed. And this is true, up to a point – though once beyond that point, which is soon reached, you end up sailing the seas of profound self-delusion. People seemed to think that having insights into Madonna or "Punky Brewster" meant they qualified as Gramscian organic intellectuals. This never struck me as a plausible reading of the Prison Notebooks, and as cultural activism it was decidedly wanting in either strenuousness or social impact.

On the other hand, it was steady work. The grad student friends I managed to alienate through griping about it are doing all right for themselves, and the woman who wrote all those papers about Kirk/Spock shows up on TV as a talking head in documentaries, though not in her capacity as expert on that topic. Woe to anyone suggesting that consumers are anything but creative, subversive, unpredictable, etc. My recollection from 20 years ago is that people found it urgent to denounce “culture in the Matthew Arnold sense” (i.e., the domain of masterpieces: "the best which has been thought and said in the world”) in order to focus attention on “culture in the anthropological sense” (which subsumes every aspect of life in a given society). Thus one marked the boundary between “elitist” and “democratic” conceptions of culture. The urgency of this distinction has long since faded, and it was always fairly obtuse about what poor old Matthew Arnold had in mind, but you still have to kick him from time to time, just to make sure he’s dead.

Sometimes the dead kick back. A case in point: Masscult and Midcult, a volume of essays by Dwight Macdonald now out in the New York Review of Books Classics series.

Writing for an undergraduate magazine at Yale University in the late 1920s, Macdonald antagonized the administration by criticizing, as he later put it, “the crowd-pleasing pop-romantic antics certain eminent English profs went in for to hold the interest of a lecture hall full of future stockbrokers.” From such Menckenian beginnings he went on to embrace, for a time, Marxism (global depressions will do that) and later a kind of anarcho-pacifism. During the 1940s he edited a magazine called politics (the lower-case calling to mind the avant-garde journal transition) which reflected his sense that the Soviet, Nazi, and corporate-capitalist systems were varying manifestations of a menacing new social order.

The magazine published work by Paul Goodman, Simone Weil, Victor Serge, and George Bataille, among others. It also ran an article by the poet Robert Duncan in which he talked about his own homosexuality, as well as a denunciation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for J. Edgar Hoover's inclination towards police-statesmanship. Macdonald himself wrote a substantial part of each issue, much of which he later collected under the tongue-in-cheek title Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1957) -- a book that, like nearly all of his work, remains both highly readable and out of print,

The only volume by Macdonald now available is Masscult and Midcult, edited by John Summers, who has recently taken the helm at The Baffler. Most of the contents are selections from Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture, first published by Random House in 1962. The original hardcover of that volume is at my elbow now, while writing this column; it replaces an old paperback copy that eventually disintegrated from too-frequent consultation. (Macdonald’s work is a touchstone for prose, to borrow an Arnoldian expression, and bears rereading.) The NYRB paperback appears to be made of more durable stuff, and it comes with an introductory essay by Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard University.

Menand seems much more concerned with Macdonald’s relationship to The New Yorker (where four of the ten essays first appeared) than with his political commitments. This is unfortunate, if understandable, since Menand is a contributor to the magazine. Less easy to excuse is the lack of any reference whatever to the work of Michael Wreszin, a professor emeritus at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who wrote A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald (Basic, 1994) as well as editing collections of the critic’s letters and interviews.  The introduction draws heavily on Wreszin’s work, and failing to point the books out is a real disservice to reader.

Cultural studies à la Macdonald had a guiding principle that is simple, even stark: In a society of mass production and mass media, the last place anyone should look for emancipatory potential is the stuff being turned out for our entertainment and uplift. He makes a broad historical argument to try to back this up, drawing on Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses and various essays by T.S. Eliot, fortified by the Frankfurt School theorists, whom Macdonald was reading before anyone else in the U.S. had heard of them.

The gist is that industrialization has destroyed old patterns of life and replaced them with alienation, conformity, stultification. The culture produced and merchandised under this system is a poor substitute for the older forms of High Culture and Folk Culture (the caps are Macdonald's) and merely drugs the public, in the interest of keeping the whole thing running. Anyone who thinks otherwise has been doubly duped. Not that the kitsch producers have propaganda or stupefaction as a goal, necessarily. Mass culture operates with some efficiency because the people programming it have absorbed so much of it themselves. To point any of this out means running the risk of being called a snob, but that is at least preferable to being taken for a chump.

The whole arrangement sounds rather Orwellian, and Macdonald’s neologisms (“Masscult” for mass culture and “Midcult” for its faux-sophisticated middlebrow variant) resemble Newspeak. He first presented his overarching theoretical and historical argument in an essay for politics in 1943, as the Nazi juggernaut was on the move, and expanded it later, at the height of the Cold War, with his friend Hannah Arendt’s recent book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) on his mind. The final version, appearing as the title essay of Masscult and Midcult, came out in 1960. At the time, Khrushchev’s appeal to the United States for “peaceful coexistence” was inspiring speculation over the idea that the capitalist and Communist systems might converge towards some kind of common bureaucratic-consumerist world order.

Which was not in the cards. But Macdonald had been considering the possibility for a long time, and his essays are full of the anger and gallows humor of someone worried that real art and literature are destined to be buried under continuous mudslides of meretricious crap. So far as Macdonald is concerned, culture is exactly what Matthew Arnold had in mind when he defined it (to give the longer version) as "a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically." Accept no cheap substitutes.

Some aspects of Macdonald’s thinking are schematic or otherwise underdeveloped. Any claim that industrial society is profoundly more degrading than what came before seems a dubious notion, for example, unless Aztec peasants enjoyed considerably greater fulfillment than one imagines. Still, Macdonald's concerns have outlived the Cold War framework, and his essays have more than an antiquarian interest. As an example, consider this passage:

“[O]ur writers produce work that is to be read quickly and then buried under the next day’s spate of ‘news’ or the next month’s best seller; hastily slapped-together stuff which it would be foolish to waste much time or effort on either writing or reading. For those who, as readers or as writers, would get a little under the surface, the real problem of our day is how to escape being ‘well informed,’ how to resist the temptation to acquire too much information (never more seductive than when it appears in the chaste garb of duty), and how in general to elude the voracious demands on one’s attention to think a little. The problem is as acute in the groves of Academe as in the profane world of journalism…. The amount of verbal pomposity, elaboration of the obvious, repetition, trivia, low-grade statistics, tedious factification, drudging recapitulations of the half-comprehended, and generally inane and laborious junk that one encounters suggests that the thinkers of earlier ages had one decisive advantage over those of today: they could draw on very little research.”

So Dwight Macdonald wrote in an essay from 1957. In the words of Dwight Eisenhower, “Things are more like they are now than they ever were.”


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