The Impossible Middlebrow

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Robert Rushing, Comparative and World Literature

In a recent article (you'll need a subscription to read, however) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Shumway wonders why filmmaker John Sayles hasn't gotten much attention in the academy. So why doesn't cultural studies love John Sayles, as Shumway asks in the article's title? He offers several possible explanations, concentrating on the absence of critical articles on Sayles and cultural studies. He writes:

"Sayles's films are often described as didactic, and they are.… they promote a general set of political values, including equality, tolerance and appreciation of difference, and an ethic of community… [but] perhaps it is less that Sayles has political points to make than the way in which he makes them. A colleague remarked that despite feeling sympathetic toward his politics, she wished he wouldn't express them with such earnestness. Unlike in the 1970s, when directors like Robert Altman used studio-era genres ironically, Sayles plays it straight. Michael Moore draws audiences to his polemics by making fun of the other side, something Sayles rarely does.… It is worth recalling that Andrew Sarris's most damning classification in his seminal study of auteurs, The American Cinema, was "strained seriousness." It seems as though the worst sin an American film director can commit is to treat serious issues seriously."

I don't think this is a problem specific to cultural studies, since there isn't a ton of work on Sayles in cinema studies, either (it certainly isn't absent, but it does tend to biographies and interviews). Cultural studies, as Shumway notes, tends to be interested in texts that either appear to be non-ideological while actually concealing a reinforcement of the dominant ideology (often high culture texts) or those that are concealing a form of resistance to dominant ideology while appearing to be mere entertainment (often popular culture). But this bias (or preference) is not limited to cultural studies. Almost all of the humanistic disciplines that interpret in one capacity or another—that is, all of those fields that take something like a "text" as their object of study—duplicate it. They are all fundamentally exegetical in their approach, positing a model of the object of study that conceals a hidden message which must be laboriously unveiled by an expert for the uninitiated. This is the task of the scholar, and most theoretical models follow this approach (Hegel, Marx, Freud, Foucault, and so on—analysis or archaeology or whatever will reveal a hidden truth of ideology, economics, the unconscious…). Lacan offers only a slight variation on this formula when he argues that truth is concealed on the outside, in plain view. But it is still concealed, and it still requires an expert to decode, decipher, explicate, gloss, articulate—all of our favorite verbs.

The problem with Sayles is that his maligned "earnestness" is precisely the desire to speak plainly, to say what you mean without any concealment. He resists the dominant ideology, but not in a way that is hidden or concealed in some kind of pop confection. Numerous studies of action films done in the 1990s, for example, concluded almost universally that the hyperbolic masculinity of action films like Rambo or Die Hard was less about machismo than they were about masculinity in crisis, on the edge, in a panic. (Is Rambo secretly politically progressive?) Now that's a satisfying argument. This structure is familiar and pleasing to anyone who has "queered" a text that was formerly apparently heteronormative (one can imagine the MLA paper title already: "Lesbian Desire in Chick Lit: Bridget Jones' Secret Diary"), or discovered that an apparently progressive film actually reinforces the dominant ideology. Sayles' films leave the professional exegete with nothing to say, because there is no layer underneath the surface to be revealed.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this kind of work, of course (I'm guessing all of my research work falls into this "exegetical" category). In fact, I think that this is perhaps the single greatest pleasure of my job, but it is a pleasure that is not without its negative side. On the one hand, it is a pleasure that stems from a love of engagement with the text, knowledge about it and about its context; on the other hand, it owes much of its power to an exclusivity—"I possess the secret key to explaining David Lynch's films," or "We understand Lacan, and perhaps we will let you into our club—and perhaps we won't." At its worst, this kind of approach can be deeply elitist (you think Lynch is a mess of surrealist images, but that's because you do not see (you are too stupid to see) the hidden messages, the hidden kernel of the real, the de-subjectified voice, the…). Sayles, in short, poses the problem of the middlebrow: it has no unintentional camp humor, no incomprehensible or enigmatic imagery, no radical formalist experimentation, and as a result, there's nothing to elucidate. In this way, Sayles may be politically and socially progressive, but profoundly un-academic. To pose this all as a question, are academics unable to deal with texts that are straightforward, that need no interpretation, or is this an "impossible object" that we constitute ourselves around?

* * * * * *

My introduction to the films of John Sayles came surprisingly early, especially for a teenage fan of heavy metal in Southern California who'd seen at most 5 or 6 films by the early 1980s. My idea of intellectual depth at the time was Rush lyrics. But late one night watching TV with my best friend, whose parents were rarely around and let us stay up as late as we liked, we happened to catch Brother from Another Planet, and we loved it. We loved it in much the same way that we loved Monty Python, or Altered States, or any other film that we found "weird." I liked Joe Morton in the role of the alien who happens to appear as an African-American to Earthling eyes (he is mute throughout the film). But even at the age of 15 or so I understood that the film was an allegory (hey, there was allegory in Rush lyrics!), that Morton's alien was a refugee slave, that the film was duplicating America's history of slavery in space so we could see it as something still present.

I didn't see the film again until my first year in college. I went to UC Santa Cruz, and ended up at Oakes College there, the multiculturally-themed college. Our core course at Oakes was organized around different cultural identities, and had a rather tokenistic organization (this week, Asians! next week, gays!). And for each week, a film. For the week on African Americans, we saw Brother from Another Planet. The African American students in the class were outraged. "This was our film?" one African American student asked, aghast.

So here's a problem that cultural studies might find more appealing, one that it's potentially well-suited to: why did Sayles' progressivism "strike out" with the very community that he presumably wanted to speak to (and certainly was speaking about)? Sayles is much liked in the independent film community and by progressives, but the working class he's championed are far more likely to have seen Transformers than, say, City of Hope. Can culture be progressive (or revolutionary) and popular? Adorno? Benjamin?


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g said...

Another dimension is to this discussion is the question of that which is considered cultural studies. The cultured scholars José Limón and Rosalinda Fregoso have an ongoing debate about Sayles' Lonestar, but are likely relegated to "ethnic" as oppossed to cultural "studies".

Michael Rothberg said...

Very good point, G. Would you be willing to tell us more about that debate? (We also hope folks who make comments will be willing to identify themselves.)

I also wonder if "middlebrow" is the right label for Sayles's work. To me it seems a little too quirky or non-mainstream to fit into that category. What critics/theorists have written on the middlebrow? How do we know middlebrow when we see it? It's another under-explored terrain for cultural studies, isn't it?

Chuck said...

If I'm not mistaken, Shumway has addressed the lack of scholarly attention to Sayles in another format, but it is indeed a vexing question.

I certainly admire many of Sayles' films and appreciate their directness. I do think that he falls between the cracks because he is less likely to interrogate the means of representation formally in the way that a Laura Mulvey-inspired critic might want, and he's hardly the kind of filmmaker who would demand an "against the grain" reading.

From my interests, I actually find Sayles most interesting in terms of his mode of production. In fact, for his most recent film, Honeydripper, he resorted to self-distribution because of a "broken" Hollywood distribution system, something I briefly discussed in my blog a while back.

joe swenson said...

I see no reason why culture cannot be both popular and revolutionary. Sometimes it seems to me to argue against such an idea is to fall back into what I would call for lack of a better phrase, "the ideological fallacy."

This is the belief (following an Adorno-esque line of reasoning) that cultural production, discourse, and self-criticism is somehow so infected, contaminated, diseased (the metaphors are often medical) that there is no possible way for popular culture to ever reach a standpoint of critical self-reflection or a standpoint from which to authentically construct new ideals or values.

While this line of reasoning is par for the course in academics, it strikes me as, quite often, just patently false when viewing the wide range of different types of people who participate in 'popular culture.' This is, of course, not to deny that right now there are many significantly negative and damaging power-relations and identities being re-produced within popular culture. That is not being denied.

But I reject the idea that 'high theory' somehow has special access to diagnosing these problems--problems which are often far more complicated than the ideological framing fallacy of these problems allows.

Perhaps 'middlebrow' thinking should have its place at the table. After all, I don't think my dear mum needs to read Althusser in order to recognize an injustice on the nightly news. I think each of these forms of discourse could only help to actually map-out some of the problems of understanding culture. Provided, of course, that 'middlebrow' thinking retains a healthy amount of self-reflection and self-criticism. I suppose it is at this point that someone might claim that this is not possible. But why not? Does it reveal some naive faith on my part? Does not the 'ideological fallacy' fall into just as damaging form of naive faith--albiet a negative or anti-faith?

Rob Rushing said...

Lots of great points here. G quite correctly notes that Sayles is being addressed in certain forums; it's not surprising that an academic like Shumway might want more attention for a writer or filmmaker that particularly interests him--what's more surprising is that he should want it from a particular discipline.

Michael's also quite right, and I wasn't sure if "middlebrow" was the right term to use at all (and definitely not for Sayles). But I do think that the middlebrow tends to be impossible for academics, since there is no question of, as Chuck points out, reading against the grain, which is, I think, precisely the core issue. The middlebrow, or the earnestly simple and serious, it doesn't claim to be mere entertainment, on the one hand, and it doesn't pretend to the high summits of Western culture, either. It is what it is.

Finally, Joe diagnoses (to keep the medical metaphors rolling) at least one possible reason for the belief that popular culture isn't revolutionary, in the "ideological fallacy" where popular culture is treated as irredeemably infected. One certainly sees this attitude quite frequently, an Adornian pessimism hovering on the edge of despair. In fact, however, the kinds of readings I was discussing almost do the opposite: they claim revolutionary power for Rambo and Top Gun, and they do so almost automatically. The problem with granting popular culture this subversive power (and certainly shows like Buffy seemed to have a fairly subversive agenda, and plenty of "critical self-reflection" as Joe says)--the problem with granting it this subversive power is that the texts in question rarely seem to have the promised effect. So, there are multiple forms of faith at work here, from the negative anti-faith Joe describes to the knee-jerk subversiveness often imputed to popular culture, in which Superbad deconstructs outmoded notions of oppressive masculinity and homophobia. Isn't this just another version of banality or fatality?

Joe Swenson said...

I tend to agree with Rob that the trend has been moving towards an automatic assumption that pop culture has revolutionary power.
But, I wonder if even the 'knee-jerk subversive' theorists who find 'sites of resistance' or 'kernels of redemption' in popular culture do not, at least tacitly, endorse some form of anti-faith in popular culture.
For implicit in this kind of analysis of _Rambo_ or _Transformers_ is the idea that the film could not possibly speak to certaint themes on its own behalf. Rather, the critical theorist is needed as oracle (Benjamin specifically makes this analogy) who is able to somehow sort through the ideologically infected tea-leaves of pop culture and discern the deconstructive hidden core of that film, t.v. show, or text--a core that often runs contrary to the films surface meaning.
This attitude towards pop culture by 'high theory' strikes me more as more of a difference of degree from the 'adorno-esqu' pessimistic types than it seems to represent a fundamentally different stance towards pop culture. Both tend to treat pop culture as needing help in order to speak. It is just that the one has decided that pop culture is beyond such help and the other imports an academic vocabulary into pop culture in order to help pop culture understand what it has apparently 'really' been saying all along.