The social critic Dwight Macdonald coined the term “Midcult”: a pejorative name for that middlebrow culture which, he claimed, apes mass culture, reproducing “the formula, the built-in reaction [and] the lack of any standard except popularity” but “decently covers them with a cultural figleaf”. With entertaining contempt, he argued that…
In Masscult the trick is plain: to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.
Arguable, certainly, for those of us who love The Twilight Zone and Raymond Chandler novels. The cultural stratification that Macdonald favoured can indeed be thought elitist and indifferent to the tastes of those unmoved by both the Kardashians and Ingmar Bergman. Nonetheless, there is something to the fear of vulgarisation. Terry Teachout has written on how the likes of Elmore Leonard and Breaking Bad receive “the kind of dead-serious critical attention in the academy and elsewhere that used to be reserved for high art—and increasingly [do] so to the exclusion of high art”.
I have a similar fear regarding what might be called “middlebrow epistemology”: that form of argumentation that has the essential qualities of a pub argument – the factoids, the simplifications, the argumentum ad passiones – but decently covers them with a figleaf of rationality. It is, in other words, rhetoric masquerading as dialectic, emerging from our intensified cultural division, the inclusivisation of our public discourse and the need to project status in our atomised societies. It is very useful as a tool of persuasion (and, indeed, entertainment). It threatens to vulgarise the search for the truth.
The “middlebrow” aspect of this term is not, I regret to say, original to me. H. Allen Orr, in his review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, wrote that the book was “distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow”, populated by the likes of Douglas Adams and Carl Sagan rather than Wittgenstein and William James. Atheists protested that Dawkins, and his comrades in nonbelief, were addressing popular conceptions of religion and not the apologetics of “sophisticated theologians”. There is nothing wrong with addressing the weaker arguments for an idea, of course, as long as one does not imply that one has defeated the strongest. This is exactly what the new atheists have done, which is, in part, why public discourse about God and religion has involved so much crass philosophical dilettantism.
Where else can one find middlebrow epistemology? TED. Talk shows. Broadsheet columnists. Smartarse infographics. Twitter. Unlike middlebrow browbeaters such as Macdonald and Virginia Woolf I do not claim to be among the rarefied elite. My fear is that middlebrow epistemology encourages middling intellects like me to think that knowing the truth is a lot easier than it actually is. In its half-light we take assumptions for truths.