Long-time USIH reader Varad Mehta posted this piece from Slate—“Is ‘Middlebrow’ Still an Insult?” by David Haglund—on our Facebook page. He added this short article from Maria Popova as a supplemental read. Both intelligently discuss now well-known problems of the high, middle, and low cultural distinction tropes (i.e. these categories are historically shifting matters of perception, made problematic by the advent of mass culture and the ongoing development of democratic cultural forms in the twentieth century).
The occasion for Haglund’s post is that The New York Review of Books is issuing a new collection of Dwight Macdonald’s classic essays, titled Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain.* It will be of interest to USIH readers that the editor is John Summers, and the collection contains an introduction by Louis Menand. [*Who knew that NYRB published books, let alone essay collections and “classics”?]
Haglund’s article is a first-rate abstract on the history and usage of the “brow hierarachy” for cultural theory novices. Explore all the links if you have some time. Otherwise, near the top Haglund refers to a line from Menand in the collection, about “Masscult and Midcult,” that reads as follows: “Louis Menand…calls the title essay ‘a kind of summa of the New York highbrow’s contempt for bourgeois culture.’ “
This created an immediate disjunct for me; the line derailed me from finishing the article for another 15-20 minutes. Why? Far be it from me to question the thinking and prose of Menand (I bow at his feet…seriously), but aren’t “the highbrow,” as a class, either overlapping or the same as the bourgeoisie? After a bit I realized that this muddled use of the term “bourgeois”—especially in relation to American class categories—has bothered me for some time. As a quick and dirty reference* and review, I scanned Wikipedia’s entry for bourgeois—which immediately redirected me to its entry for bourgeoisie. [*I’m shocked with myself that I had never tried to explore this etymology before, but that’s a question I’ll leave for another day—chalking it up, for now, to the usual professional distractions.]
The opening line of the Wikipedia piece reminds us that bourgeois and bourgeoisie are moving targets—as nouns representative of groups of people over time. It’s a fairly obvious point, and I knew that Marx’s bourgeoisie was not the same as bourgeois described by communists, socialists, and class-aware academic types all through the twentieth century. In other words, I knew the term did not strictly describe a group that owns the means of production—that bourgeois describes an attitude, a disposition, or a cultural matrix, and not just one’s economic means.
What has bothered me for so long, however, is the inbred, slippery nature of the term bourgeois when it’s used as a pejorative. Those who use the term are usually of an upper-middle (economic) class background, or of a minority of disaffected upper class, and they use it to describe the materialism of their hereditary social set. It’s those who, by training or empathetic moral sensibilities, use the term to describe the lack of a true Christian gentility in their peers (i.e. modern condescension).
Proof the term’s inbred nature lies in the fact that it feels awkward to imagine lower or working-class folks accusing those of relatively higher classes of being bourgeois. First, it’s not a regular part of lower class or lower middle class vocabulary, at least as I’ve experienced, first-hand, those categories of income/wealth. Furthermore, the inherent American anti-intellectualism of large swaths of the American working class preclude use of the term: you would be “putting on airs” by using three-syllable word when you can use the one-syllable “snob.”
Consulting a common reference book, the online Merriam-Webster (MW) dictionary, we find this definition of “bourgeoisie”:
1. Middle class; also plural in construction : members of the middle class
2. A social order dominated by bourgeois
And here’s MW’s definition of bourgeois:
1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of the social middle class
2. Marked by a concern for material interests and respectability and a tendency toward mediocrity
3. Dominated by commercial and industrial interests : capitalistic
So if we strictly followed MW’s normalization of both terms, we would not use either term to describe America’s upper classes of capital owners and accumulators.
Things get more confusing, or slippery, when we recall that Americans normalize “middle class” to include large swaths of the upper and working classes; it’s used by both of the latter as a term of humility and aspiration, respectively.
In other words, the American bourgeois and/or bourgeoisie includes—by definition (literally above) and convention (usage of the terms)—probably 75-80 percent of the American populace. Even so, we hardly ever observe the terms in use except, as noted above, in upper-middle and upper class circles. In those circles it’s a pejorative, not a class descriptor.
In sum, in American culture and history the terms bourgeois and bourgeoisie have no stable meaning in relation to communicating real economic information across American classes. If you use these terms, you’re likely to confuse your audience—especially those in America’s bourgeois middle class. We don’t even have, or teach, the baseline knowledge of Marx to utilize as a referential starting point. We are so startlingly and willfully blind to class distinctions in our education establishment (not in everyday life, where we are acutely aware of them) that we have no shared vocabulary to discuss inequality. Our “economic class anti-intellectualism” prevents us from understanding the nature of the bourgeoisie as Marx communicated the term.
There’s much more we can say about this topic, but I’ll stop now to let you take over. What have I missed? What have I exaggerated? How am I missing the larger picture?* – TL
[*I’m serious here because I wrote this post while in a late-night, post-midterm grading haze of exhaustion.]