Commodified intelligence

by Rob Horning

26 March 2009


At the site for the Economist‘s Intelligent Life magazine was posted this rebuttal to an earlier piece about “the Age of Mass Intelligence.” The earlier piece, by John Parker,  took a sort of quantitative view of culture and argued that we live in the most cultured time ever. Parker’s evidence is familiar, a cultural spin on the argument that capitalism and consumerism has democratized style and material possessions. More people are going to museums than ever before! More people are reading Tolstoy! Since, it is being broadcast online, more people have the opportunity to hear opera! Huzzah!

Not that these are disturbing developments in themselves. The fact that more people have access to cultural goods is a good thing. People encounter fewer barriers to developing tastes for what once were highbrow cultural redoubts. But the improving raw numbers of cultural consumption matter mainly to entrepreneurs in the culture industries. Consumers care more about what their cultural consumption signifies.

Mass cultural consumption can seem like it constitutes an assault on one of the upper class’s power sources—its elitism. Parker suggests we have to call into question the idea of cultural capital thanks to this higher demand for what he has judged to be “intelligent interest”:

the growth of intelligent interest may help resolve an argument that exists in universities between those who say culture is really all about class or income, much as it always was, and those who say that, no, sweeping statements about class are no longer relevant, and that these days personal taste, not class or money, is what matters. The new audience suggests both schools are partly right (or wrong). Taste has become fantastically heterogeneous: people do indeed watch and read whatever they want; intellectual snobbery is breaking down. But as Drs Wing and Goldthorpe have shown, one group—those with university degrees—read more, watch more and mix and match more than anyone else.

That fails to resolve anything as far as I can tell. The question remains how do we narrow down from “whatever we want” to manage our cultural consumption? The nature of those desires still have signaling functions, regardless of how heterogeneous the signal pool seems. With no hard and fast sumptuary laws, the boundaries between classes need to be constantly rearticulated—the pool of signals and symbols from culture serve that function; their meaning is constantly being renegotiated. There need to be constant displays of cultural prowess, constant interpretations. That is why culture becomes a privileged site for political battle in capitalist society—it seems like a credible route to power to seize control over those symbols. (Whether that is a matter of mistaking the superstructure for the base is a whole other question.)

Cultural proliferation doesn’t do away with elitism; it forces elitism to refine itself, to burrow in more deeply into the existing institutions and social mores. It may become even harder to root out as it becomes more attenuated. (That may be impossible to prevent and is no reason to restrict the dissemination of culture, but it’s also no reason to pretend that dissemination has no perverse effects.) The increase in culture does not increase the amount of cultural capital, which is relative—a positional good. One can argue that cultural proliferation has led to there being multiple status hierarchies (this maps to the cultural omnivores in Parker’s essay) in which one can have cultural capital (though I think these are ultimately reducible to a master hierarchy which maps onto social class, the hierarchy that permits the conceptualization of power relations in society in the broadest way). But even still, cultural capital is inherently unequal in its distribution; it consists of the leverage gained by a superior working understanding of a given aesthetic domain—the unspoken rules of taste, the procedures of politeness, the deployment of the proper terminology and allusions, the cultivation of critical authority, and so on. There can be no leveling in these realms—“de gustibus non est disputandum” is the alibi of the dominant and the last refuge of the dominated.

That is to say, “dumbing down” is a relative concept, and it’s always happening at any given time in a society, from the perspective of a group trying to retain whatever power it derives from its cultural capital. So I think Parker is wrong when he writes this: “It is hard to believe that those who accuse arts institutions of dumbing down would want audiences to be smaller.” I think that is precisely what they want; smaller audiences, and a consolidation of culturally derived power. Some of that consolidation, though, will always take a concern-trolling form of worrying about “dumbing down”—this is a subtle method of policing class boundaries.

In George Balgobin’s rebuttal, he highlights a point that I’ve tried to make in the past: The new emphasis on the quantity of culture consumed and the signals it can be deployed to send (over the new mediums available to send such signals) has led to the development of a widespread collector’s mentality toward culture:

Facebook is devoted to cataloguing this cultural rebirth. Here people curate their personas and project them at the world. Characteristic of the younger generations, the mood strains for the eclectic while feigning nonchalance. The alchemist arranges lists in search of gold: Shostakovich, Dresden Dolls, Justin Timberlake, Miles. “Mrs Dalloway” is popular, perched between “Harry Potter” and, simply, “The Russians”. Status updates remind you that a friend has just returned from an “HD Mozart Opera” while another is “getting into Herzog films”. This is an achievement panopticon; the participants are its prisoners.

The key question ends up being whether we believe that performing our appreciation of something—indulging in what Balgobin calls “credentials kanuki”— means we don’t really appreciate it. He asks, “if we fail to distinguish between attendance and appreciation, we may end up poorer for it, left with a corporate caricature of our cultural richness. The ‘intelligent’ masses will work hard mining the store of culture artefacts, but will they read the texts and learn from them, or only use them as objects for trade?” I think that built into this question is an assumption that signaling through cultural goods precludes the possiblity of authentically enjoying them—that culture must be regarded as an end in itself or else it has been violated. That’s an assumption that’s built into a lot of what I’ve written in the past. But that identity isn’t something that can just be assumed; rather it’s the essence of the dilemma of consumerism. I guess I frequently worry that concern for signaling erodes the ability to appreciate culture on its own terms, because of my own experience of being a poseur.

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