Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).
The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world. (Think, by contrast, of some truly disruptive works: The Wire, Blood Meridian, almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.)
Eh, I don’t know how useful the particulars of this classification are. It makes me think of what Ian Hacking called the “looping effect” — the very act of delineating the traits of this supposed character type initiates a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which people consciously identify with it and shape their beliefs and attitudes accordingly. At its worst, you have people who take astrology seriously, or the, uh, personality distinctions between PC/Mac or iPhone/Android users, or other such marketing fictions.
Nevertheless, I do agree that the complacency he describes exists; I just think it’s a general privilege of consumerism, period. I’ve frequently criticized its manifestation in the form of what I call the spiritual-not-religious — people who settle down in metaphysical suburbia and customize their generic, unexamined beliefs with some exotic accessories from the world bazaar: a little Sufi mysticism here, a few references to Buddhism and Taoism there; nothing too challenging or genuinely transformative. Culturally and politically speaking, I sense that sort of complacency in varying degrees from sites like Salon, Slate, the Atlantic Wire, Gawker Media. I see it among the Twitterati who number less than one in five people, but continuously talk to and about each other as if they constitute the entire world worth knowing. And while The Wire is certainly a work of artistic excellence by any standard, I don’t doubt for a second that it also represented a rich, previously untapped vein of status and hipster cred for many of its online fans, who could claim a familiarity with a dangerous, foreign way of life from the safety of their living rooms (and get sniffly when David Simon called them out for it).
I see it as a corollary to what others have noticed for some time: the sheer plethora of choice available on the Internet paradoxically helps ensure that our experience becomes more monolithic, as we curate a collection of websites and online relationships that reinforce and flatter our identities rather than challenge them.