The End of High Culture

Yet more fallout on the subject of Web 2.0’s favorite whipping boy, Andrew Keen. On if:book, Sebastian Mary sees a connection between Keen’s vitriol and Alexander Pope’s critique of printing in 1738: “But where Pope’s approach to the print boom was critical engagement, Keen offers only nostalgic blustering.”

An on the print era in general:

“This era is characterised by a conceptual and practical nexus that shackles together copyright, authorship and a homogenised discourse (or ‘common high culture’, as Keen has it), delivers it through top-down and semi-monopolistic channels, and proposes always a hierarchy therein whilst tending ever more towards proliferating mass culture.”

Like I’ve written before, Mary sees that Keen is too attached to a model that he’s familiar with, the model of “high culture” in which he finds comfort and a paying job criticizing those below his level. Keen, for all his sound and fury, is unable to see the artificialness off his “high culture.” Mary argues that “high culture” is a result of writing distancing itself somewhat from the marketplace, allowing writers to demonstrate their skills, rather than their abilities to win favor (and money) from a select audience. Hence, “high culture” is only a recent development.

Of course, Keen can hardly be blamed for holding on to his position, clutching it as hard as he can. It is his life. Yet, as an “academic” (and we must use that term loosely with Keen), he should be able to see the issue from all sides. Another complaint to add to a long list about his book.

High culture is constructed, just like every other social institution or class. If we see it that way, we can understand that it too shall pass, and we will mourn less for it. We can also understand that something of equal estimation will come along to replace it, probably very quickly.

Will that something be “as good” as the vaunted high culture Keen loves? There’s no way to know because there is no independent scorekeeper to tell us–a particular episode of South Park comes to mind. A group of super-devout Christian fundamentalists dies and stands before the gates where St. Peter lets them know they will not be entering heaven. Why, they ask, puzzled and alarmed, to which the saint replies, “I’m sorry, the correct religion was Mormonism. Mormonism.”

Or words to that effect, I don’t remember the exact quotation and my library of South Park episodes burned up with an old hard drive years ago. The point is: we don’t have a saint to tell us who’s right and who’s wrong in the end. So while some may feel like a golden age is passing, never to be found again, we have to keep that in the context of all the other golden ages that have passed, only to be forgotten when the next golden age sneaks in.


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