Drinking the cultural Kool-Aid: Dwight Macdonald and the idea of midcult

November 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Dwight Macdonald’s idea of “midcult.” In Macdonald’s conception, midcult is the “bastard” of masscult, a phenomenon that rose out of the Industrial Revolution. Masscult is characterized by a diminution of taste and a concurrent commodification of artistic output that, in its appeal to an undifferentiated mass public, merely parodies (Macdonald’s word) actual culture. In its appeal to a kind of fuzzy notion of democracy, masscult denies the utility (or in many cases, even the existence) of discrimination or artistic value judgments, conflating artistic standards into a bland relativism that allows the same worth to both Earl Stanley Gardner and Edgar Allan Poe. In Macdonald’s words:

Masscult is a dynamic, revolutionary force, breaking down the old barriers of class, tradition, and taste, dissolving all cultural distinctions. It mixes, scrambles everything together, producing what might be called homogenized culture, after another American achievement, the homogenization process that distributes the globules of cream evenly throughout the milk instead of allowing them to float separately on top. The interesting difference is that whereas the cream is still in the homogenized milk, somehow it disappears from homogenized culture. For the process destroys all values, since value-judgments require discrimination, an ugly word in liberal-democratic America. Masscult is very, very democratic; it refuses to discriminate against or between anything or anybody. All is grist to its mill and all comes out finely ground indeed.*

The essential characteristic of high culture, for Macdonald, is individuality: there must be something unique in the artist’s vision that sets his or her work against the grain. By contrast, the essential condition of masscult is a lack of individuality. In order to appeal to a broad consumer public, masscult eradicates any stamp of idiosyncrasy or unfamiliarity, and ensures that its audience is never rendered uncomfortable or uncertain. Masscult reaffirms its recipients’ prejudices and soothes their minds with platitudes.

It also denies any responsibility on the part of its audience. “As Clement Greenberg noted in ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch,'” Macdonald writes, “… the special aesthetic quality of Kitsch – a term which includes both Masscult and Midcult – is that it ‘predigests art for the spectator and spares him the effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in the genuine art’ because it includes the spectator’s reactions in the work itself instead of forcing him to make his own responses.” Greenberg’s assessment cannot be overstated in the context of today’s denuded literary environment: it is the precondition that separates, for instance, E.L. James’s repurposed fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey (a work of masscult if there ever was one), from Tamara Faith Berger’s novel Maidenhead.

For Macdonald, midcult is a more dangerous variant than masscult, because where the latter eradicates distinctions between high culture and kitsch, the former incorporates elements of high culture into products that are intended for mass consumption and are calculated to appease an undiscerning mass audience. By cloaking itself in a veneer of high culture, midcult allows its audience to pretend that what is being trafficked in is the authentic article, when in actuality it is anything but. More sophisticated than masscult, midcult is in fact little more than an elaborate confidence scam.

In these more advanced times, the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former. A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form – let us call it Midcult – has the essential qualities of Masscult – the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity – but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. 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.

The vast majority of what passes for great literature in our day is in fact midcult, produced and promoted by an amorphous mass incapable of telling the difference. Macdonald referred to “masscult” and “midcult” (rather than mass culture and mid culture) because he identified similarities between the way we consume cultural products and the way cults operate. In both cases, an act of brainwashing occurs, and in both cases, absolute fidelity to a set of unbending precepts is demanded. Midcult, like any other cult, demands conformity; any attempt to assert individuality will be met with repercussions (in the case of our current cultural environment, ostracism or – worse – indifference).

Macdonald recognizes the elitist nature of his arguments; he also recognizes that charges of elitism miss the point altogether. The creation of literature is essentially undemocratic because, as Martin Amis points out, the one thing that is not democratic is talent. Macdonald quotes T.S. Eliot, who demands that anyone in complete thrall to notions of egalitarianism “stop paying lip-service to culture.”

The push for easily digestible, readily accessible artistic products has, in the 21st century, reached a point of critical mass. In his essay, penned at roughly the halfway point of the previous century, Macdonald could not envision a reason why midcult “might not be stabilized as the norm of our culture.” The lack of genuine discernment and the mindless acceptance of ersatz culture for the real thing has brought us to the point where even educated, well-read people seem to prefer Jane Smiley to Jane Austen, James Patterson to James Ellroy.

“[B]ecause of the disintegrative effects of Masscult,” Macdonald writes, “… the standards are by no means generally accepted. The danger is that the values of Midcult, instead of being transitional – ‘the price of progress’ – may now themselves become a debased, permanent standard.” There is good reason to suggest they already have.

*Macdonald’s essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” which first appeared in the Partisan Review in 1960, applies itself specifically and insistently to the American cultural landscape; the U.S. has been so effective in exporting its masscult products in the intervening years that Macdonald’s arguments now seem at least as applicable north of the forty-ninth parallel.