High-brow versus low-brow

There are things accused of as being pedantic, high-brow. There are things accused of being uncultured, low-brow. These criticisms are aimed at each side by the other, a perpetual war of who is most right and righteous.

This is the rift between the sides of one of the many binaries that our society thrives on. Accurate or not, these ideas exist in the minds of most as stereotypes and identities. That’s what a binary is, really—cultural assumptions roots in gross generalizations for the sake of pigeon-holing at best, oppressing at worst.

On one side of the binary we have the so-called “cultural elite,” the educated, the worldly, the appreciator of the finer things in life, the classy; the elitist, the sheltered, the snobby, the posh, the removed-from-reality, the useless-to-society. One the other side we have the so-called “average citizen,” the masses, middle America, the contributors to general society, the street-smart, the reality-based; the uneducated, consumeristic-without-question, the classless, the TV-watching, the fast-food-eating.

These are the binary halves, the stereotypes as I have seen them played out—the “good” and the “bad” of each, the binary-within-the-binary.

Generally speaking, a Derridean binary is a “violent hierarchy”—that is, one half of the binary is seen as primary, superior, and original, while the other half is secondary, inferior, a bad copy. Historically, the former half of our binary has been the primary—that goes without saying. This mentality persists among this steadily-shrinking class.

But lately I see it going both ways. There are trends in my generation—I am not immune to this—to dismiss, distance themselves from, and degrade the things that are associated with the so-called higher classes, whether or not they came from them.

And this is where two assumptions come into play.

  1. Things—activities, language, other elements—become associated with one class or another, and cease to have any place or identity anywhere else.
  2. These classes and things become associated with income, and cease to have any place or identity anywhere else.

These assumptions may have been more true in the past than they do today—the lower classes were restricted from certain activities, activities that were meant for the “rich and powerful,” for example.

We do not live in a world which is that simple, especially today. I won’t talk about accessibility today or disposable incomes today or consumerism today or any of that, for the sake of saving time. This is more about assumptions and my place in all this than a real look at contemporary society.

Anyway. All these assumptions and stereotypes and dismissals and self-elevation-at-the-expense-of-the-Other looks to me a whole lot like reactivity and/to discomfort.

Let me explain. Based on my theory, each side degrades the other, right? So, being degraded would make you uncomfortable, and like you need to prove yourself. So you react by perpetuating the cycle of degradation and often baseless assumptions and false categorizations—taking any and all value out of the others’ pursuits and lifestyle.

In addition, and perhaps more benignly, that which we don’t know makes us uncomfortable. Things we know, grew up with, what have you, give us comfort. Our inclination is to appreciate better the things that make us comfortable—we see their value—and be wary of other things, of which we can’t access the value. So this reaction may look more like “what’s the point” than that of the previous paragraph—harmless enough, but devastating when coupled with that of the previous paragraph.

Perhaps I should give an example. I will use myself. I tend to straddle these lines because of my upbringing. The details I won’t go into (another essay entirely), but I was raised kind of “mixed-class” if you will. The turmoil was often comical as one side of myself degraded the other while I struggled to come to peace with my two sides, all the while wondering why there were only two sides, and who the hell decided what went into one or the other, because it certainly wasn’t me.

Anyway. I grew up with a lot of contempt for pretty much everything, but also a lot of admiration for pretty much everything. Nothing was simple (not that it should have been).

So, the example: I dropped out of high school, and was made to feel very defensive about that because of all the assumptions about me. It didn’t really matter, the circumstances surrounding this—you drop out of high school and are lumped into a category, and everything else in that category gets attached to you. I got defensive and elevated myself: I was clearly better because I’d been on my own, pulling my own weight, supporting myself—I was clearly better and more mature than other people my age who went to college right out of high school, were supported by their parents—how sheltered they were! They couldn’t take care of themselves like I could; they would die if they have to live hand-to-mouth, work for a living.

I eventually did make it to college, got my degree when I was 25. Now there were all these assumptions about me because of this—my entire past was obliterated and I became just another privileged college grad, just as I had been just another poor lazy kid who couldn’t even finish high school. This time my reactivity was against people who got defensive about my newly-acquired educational privilege. How dare they make assumptions about me? I had clearly come out of college more open-minded—that’s what education does, makes you more open-minded, so you don’t stereotype people, unlike them, these uneducated people who stereotype me…


There are clearly holes in both of these. My oscillation may give me more insight into the absurdities, but I do not claim to be above this reactivity/discomfort; merely, I am trying to be, as much for my own sanity as for any political reason.

What I’d like is to pick apart all these things—to not only question assumptions about people, but to question assumptions about elements and activities and lifestyles and likes and dislikes and language and food and anything that’s attached to one class or another (which is pretty much everything). For example, my leaving high school didn’t have all that much to do with my income, and neither did going to college. Different things may have come into play with regards to access, but not always—again, things are frequently more complicated (putting the “socio” in “socio-economic class”). Loving classical theater doesn’t have to belong to one class or another, and neither does loving physical comedy.

Don’t get me wrong—many of these things are loaded with implications about class and privilege and access. Implications and assumptions, though, should be thought of differently. And I don’t suggest we ignore implications or assumptions. But in being only judgmental, and in not trying to cross boundaries, we are only maintaining the binary—and, perhaps even worse, we are ignoring things that we as individuals could find value in and passion for, regardless of our societally-imposed or chosen identities.


One response to “High-brow versus low-brow

  1. Found your site on a search for “porn chic” (I was looking for stuff on cultural mainstreaming of pornography).

    I appreciate your writing! And your art, at least so far.

    To fulfill your desire to question assumptions, you could ask verbal communications in which assumptions are conveyed. You could also provide yourself verbal interpretations of nonverbal communications.

    So, for example, a frustrated look from someone who has called me a know-it-all gets interpreted as:

    “Noah, you think you know everything.”

    to which a response to myself includes:

    “How specifically do I know what specifically?”

    I might also go back and try another interpretation like: “Noah, how do I make this clear to you?”

    A therapeutic model of question-answering called the “Meta-model” and developed some 30 years ago offers recipes to help anyone question assumptions. The book “The Structure of Magic, volume I” contains details. I recommend few books in its genre, but that one is a keeper.

    For another linguistic approach with more power (but a steeper learning curve), Jaakko Hintikka’s game-theoretical semantics allows derivation of counterexamples to any predicate logic formulatible English statement through a systematic process of question-answering and memory search.


    for more on that.

    Hope exploring those resources leads you in unexpected and profitable directions.

    If you want to practice some performance art, you could get yourself a copy of Open Cyc (opencyc.org) and have a geek friend help you process the world’s bazillion assumptions for counterexamples. Just don’t get tied up in the details. Your escape from the most punishing effects of other’s assumptions about you is probably the counterexamples you find in your own life and your own art. Works for me and my life (and my art, too)!

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