NOT LONG AGO, an announcement about a screening of Metropolis came across my social media feed. The municipal art museum was sponsoring a summer film series on films that had inspired Star Wars. The very first comment someone wrote under the post was as follows: “Hitler’s favorite movie . . . I’ll pass.” It’s a strange thing for someone to assert peremptorily that Hitler’s favorite movie was Metropolis, that it should be avoided for this reason. For one thing, it is not true. That prize goes to—according to Martin Bormann, at least, who recorded this and other tidbits of table chatter from Hitler—King Kong.1 More on Kong later. But, first, where does this pseudo-proposition come from, why does it have so much currency, and what sense can we make sense it? Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece, made in 1927, wasn’t a Nazi film, after all. Nor was Lang a Nazi.2 In fact, he fled the Nazis. The Gleichschaltung was clearly the cause of his flight. Gleich means “the same”; Schaltung means something like “circuitry,” “wiring,” “configuration.” Lang wanted no part of the coming reconfiguration of society and culture under the repressive controls and authoritarian idiocies of the Nazis.
The distributive principle—pop cultural connectivity—is what I wish to explore: the meaning of the statement that Metropolis was Hitler’s favorite movie. It’s a sloppy version of Siegfried Kracauer, I suppose—for which the director’s actual politics, his particular enmity to Nazis—is irrelevant.3 The concept of a cultural telephone game makes the pseudo-statement Metropolis was Hitler’s favorite movie . . . true. Why do people like this mistaken notion? Click, like, the idea, Hitler’s favorite movie, is what I mean. Leslie Fiedler’s point is something else. Fiedler, the pioneering commentator on popular culture, “unrestructured dilettante,” in his words, notes that he too likes King Kong and makes what he calls a disconcerting “discovery” about connectivity, the popular, and the aesthetic:
It not only joins together the poor and the rich, the educated and the uneducated, male and female, children and adults, but the good and bad as well; that in the enjoyment of popular literature one is joined to those people who are felt to be socially reprehensible, wicked, whatever your social code and values may be. Popular literature joins you and your worst enemies as well as your worst self!4
What does it mean to call one movie your favorite anyway? Does it mean that you watch it over and over again? That you think other people should watch it this same way on repeat? Or, is it more like the setting of preferences, exteriorizing them, making them conspicuous as yourself to others? That you’d like them to check it out, to test if it could be one of their favorite things, too? That you’ll go back to it? Or else, it signals the hazards of consumption—raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens—these things may also be fascist? What-Hitler-likes is an odd metric. Fielder points to the sudden appearance of the popular in the aesthetic, the discovery of significance in the consumption of popular culture in the sense of all things touched by the aesthetic in the collaborative admixture of the monstrous and the trivial. Beware what you like or you may like Adolf Hitler—once described by Theodor Adorno as “a mixture of King Kong and a suburban hairdresser.”5 The colossal reality-warping character of a zone made of, in Jacques Rancière’s words, “free and equal individuals . . . dragged together into a ceaseless whirl in search of an excitement that was nothing but the mere internalization of the endless and purposeless agitation of the whole social body.”6 Excitement gives way to connectivity—an unbounded, hypersynchronized infinite distraction, as Dominic Pettman puts it, in which “we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment? [W]hile one person is fuming about economic injustice or climate change denial, another is giggling at a cute cat video.”7 In effect, this platform optimizes distraction as a massified aggregate reception horizon.
“Torn from its obviousness in order to become a hieroglyph, a mythological or phantasmagoric figure,” “the ordinary becomes beautiful as a trace of the true,” Rancière notes in The Politics of Aesthetics, describing what we might call pop culture degree zero.8 Enter King Kong, the “tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.”9 Meet the Campbell Soup can: “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again.”10 Presto change-o! the Las Vegas Strip becomes the postmodern apotheosis of complexity and contradiction in architecture.11 The reason visibility might be preferred to legibility in these references is that the aesthetic is not a discursive field to be read—or interpreted—but a platform to be suddenly seen, accessed, or processed, to be seen looking for exciting objects of attention and affection. The person being somebody is only completed by connections with the kitsch that arrives on her threshold, kitsch that is now given a strictly agnostic valence—as the cultural given, the data. Data (“flows . . . more vast than anything the world has seen,” Pynchon writes) seem “jumbled up together” in mixtures of “profane and sacred, uncivilized and cultured, antique and modern, that each sum up a world.”12 Too much data (Online) replace more life (in Lit.). Agency is located not within a single human being per se as a condition of exemplary personhood but gets distributed outside. The emancipation of the zone. Broadcast in and through a newly sensible popular domain, a connected platform—“graffiti, shop signs, or catalogues of out-of-date merchandise” and so forth—it is administered in and as aesthetic-bureaucratic smegma, to recall Tyrone Slothrop’s desk in Psysection, in the great novel about these themes, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.13 Blissful ignorance, benighted stupidity, determined prejudice, give way to an animate tissue of dissatisfactions, disruptions, interruptions. In the ruins of Europe, the last months of World War II, Pynchon’s anti-hero sits in the wreckage reading a Plasticman comic, gathering more counsel from its pages about how to adapt to this setting than from any of the official briefings from HQ.14
From about a century earlier, it is Emma Bovary who provides Rancière’s hero as networked aesthetic receiver: “The heroine of a certain aesthetic democracy . . . Bovary wants to bring art into her life, both into her love life and into the décor of her house. The novel is constructed as a constant polemic against a farm girls desire to bring art into life. It contrasts ‘art in life’ (this will later be called the aestheticization of daily life) with a form of art that is in books and only in books.” Bovary’s agon is the wasteland of freely appropriated total sensibility—“paths of communications opened up in the earth itself” (i.e., popular content wants to be free)—ripe with all kinds of banalities and stupidities. Here the accounting he has in mind is unliterary pars pro toto—not merely against “the chatter of newspapers” but also against the nullification of all “fatal words written on paper.”15 Opposing this is what Rancière nominates as “a good form of writing . . . inscribed in things themselves,” a “form of writing [that] can only mean, in the end, the self-cancellation of literature.” That he calls this ruined condition for Lit. writing is weird, for there are no pure criteria left for inscription—besides the “excitement” of jostling in the heterogeneous aesthetic whirlwind. While not necessarily invested in technicity, Rancière is indeed dreaming of his modernism without moderns, a dark Kantianism that provides the imaginative preconditions for a total connectivity network of distraction and interruption: “the sensible framework defined by a network of meanings, an expression does not find its place in the system of visible coordinates where it appears. The dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle.”16
Instead of a Kantian sensus communis, the heroic idea that everyone has access to the same perception of the aesthetic, the sudden appearance of the popular as an aesthetic platform, entails zones of attention and inattention, calls forth something different. Enter Rancière’s virtuous dissensus (“being together apart”) that I would propose as something like being distracted together.17 Dissensus dismantles of criteria around itself, dissolving the literary into distributed sensibilities (“fusing literature and life and making any source of excitement equal to any other,” he writes) and pricking itself with various inoculations of ignorance, dissatisfaction, stupidity, distraction, favorites, popularity, readily “incorporated into anybody’s life” and “become part of the scenery and the furnishings of everyday life.”18 In his response to Alain Badiou’s Handbook of Inaesthetics, Rancière points to a modernism without modernism—the modernist variant described in Politics of Aesthetics as the “mode of sensible being proper to artistic products”—that arrives specially defined by its necessity for explication from outside—the cultural thing arrives intertwined, as it were, with the literary-philosophical operator manuals that provide “orientation[s] for thought.” “Such is the paradox of the aesthetic regime in the arts,” he writes. “It posits the radical autonomy of art, its independence of any external rule. But it posits it in the same gesture that abolishes the mimetic closure separating the rationale of fictions from that of facts, the sphere of representation from other spheres of existence.” Rancière’s pure “aesthetic regime” is made of impure stuff (disrupting the “Romantic quagmire . . . bogged down in the humus of fossils”) that might be usefully compared to Arthur Danto’s Artworld. Less an autonomous preserve for aesthetic purity, it calls attention to the institutionalized ways of seeing heteronymous ingredients aesthetically that don’t get noticed otherwise.19 “To see something as art,” writes Danto, “requires something the eye cannot de[s]cry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an Artworld.”20 Instead of a totaled Berlin, Slothrop envisions a totalized “apescape,” inserting uncanny pop cultural references as a multimediated alibi into the ruined literary–historical environment:
Well, what it is—is? what’s “is”?—is that King Kong, or some creature closely allied, squatting down, evidently just, taking a shit, right in the street! and everything! a-and being ignored, by truckload after truckload of Russian enlisted men in pisscutter caps and dazed smiles, grinding right on by—“Hey!” Slothrop wants to shout, “hey lookit that giant ape! or whatever it is. You guys? Hey . . .” But he doesn’t, luckily. On closer inspection, the crouching monster turns out to be the Reichstag building, shelled out, airbrushed, fire-brushed powdery black on all blastward curves and projections, chalked over its hardechoing carbon insides with Cyrillic initials, and many names of comrades killed in May.21
Only King Kong is “Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings,” Pynchon writes elsewhere.22 The precarity of common social existence is, in this sense, the animate background noise of modernity—“not dysfunctional or a ‘strange creature’ in the global economy, but rather . . . functionally constitutive.”23 To detect a human form factor (a husk of humanism) against the technical backdrop of pervasive precarity (“full of tricks,” as Pynchon has it) isn’t an additive process—a version of the social-political life in which everyone gets ceremoniously counted together.24 Rather, it means subtracting a form of aesthetic signal detection from already damaged conditions available in popular culture.
The background is foregrounding itself.
Those who may or may not be working—the global pool of the “precarious”—make precarity a perversely privileged position, that is, an opportunity and also “a determinable condition.” Beyond its role as a would-be “identificatory emblem,” precarity operates as its own ambivalent theme. It is the stranger at the door of the denizen who is enjoined endlessly to prepare for its arrival.25 Opportunity knocks. Approaching precarity is experienced as a kind of aesthetic address—critical positioning and aesthetic risk taking—as much as anything else. A point about the functionality of these words as risky criteria: the precarity of criteria signals a vortex of ambivalence that isn’t so much about shoring up would-be identities—not least, aggregate identities—as it heralds something like the arrival of modernity as an inhuman format for dividing individuals into individual units of apprehension and further dividing these into derivative risk positions. Vilém Flusser puts it this way: “One has to possess criteria—the units of measurements and rules—to be able to critique: the yardstick that one applies to the thing one critiques, to judge and decide over it. The tradition knows three kinds of measurement standards: the epistemological (‘true-false’), the ethical (‘good-bad’), and the aesthetic (‘beautiful-ugly’).”26 Just now, criticism about the epistemological, the ethical, and the aesthetic is the ultimate contingent labor nobody wants.
At a distance—from outer space, as it were—pop cultural precarity is the ruined condition for criteria, and risk is the hidden calculation that includes all standards by excluding judgment about the true, the good, and the beautiful from a present situation. It is this calculation about the format of criteria in modernity that is rarely mentioned by name, either positively or negatively. Lately, the known forms of criticism seem precariously confined to precipitously shrinking surfaces. Professions of critical humility abound; commonsensical, descriptive lessons about realism, flat ontologies, the mortifications of theory, denunciations of the folly of hermeneutics, and so on, are legion. What we need now, we’re told, is to get back in queue behind the more empirically sensitive/vulnerable denizens in front of us, attend only to what is readily “evident, perceptible, apprehensible [to them] . . . what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.”27 The face of the denizen is itself a precarious surface, a surface that provokes surface reading as surely as any text. What’s on the face, like what’s in the text, seems to solicit a desire for nothing more than imprecations of epistemological modesty, for confirmations about the value of spending all our time with bogus realism. It’s all right there on the face of it. Nevertheless, the surface is inscrutable; it also wants to be read as something else: a screen, a search engine bar. What I have in mind is that we must face up to criticism at the present time, to what Alexander Galloway calls an interface effect: the interface, he writes, is an “agitation” or generative friction between different precarious formats, a “fertile nexus between insides and outsides,” across scales, sizes, membranes, and platforms. Criticism might be conceived as an attempt to work through the unworkably precarious criteria of popular culture.28
In “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” Stuart Hall observes that popular culture is a “pretty horrendous” category.29 Each word—popular and culture—presents distinct conceptual difficulties, further complicated by joining them together. Chief among these shared difficulties is periodizing the conjunction, imagining life before popular culture, as it were, as a Skull Island fossil of an age before popular and culture were considered praiseworthy or even key critical concepts. They both promise massive inclusivity without conditions. The pleonastic aspect is striking—popular culture—as if underscoring that much of what gets called culture isn’t particularly popular and much of what’s popular isn’t especially valued or visible as culture per se. The adjective popular comes from the Latin popularis, meaning “belonging to the people”—not surprisingly, populus means “people.”30 Part of what’s at issue here is the question of to whom culture properly belongs. Popular culture, possessed and prepossessed by its consumers, foregrounds problems of property and propriety. Voxpop—to borrow a word from Meaghan Morris—is the voice of the pop cultural dispossessed (disposed by the functionaries and the admin-cult of spokespersonship).31 The sense of the word popular being “suited to ordinary people” comes from the late sixteenth century, and it retains a sense of aristocratic disapprobation. What is “popular” is “well-liked [or] admired by the people,” and the particular association with ostensibly inconsequential arts and entertainment, in the sense of a “popular song,” for example, was already well established in the nineteenth century.32
Insofar as popularity becomes associated with new democratic virtues, new audience formations, cultural pluralism, and so forth, it also indexes inflationary dangers in this (quasi-)capitalist system, not least in a democracy of goods in which the price of good goods is correlated with their scarcity. Critical ambivalences such as these are baked in—into the concept of popular culture itself, that is—as Hall explains: a given popular cultural object is coded with “struggle and resistance—but also, of course, appropriation and ex-propriation.”33 Too often, popular culture entails the “active destruction of particular ways of life,” as he puts it.34 The colloquialism pop culture—that somewhat archaic abbreviation—gets at this capacity: pop culture pops. It has a special capacity to arrest, to shock, to surprise, to zing. Here I’m thinking of Rancière’s point about the sudden visibility of “Emma Bovary” as an exemplary cultural consumer, and the threatening meaning that Flaubert ascribes to it. In other words, pop culture designates an approach, an aesthetic instantiated in a sentimental education about things as objects of affection. It is, following Morris, drawing on Michel de Certeau, “a way of operating—rather than as a set of contents, a marketing category, a reflected expression of social position, or even a ‘terrain’ of struggle.”35
In Heart of Darkness, Marlow stumbling around the Congo Free State happens upon “an extraordinary find,” a single, discarded book about seamanship near “a heap of rubbish reposed in a dark corner” of an abandoned hut. What arrests him most about his discovery is that someone has annotated it in code: “Yes, it looked like cipher. Fancy a man lugging with him a book of that description into this nowhere and studying it—and making notes—in cipher at that! It was an extravagant mystery.”36 Marlow is astounded to discover a literary artifact of modernity in this context, a critical annotation, evidence of someone’s attempt to sort useful information from useless noise (thinking of seamanship, cybernetics comes from the Greek word for “helmsman”). Here Marlow is an improbable modernist reader looking for something different to read, except Conrad has created a fictional world where something different to read is also something to read at all. It is a scene of reading in a forensic sense, a reader reconstructing an imaginary scene of another reader before a book. In the anonymous, sedulous reader—the ciphering note taker—he has found a secret sharer. One of the most difficult things of Conrad’s novella is coming to terms with Marlow’s irresistible need to flatter, adulate, stroke, and tickle this indecent document—not least in this scene, when a reader would be forgiven for assenting to its suppression. Slothrop, reading his Plasticman comic, gives us a related scene—in this version, cybernetic notation no longer hides from view; pop culture comes into the open as a tool of thought charting a way out of the lettered world and into the universe of technical images and Ben-Day dots: “Four-color Plasticman goes oozing out of a keyhole, around a corner and up through piping that leads to a sink in the mad Nazi scientist’s lab, out of whose faucet Plas’s head now, blank carapaced eyes and un-plastic jaw, is just emerging.”37 Later, Pynchon makes clear that this is also a path into distributed paranoia, “nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination—not yet blindingly One, but at least connected.”38
To some extent, the critical conception of pop culture at work here is a creature of very recent provenance, sustained by forms of academic attention and zones of interest associated with cultural studies. Nevertheless, it is worth noting not only that popular culture exists well before its recent academic invention but also that it exists as an event that forms critical reflexivity. As countless commentators have observed, Rancière included, votes and factories were decisive factors for making popular and culture mutually articulated concepts. Dennis R. Hall shows that Dr. Johnson in the mid-seventeenth century, for example, “seriously poses a question [that is still] common in popular culture studies: ‘do the producers of popular culture create a taste in their audience or do they respond to a taste already existing in their audience?’ Surely, each modifies the other.”39 Enthusiastically writing for a “populous” literary marketplace becomes for Dr. Johnson an exercise in connecting “the ridiculous” and “the profound.”40 As pop culture collapses the cultural producer and the cultural consumer, it also blurs differences between pop cultural fandom and aesthetic-critical environment.41 Popular culture flickers into self-reflexivity much like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman who discovers he’s been speaking prose all along. The sense that much of pop culture is readily available for second-order administration is at the center of its legitimacy struggles for visibility and prestige (as well as a continuous parade of pop cultural adepts). Patrick Brantlinger and James Naremore include Popular in their heuristic of six coarticulated artistic “cultures” in modernity: High, Modernism, Avant-garde, Folk, Mass, and Popular.42 In their taxonomy, each culture presents a durable disposition emphasizing different constellations of production, consumption, meaning, sensibility, and reflexivity.43 As an alibi for redeeming Mass with Folk, the Popular resituates Modernism, Avant-garde, and Folk with risk positions and risky ambitions, and so on. It’s important to note that forms of connectivity—indeed, plasticity—popular or otherwise, stretch across all dispositions. Indeed, in the formulation, these are not discrete, graduated domains one might be led to suspect but “an unsettled mixture”: “if they are real, they partake of one another, sometimes overlapping, blurring together or speaking dialogically—and sometimes, like figures on a chessboard, living in antagonistic relation.”44
Unsettled and unsettling, the Pop Culture game (more Trivial Pursuit than 3D chess) has been up for “serious” scrutiny for a long time. Instead of the seven classic arts—Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music, Poetry, Dance, Performing—in 1924, Gilbert Seldes proposes a taxonomy of seven “lively” arts—comics, movies, musicals, vaudeville, radio, popular music, dance—as all “worthy of a second look.”45 With cultural studies, the heat lamps of reflexive secondary illumination warm a heteronomous variety of phenomena, happenings, scenes, and practices: advertising, fashion, leisure, entertainment, celebrity, music, sports, fashion, gaming, public intellectuals, zines, superheroes, shopping, cosplay, collecting, stand-up, hipsters, guerilla gardening, nerds, King Kong cultism, television, video games, sitcoms, reality TV, cocktail culture, slang, pulp, cult, memes. Recognizing the co-emergence of criticality in pop cultural connectivity is crucial. Good pop culture research can’t stand apart—or wholly apart—from the objects of its study, nor can it legitimately condescend to them (sweetening lesson plans with homiletic spoonfuls of The Simpsons or Star Wars), because it is in the mix. It is in the mix not just in what pop culture artifacts mean in terms of textual dynamics—coding and decoding signs, for instance—but also in how they work as signals and how they matter in different situations, contexts, and environments. Ideally, attention to meaning and mattering expands hermeneutics to the actual forces and flows of value, information, tech, feeling, power. Putting emphasis on the particular rather than the general, this kind of activity explores the idiosyncrasies of specific audience structures and the emergence of the aesthetic objects and cult artifacts that define them. Working through issues of production as well as consumption, mashing up academic and nonacademic ways of thinking into novel configurations of thought and gesture, pop culture might be best understood as a laboratory of cultural methodology.46 Making matter matter is a strategically important element of an approach that pays attention to the extended thing, with all the immanent or prognostic powers adduced, res extensa, from assorted pop cultural things, fossils, totems, talismans, findings, commodities, jokers, novelties, and trash.47
In a bad way, Dwight MacDonald’s most popular essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” illustrates the workings of the critical legitimacy crisis I have in mind.48 “The recent  centenaries of Poe and Melville passed without undue excitement in the press,” he writes, “but Sports Illustrated devoted four pages to the fiftieth anniversary of Fred (‘Bonehead’) Merkle’s failure to touch second base in a World Series game” (65).49 MacDonald is concerned that the Press (Midcult) is more exercised about Sports (the epitome of Masscult) than Literature (the epigone of High Culture). Today, outside rarified circles of the baseball antiquarian, Bonehead Merkel is an all but forgotten footnote, while Poe and Melville remain famous. People honor their birthplaces and graves, read from their works, read translations, watch adaptations, consume product tie-ins and assorted merchandise. The audience for Bonehead Merkle’s notorious base-running error were the spectators in attendance at a late-season game in a tight pennant race in 1908 as well as those reading about it in the New York Times, in which Merkel was mercilessly scapegoated (apescaped, as Pynchon would have it). The controversy surrounding the irregular umpiring of the incident may have led the commissioner of baseball to commit suicide, some speculate, and Merkle never could escape his unjust association with it. Many fans of the New York Giants held Bonehead Merkel responsible for spoiling the team’s season. Some fans of the Chicago Cubs took Merkel’s Boner as the totemic cause of the Cubs’ legendary curses. Deep unpopularity is itself a sign of popularity. Is it better to be somebody than it is to be nobody or anybody? to paraphrase Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Bonehead Merkel provides a real-life, ready-made parable of unpopular pop culture—modern notoriety—as a failure to touch base. No eyewitnesses survive. For almost everybody now, Bonehead Merkel is a nobody. Lit. posterity may or may not be more difficult to achieve than other forms of fame, but once achieved, it is more durable. This, for MacDonald, isn’t the issue (though it may be too soon for him to tell about Merkel’s “Boner”); the problem is that Midcult always hits its mark: “a tepid ooze . . . spreading everywhere.”50
the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult [writes MacDonald] 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.51
Displaced anxieties about “unnatural intercourse” aside, the essay resembles nothing less than a Midcult version of Adorno—the enemy within being administrative functionary whose self-appointed task is to report upon “what-the-public-wants,” and the voxpop ventriloquism confuses evaluation, measurement, and management at every turn (either by applause meter or by collecting “1,036 pages of data and interpretations without offending any religious, racial, political or social group”).52 Measurement facilitates domination; value gets attributed in the rearview mirror. In a zone where pop culture retrofits “value” to popularity, Plas and Anton Webern are equally obscure (either reference presupposes a high level of erudition); MacDonald’s essay is symptomatic of the very hegemony of hybrid and heteronomy he wishes to avert. In the universe of pop cultural annotation, Bonehead Merkle shakes hands with Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe right here before your eyes as MacDonald makes the introductions.
Let’s end this foray into pop culture notation as a form of critical thought in the animate ooze of a televised debate from the 1980s (on Nightline) about the merits of the latest cinematic box-office juggernaut in the Star Wars franchise, a video artifact of which someone uploaded online as a relic of the rapidly fading past.53 The anonymous comments section, that pop cultural trash compactor at the end of history, alternates between those scandalized by pop cultural sacrilege (who belittles Star Wars?) to those lamenting the loss of high-minded critical civility from our primetime national discourse to those who marvel at the astute judgments by the loyal pop cultural opposition combating kitsch in space. With the much anticipated third installment of a trilogy mere days away, the debate itself consists of a mild give-and-take between three men, a tandem of sweater-wearing movie critics (the “Sweater Guys”), with their own television show and newspaper columns, proudly proclaiming allegiance to the popular, on one hand, and a solitary film and drama critic of a starchier bent, who writes for serious papers and newsweeklies, on the other, and is deeply hostile to the popular. (It should be noted that these three discussants are not academics in any sense.)
The host gets at things quickly: was the original Star Wars good or bad? he pointedly asks. And later, to the heart of things: okay, but, is it great cinema? The site of struggle over critical frontiers of the Good, the Bad, and the Great—conflict over the Popular—comes down to marking out particular zones for a virtuous affective response concerning the aesthetic, marking out relations to audience enthusiasm, in particular. Right out of the gate, the hostile critic (dubbed “Mr. Grouchy McHighbrow” by one commenter) plays pop cultural kill-joy, a villain who dares to disparage a much-loved cultural object as “malodorous offal,” deriding the cultlike response it stimulates. His aversion, he says, is directly proportional to the wild responses of fans as well as the (Masscult) critics who emulate them: “the raves [are] so violent and extravagant one cannot afford to mince one’s words if one dislikes these things.” For him, the films are bad because they “dehumanize” audiences, and fans and critics alike are subject to their ploys. The word dehumanize is significant not least because it really means infantilize. Think of the children—as Helen Lovejoy would have it on The Simpsons. Children, from this vantage, are either subjects for uplift into fully enlightened human adulthood or potential victims for dehumanization through aesthetic desensitization: “Let’s face it,” he says, Star Wars movies “are for children or for childish adults. They are not for adult mentalities, which unfortunately means that they are not for a lot of my fellow critics who also lack adult mentalities.” The first of the two pop cultural enthusiast critics says he “totally disagrees.” The disagreement is not premised on any stated position but on an inferred relation between acclaim (even among children) and cultural value. In other words, to dislike Star Wars is to dislike children, insinuates Sweater Guy #1, recalling a childhood spent watching “serials and Saturday matinees” and having his “imagination stimulated.” Star Wars is virtuous because it helps you stay “young at heart.” In truth, he basically presents another version of Lovejoy’s think of the children reaction. Children are people, too! Sweater Guy #2, his partner, backs him up by describing a viewing in a movie theater full of rapt and “ecstatic” children whose imaginative hyperdrive was fully operational by the administration of moral value (in “asking each other who’s who,” “rooting for the right guys, booing the bad guys,” etc.).
Both sides, it must be noted, have remarkably little to say about the film itself (or “the normal standards by which we judge movies is this a great film,” as the host puts it), despite arguing about the merits of special effects (“when you have a film that’s ninety percent special effects, you might as well be watching an animated cartoon,” according to Starchy McHighbrow). Yet, the idea of critical reflexivity as a gateway to the rare air of high cultural prestige, however old-fashioned, is anything but defunct. Both sides of the Star Wars debate eagerly play the part of gatekeepers to the human zoo—what George Yúdice has described as culture-as-resource—as a pseudo-place that simultaneously legitimizes, preserves, and enshrines the durable value of popular enthusiasms as an exploitable standing reserve.54 Once upon a time, this site might have been a debate about Star Wars on Nightline; now it happens with every reposted listicle on social media. Even though the Sweater Guys don’t self-consciously position themselves as cultural gatekeepers in this venue—mere spokespeople for what’s popular, whatever hits its mark—their oft performed role of Masscult apologists trades on the bread and butter of respectable Midcult administration.
The laboratory upstairs is brightly lit, well ordered, crammed with blown glass, work tables, lights of many colors, speckled boxes, green folders—a mad Nazi scientist lab! Plasticman, where are you?55