1960, 1980, and again in 2000

At twenty-year intervals over the course of the past forty-six years three writers associated with The New Yorker published separate installments of what, in hindsight, amounts to a unified theory of culture. Dwight Macdonald's Masscult and Midcult, George W.S. Trow's Within the Context of No Context, and, most recently, John Seabrook's Nobrow.

Macdonald, who died eighteen years ago, was the archetype of old-guard intellectualism. Educated at Phillips Exeter and Yale, he served, at various times, as an editor of the Partisan Review, a film critic for Esquire, and a book reviewer for The New Yorker. But it was at Fortune that Macdonald cut his teeth, and Masscult and Midcult - which was originally published in the Partisan Review in the Spring of 1960, and for which he's best remembered today - can be seen as a direct reaction against what he learned there. Henry Luce's magazine empire - of which Time, Life, and Fortune were the cornerstones - was both the reflection and a contributing factor to the rise of a media-industrial complex which propelled America towards the condition of Empire in the 1930s. But the conditions that made Empire possible, Macdonald worried, also led to a homogenization in American life. Long before "atomization" had entered the sociological vernacular, he wrote that "the tendency of modern industrial society is to transform the individual into the mass man... a large quantity of people unable to express their human qualities because they are related to each other neither as individuals nor as members of a community. In fact, they are not related to each other at all but only to some impersonal, abstract, crystallizing factor.... The mass man is a solitary atom, uniform with the millions of other atoms that go to make up the 'lonely crowd.'"

Macdonald wasn't the first to articulate the threat; rather, his was a popular distillation of Frankfurt School philosophy, much in the same way that Thomas Frank and The Baffler distilled the same school of thought for the dot-com generation. Nor was Macdonald the first to deal with the cultural fallout - a blurring of the distinction between Highbrow and Lowbrow culture that Clement Greenberg had written about twenty years earlier. But Macdonald was eloquent and impassioned, and the timing and scope of his critique, which is rooted in aesthetic considerations but encompasses the political, gives it a resonance that echoes well into the present day. Macdonald drew an explicit parallel between the "mass society" of the 1950s and Europe's totalitarian regimes, noting that both cultures "have systematically broken every communal link - family, church, trade union, local and regional loyalties, even down to ski and chess clubs - and have reforged them so as to bind each atomized individual directly to the center of power." For him mass culture is, in fact, a cult: In a fascist regime, the center of power is occupied by the cult of State, in Communist countries, by the cult of Personality, in an industrialized democracy, by a cult of the People enforced by corporate and governmental beaurocracies and maintained by an army of pollsters and statisticians. "When one hears a questionnaire-sociologist talk about setting up an investigation," Macdonald wrote,

The result, for Macdonald, was neither high culture nor folk, but a hopelessly muddled monster that absorbed everything from the avant-garde to the professional wrestling and turned it into a "Kulturkatzejammer" - a "midcult" that was at best a vulgarized reflection of high culture, and at worst a slough of kitsch and sensationalism. Not art, but something like the Soviet's Socialist Realism; an art for everyone and no one, aimed at the lowest common denominator. The alternatives, in his eyes, were to restore the class lines that allowed the original cultural elite to emerge, or to erect a permanent barricade between high culture and the masses. Borrowing a phrase from Stendahl, Macdonald pleaded with the "happy few" - those writers, critics, philosophers, composers, and architects sticking to their posts as guardians of high culture - to ignore the masses altogether, and asked that the "only public they consider... be that of [their] peers." A vague manifesto, to be sure, but a manifesto nonetheless. In comparison, Trow's essay reads like a suicide note.