The problem with the middle

I don’t particularly like “middle-brow” fiction for much the same reason I don’t like centrism. This boils down to two basic points:

1. It’s boring, derivative, ultimately small-c conservative and doesn’t foster my sense of the aesthetic ideal of the creation of the new.

2. It kind of doesn’t exist anyay.

Now I want to clarify that I will always heartily defend trash. I came up on horror films and kung fu movies. Give me a piece of total trash like Duel to the Death and I’m as happy as a pig in muck. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes as hosted by Elvira Mistress of the Dark was a deeply formative film to my taste. I love me some trash.

See the thing about trash that is different from “middle-brow” fiction is that trash takes risks. These risks might be inadvisable. They might be poorly executed. They might be pyrrhic examples of somebody misjudging his own constraints and reaching far more than exceeds his grasp. But regardless of the advisability of the risks, regardless of the likelihood of success, trash puts itself out there. High-art is likewise willing to take risks. Often the two principal differences between high art and trash are formal training and budget. This isn’t just the case in cinema but also applies to literary trash like pulps which were trashy in a large part because the author had to churn out content to live. They couldn’t sit around polishing art until it shone because they had rent to pay and mouths to feed.

But we can see this element of broad, explosive, and occasionally poorly-advised creation of the new throughout the pulps. I mean I don’t need to do Lovecraft discourse here, do I? But even beyond that we can see hints of this trash – high-art dialectical collapse in the work of Maurice Leblanc, whose ArsΓ¨ne Lupin stories existed largely to fund his life in Paris but whose inversion of Sherlock Holmes into the gentleman burglar remains a literary influence in French fiction to this day. Lupin is a startling figure. He starts from the established ground of the elite criminal that Foucault describes as stretching “from the adventure story to de Quincey, or from the Castle of Otranto to Baudelaire.” But where Foucault saw these elite criminals as a deactivation of the outlaw hero and the disturbance at the scaffold in favour of an, “affirmation that greatness too has a right to crime and that it even becomes the exclusive privilege of those who are already great,” Lupin reactivates the heroic criminal. His greatness transforms from a position of an elite right to the domain of crime to that of the illegalist activist who can achieve great works, overcome injustices, and also pull the wool over the eyes of paragons of law and order such as the then-copyright-non-enforceable consulting detective Herlock Sholmes.

Looking at Duel to the Death and, beneath the veneer of red-dyed corn syrup and sword-slash sound effects we can also see a serious exploration of how men who should otherwise get along are drawn into lethal conflict by their factional and national loyalties. Hashimoto and Ching-wan appear to like each other but even so it ends with Hashimoto dying and Ching-wan at best maimed for life, having lost an arm and the fingers of his opposite hand. For all that Duel to the Death is trash (and it is very much trash) it remains a creatively vital work that pushed not only the boundaries of good taste but also of nationalistic discourse between two rival countries. This same pattern repeats again in PG: Psycho Goreman, which I previously reviewed.

But though I might talk about a trash / high-art dialectic collapsing this doesn’t mean that trash and high art are precisely the same. Philip Glass takes risks but not the same sort of risks that the Dead Kennedys take. Shadow of the Vampire is a risky film but in a different way from The Toxic Avenger. There is a lot of baggage around the term, “high art” many of which are class-based. At its base, high art is art that takes the sort of risks a bourgeois audience would appreciate. High art must, like trash, be fervently and consistently creative; it stretches constantly toward the new. But high art does this in a manner that imposes barriers that are absent from trash. It might require a deep appreciation for classics of literature, an understanding of philosophy or politics, it may require an understanding of musical theory in order to appreciate the specific ways in which it breaks the laws music theory encodes. This isn’t to say that an understanding of art theory, philosophy, the literary canon and politics is absent from trash; far from it. The difference is that trash, being created as part of the culture industry, must remain open to access without barriers that high art is incentivized to set. There’s not much chance in earning a million dollars from a painting that any uninitiated member of the hoi polloi could appreciate. However this sometimes affords high art both a focus and a level of technical virtuosity absent in trash. Einstein on the Beach attacks the rules of music even more directly than Sonic Youth because Glass has the luxury of greater clarity of aim coming from his lived position as a bourgeois composer.

No. It’s too pat to try and say that trash and high art are the same. But they fall toward the same point in the avant-garde. Avant-garde art is often revolutionary; it is a domain of communists and anarchists. Its art is revolutionary rather than elite. It may be off-putting and hard to approach simultaneous with displaying technical virtuosity but not because of bourgeois class markers but rather by trying to be non-consumable and non-replicable. Avant-garde art is a bitter pill that most people will spit out. It is difficult to recuperate the work of an artist like Chris Burden into consumer structures. Even if the opportunity to spectate his art could be commodified, its non-reproducibility laves it eternally outside consumer culture in the sense of the word Adorno might apply.

Avant-garde art is often obscure and difficult to interpret. Begotten, for example, is literally painful to watch as eyes struggle to focus on the flickering and indistinct organic forms writhing on the screen. Artaud’s theater of Cruelty used no scripts and depended on stunning the audience with light and sound. But the reason why is less to establish a class barrier like a requirement for a formal education but rather to be like a koan – a bit of nonsense that disrupts patterns of thought, that demands an audience think differently using shock and confusion as its tools.

Avant-garde thus becomes the collision point between high art and trash. It is neither but both carry within them its germ. Avant-garde is the disruptive creation of the new that both trash and high art aspire toward in its best realization. And this is where middle-brow art is ultimately lacking. It can never achieve that avant-garde end.

Middle-brow art is very much within consumer culture. It is directly opposed to the avant-garde in that, rather than creating vanguardist barriers of shock and confusion, middle-brow art seeks to be approachable by the largest possible audience. It must be a sufficiently “ripping yarn” that it can be accessed with no barriers but must have enough allusion, clever wordplay, or commodity fetishism within it to appeal to bourgeois and especially to aspirational petit-bourgeois interests. It must be clever but not possessed of any idea so outrΓ© as to alienate an audience. It must reflect back at a culture its sense of how that culture sees itself on its best days so as to allow the greatest number of people the sense that it is good art to consume.

Jim Butcher is a strong example of this. He regularly quotes texts that require some education to fully appreciate: Midsummer Night’s Dream and Paradise Lost are alluded to regularly. However the engagement remains very much on the surface. This isn’t William Blake close-reading Milton and discovering in him a great satanic rebellion. Instead it’s a hint that the character of Nicodemus has read Milton and the suggestion that his education indicates something about him as a character. Recognition of the allusion is the only thing the allusion is used for.

The middle-brow artist feels free to draw both from high culture (such as Milton) and from trash (such as the detective noir) in order to create their work but in doing so they sanitize both. The barriers of high culture must be brought down but at the same time the threat inherent in trash must be neutralized. It took Butcher 12 books to do anything actually risky with the misogyny of noir that he’d previously used as window-dressing and then he, not to put too fine a point on it, shat the bed, establishing a story wherein Dresden was required to murder his ex-girlfriend. In fact she even thanked him for it. After that Butcher settled down into a series of increasingly mediocre books in which he tried unsuccessfully to reclaim some of the commercial appeal he had prior to that book. I don’t know if he succeeded because I rapidly lost interest. Frankly there’s nothing particularly risky about having your protagonist do a mercy-killing as a pivotal character moment and that reification of misogyny is not the creation of the new.

And so we have effectively established art as a quadrangle. Trash and high art both feed into avant-garde art, which seeks to disrupt, shock and create the new out of the collision of disparate ideas and that explicitly de-commercializes art and both feed into middle-brow art that seeks to strip them for commercially viable material to replicate. Middle-brow art is the MCU, it’s the Whedonesque and it’s all that those interwoven aesthetic positions have done to film, television and literature in their wake.

But also middle-brow art isn’t fully real.

This is because centers are intrinsically unstable.

I am no fan of centrism. For one it is a fundamentally reactionary position. A centrist always calibrates based on two points. The first is their relationship to the edge of the Overton Window. A centrist wants to sit in the safe middle of acceptable discourse. This can be good! When LBGTQ+ activists forced the hand of the political class and won hard-fought rights centrists mostly acquiesced as soon as they became sure where the safe-middle of the Overton window was. You’re unlikely to find gender abolitionists among the political center but you’re also less likely to find explicit homophobes than you would have been in decades past, unlike those who push at the rightward edge of the Overton window.

But on the other hand, centrists reference themselves by a connection to inertia. A centrist would prefer the political center stay put. They are calibrating their position based on comfort and disruption is uncomfortable. A centrist is slow to change. Gradualist. Incrementalist. The centrist political ideology does not want to give birth to the New.

This, more than anything else, makes the centrist reactionary. They can only respond politically to an external disruption. Left alone, and absent any discomfort, a centrist pursues only a social stasis where the current mode of life is endlessly and perfectly reproduced.

Just as commercial art is endlessly and perfectly reproduced.

This is a problem because the ability to endlessly and perfectly reproduce art hacks at the very fundaments of the value of art. As Walter Benjamin said, “In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else – that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” This is what marks the work of Burden. It’s not that a person was shot that is the central artistic statement of Shoot but that he was shot in a certain place and at a certain time.

And so we return to this point where art that chases after an illusory middle is simultaneously static and in a frenzied chase of the center. It wants nothing more than a stasis in style. When mere-decade old examples of an artistic style are brought forward these centrists of taste say, “but that’s outmoded! What about what happened last year?” But the problem is that nothing much has changed. The frenzied search for a center might have modulated a little bit around some small issues like the mutability of gender or the threat posed by fascism but mostly the middle-brow gathers its history about it and says, “we must remain here in the middle of it all.”

Matt Colquhoun recently wrote a short essay about the alt-right and the hyperreal that absolutely grabbed my imagination. The key thing I think is relevant to this aesthetic discussion of centrists though is the idea that the hyperreal isn’t an irrealism but rather it’s an over-abundance of the real. It represents a crowding out of potential in the face of all this reality. There’s a concept within science fiction discourse: sensawunda. There’s a certain palingenetic sense among conservative fans that sensawunda isn’t what it used to be. The idea of a golden age of science fiction is deployed to suggest that once more wonder was evoked in SF. Conservatives will propose a cause for the failure of sensawunda in the censoriousness of their political rivals. While more centrist voices will either argue that sensawunda is exactly as it always was or is simply irrelevant. The truth is there’s very little to wonder at in modern SFF. Most of the “hard” science fiction is simply reiterating the same cosmological argument between relativity and quantum physics that has held physics in near stasis for the last forty years or is picking at technological solutions to climate catastrophe while “soft” science fiction and fantasy have retreated into self-reflexivity, endlessly prodding at the same problems again and again. Let’s re-litigate Omelas or the Cold Equations. Let’s invert the subject-object relation in Frankenstein (but not really because the point of that book was always to do with inter-subjectivity). As is often the case conservatives identify that there is a problem but are incapable of grasping the nature of it. As a result they propose counter-productive and actively harmful solutions.

However wonder is a rare commodity in commercial SFF. Mostly what these works are about is the reproduction of the present. Fisher’s “frenzied stasis” again. But there’s no wonder in the present. And this is what many of these books want to serve us – the present again – “the same thing in a deceptive form.” There’s hardly anything new in a book about colonialism, city planning and institutional memory. Brunner touched on many of those topics in 1965. And even that parodic reiteration is a breath of fresh air compared to novels that project a retrofuturistic desire for colonial exploration back onto the past and suggest we could have got there if only a rock spun left instead of right. This folding of the past, present and future together is precisely the hyper-real crowding out of the future that traps these middle-brow science fictional stories.

There are, of course, outliers. Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird / Salamander delivers a kind of terrified awe that can pass for wonder by the dingy light of a failing fluorescent at the end of the world and while there’s nothing particularly wondrous in Gideon the Ninth it is at least a novel formulation of the gothic – which is better than nothing. (And I would note that Tamsyn Muir’s mastery of voice makes anything she writes worth reading regardless of other factors.) However I would be hard-pressed to call VanderMeer especially middle-brow in any capacity and both Muir and VanderMeer blur the lines between science fiction and horror enough to avoid the trap of the endless replication of the present in more conventional science fiction and fantasy endeavors.

Elizabeth Sandifer talks about a response to this wonder-less reification of the present into all future epochs in her excellent four tiny essays on SF-F, proposing a mode called “Epic Cold” which encapsulates a coldly clinical approach to very large things. She raises Denis Villeneuve as an exemplar of the style and I’d propose his Dune adaptation might be the best case in point for what she proposes. I have mixed opinions of Dune. It’s at its best when it’s two actors together in a stark set being cryptic toward each other – the combination of minimalist script and stridently formalistically operatic blocking Dune uses works to its aesthetic advantage here. But when these clinical Epic Cold modalities pulls back to let us see the world it becomes not much more than a Pink Floyd Laser Experience at the Planetarium. This appears to be something the marketers of this movie were aware of.

Middle-brow has the advantage of market appeal. Its ideas sell easily. It doesn’t take many risks because avoiding the risks of the marginal and the edge-case is its principal preoccupation. Where avant-garde art cuts trash and high art apart to find the revolutionary moment, to contain art in its specific novelty, middle-brow art seeks to reproduce the present conditions and give another hit of enjoyment to a consumptive public. It can interrogate but interrogation must occur along predefined pathways. What’s more it must show the mechanics of the interrogation to the audience because the creation of a dangerous interrogation would create resistance and the hyperreal doesn’t want resistance – frenzied stasis is a response against resistance. It can entertain. Certainly it can entertain. But it treats entertainment as an end rather than a means. What the middle brow cannot do is simply this: It cannot create the New.

Psycho Goreman – an existentialist response to cosmic horror

Psycho Goreman (2020) - IMDb

It is perhaps a little bit surprising that one of the best films of 2021 is a Canadian low-budget horror movie in which a girl struggling to handle her parents’ slowly crumbling marriage befriends an imprisoned cosmic horror who looks straight out of a GWAR video.

This movie is very much a low-budget affair for better and for worse. The sound balancing is just painful. When I was watching this movie I couldn’t find my TV remote, which my daughter had dropped under the couch, and had to run over to the TV a dozen times to adjust the volume between whisper-quiet dialog scenes and cacophonous sound during action scenes. However this minor frustration was eclipsed by the sheer joy of watching a genre movie which was, by necessity, principally using practical effects. This film is absolutely brimming with wild and unique creature designs and every single one of them is either a puppet or a dude in a rubber suit and a ton of make up and it’s amazing. There is CGI in the movie but it revels in its fakeness. There’s no need for a photo-realistic integration of digital effects into a film when you literally have a robot shaped like a tank full of corpses spraying blood all over the title character in the midst of a fight. Psycho Goreman (PG for short) is a character whose whole schtick depends on him being out of place – a weird intrusion into the mundane lives of the protagonists – and so making the effects seem like weird intrusions doesn’t harm the movie. It makes it better. I honestly cannot praise the special effects team of this film highly enough. Psycho Goreman is a feast for (perverted) eyes.

This is also an incredibly funny movie. There’s a running joke throughout the film that PG is commanded by Mimi, the little girl who, as a result of a series of misadventures controls him, to explain some aspect of his history. The story will cut away to a depiction of his time as a galactic conqueror, replete with high-concept cosmic fantasy battles with a very Heavy Metal meets Gwar look only to cut back almost immediately as the children lose interest in the story and change the subject. This is a movie that delights in containing a vast back-story for its title character that you will never be fully satisfied by. The tease is the joke.

The humour of Psycho Goreman is a central strength. Matthew Ninaber and Steven Vlahos, collaborating on PG’s performance, have excellent comedic timing in this film. In an early scene, Mimi brings PG some magazines to keep him occupied while she and her brother are at school. She apologizes she wasn’t able to get him some porn and says at least she got him some fashion magazines with “hunky boys.” PG bellows, “I do not care for hunky boys,” glances at the magazine and then amends himself, “Or do I?” And the delivery is simply exquisite. In another scene Mimi tries to introduce PG to her parents and to reassure them about her terrifying new friend but PG keeps contradicting Mimi, telling her parents that they should worry, they should be afraid, he doesn’t mean well.

Ninaber and Vlahos’s performance here is a standout. Generally this movie is about as well acted as you’d expect of a low-budget film with a cast of unknown actors half of whom are children. The mumbly dialog delivery of Adam Brooks and Alexis Kara Hancey isn’t exactly improved by the poor audio quality although their under-stated performance of a couple at the edge of their relationship attempting to keep up appearances for the sake of their children includes good physical performances. In general, with the exception of the standout line delivery of Vlahos, weak dialog with good physical performance, is effectively the best possible summary for the performances in this film which remains a visual treat from beginning to end.

Psycho Goreman also succeeds by being a film that has something to say about its genre and that does so well, with a clarity in the articulation of theme and a care for how the often bizarre characterizations in the film lean into what it’s trying to say. Psycho Goreman starts from the standard cosmic horror idea that the universe is vast and humanity is insignificant. PG and the other denizens of Gygax occupy a cosmos that exists outside the bounds of time and of regular space. Their vast powers seem at once both technological, magical and biological in character in part because it constantly seems as if the words for their being escape us. Contemplating the relationship of Gygax and its creatures to earth brings to mind Bataille’s struggles in Inner Experience when he said, “Perhaps, for I can henceforth not conceive of my life, if not pinned to the extreme limit of the ‘possible.'” Bataille suggests imagining the extreme limit of possibility would require a superhuman intelligence and it seems as if Gygax exists if anything somewhere beyond that limit, in the outside that escapes a direct description.

This is served well both by the weirdness of the special effects and by the running gag of PG’s interrupted attempts to explain his back-story. We only ever get access to fragments of Gygax. The sense is that it’s too big, too strange. Everything within it is an intrusion into what we see as reality – it is, quite formally, Weird in the Fisherian sense of the word.

There is a conflict central to Gygax and it is a conflict central to Mimi’s family as well – that is the division between order and chaos. Chaos and order are both shown as multi-faceted. Chaos is the infinite creativity that Mimi brings to the invention of, “Crazy Ball,” but it is also Greg’s slovenly and entropic detachment from the maintenance of the household. Chaos is a creative energy and a destructive energy simultaneously. It is present in equal measure when Greg destroys the microwave trying to cook chicken breasts in it and when Greg remarks, when encountering PG’s lair, “this television won’t stop bleeding.”

Order is also shown as multi-faceted. It is the authoritarian dominance of the templars. Pandora is no more compassionate than PG. The main difference is that Pandora’s extreme violence is carefully motivated by a desire for obedience whereas PG sees his destruction as a form of art. He freezes one of his victims upon the precipice of death, the extreme limit of life, constantly cycling him through a cycle of agony and annihilation not because the man disobeyed him but just because he thought it would be beautiful. When one of the children nudges the victim who topples over and shatters, his disconnected mouth wheezing “thank you,” PG rages that they destroyed his masterpiece. In contrast, Pandora kills and tortures not for the sake of aesthetics but for utilitarian reasons: to create a disguise, to extract information, to create an ally, to keep allies in line. Pandora is worshipful and demands others worship, but in her piety she reveals the authoritarianism of the priest. In demanding obedience to her gods she demands obedience to herself. In his telling PG began his existence as her slave and absolutely nothing about Pandora suggests that her interpretation of order would be anything but welcoming of absolute mastery over all others. But on the other hand, order is necessary to keep the family household afloat. Susan is the one who makes sure bills are paid, meals are edible and people who need medical attention get it. She’s the one who keeps on top of chores and prevents everything from just falling apart. Likewise Luke’s loyalty and sense of responsibility to his family is a hallmark of order compared to Mimi’s, “champions don’t eat broccoli,” attitude.

This order / chaos conflict seems to almost fall within the rubric of Blake with PG standing in for Satan and Pandora for the angel of Blake’s memorable fantasy. Of course the thesis of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is that religions have failed by proposing a divide between a damnable body with its energies and a divine soul with its reason:

the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake established Milton’s Lucifer as the great satanic protagonist, the divine mover from whom all activity was begun. But he also presented this as a necessary reaction to the transcendent dominance of order and stasis over the world. The Marriage of Heaven and hell sees the moment of revelation, in which the unity of order and chaos becomes evident as an eschatological one, an apocalypse. “

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have
heard from Hell.

For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite and holy

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

And, of course, PG does bring the apocalypse. Finally freed of all bonds, even freed of his dependence on the Gem of Praxidike by the power of friendship, he immediately incites the end of days. Even for hunky boys. Except not for Mimi’s family, because she’s his friend and he promised.

And this then gives us the sly subversion of cosmic horror which Psycho Goreman contains. Because, yes, the universe is vast and unknowable. Yes, beings exist that are so far beyond the limits of human experience that they fall away. And yes, they are engaged in a grand Manichean conflict that will inevitably end with an eschaton but for all that there’s this family at the heart and the silly, unimportant and trivial things they do: their games and songs, their conflicts and friendships fundamentally matter.

This isn’t some sort of reconciliation with order. There is no grand plan for Mimi and her family. She and Luke find the gem by accident, they awaken PG by accident. When PG transforms their friend Alastair into a giant shambling brain creature who communicates via touch-telepathy it isn’t because it’s part of some grand plan. It’s just this crazy thing that happens, arbitrary and absurd. There is no reconciliation with higher meaning here. Mimi snaps a crucifix over her knee in the build-up to the climax. The moment is organic, unbidden. It’s unclear even that Pandora’s gods are the same as the Christian God. But that doesn’t matter because they stand in for the same thing and that apocalypse of a frozen eternity under a white boot is rejected in favour of the more satanic apocalypse of PG’s liberation.

On love, Sartre says, “While I am attempting to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is attempting to free himself from mine,” this helps to encapsulates the dynamic that exists between Mimi and PG for the majority of the film. PG would like to be free of Mimi’s control while Mimi is just as trapped by the power she commands over PG. If she slips and he is able to take back the gem she knows a terrible revenge will be visited upon her. Mimi, more than anybody else in the movie has seen what PG is and chosen not to flinch away from it. For Sartre, love is the act of projects that put a subject, “into direct connection with the Other’s freedom.” Sartre characterizes this as a conflict, “precisely because I exist by means of the Other’s freedom, I have no security; I am in danger in this freedom.”

Psycho Goreman takes this theoretical statement and renders it text as Mimi must ultimately grant PG his freedom in order to save her family from Pandora, an act precipitated after her mother renounces Pandora’s gifts to protect Mimi from her. In each of these pairings: Susan’s protection of Mimi, Mimi’s freeing of PG and PG’s promise not to kill Mimi’s family we see two aspects: first – an affirmation of the freedom of the Other and second a willingness to step into danger thereby. The negotiation of love between Mimi and PG certainly is one of conflict and it’s one that follows a steady progression from mastery and toward mutual recognition and freedom.

Psycho Goreman presents an absurd and unlikely apocalypse in which one family, alone, is spared because of love, because Mimi recognized PG’s being, saw him as he was, and said he was free. In these acts of love and these recognitions of freedom we climb out of the void and create being, as Sartre proposes our being is constructed in the look of the other. This is something Bataille and Sartre agree on. Bataille says, “This infinite improbability from which I come is beneath me like a void: my presence above this void is like the exercise of a fragile power, as if this void demanded the challenge that I myself bring it, I – that is to say the infinite, painful improbability of an irreplaceable being which I am.” In both these cases being suspends itself above an absolute void, a limit of knowledge that cannot be breached. Psycho Goreman proposes vast Manichean conflicts arise beyond that void but when these conflicts enter into being, when their weirdness intrudes upon the world, even they fall sway to the bonds of mutual recognition upon which we build each other.