The concept of being un-self-aware in terms of culture, fashion, or even ideology. Perhaps an impossibility in modern culture, at least since the advent of the Age of Irony and the growing cultural stratification that drives the Corporate Culture Industry. --It is simply impossible for many people to enjoy themselves without placing their enjoyment in a larger social or marketing scheme (I guess I should really limit this claim to those in my peer demographic: the 18-35 year olds). Take music for instance. 'What kind of music do you like?' is often asked as a means to gauge a person's social placement. The answer most often given is a list of bands or some pop genre (ie, 'Anything but Country.'). How would this question have been answered in the 18thC, I wonder. 'Oh, I like counterpoint', or 'Anything but Slavic dances, though I do enjoy a good Polonaise.'

Nobrow is not to be confused with the Lowbrow, which is most often a self-conscious celebration of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Nor should Highbrow haughtiness be considered a sort of transcendence of culture and therefore nobrow.

In my own experience, every example of what I consider nobrow involves something foreign to American culture--such as the taco stand around the block where you can get extremely satisfying burritos if you know how to speak a little Spanish. Is there any area of the American experience untouched by Popular Culture?

Nobrow is, at the same time, more than mass culture, and nothing but mass culture. To say that nobrow is a state of not being self-aware is only partially correct; a state of true nobrow is aware of its culture, but that culture is neither high nor low, but transcends the question entirely.

In John Seabrook's Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, he traces the evolution of the New Yorker from a bastion of highbrow culture -- one that transcends the petty marketing concerns of more lowbrow establishments -- to a purveyor of what he refers to as Buzz -- essentially, nobrow culture. The proliferation of mass media and mass production has allowed that which was once highbrow -- certain art, music, and other entertainments -- to lose its associations with culture entirely, and become caught up in the marketing machine of modern culture.

MTV, says Seabrook, is the ultimate in nobrow. There is no distinction between the content and the advertising -- hip-hop videos are advertisements both for themselves and for the hip-hop lifestyle. A better example, perhaps, would be Star Wars. Star Wars is the ultimate in nobrow experiences: it doesn't take any specialized knowledge to appreciate, and, at the same time, it is far from being crass and lowbrow. Nor does it fit into the middlebrow distinction: those of "high" tastes do not lower themselves to enjoy it, nor do those of "low" tastes have to raise themselves. Nobrow implies a lack of cultural affiliation.

In his treatment of the rise of the nobrow New Yorker as a marketer of Buzz, Seabrook makes some stilted and obviously highbrow arguments about culture and cultural consumption; the irony is that he is a decidely highbrow figure who, through a miraculous interaction with MTV, has embraced the nobrow culture that he sees pervading the world today, but remains staunchly highbrow in his discourse about the whole thing.

In a sense, though, I agree with much of what Seabrook argues: cultural barriers are falling, what was once high art has become a commodity, and the art itself can no longer be distinguished from its marketing. However, rather than the sort of homo-culture that Seabrook sees, I see a continuing proliferation of nobrow subcultures on whose ideologies the next wave of nobrow will be built, thus invalidating them; we have seen this happen repeatedly in this century, after the apparent death of the avant garde movement. What is subculture today is mainstream tomorrow, and everything is available to all people. That which is still considered highbrow has fallen out of favor, precisely because it is not marketable; this is part of Seabrook's observation about the New Yorker -- that it could no longer remain blithely highbrow, ignorant of its marketability. It had to sell Buzz, to become nobrow, to remain vital.

In all, Nobrow is a good read, although Seabrook's obvious highbrow upbringing leads to not only a condescending attitude, but cultural blinders to what the great unwashed masses are up to. I would have preferred, though, to hear more pontification on culture, rather than the minutae of life at MTV ... but you get what you pay for, and $12 for a trade paperback ain't bad. Ironically, though, Nobrow isn't nobrow by any stretch of the word; in his afterward to the paperback edition, Seabrook complains of poor sales. No surprise: he made a compromise between sociological content and shiny things, and came out weak on both sides. It reads, actually, like a really long New Yorker article (of the modern era).

Like it or not, nobrow is here to stay. And amen to that. Heaven knows I hate the stodginess that goes along with highbrow; at least now I can enjoy some of it without the cultural stigma.

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