BY Thomas Hübener in Opinion | 06 NOV 12
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Issue 7

Culture Club

How sophisticated is popular culture? A new book by Nadja Geer tries to find out

BY Thomas Hübener in Opinion | 06 NOV 12

Cindy Palmano, Portrait of the Pet Shop Boys from the shoot for their single What Have I Done to Deserve This?, 1987

Patricide is such a strong a word. But what the Berlin-based theorist Nadja Geer does in her book Sophistication. Zwischen Denkstil und Pose (Sophistication. Between a Style of Thinking and a Pose, V&R unipress, 2012) certainly constitutes a serious case of lèse-majesté. Geer, who writes for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and the daily tageszeitung, openly attacks Diedrich Diederichsen, the pontiff of German popular culture criticism and a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. ‘Diederichsen’s style is arrogant’, she writes, implying that he is a bourgeois elitist in the tradition of Adorno; his business model, that of the existential know-it-all; his interest in political realities, non-existent: ‘His blind spot lies in the aestheticism of his own style.’ Strong stuff! Although these excerpts make Geer’s book sound like a feisty feminist polemic from the 1970s, it is in fact an academic dissertation. And a pretty good one at that.

Geer’s thesis is roughly as follows: In the past, discussions about popular culture, including pop music, have focused mainly on content or attempts at creating definitions, but rarely on the business of how the content itself is discussed. This ‘pop intellectualism’, which forms the object of her study, is among the most conspicuous performative products of popular culture, emerging in Germany in the 1980s. It is found in the work of such diverse purveyors of popular culture journalism and literature as Diederichsen, Max Goldt, Christian Kracht and Thomas Meinecke. An important part in this development was played by Spex, which was founded in Cologne in 1980 (Diederichsen served as editor-in-chief, 1985–90). Geer describes the music magazine as the focal point of the popular culture intelligentsia, having gained the status of supreme authority in all judgements concerning the aesthetics of popular culture. This status was due in part to the establishment of an alternative cultural canon, at odds with the bourgeois canon of the broadsheet art critics, which was dominated by high culture. But, Geer says, this monopoly in questions of taste was won with one key instrument: sophistication.

In general, sophistication is a form of refinement in matters of taste and culture: smiling knowingly rather than punching the air; coolness instead of sweat; ambivalence over clarity; Proust, not Heinrich Böll. In Geer’s view, the sophistication of Germany’s popular culture theorists and their literary counterparts is expressed in their cleverly playful references to elements of high and low culture. Unlike the counterculture movement of the 1970s, they by no means reject the intellectual habitus of the cultured bourgeois. Instead, the cool knowledge of popular culture takes its place on equal terms alongside the canon legitimated by the educated middle classes. This kind of dismantling of hierarchies – a gesture commonly associated with Postmodernism – makes it possible to debate a Pet Shop Boys album with the same devotion as a Shakespeare sonnet. But, Geer argues, the aesthetic strategy of sophistication turns the liberating aspect of this levelling of high and low into new forms of elitism, authoritarianism and exclusion. Tearing down cultural walls with one hand while building new ones with the other. To prove her claim, she gives the example of Diederichsen’s early record reviews: he creates a hermetic discourse addressed to the chosen few by using recondite jargon and ingeniously woven yet never explicit networks of references to film, high culture and other products of intellectual hipness. For Geer, this insider communication is not about elucidation or knowledge, but rather about distinction and discursive power within a very small scene; she draws a parallel to the role of taste and distinction for the bourgeoisie, as described by the socio­logist Pierre Bourdieu. The message this sends to the puzzled, uninitiated reader is: ‘If you don’t know the band, philosopher or writer I’m writing about (as if everyone should know them), then you’re not one of us.’ Geer is talking about what Meinecke once affirmatively called ‘the tough door policy of pop’ – a coded allusion to the bouncer who lets only the initiated into what appears to be a gentlemen’s club. Thanks to its use of sophistication, this discourse has helped to ensure that popular culture did not become truly popular in Germany. ‘Pop discourse is in crisis if it relies on sophistication as its sole mode of thinking,’ said Geer in a recent telephone exchange: ‘The legacy of sophistication and 1980s aestheticism is found today in the hollow, contrived symbols of post-democracy, in which the old gesture of emptying things of their meaning has made a major comeback.’

In her view, the intellectuals of popular culture, who always present themselves as so modern and so progressive, are actually closer to the exclusivity of the cultured bourgeois than they would like to admit. The extent to which their will to style harks back to past European models is illustrated by her precise readings of three writers from the period between the two World Wars: the conservative revolutionary Rudolf Borchardt (1877–1944), the distinguished fraud Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (1884–1945) and the dandyish journalist and writer Friedrich Sieburg (1893–1964). Like today’s popular culture intellectuals, they deployed aestheticism and marked individualism to set themselves apart from society at large. And like today’s sophisticates, they used the habitus of ‘being cultivated’ for narcissistic self-dramatization. They had just as little interest in an exchange-based dialogue as their successors who grew up with popular culture. Here, she claims, lies their anti-democratic side.

An academic herself, Geer is of course aware that academia, where cultural studies is becoming increasingly established, is not always an inclusive hotbed of power-free discourse: ‘Maybe my book demands something that just doesn’t exist. Since I started having more to do with universities again, I’ve noticed that people there also fight with jargon, indisputable doctrines and exclusion.’ One might question the need for any further proof of the undemocratic tendencies inherent in the popular culture intellectualism that she examines. No one thinks the early days of Spex resembled a meeting held by grassroots democratic activists to vote on the relevance of various bands. One might also argue that although popular culture is a liberating force that breaks down hierarchies, it is an important means of identity formation via differentiation and exclusion. Geer’s distinction between a good liberating pop discourse and a bad exclusive one is thus questionable. But this is a trifle. Her study deserves credit for dealing systematically and in a highly read­able way with a hitherto neglected mode of communication.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Thomas Hübener is a literary critic, writer and editor living in Hannover.