The cognitive science of high and low brow?

Beat HappeningOn the 14th January, Pascal Boyer wrote this article on the blog for the International Cognition and Culture Institute, in which he makes the case for serious cognitive science work on the difference between high and low brow cultural works. He argues that high brow works are essentially more complex – in his words they require “more mental work” – but must share some obvious similarites to more popular works, for example a Chopin waltz still sounds a bit like a waltz.

Complexity in underground music

Whilst I find the high/low brow distinction interesting, I think there are subtle nuances being glossed over in this discussion. For example, his discussion of complexity focuses predominantly on classical music (as do most discussions of this kind in the literature… maybe this is something we need to consciously move away from?). I am heavily involved in independent/underground music culture, and within this subculture there are bands producing music with varying degrees of complexity. Certain bands, eg. math-rock bands, produce music of extreme complexity, which only a small number of people really understand (for example Upsilon Acux). Then of course there are bands producing music at the other end of the complexity spectrum. Within this subculture, however, this complexity spectrum does not correlate with high and low brow sentiments. In fact, many people within the indie subculture who like music of equal or lesser technical complexity to the average Radio 1 pop song (see, for example, Girls) consider themselves to be “better” in some way to the masses, i.e. liking certain kinds of bands acts like a badge of honour which elevates one’s status in the eyes of many others involved in fandom of this kind of music. In fact, for some bands, technique and precise musicianship are eschewed completely as a pseudo high-brow artistic pretense (e.g. Beat Happening).

Of course, this is anecdotal, based on my experience within this subculture. I believe it will ring true for others who are also involved in this culture. There is one thing which I believe is undeniably true, however – discussions of this kind need to be informed by works from multiple sources, and need to stop using Western classical music as the basic starting point for all discussion. As a research student who is relatively uninformed about Western classical music, I feel almost like I am being excluded by an intellectual elite.

Perhaps this says something about high-brow culture…?

A cognitive anthropology of refinement?

In the final paragraph he suggests that maybe we need a “cognitive anthropology of refinement, something that is missing from anthropological theory so far”. However, the question of variation in aesthetic tastes both across and within societies is something which I have recently been researching, and a puzzling situation emerges from the research. In most developed post-industrial societies, aesthetic variation is rife. People are free to choose between many different kinds of music, painting, theatre, sculpture… all from multiple societies across the world. People in tribal societies, however, have little aesthetic variation within their societies and no choice but to partake in the aestheticThe Da Vinci Code traditions of their own society. It seems to me that high and low brow can only exist with sufficient aesthetic variation. So, whilst the concept of high and low brow exists within our society, I suspect that this concept will not exist in tribal societies. Of course, one could simply talk about “refinement” of tastes, which is something which does exist in tribal societies, i.e. members of tribes are usually able to tell you who the best sculptor or dancer is, but this appears to be something rather different to high and low brow.

The Da Vinci Code and low brow hatred

Finally, I was pretty amazed by Boyer’s dismissal of The Da Vinci Code as “unreadable drivel” which he apparently could not even physically read all the way through. I am by no means the biggest fan of the Da Vinci Code, but to make the claim that he was actually incapable of reading it because it was so bad seems incredibly pompous, and definitely does no favours for his case. For me, it just seemed to justify many of the negative associations the high/ low brow distinction has. Even if you despise a piece of music, it is still possible to listen to it. Even if you despise a film, it is still possible to watch it. Boyer’s attitude here is just insufferable.


1 Comment

  1. In tribal societies the population is always less so there are almost never any genius to produce high brow-a cultural artificact complex enough to be intellectually challenging on the same plane as an intelligent person in the modern society would be challenged by a nobel winning writer for example.the intellectual difference will be necessarily less.

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