Highbrow, lowbrow: Conversation with Peter Swirski

Florianne Jimenez
Notions of 'high culture' and 'low culture' manifest in the way we see books and their readers

PETER SWIRSKI. 'If you think that every revered literary classic is a masterpiece, you are dead wrong.' Photo by Alice Isabel, used under a Creative Commons Share Alike License

[See the original image here]

MANILA, Philippines – At the book store, in our libraries, in our classrooms and, sometimes, in our own bookshelves, we create hierarchies of culture without realizing it.

When we rag on someone for reading “Fifty Shades of Grey,” when a librarian rushes cataloguing “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” over “Sherlock Holmes,” when a teacher decides comics aren’t “literature,” we see our notions of “high culture” and “low culture” at work.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — taste is subjective, after all. We need to have a sense of what books, movies or music challenge us, versus those that merely coddle us. 

But what if we DID question all of these divisions that we build, the ones that separate, say, “KikoMachine” from “Noli Me Tangere”? What if we are able to conceive a middle ground between high and low culture? What if we are able to consider how popular culture in all its forms can be transformative for its consumers as well? 

If you are a reader of this persuasion, then you might want to ask your university library or nearest bookstore to acquire the books of Peter Swirski, a self-described “iconoclast by nature [who is] skeptical of many inherited modes of thinking.”

Swirski, a professor of English currently based in Hong Kong, is also a rising figure in the world of cultural studies, pop culture, American studies and science fiction. In the hopes of generating more interest in his work in the Philippines, I was able to ask Swirski a few questions about his research via email.

Swirski’s bibliography is intimidating and diverse: he has been called “a literary critic, an Americanist, a cultural historian, a philosopher, a popular science writer [and] a literary Darwinist.” The thread tying all these topics together is the concept of “nobrow,” or the dissolution of hierarchies within culture.

Many people dismiss this sort of thinking that validates pop culture as Quixotic rebellion. However, Swirski’s outlook is more nuanced. “I am NOT saying — as I’m often trivialized — that Shakespeare sucks and pulp fiction rocks. Not true! If you’ve never read Shakespeare, you have robbed yourself of an experience that nothing can replace.

“But if you think that every revered literary classic is a masterpiece, you are dead wrong. By the same token, not every genre paperback is worth reading.”

Here’s Peter Swirski giving the talk ‘Two Cultures… And the Twain Shall Never Meet’: 

In essence, questioning culture isn’t just about throwing out books, films, music and art that are considered “classics” and replacing them with more recent, more mainstream culture.

But the opposite — where we accept that everything that’s considered a classic — is unproductive, too. 

The questioning of established traditions of reading and cultural consumption is hinged upon a fundamental premise: that our preferences toward culture are shaped by social forces, and not by some mysterious, indisputable force known as “taste.”

When we begin to understand that our disdain of “Twilight” is valid, but also based on class, gender, age, race, educational attainment as well as individual bias, we open the door to further inquiry about popular culture and how it is produced.

Some might argue that in this era of universal access, where whole libraries are now accessible to Internet users, that the debate between high and low culture is irrelevant. Since one can just log on and search for any book, no questions or permissions needed, aren’t people embracing the high, the low and the no-brow regardless of what authorities tell them?

Swirski argues that it’s not that simple. “People still love reading a good book, no matter if it’s printed on paper or displayed on a tablet reader. [The p]roblem is finding one.” 

Essentially, the problem of “What do I read today?” has expanded due to the sheer size of the Internet. “We’re no longer talking about looking for a needle in a haystack, but a needle in a mountain of needles higher than Mount Everest. Needless to say — you could almost say needleless to say — the encounters between good books and good readers are more and more random,” says Swirski.

“Only we refuse to admit it, because it would mean admitting defeat at the hands of the informational demon we ourselves have let out of the bottle.”

These questions about pop culture’s constant evolution will continue to loom large in the critical landscape, and will hopefully be of increasing interest in our classrooms and in the media.

If you’d like to begin pursuing these questions, look up Peter Swirski’s work and see where it takes you. – 


Bo Jimenez

Florianne L. Jimenez teaches Literature and College Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is a Palanca award-winning non-fiction writer, with a creative interest in the self, places, and consciousness. She has a massive to-be-read pile dating back to 2008, which includes such titles as ‘The Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,’ ‘Book 5 of Y: The Last Man,’ and ‘The Collected Works of TS Spivet: A Novel.’

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