Is popular culture a stultifying opium of the masses? The argument is a familiar one: “low” culture stands for passivity, decline, corruption, consumption, sameness, superficiality, banality, cliché, imitation, prostitution, mass production, capitalism, and the machine. Mass cultural forms are hastening the demise of “high” culture, bastion of a beleaguered elite and refuge of art, uniqueness, complexity, craftsmanship, value, individuality, authenticity, virility, agency, beauty, depth, and reflection. Stephanie Sieburth’s refreshing book lays bare the extraordinarily long and complex history of the high/low culture opposition and robustly denies its intellectual validity. She prods us to abandon our entrenched Western habit of judging cultural production on a vertical instead of a horizontal scale. To prove her point, she delves into some fascinating instances of the culture wars in action in four Spanish novels, two from the 1880s and two from 1970s. As she shows, the four split into two pairs ideologically, but the pairing crosses temporal boundaries in an unexpected way.
In all four works, popular culture occupies a central role both thematically and formally, making them what Sieburth terms “mass cultural novels.” Two of the works examined, Galdós’s La desheredada (The Disinherited Woman, 1881) and Juan Goytisolo’s Reivindicación del conde don Julián (Count Julian, 1970), present an apocalyptic vision of mass culture, while the other two, Galdós’s Tormento (Torment, 1884) and Martín Gaite’s El cuarto de atrás (The Back Room, 1978), are more utopian in attitude. Mass cultural novels, Sieburth argues, are especially numerous in Hispanic societies, notably Argentina, but their presence has been little studied in the case of modern Spain, except as echoes of the Quijote. To explain their prevalence she offers an analysis of Spain’s “uneven modernity” during the periods studied, characterizing it as a society in which pockets of preindustrialism and capitalism coexist in economics, politics, and occupational patterns. This premise then leads her to link the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries in Spain as similarly experiencing a period of unparalleled growth and modernization (particularly visible in the cities), together with authoritarian rule that resulted from the failure of the First and Second Republics.
Sieburth has chosen four incredibly rich texts, both pairs written [End Page 904] within a few years of each other, and the nineteenth-century pair, intriguingly, by the same author. Inventing High and Low is as saturated with fascinating ideas as the works it studies. Sometimes the strands are so dense that the author provides diagrams to help chart the way through. She provides some well-documented historical analysis of modernization in Spain and moves comfortably among an eclectic range of theoretical sources, including Raymond Williams, Gramsci, Andreas Huyssen, Stallybrass and White, Unamuno, Bakhtin, Benjamin, Frye, Judith Walkowitz, Nancy Armstrong, Janice Radway, Fredric Jameson, Marcuse, Adorno, and Horkheimer. While it could be objected that her argument about the effects of the unevenly modern city on Spanish cultural production would be buttressed more effectively if one of the nineteenth-century texts had been by a second author and if more readings of actual nineteenth-century mass cultural texts were included, this book is so consistently brilliant and so eminently readable that it will stimulate other scholars to undertake such studies.
The introduction analyzes different meanings of culture, class, and art, showing how the semantic shift from culture understood as a process of cultivation of the land to culture as intellectual state does not register in Spanish dictionaries until the 1890s. In her studies of the novels, she bypasses the issue of authorial intent which continues to dog Spanish literary studies by foregrounding the narrators’ views and histories and not those of the authors. Sieburth reads La desheredada as a reflection on the role of the novel in an age where new technologies confront the novelist with a dizzying range of mechanical reproductions; Tormento as a critique both of the realist and the romance mode; Reivindicación as a misogynistic attempt to repress the “low”; and El cuarto de atrás, the only novel written by...