How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 4)

NUSSBAUM Occasionally we’d throw something in that had nothing to do with culture. At one point this year the weather was really miserable. I just suggested putting overflowing sewers on one side and then hot soup on the other — or something like that. The main thing we got flack for was the highbrow/lowbrow aspect of it.

ROBERTS Why? What was the flack?

NUSSBAUM We got this objection from people who have a strong feeling about these cultural categories. About the art of the charticle. The strongest objection was essentially, to be super-academic about it, that we were reifying the categories of highbrow and lowbrow.

ROBERTS What does reify mean?

NUSSBAUM Instead of critiquing, or being playful with, or using but in a knowledgeable way, those categories, that we were solidifying them, and acting as if they were real and making them into solid objects.

ROBERTS I’m not grasping the criticism. Oh, ok, you’re doing that, so what?

NUSSBAUM Basically, that we were taking them at face value, or, even more cynically, that we were presenting them at face value even though we knew better. By setting up a chart like this, we were basically saying opera is highbrow and comics are lowbrow. When to me, part of the point of it was making visual those illusory categories. Effectively setting up a kind of stimulus for people to react to the way that we place things. You do end up saying to yourself, at least if you’re in-house and you’re debating these things — you do end having this weird conversation about: are the Oscars more highbrow or lowbrow than the Grammys and the Tonys? This kind of crazy way of determining things. Sternbergh once wrote something to the guy [Mohamed Ibrahim] who was doing Behind the Approval Matrix — we were so excited that someone was doing a blog about it — he wrote a note to him at one point describing our thinking on several of the items in it. Also, occasionally people would just come up to us and say, I don’t understand why is this in this category, it should be here! And then we would have an absurdly overanalytical conversation about our thinking. For good or bad there was actually a lot of conversation and real analysis about where to place things.

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