Considering the Guilt Associated with Enjoying ‘Low’ Culture

guilty pleasure Jennifer Szalai takes to the New Yorker to rail against the invocation of “guilty pleasures.” Since the idea is often associated with video games, I’ve decided to excerpt it at length with my own questions and comments inserted along the way. To really understand my concerns with her take, you should read it in its entirety first.


“I object to neither the pleasure, nor the guilt; it’s the modifying of one by the other that works my nerves, the awkward attempt to elevate as well as denigrate the object to which the phrase is typically assigned.” To claim that the phrase is a contradiction, the mutual elevation and denigration of an object, is to render it meaningless. While certainly a phrase worth exploring in more semantic detail, I don’t think “guilty pleasure” is merely a confused and vacuous idiom whose net semantic value is zero; just one more word game that’s broken down. “Guilty pleasures refer to cultural artifacts with mass appeal—genre novels, catchy pop songs, domestic action movies (foreign action “films,” no matter how awful, tend to get a pass), TV shows other than “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire”—that bring with them an easy enjoyment without any pretense to edification.” This is an arbitrary definition of the term by Szalai. While it certainly can apply to objects in those categories, and with those qualities, and in fact often does–none of those things are essential. Plenty of guilty pleasures have no “mass appeal.” I’m thinking romance novels, or pulp fantasy paperbacks, which though both have a devout following, neither is mainstream. What, after all, is the threshold for reaching (critical) mass appeal? “What’s even more perverse is that these so-called “guilty pleasures” never involve actual transgression: the bland escapades of Bridget Jones are a guilty pleasure; the depraved orgies of the Marquis de Sade are not.” Again, according to whom? How is paying for sex not a guilty pleasure? Would masturbating three times a day or binging on fast food be guilty pleasures? Both are indulgent; gratification in excess. “A guilty pleasure ever since has contained this element of gratification—of a need that’s met, almost despite oneself, rather than a pleasure one freely chooses. The mind that chooses is disembodied, abstract, and therefore pure; the body that needs is demanding, material, and messy—in other words, not to be trusted.” “Not to be trusted,” not because it is material, demanding, or messy, but because the body is often in conflict with the mind, our physical desires with our better sense, and right or wrong, the ultimate adjudication of these disagreements comes through, and as a result, of the mind. You can trust the body–but only if you (your mind) decided (agree) to. “When ‘guilty pleasure’ first appeared in the New York Times, in 1860, it was used to describe a brothel.”  So orgies can be guilty pleasures now?

“In some ways, the timing seems strange; the guilty pleasure was becoming a part of the cultural vocabulary right around the time cultural distinctions were ceasing to matter.” More importantly perhaps: right around the time technological developments began making the creation and distribution of entertainment media easier and cheaper. The VCR, the video game console, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and so on and so forth. “The guilty pleasure could then function as a signalling mechanism, an indicator that one takes pleasure in something but knows (the knowingness is key) that one really shouldn’t.” Exactly. As eluded to above, the body wants X, but the mind consoles itself against it. A guilty pleasure is a cognitive dissonance that resolves itself not through agreement but by overpowerment. I know I really shouldn’t finish that six pack before bed, and “I” don’t want to, but then I do anyway–regretting it later, and perhaps even knowingly at the time, resulting in a guilty pleasure. “Once distinctions were blurred, you could announce a love for pop culture that, in an earlier era, you would have been too ashamed to admit.” “Love” is the key word here I think. What does loving something mean, and how is that the same as or different from regarding it as a guilty pleasure? Does it make sense that someone would declare their love for a guilty pleasure? Or is calling it a guilty pleasure signaling that while they are entranced by something, the appeal of and desire for it is something different, and maybe less natural, or at least less unconflicted, then outright love. “Modernism had been competing with popular culture and consequently built bulwarks against it, pushing back against anything that was accessible and easy to take in.” Only because it was “easy” or for another reason? That being “easy” signaled something else, something less benign? “Postmodernism doesn’t have the same hangups; in fact, it seems to have few hangups at all, which is perhaps what once got the moralistic culture warriors worked up into a panic in the first place.” A loaded sentence with a lot jammed in it. Let us count the number of pejoratives… “Perhaps the guilty pleasure as we know it today, with all of its nudging and winking about the old notions of cultural hierarchy, of obsessions between ‘high’ and ‘low,’ was made possible by old cultural warriors like Bloom and Bill Bennett; their language was so overwrought, so full of swivet and distress, that irony might have seemed the most sensible response. This possibility makes the term a little less intolerable to me—but barely.” Szalai slips in here, with out ever addressing it, the implication that guilty pleasure is about arbitrary distinctions between high culture and low culture, good culture and bad culture. This goes back to her original framing of the question which situated guilty pleasures as cultural artifacts with mass appeal that were easy to consume and derive pleasure from. If she had spent even a paragraph perusing the various ways in which the term is used, and to what it’s applied, she would have been forced to expand the framework to include more axes.

It’s not that the French don’t believe in cultural hierarchy, but they don’t make as many fine distinctions between various shades of acceptability. “Just to be called culture,” Robinet said about French expectations, “it has to be a little highbrow.” He added that Americans have a wider definition of what culture is. In France, the landscape is more stratified; there isn’t much in the middle. “The French don’t have the concepts of up-market fiction or middle-market fiction,” Robinet said, referring to common categories used by American publishers. “They have romans de gare, ‘train-station novels,’ which include everything that isn’t literary. And then they have literature.” Lines might be breaking down, as France struggles with the influx of pop culture, much of it American. But the guilty pleasure isn’t yet part of France’s cultural lexicon. As Robinet put it, “If you have a guilty pleasure, you don’t talk about it.'”

This is illuminating. By Szalai’s analysis, the French don’t have guilty pleasures because there is no need to further clarify one’s conflictedness about enjoying a given cultural artifact with complete abandon. It’s simply not culture, and thus requires no inclination to guilt. This implies that the guilty pleasure grew out of a “flattening” of the cultural landscape, a push toward pluralism and populism that made it “acceptable” to spend large amounts of time with culture as long as it was in some way pleasurable–a criterion that many people, for whatever reason, apparently don’t feel is completely legitimate, hence the guilt. “Here, though, you make sure to talk about it—which is why the term exudes a false note, a mix of self-consciousness and self-congratulation. Aside from those actively seeking out public debasement, if you felt really, truly ashamed of it, you probably wouldn’t announce it to the world, would you? The guilt signals that you’re most comfortable in the élite precincts of high art, but you’re not so much of a snob that you can’t be at one with the people. So you confess your remorse whenever you deign to watch “Scandal,” implying that the rest of your time is spent reading Proust.” Or rather implying that the rest of your time “should” be spent reading Proust. I don’t hang out with the people Szalai hangs out with, and perhaps in the social circles she traverses, people like to put on airs about their cultural sophistication. How bizarre though that Szalai appears somewhat perturbed, even annoyed, by the fact that people my be posing. First she decries the shadow of sin associated with surrendering to pleasure induced guilt, then she resents those who, in doing so, demonstrate their own philistinism. So what if people love watching “Scandal?” Also, I hate it when people lament that their watching “Scandal” instead of reading Proust, because I bet they don’t even know what it is. “The guilty pleasure is a vestige of America’s disappearing middlebrow culture, of that anxious mediation between high and low, which at its best generated a desire to learn, to value cultural literacy and to accept some of the challenges it requires.” That is, the guilty pleasure belongs to those educated enough to know what turns them on is base, but not mentally strong enough to move themselves past it and finally get around to reading Proust. “But the guilty pleasure seems to me the distillation of all the worst qualities of the middlebrow—the condescension of the highbrow without the expenditure of effort, along with mass culture’s pleasure-seeking without the unequivocal enjoyment. If you want to listen to Rihanna while reading the latest from Dean Koontz, just go ahead and do it. Don’t try to suggest you know better. Forget the pretense and get over yourself. You have nothing to lose but your guilt.” You’re a rube, so stop pretending. And if you’re not, than stop indulging in low-brow garbage. What began as a meditation on an increasingly common (and increasingly relevant) admission of cultural conflictedness ends up as an opportunity for Szalai to indulge in a little social sorting. Enjoy what you want; just be honest, even if that means admitting that you can’t bring yourself to engage with the “higher” end of the spectrum.


A brief personal note on guilty pleasures: I have a lot of them. Chinese Takeout (because I could be cooking my own food, saving money, and eating healthier, and still have my taste buds excited). Playing that third match of DOTA, for the fourth night in a row, because really I should be furthering my career as a writer, finishing one of those books I got out of the library, or moderating my excesses by doing just about anything else for a little while. Finally bad movies like the Expandables, Escape Plan, and Real Steel. They make me laugh, which is a good thing. But I could always stand to see a few more art films, documentaries, or older classics.

The reason these are guilty pleasures isn’t, as far as I can tell, to do with some split between high and low culture, but with a personal feeling of lethargy, comfort, and stagnation. Some things stretch us, challenge us, help us to grow and change and renew ourselves. Perhaps “guilt” is an unrealistic or unhealthy reaction to have in the face of “not living up to my potential,” whatever that is. But certainly I have obligations in the world, and I seek status and admiration, respect, and love. I might not need to “better myself” in some moral sense. Still, who can deny the social and psychological drive to do more than just what gives us positive satisfaction in any given moment?


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