Rather than summarize Brown’s findings, it might be more instructive to think of his book as having been constructed, modularly, out of four blocks:
1) A Marxist problem: The problem that drives Brown’s thinking arrives as a question: What is the condition of art in the era of the universal market? The very concept of art promises that there exists a special class of objects, objects that we intuitively set apart, that are exempt from our ordinary calculi, that indeed activate one of the mind’s more recondite and less Newtonian faculties. But it is the premise of the universal market that there exist no such objects. Art might thus seem to be one of the things that a cyclically expanding capitalism has had to eliminate, as rival and incompatibility, like late medieval guilds or Yugoslavia. And yet art plainly still exists. I swear I saw some last Sunday. What, then, is the status of art when it can no longer dwell, nor even pretend to dwell, outside of the market, when its claim to distinction can no longer plausibly be voiced, when we’ve all come to suspect that the work of art is just another luxury good? One way of thinking about Autonomy, then, is to read it as refurbishing the theory of postmodernism, thirty-five years after Jameson first put that theory in place.
2) A Kantian solution: Maybe “refurbish” is the wrong word, though. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Brown means to call off the theory of postmodernism, to soothe readers steeped in Jameson by explaining how art survives even once, in the latter’s words, “aesthetic production … has become integrated into commodity production generally.” Autonomy amounts to a set of reassurances that aesthetic autonomy remains possible even within the market; that artworks can come to us with ISBN numbers and still elude the constraints of the commodity form. Brown’s book amounts to a list of the techniques available to contemporary artists for performing this feat. This is an argument that can be broadcast in different frequencies. Most often, it arrives in Kantian form, to the effect that there still exist non-instrumental objects, objects that, in some sense yet to be defined, display an anomalous relationship to purpose or use. At the same time, the argument can be modulated to carry a certain Marxist content. It was Marx’s claim, after all, that capitalism was bound to produce its own enemies, that bosses and investors were fated to produce a class of persons who would simultaneously serve and oppose them. One way of engineering the splice between Marxism and Kantian aesthetics is just to swap in the word objects where the last sentence had “persons.” Marx held that labor power was the commodity that did not behave like all the others. –Perhaps art is a second such. –And maybe work is the word that holds the two together. If we grant this point, postmodernism might reveal itself to have been a false problem all along. For which faithful Marxist ever thought we had to look outside of market society for solutions? Not Jameson, at any rate, whose mantra in the 1980s was that there was no advantage in opposing postmodernism, that the task for an emancipatory aesthetics was to pick its way through postmodernism and out the other side. Nicholas Brown, meanwhile, is more interested in what came before postmodernism than in what might come after it. In literary-historical terms, his argument is best understood as vouching for the survival of modernism within its successor form. Indeed, Brown is such a partisan of early twentieth-century art that he writes a chapter on The Wire, hailed by all and sundry as the great reinvention of Victorian social realism for the twenty-first century, and calls it “Modernism on TV” (152). The theorist’s attachment to the old modern is easiest to sense whenever the book’s readings reach their anti-utilitarian and aestheticist apotheoses. Brown thinks he can explain why, when presented with two versions of the same photograph, we should prefer the one with the class conflict left out (58-9). He also praises one white, Bush-era guitar band for negating the politics implicit in its blues rock, for achieving a pop formalism so pristine that it successfully brackets the question of race (145).
3) A high-middlebrow canon: That the band in question is The White Stripes lights up the next important feature of Autonomy, which is that it has assembled a canon of high-middlebrow art from the last forty years: Caetano Veloso, Jeff Wall, Alejandro Iñarritu, Ben Lerner, David Simon, Jennifer Egan, Richard Linklater, Cindy Sherman. That Brown shares the last-named with Jameson’s postmodernism book is a reminder that this set of objects could be variously named. The mind swoops in to say that the high-middlebrow is nothing but postmodernism itself (EL Doctorow, Andy Warhol, Blade Runner)—that the book’s dexterity is therefore to redescribe as neo-modernist what we had previously known only as pomo—but then pauses. If we follow the classic account, then one of the foremost characteristics of postmodern art—the first box to tick if you’re in a museum carrying the checklist—is the collapsing of high and low, or what Jameson often identifies as elite art’s unwonted interest in its downmarket rival, its willingness to mimic trash, pulp, schlock, or kitsch. But it’s never been obvious that the latter really and truly triggered the former—that the mere quoting of popular media was enough to abolish the class-boundedness of art or even to weaken our habituated sense that cultural goods sort out into a hierarchy of distinction. If I am sitting in a concert hall listening to a string quartet, then this setting alone will be enough to frame the music as high even when the composer briefly assigns the cello the bassline from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” One wishes to say, then, that the middlebrow—and not the citational—is the mode of art in which the distinction between high and low most fully collapses, which should make of Midcult the form of a perfected postmodernism, except that the doubling of the concept will now raise some puzzles of its own. For didn’t the middlebrow precede the postmodern? Wasn’t there middlebrow art before there was postmodern art? And if yes, then why wasn’t such art postmodern when it combined high and low in 1940? Were high and low commingling differently in 1980 than they had in The Old Man and the Sea? And doesn’t middlebrow art have its own, more or less direct way of reaching the median, its own styles and forms, without having to assemble itself afresh every time from pieces borrowed from high and low? So perhaps we would need after all to distinguish the middlebrow from the splicing-of-pop-and-art, for which we would continue to reserve the word postmodernism. At this point, watching those terms grow unwieldy, one casts about for new ones, and looking back over Brown’s list of autonomous artists, discerns the outlines of what until recently we were calling indie culture or alternative: small-label rock albums and small-studio features, supplemented by New Yorker fiction and the more accessible reaches of gallery art. If you are persuaded by Autonomy, you’re going to say that it is a thoughtful Gen X’ers riposte to Jameson, thirty-five years his senior, a careful explanation of why he has never experienced the art of his generation as all that broken. If you are unpersuaded by the book, you’re going to say that it is Immanuel Kant’s manifesto for dad rock.
4) The methods of the literature seminar: At this point, it becomes important to identify the first of two ways that Brown has modified the Kantian arguments that he makes often and by name. The third Critique is at pains to explain that you are doing something unusual every time you call something beautiful. First of all, you are judging without interest; when you experience something as beautiful, you stop caring what it is for, or what it can do for you, or what it is worth. And if you are judging without interest, then it follows directly that your judgment should hold universally, since all other people equally capable of bracketing their interests should judge as you do. And yet the universality in question will be a fractured one even so. When I call this painting beautiful, I demand that everyone agree with me while knowing in practice that not everyone will. My claim is thus universalizing but not genuinely universal. Beauty is the occasion for what Kant innocuously names our “subjective universality”—our failed and spectral commonality, which is, of course, the fate of all universalisms thus far, unusual here only because raised to consciousness.
Brown follows this argument closely, but has nothing at all to say about beauty, which is the term one might have thought a Kantian aesthetics could not forego. His revision goes like this: I know I am in the presence of art not when I experience an object as beautiful, but when I know it to be meaningful, and I discern its meanings even having admitted that I can never know what it was that the artist meant. Deliberating about art, Brown says, has to involve the “public ascription of intention,” and it’s worth taking the time to extract the Kantian structure of this claim (13). Intention is merely ascribed, something that I have to posit. But this ascription is necessarily public; I posit meaning while expecting others to co-posit it alongside me. Meaning is subjective but not private and in this sense the successor to Kant’s beauty. Brown’s niftiest trick is thus to get meaning to do the work of the beautiful, and we can accordingly read Autonomy both as the making-hermeneutic of the philosophy of art and as the making-aesthetic of meaning, hence as philosophical aesthetics’ revenge upon semiotics for having once taught us to talk about art in de-aestheticized ways.
“The public ascription of meaning” is also Brown’s big proposal for authenticating an object as real art even when it comes to as us as commodity. It’s his bite test and dropper of nitric acid. Can I generate public meanings around x (Alison Bechdel, Gus Van Sant, Yeah Yeah Yeahs)? In practice, this is bound to mean: Can I teach a class on x (St. Vincent, Wes Anderson, Cormac McCarthy)? Will it work in seminar? We know something to be art, Brown says, when it “solicits close interpretative attention,” and Autonomy is most convincing when modeling such attention (22). Brown is a first-rate exegete, and his book tosses off one illuminating reading after another, repeatedly vindicating the program of an older criticism: why Boyhood isn’t really a coming-of-age movie; why the second season of The Wire is Greek rather than Shakespearean tragedy (and why that distinction matters); the particular way in which bossa nova bridges the divide between popular and art musics (and what this has to do with developmentalist politics in the global South). Readers might nonetheless be disappointed to learn that postmodern art’s paths to autonomy are the ones they already knew about. The book’s point, in fact, seems to be that the old paths still work, that new ones aren’t needed. Brown likes art when it displays a degree of self-consciousness about its own procedures and historical situation, and especially when an artwork includes a version of itself which it then subjects to critique. Simple self-referentiality is his most basic requirement: that art not reproduce without comment the inherited imperatives of its genre or medium, always glossed as market imperatives. He sticks up for “framing” and “citation” because of the meta-questions that these provoke; some guitars don’t just play rock songs, but get you to reflect on the condition of rock songs. All three of the novels he recommends are thus Künstlerromane, or at least readable as such, but these are only the clearest instance of Autonomy’s fundamentally didactic preference for literature when it interrupts our naïve attitude to fiction and instead makes us think afresh about same. The White Stripes are congratulated for having turned “fun” into an “inquiry” (149).
This position is no more perspicuous than it has ever been. A person might finish Autonomy still wondering how it is that irony in this accustomed mode is able to “suspend the logic of the commodity” (34). The question is difficult: When irony comes to us in the form of the commodity, can we be sure that the commodity always loses? What keeps the self-ironizing commodity from functioning as commodified irony? In order to be convinced of Brown’s position, do I have to believe first that irony is the one uncommodifiable thing? Or that a work that confesses its dependence on the market has thereby neutralized that dependence? In Autonomy, autonomy sometimes withers back to my ability to name my subordination. Brown, moreover, is altogether inured to one version of clientage, which is the continued dependence of art upon the critic, who, after all, is the only one who can ratify it as art, via that public ascription of meaning. Artists forward works to the marketplace without knowing whether they will even count as art, generating instead a kind of proto-art, obliged to wait for the critics who produce the aftermarket meanings that classify some works as not-just-commodities. If you are an artist, then autonomy apparently means marking time until somebody else certifies that you have successfully described your heteronomy.
 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 4.
 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment (1790), translation by Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1987). See especially section 8: “In a judgment of taste the universality of the liking is presented only as subjective.”