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I am not sure about the following use of the term lowercase:

Their approach is decidedly lowercase […] Through the lowercase abstinence and erasion lies an unfathomed vastness […]

Context: esthetics of sound art. There is also a (sub)genre of electronic music of a minimalistic and highly reduced esthetic with that name.

So, from the context, it seems quite clear to me that the meaning of ›lowercase‹ is close to that of low-profile, and yet I was not able to find any reference for that meaning.

How common is this use of the term – is it a recent or ad-hoc coinage within this specific context, or does it have a more general, e.g. colloquial, use?

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    I've never heard it, but it's an intuitive and clear metaphor on the face of it. Just like ALL CAPS IS CONSIDERED SCREAMING, though no one hears a sound, lowercase could be considered muted; down-played.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 13:54
  • When some word is capitalized, it is in recognition of a big deal, that what was once generic, is now a specific important thing (this is a somewhat informal thing used in non-serious writing). A new deal is a deal that is new, but the New Deal was a special program initiated in the FDR administration. To call something lowercase is to say that it is generic and not special. It's a reasonable metaphorical usage, could be used generally (not specific to music criticism) but is not colloquial.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 15:00
  • A related idea might be the use of lower case versions of political groups' names to refer to people having some attributes of the group without allegiance to it. Hence "liberal" vs. "Liberal" , "small-c conservative" etc.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 29, 2015 at 18:26

3 Answers 3

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The usage of lowercase in the sense you describe goes back at least 24 years. Here is an example from Bureau of National Affairs, Daily Labor Report (1991) [combined snippets]:

"Apocalyptic changes to Medicaid and Medicare" will be necessary to address the health care problem fully, Grandy said. He suggested that the current Congress take a “lower-case approach" to fixing the health care system “with the idea of really addressing the problem after the 1992 elections."

He said lawmakers should immediately take steps to provide access to health insurance for employees of small business who lack coverage and self-employed individuals who are limited to a 25 percent tax deduction for the cost of health insurance.

From the context of the quotation, "lower-case approach" seems to refer to a temporary or stopgap approach (to a problem), as opposed to a concerted, formal effort to solve the problem for good.

Another instance of "lowercase approach" occurs in a cover blurb extracted from Newsweek magazine review in Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2006):

"Lamott writes about subjects that begin with capital letters [Alcoholism, Motherhood, Jesus]. But armed with self-effacing humor and ruthless honesty—call it a lowercase approach to life's Big Question—she converts potential op-ed boilerplates into enchantment." —Newsweek

The original Newsweek quotation must be from no later than 1997, because it also appears (in truncated form) in another cover blurb for another Anne Lamott book, Crooked Little Heart: A Novel (1997).

In this instance, the sense of "lowercase approach" is much closer to the notion of "understated" or "modest" that Vynce suggests in an earlier answer to this question. It also implies a kind of thoughtful, nonblustering hominess in dealing with important issues that writers all to often address with counterproductive posturing and bombast.

Conveniently, Andrew Johnston, "Catholic with a Small c," in The Source of the Song: New Zealand Writers on Catholicism spells out with examples precisely how he understands the difference between "upper case" and "lower case" as applied to systems:

If the shift key slips, Catholic comes out as catholic. With a big C it means one thing, with a small c it means many. The word is from the Greel katholikos, universal, literally in respect of (kata) the whole (holos). What I want to do in this essay is chart a few of the journeys that exist between two attitudes to meaning, an upper case system of belief (Catholicism) and a lower case system of uncertainty (lyric poetry). Both present ways of writing about the world: in the first, the world has already been written; in the second, the world is still writable.

A highly theoretical (and rather less coherent) instance of the idea of a "lower case approach" emerges in Keith Jenkins, Why History? Ethics and Postmodernity (1999):

Now, in his text, [David] Harlan has a range of chapters (on the linguistic turn, left and feminist histories, the return of the moral imagination, and so on, populated by such 'theorists' as Quentin Skinner, Elaine Showalter and Henry Louis Gates), but it is in his chapter on Richard Rorty (fittingly entitled 'A Choice of Inheritance') that Harlan's appropriative, anti-contextualist, anti-objectivist, pro-moralistic (and thus 'anti-lower case') approach is best exemplified, and which arguably renders the name 'history' for what Harlan is there advocating obsolete.

I have no idea what "lower case approach" (or its antithesis) means to this author, but evidently he associates it with a non-appropriative, pro-contextualist, pro-objectivist, anti-moralistic orientation.

Yet another instance occurs in Faye Halpern, Sentimental Readers: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of a Disparaged Rhetoric (2013):

During the times when she acts well, Christie [Devon, protagonist of Work: A Story of Experience (1872) by Louisa May Alcott] draws on herself, yet what she is drawing on is her skill at becoming sympathetic both to the character and to the audience. She "personates" the character that she is playing rather than presents her own interpretation of her: she manages to "catch and copy the steps and poses" (34) and by such a lowercase method becomes that character. She follows the method laid out by the French actor and teacher François Delsarte, whose work was promulgated in the United States starting in the 1870s and was adopted by both actors and elocutionists.

This time, "lowercase method" seems to mean an informal, extemporaneously pursued method (of acting) based on copying, rather than a formal, theoretically based method or practice.

And finally, in Adrian Daub, Uncivil Unions: The Metaphysics of Marriage in German Idealism and Romanticism (2012):

The triple function of the concept "love" animates Novalis's central claim in Faith and Love, which finally introduces "the king and the queen" of the text's subtitle: "A true royal couple id for the whole human being what a constitution is for the mere understanding." What then is "a constitution " "for the mere understanding," and, by analogy, what exactly is it that "a true royal couple" does for "the whole human being"? The difference stems from two of the functions of love we distinguish above: First, love represents the ability to relate to the Whole rather than to just those aspects that are accessible to the understanding, or, in the terms of the fragment from Allgemeine Brouillon discussed above, discussed above, the ability to the ability to understand the state as capital Z rather than a lowercase system of laws z. Second, however, love constitutes the very internal structure of the state.

The author here uses "lowercase system" to indicate an understanding of a system of laws on a generic or informal basis rather than as representing high concepts and archetypal forms—maybe.


Conclusions

Although the examples I've presented here constitute a very small sample size, they are consistent with the notion that "lowercase approach [or method or system]" originated as a simple but vivid way to distinguish between formal, precisely defined approaches (upper case) and informal, loosely defined approaches (lower case). In the past decade or so, however, "lowercase approach/method/system" may have fallen victim to academic popularity, with the result that scholars use it in endlessly shifting ways that they rarely bother to pin down with any specificity.

There is no reason, under the circumstances, to suppose that a theorist writing about the esthetics of sound art will use lowercase in the same way that a theorist writing about postmodern ethics does—or even in the same way that a second theorist writing about the esthetics of sound art does.

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Well, I'd want a longer quote to be sure of context, but from what's given, I would say that the reading "understated" is probably what's intended. I would also guess that the author is being intentionally obfuse and I would not expect to necessarily find parallel extant uses of each word.

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Reviewers often resort to word salad in order to avoid cliche. This appears to be the case here. The only way to know with certainty is to ask the author.

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