Brow positioning

Class warriors seem to vector in from every section of the spectrum these days, but that’s no real surprise. Apparently sociologist Pierre Bourdieu figured out their trajectories back in the 1960s:

Bourdieu’s Distinction famously unmasked “good” or distinguished, educated taste as so much “cultural capital,” a mere panoply of status markers. To favor a more challenging type of book, a less strictly tonal sort of music, a less representational kind of painting — or, more to the point today, a less completely shitty grade of film product — mostly demonstrated that you came from a higher social class. And many Americans have come to agree. So when Al Gore said his favorite book was Stendhal’s Red and the Black, this could be boiled down to mean, You know what? I’m an upper-class guy who went to Harvard. Of course, everyone with power in America is an upper-class guy who went to Harvard. But this isn’t held to be the problem.

The noxious thing about the cultural elite is supposed to be its bad faith. Everyone else in America more or less forthrightly confesses that they’re trying to grab as much money as they can, and if somebody has meanwhile forced a liberal education on them, that doesn’t mean they’ve had to like it. Upon making their money, real Americans are furthermore honest enough to spend it on those things that evolution or God have programmed humans to sincerely enjoy. In winter recreation, this might be snowmobiling — genuine petroleum-burning fun! — as opposed to cross-country skiing, a tedious trial of aerobic virtue. In wintry Scandinavian literature, it might be Stieg Larsson rather than Knut Hamsun. Oppositions of the same kind — between untutored enjoyment and the acquired taste — can be generated endlessly, and are. Half the idea is that genuine, honest people differ not so much in their tastes as in their economic ability to indulge those tastes; there exists an oligarchy of money but no aristocracy of spirit. The other half is that less sincere people — elitists — lie to themselves and everybody else about what’s really in their red-meat hearts. Instead of saying I’m pleased with my superior class background, they pretend to like boring books, films, and sports.

There is plenty of bad faith to go around, you may be sure. We might amble our scruffy selves up to the counter at B&N with a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in tow, and often as not there’s one person nearby who imagines a disconnect between reader and reading material. Of course, we’re only reading this because it’s been mentioned in the popular press, while he read it on the day of release. In Latvian translation, yet.

Which, of course, is consistent with Bourdieu, who argued that whatever working-class aesthetic exists is more or less forced to define itself in terms of the dominant — middle-brow and higher — aesthetic; in general, any popular A is at best some dumbed-down knockoff of some more literary, more desirable B. Pity the poor hipster who finds his favorite band on the radio: if everybody can hear them, they must have sold out, and therefore they suck.

I’m tempted to boil this down to an aphorism: Nobody eats arugula for the taste. It’s a status indicator, pure and simple. If you could get it in a salad at Wendy’s, no one would pay however many dollars a pound for it.

Advice Goddess Amy Alkon, who pointed me to this article, says:

When I got to New York (little rube me from a suburb in Michigan), I was determined to partake of Important Culture, and did I ever…going to all sorts of things, including the Joyce Theatre, to see modern dance. At some point, in my early 20s, I realized that I’d rather lie down in traffic on 18th Street than EVER see another modern dance piece. And I hate John Cage with a huge passion and think they should play his music for prisoners at Guantanamo to get them to talk.

I’ve actually been in a modern dance piece, a bit of experimental theatre when I was a young and impressionable college student with time to kill and electives to take. Ability to dance, you may be sure, was not a criterion for inclusion. Then again, it’s not like I went to Harvard or anything.


  1. fillyjonk »

    1 February 2011 · 10:16 am

    Interesting. Though I wonder how much of “high culture” becomes so because of the cachet of time: after all, Shakespeare was largely popular culture in his day, and Dickens was serialized in magazines. (Then again: Was Stravinsky ever truly, “popular” in the sense that, I don’t know, Benny Goodman, was?)

    (Or are Shakespeare and Dickens no longer considered “important” or “serious”? I can’t keep track of what’s supposed to be the in thing to read, listen to, or watch)

    I consider having the freedom to read both Knut Hamsun (and yes, I read one of his novels, once) and watch and enjoy SpongeBob SquarePants to be one of the blessings of not having anyone to impress.

  2. McGehee »

    1 February 2011 · 10:43 am

    Ability to dance, you may be sure, was not a criterion for inclusion.

    Well no. It was modern dance.

  3. Old Grouch »

    1 February 2011 · 12:06 pm

    who did taps
    aren’t tapping anymore
    They’re doing choreography

    who did kicks
    aren’t kicking anymore
    They’re doing choreography

    Heps who did steps
    That would stop the show in days that used to be
    Through the air they keep flying
    Like a duck that is dying
    Instead of dance it’s

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