The Tutor, in his comments, wants to know how I define class, where I see the class lines break. (And yet he uses the word “genteel”! So much in a single word! I know someone who knows someone who says she lives in “genteel poverty” as an adjunct instructor. What class are the “genteel”?) But back to the question: who’s in what class, the Tutor demands. Wants to know how what sense I make of the term. “Get over it,” he says. “Monolithic,” he says. Depends on whose definition you’re talking about, Dear Tutor. You use the word “monolithic,” I reply: that sense of class is all yours.
But he’s right to call me out, really. Lots of readings and attempts at syntheses; very little new ground broken. The Tutor rattles off a string of names, to which I won’t respond in this post, for reasons that should soon become obvious. An initial reply, though, and one again not my own, but gotten third- or fourth-hand: America, and the world perhaps, needs a new class.
Maybe I got at it a little in my American Tarot riff. It feels Zodiacal, I think. We’ve always had fame, but it took Warhol to really deliver the autoerotic sucker-punch of celebrity. What class is Shaquille O’Neal a member of? He’s a member of the Celebrity class, a class that finally found its ascendancy somewhere in the seven years between Bill Clinton’s donning of dark glasses to play saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show in 1992 and Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s singing of “Werewolves of London” with Warren Zevon at his Inaugural Ball. Lorena Bobbitt will testify that membership in the class does not necessarily require wealth.
And so the Tutor taps his foot impatiently. I’m avoiding the question. I still haven’t given my account. Let’s push things a bit further: “the form class, coming into English in C17, acquired a special association with education,” notes Raymond Williams in Keywords. He continues: “Development of class in its modern social sense, with relatively fixed names for particular classes (lower class, middle class, upper class, working class and so on), belongs essentially to the period between 1770 and 1840, which is also the period of the Industrial Revolution and its decisive reorganization of society. At the extremes it is not difficult to distinguish between (i) class as a general term for any grouping and (ii) class as a would-be specific description of a social formation” (61). Ah: now we’re getting somewhere. But let’s skip through the Williams history of the term’s use by Defoe (1705), Madison (1787), Burke (1791), Mill (1834), and others, and on to the important distinction Williams makes at the end of his eminently useful nine-page definition and history concerning the various senses and uses of the word:
“(i) group (objective); social or economic category, at varying levels
(ii) rank; relative social position; by birth or mobility
(iii) formation; perceived economic relationship; social, political, and cultural organization” (69).
God bless Raymond Williams: now there’s a fine way to complicate my original four possible perspectives on class. But why stop now? According to Vander Zanden, sociologists typically describe class in several ways. “Objective” methods of describing class use things like census data; hard numbers and categorization according to dollar income or occupation. Then there are the “self-placement” or “subjective” methods, by which subjects define their own class: “I think I’m middle class. Finally, there are the “reputational” methods, by which subjects rank other peoples’ class. So we’ve got three different ways of measuring class, which will produce not only different results but also often different categories.
For those reasons, I don’t think I’d lay claim to the “monolithic” epithet. (He thaid, lithpingly.) And in fact, those are the reasons I can’t “Get over it,” despite the Tutor’s exhortation. The American view of class is enormously muddled and complex, and gives rise to precisely the sorts of contradictory class impulses the Tutor sees in the figures he lists. If I’m of a mind to ask questions about class, I’d say — to borrow a phrase from Sergeant First Class Baca, my old platoon sergeant — I’m in a target-rich environment.
I finished skimming James Vander Zanden’s intro-soc text tonight. He offers the insight that conservatives tend to believe that class inequalities exist because they get things done and make things move: poverty as spur. Radicals, on the other hand, believe that inequalities exist because inequalities benefit those who dominate others: they believe that the conservative view is often one held by those wearing the spurs, and seldom by those wearing the bridle.
Class, as I keep coming back to again and again, always involves money, whether it means being of a certain class despite money or being a certain class because of money. Vander Zanden, like much of the other stuff I’ve been reading, consistently uses wealth and income as fairly (but not entirely) definitive markers of class. In the sense of class as wealth, Vander Zanden points out, sociological studies have demonstrated that the upper classes perform better and go further in school, vote more, wait longer to have sex for the first time, and enjoy longer life expectancies, better health, and fewer incidences of mental illness. Life for the “underclass,” however, “a population of people, concentrated in an inner city, who are persistently poor, unemployed, and dependent on welfare” whose plight “exists mainly because of a sharp climb in inner-city joblessness by virtue of the elimination of hundreds of thousands of lower-skill jobs, the growing polarization of the labor market into low-wage and high-wage sectors, the relocation of manufacturing industries out of the central city, and periodic recessions. . . compounded by the concentration of the disadvantaged in inner-city ghettos and the isolation of these areas from more affluent communities” (Vander Zanden 188) isn’t quite so flush. Vander Zanden adds that “Simply being poor, however, does not make a person a part of the underclass. Indeed, the underclass constitutes a minority of the poor. The underclass is a core of inner-city poor, those individuals and families who are trapped in an unending cycle of joblessness and dependence on welfare or criminal earnings. Their communities are often plagued by drug abuse, lawlessness, crime, violence, and poor schools” (188). But the Tutor knows these things as well as any of us do, and is a man of generous heart, concerned with “ethical practice” and “good causes”. So I might ask the Tutor-as-Moralist: what are some valid reasons for not attempting to understand how class works?
(By the way, if it’s not apparent from the Zodiac, Warhol, and Bobbitt references: the celebrity class thing is a bit tongue-in-cheek — although, I have to admit, it might help resolve some stuff.)
(Edited 12:48 AM 7/31/03: moved my quick self-comment, directly above, into the body of the post.)