Month: July 2005

Mapping Class & Culture

I’m going to ask you for your help here.

Bourdieu contends that class is structured as a space of “symbolic capital,” which itself is constructed by and in individuals out of three different types of capital: economic (meaning, in his terminology, financial), social (networks and relationships of acquaintance among people), and cultural (tastes, values, knowledge, skills, customs, practices). In Distinction, he argues that the multidimensional space of symbolic capital is structured along three axes: volume of capital, composition of capital, and trajectory of capital. He offers several diagrams (see pages 128-129, 262, 340, 343, inter alia) that map two dimensions of social space in order to help explain the class correspondences he sees in French culture. These maps are essentially Cartesian in nature, with the X axis representing composition of capital (more cultural capital and less economic capital on the left; less cultural capital and more economic capital on the right) and the Y axis representing overall volume of capital (more at the top, less at the bottom).

Figure 1

Cartesian graph of Bourdieu's space of symbolic capital.

He then populates the diagrams with aspects of culture in France: Kafka, flea markets, the Firebird Suite, and frozen food in the upper left quadrant; beer, potatoes, Brigitte Bardot, and farm laborers in the lower right. (Keep in mind: the ethnographic research here was conducted long ago, and in another country.)

Figure 2

Various points on Bourdieu's map of symbolic capital.

It sounds silly at first, certainly, but when you read Bourdieu’s analysis, it starts to seem quite compelling. So: I’m going to make a few more points below the fold, but my big point in this post is to ask you, reader, for your help. I’d like to perform the same sort of mapping Bourdieu does, only with American class and culture, and I hope you might suggest some aspects of American culture — with their corresponding Cartesian co-ordinates — in the comments.

If you’d like to join in the fun (or, less likely, if you’re interested in my dissertation-oriented further comments on Bourdieu and the intersection of his work with that of Raymond Williams), please, read on.

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Analytical Scope

In Bourdieu’s Distinction, one way class inequality gets expressed is in the dominant classes’ distancing themselves from acknowledging the materiality of life. The judgement of distinction is a privileging of the abstract and the idealized and the rarefied and the immaterial; small portions over large portions; classical over jazz over pop. The more capital one possesses, the less one is affected by the quotidian concerns of the material world, and so one attempts to demonstrate one’s superior class position by enacting and performing that distance. The converse is also true: note the emphasis “vulgar” art — including musical forms like country, gangsta rap, and bluegrass — place on authenticity, on “keeping it real,” on the representation of the materiality of everyday lived experience. This trend, of course, is also highly visible in Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, particularly in his analyses of Coleridge, Carlyle, and (very much) Matthew Arnold.

In the Industrial Revolution of Williams’s analysis, technological advance was one of the chief driving factors of economic advance, and I’m arguing that much the same is true today. Steam, railroads, telegraphs, electricity: the emergence of these technologies produced immense and immensely unequal economic growth, just as the emergence of newer technologies has done today, and while the twentieth century’s division of labor led to a staggering increase in the volume of class positions, the class positions at the top are moving further and further away from the class positions at the bottom. But the core of the argument Williams makes is that economic changes, in confluence with changes in such factors as art and democracy, produced radical change in our understandings of class and culture: this is no mere techno-economic determinism. I’m saying much the same thing, although some of the other changes in causal factors Williams might note today include things like globalization, the post-ironic aesthetic, ethnic nationalism, and the conflict between energy consumption and environmentalism. My scope is considerably more narrow: I’m simply looking at the way certain (rather than all) factors — technology, economy — are helping to drive change in our understanding of class and its relationship to a certain aspect of culture: namely, the practice and instruction of literacy.

Chocolate Proletariat

My attorney and I went to see Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory today, and we enjoyed it immensely. Like Bill, I totally saw the Michael Jackson connection; Bill’s thoughts on the implications of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka being “repelled by the very notion of nuclear family” are well worth a read. And like Bill, I totally loved the songs. Missi Pyle as Mrs. Beauregarde was fantastic, as was Johnny Depp, who did a fine job of displaying the misanthropic — and at times downright sadistic — tendencies evident throughout Dahl’s body of work. And the movie is simultaneously gorgeous and hallucinatory, and very, very funny.

What really interested me, though, was Dorothea Salo’s fine and productive reading of the movie as being “about labor, abuse thereof.” She’s totally, totally right, and if you don’t want to know any more about the movie, please don’t read any further: no major spoilers, but there are some minor revelations about the movie’s content.

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Come Together (Bourdieu)

Economists rely on metaphors. Graphs, diagrams, the visual logic of geometry: these are especially favored among neoclassical economists for their explanatory power, even as neoclassical economics has been increasingly critiqued (see, for example, the post-autistic economics movement) for the ways in which these metaphors seem to be better at explaining themselves in a sort of idealized hermetic circle than they are at actually explaining the real workings of the world. Bourdieu, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, follows the lead of the economists with his graphs, diagrams, and curves (see, especially, pages 17 and 81 for figures that seem to explain more than they truly do): geometry, after all, has a rigor and a logic, and what sociologist would not want to borrow some of that power?

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Rethinking Class with Bourdieu

There’s a really smart discussion on WCS-L (the working class studies listserv) right now about definitions of class, and it’s intersecting in curious ways with my re-reading of Bourdieu’s perspectives on class for my dissertation’s chapter 3. For me, it’s useful to think of one pole of the discussion as being Marx’s tension between class-as-position (where one stands in relation to the means of production; whether one’s exploiter or exploited) and class-as-consciousness (how one feels oneself to be a member of a group), and the other pole of the discussion as being Bourdieu’s attempt to ease that tension by showing how positional structures of class get unknowingly internalized into one’s consciousness as inhabited structures of feeling (and, subsequently, structures of tastes and values). When I first encountered Bourdieu’s work, I didn’t understand this at all; now, it seems elementary. And — perhaps as a result of this — I’ve begun to reconsider much of my initial dislike for the authenticity-based rhetoric of class as lived experience, partly because I’m starting to understand what Bourdieu’s saying about class, experience, and affect, and how it gets structured: Bourdieu was, in his background, what Americans would call a hick, and he took a lot of flak for it early in his academic career, and it profoundly shaped his research. So while my initial intent in returning to Bourdieu was to try to better understand his relational model of class — I’m really not much interested in the commodifying tendencies so obviously evident in the whole cultural capital thing — I’m now seeing, partly through the WCS-L discussion, the ways in which economic and cultural rhetorics of class get connected to rhetorics of the personal. In other words, I started chapter 3 with the intent of raiding Bourdieu’s work for his assertions that class is a relational quality enacted within a social space, and therefore, classes are infinite: “difference (which I express in describing social space) exists and persists. […] Social classes do not exist […]. What exists is a social space, a space of differences, in which classes exist in some sense in a state of virtuality, not as something given but as something to be done” (Practical Reason 12; see also, of course, the entirety of Distinction). But I’m coming to find that this understanding of class is inextricably tied to a rhetoric of the personal that I’ve incompletely addressed in chapter 2 and expect to be a significant component of either chapter 4 or chapter 5, and that I’ve yammered on about at some length in the past.

So yeah: the diss is starting to come together a bit.

In other news, Tink loudly insists that I play with her toes. Gotta go.

Potter Spoiler

My attorney was recently able to obtain, on double super secret background, an advance copy of the new Harry Potter book. After perusing it herself, she passed it along to me, and — as a public service to those of you who can’t wait the few hours until midnight tonight — I offer here a brief plot summary. Spoilers ahead.

After the customary introductory crises at Number 4 Privet Drive, Harry boards the Hogwarts Express, only to find himself on academic probation even before reaching the school when Draco Malfoy overhears him refer to Professor McGonagall as a “milf.” There are the usual worries about Lord Voldemort, and Hagrid reveals that he’s captured one of the animals that serve as the pets of the dementors, a large extradimensional ground squirrel commonly known as the “void marmot” or “nothingpig.” In one of the first sessions of Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures course, it’s discovered that the void marmot — Hagrid has named it “Slimpie” — is a remarkably friendly creature. Ron observes how it rolled over on its back to have its belly scratched, causing Hermione to exclaim: “‘Void marmot rolled’ — that’s an anagram for Tom Marvolo Riddle, you-know-who’s name!” Terror ensues, Professor Dumbledore is summoned, and the entire Quidditch season is cancelled, to the immense relief of future movie audiences everywhere.

These are not the only worries at Hogwarts, however. Cornelius Fudge, having seen a recent abstruse and esoteric journal article by Professor Trelawney drawing on continental magical theory from the Beauxbatons Academy and the Durmstrang Institute, declares that Hogwarts must henceforth follow an English Magic Only policy. Professor Snape comes out with a public statement of support for Professor Trelawney (Rowling notes in a wry aside that of course someone whose wardrobe consists of nothing but black clothing would embrace continental theory), leading to an interdepartmental scandal, and the academic battle lines are drawn: Snape, Trelawney, and Flitwick embracing the continental neoformalist post-occlumency position, and McGonagall, Sprout, and Hooch denouncing them from the well-entrenched pseudostructuralist meta-Goshawkian perspective. Parvati Patil and Colin Creevey, under the advice of Nearly Headless Nick, denounce the entire affair as imperialist hegemony and lead a student strike. Dumbledore, in the tradition of academic administrators, does nothing, and Hogwarts is put into academic receivership until Percy Weasley suggests that converting Hogwarts into a networked distance-learning institution would help quell controversy, increase profits, and expand the school’s global reach. Upon hearing this, Hermione completely loses her temper, and declares she’s quitting wizarding to go to law school.

I won’t completely spoil it, though: you’ll have to find out for yourself how it ends.

Class and Visual Rhetoric

The new College English came in the mail today, and over lunch at campus, I took a quick turn through Dean Rader’s review article, “Composition, Visual Culture, and the Problems of Class.” My first reaction — which likely indicates that I need to go back and do a more careful reading — was that it made me a little grumpy. While I entirely agree that it’s “essential to see all manner of texts as valid objects of inquiry” (650), I’d assert — on a first, quick read — that “the connections” Rader perceives “among rhetoric, visual culture, and social and economic class” (650) are problematic. The two authors that Rader cites who write about “the Problem of Class” are Lynn Bloom and Fredric Jameson — and in the field of composition, that’s distressingly scant, particularly given the poorly researched and self-indulgent class bigotry of the Bloom essay that Rader describes as “thoroughly enjoyable” (640). Such lack of depth leads to the review essay’s more grave difficulty: its not-very-implicit equation (640) of the middle class with textual rhetoric and the working class with visual rhetoric, and subsequent contention (641) that arguments which “privilege the visual over the rhetorical” (do we assume that he here meant “textual” for “rhetorical”?) (641) have a particular class orientation.

There’s also the often-repeated ceci tuera cela argument I’ve griped about before: “visual culture is beginning to supplant print culture” (640). Is there too much culture in the world’s (apparently limited) cultural space? If we see an increase in the traffic of images, do we need to spin open the valves and bleed off some textuality in order to keep the culture pressure from going to condition red? Because most statistics seem to indicate a fairly consistent increase in global literacy.

Finally, there’s the piece’s pedagogical notion — well critiqued by John Walter — that we should teach students this stuff because they’re already skilled at it, because it’s easier for them to do, and because they like it better (638). This is a poor rationale upon which to structure one’s teaching. I’ll reiterate: yes, I wholeheartedly agree on the importance of bringing the composition and analysis of texts in various media and genres into the classroom. But the argument for that importance is one I’m not sure Dean Rader’s review article manages — on the basis of class — to make.

Still, as I said, this is a reaction based upon a first reading, and I hope I might yet be corrected. Clearly, I haven’t here done any close work with the body of Rader’s analysis; it’s simply, rather, that his assumptions about class give me pause, particularly when taken in conjunction with the (already, as he notes, strong) literature in composition on visual rhetoric. Right now, it’s back to Bourdieu, but I know I’ll likely need a break from Pierre at some point soon, so I hope to return to this article.


I’ve now made it most of the way, again, through Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, and the book reminds me, again, as to why Williams holds such immense intellectual stature. Williams demonstrates how

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of words, which are now of capital importance, came for the first time into common English use, or, where they had already been generally used in the language, acquired new and important meanings. [. . .] The changes in their use, at this critical period, bear witness to a general change in our characteristic ways of thinking about our common life: about our social, political and economic institutions; about the purposes which these institutions are designed to embody; and about the relations to these institutions and purposes of our activities in learning, education, and the arts. (xiii)

In my dissertation’s Chapter 3, I use J. K. Gibson-Graham’s definition of “Economy” in New Keywords as the starting point for an examination of how we are seeing a similar “general change” today, a change that is both cause and symptom of changes in technology, subjectivity, and economy. In Chapter 2, I metonymically charted the parameters — in that term’s senses both of variables and of boundaries — of composition’s discourse on class; Chapter 3 examines economy starting from the perspective of Williams as the sine qua non parameter of class, and composition’s contemporary re-orienting of our notions about class in relation to economy. One obvious symptom of this re-orienting is in the frequent deployment of a class rhetoric of the authenticity of lived experience: while class is understood to have a variety of causal factors — power and exploitation, occupation, wealth and income, education, tastes and values — it also has a rhetoric of idiosyncratic and individuated lived experience; an individuated rhetoric that reflects a societal turn from an economy of mass production and consumption to an economy of individuated production and consumption. And this societal turn is driven, in part, by our embracing of the technological turn to the digital.

In other words: there’s a reason we call it the “personal” computer, and that reason carries deep and incompletely examined implications for economy and subjectivity.

So here’s my problem. Relying on Williams, I shouldn’t have too many difficulties in Chapter 3 demonstrating the specifics of past connections between economy, technology, and subjectivity. The case Williams makes — using the work of Burke and Cobbett, Southey and Owen, Carlyle and Arnold and on through the Romantics and the 1880-1915 “interregnum” into the twentieth century — is, to say the least, compelling. But he’s showing what happened, demonstrating the existence of a trend, avoiding — with immense wisdom — reductive and unprovable analyses of how such a thing happened. I worry that in my attempts to connect Williams on change to Bourdieu on class and Gibson-Graham on economy, I’m making exactly the sort of hubristic mistake Williams avoids.

On Fulkerson

Hot and humid summer day in DC. In the past, I’ve done plenty of 4th of July celebrations on the Mall between the National Monument and the Capitol, but — with all the security stuff and the crowds — not much inclined to this year, so it’s out to the family’s old no-longer-rural farm for the afternoon. I met up with Joanna for iced coffee drinks yesterday afternoon, and it was good to chat with her for a while.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like the kid stuck inside doing dissertation homework, looking out the window watching everybody else go to the carnival. Well, hell, I figure: I got a couple chapters turned in, and I’ve lately gone back through a couple hundred pages of Raymond Williams; why not spend at least a day over at the Fulkerson Fair?

I share the sentiments of those who found Fulkerson’s retrospective artice — save for its somewhat forcedly polemical ending — rather uncontroversial: to me, there simply wasn’t much that was startling in there. I do think he starts out making an apples-and-oranges comparison with his two texts; differences he sees as “representing a growing ‘scholarizing’ of the field” (657), I see as rather obvious differences in the texts’ genre, audience, and purpose. Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition is a more of a textbook for teachers, aimed at helping new practitioners position themselves within the classroom, while the historical-bibliographical “surveys” of A Guide to Composition Pedagogies are clearly aimed at giving new scholars in composition a sense of the landscape of the discipline — which I think explains quite well the differences Fulkerson rather unfairly complains about on page 672. For that reason, the thrust of Fulkerson’s critique — aimed at the theoretical Balkanization of composition — seems misplaced, since the problem that constitutes the exigency of his critique is essentially that we work through a diverse array of theoretical rationales in service of a somewhat more unified array of practical ends. And on that topic, there’s plenty that’s been said in our literature and elsewhere about the relationship between theory and practice, but that’s not a debate Fulkerson seems interested in pursuing, and — at the moment — nor am I.

Still, there are some obvious points of connection. I was glad to see him bring up Flower and Hayes on page 669: having taken one of Hayes’s cognitivist psychology classes, I’ve often found it curious that compositionists draw a strong distinction between the theoretical scholarship and qualitative research done by Hayes and Flower on cognitive processes and the practical classroom assumption that writing is a process. As Fulkerson points out on 670, “linear rigidity was never faithful to what the process researchers learned,” and people who critique assumptions about what they mistakenly call the writing process are making a category error: again, the fundamental insight is that writing is a process, often sloppy and recursive, but not “formulaic.” The work of Flower and Hayes and our work in the classroom are two sides of the same coin, and perhaps one of the most easily visible correspondences between theory and practice in our field.

Such correspondences between theoretical outlook and classroom practices seem to be what Fulkerson addresses in point 7 of his “Conclusions and Implications” with his characterizations of various institutions. Certainly, “University of Pittsburgh grads are into cultural studies” (680), and that function of the Pitt English Department’s scholarly orientation shows up in the Pitt Writing Program’s first-year composition courses — which are rather different from the University of Massachusetts first-year composition courses, with that being a major motivation for my coming from one institution to the other. I’m not making a value judgment here, but rather pointing out a self-conscious desire of mine to inhabit as broad an understanding as I could of composition’s diverse theories and practices: I find much to recommend the orientations of both programs, and I think those orientations can coexist in our field. So in that sense, I’d take issue with Fulkerson’s use of Gary Olson’s — yes, I think hyperbolic — quotation about “theory wars” in ending his article (681). The assumption seems to be that the different “axiologies” Fulkerson describes cannot co-exist in one course, or at least cannot co-exist with any sort of pedagogical rigor (and the menu analogy he uses to make this point struck me as facile and reductive), but he seems to ignore the fact that he’s borrowed the term “expressive” from James Britton, who argued that a variety of purposes of language use (including the transactional, which seems to be the equivalent of Fulkerson’s catch-all kitchen-sink “rhetorical” category, and the poetic) can and do co-exist in all individuals.

To borrow Leonard Cohen’s words: “There is a war between the ones who say there is a war / And the ones who say there isn’t.”