The Trajectory of Beer

The recent insightful comment Bill made about ironic consumption — about consumption understood not as straightforward keeping-up-with-the-Joneses but as camp, queered, kitsch — got me thinking. The back-and-forth I’ve been doing between and among Bourdieu, Williams, and Gibson-Graham for my Chapter 3 in an attempt to put together a workable theory of class, economy, and composition is pretty technical, so maybe here I can do a non-technical short version and just try and talk it out.

Using, er, beer.

See, Bill’s remarks on ironic consumption made me immediately think about the class history of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and how it was recently ironically adopted by at-the-time-trucker-hat-wearing hipsters as a mark of cultural distinction. And that got me thinking about the temporal Z axis of Bourdieu’s space of symbolic capital — no, wait, please don’t run away; this is actually really easy! And I promise I’ll get right back to the beer (and wine too) in just a minute. Bear with me, OK?

See, Bourdieu uses a geometric metaphor to describe the positions of value of various aspects of culture in a three-dimensional space. The two-dimensional map is self-explanatory: distinctions of cultural value are made on the up-down Y axis of total volume of capital, and on the left-right X axis of composition of capital, with more cultural capital being at the left end, and more economic capital being at the right end. So if Shakespeare is more elite than Stephen King, and is also more culturally elite than economically elite, then it’ll be up and to the left of Stephen King on that two-dimensional map. (Keep in mind this is all based on human valuation; the perception of a thing’s worth within that space.)

You’re with me so far?

Thing is, Bourdieu adds a third dimension to that X-Y axis: he makes the plane into a space, the square into a cube, area into volume. The Z axis, the front-back complement to up-down Y and left-right X, is capital trajectory, its direction or change over time. For our purposes, let’s call the back end the past and the front end the future, with the zero coordinate being any present (synchronic) moment of analysis.

The three-dimensional space of symbolic capital.

What I’m interested in here, for its explanatory power, is the way that Pabst Blue Ribbon beer changes its position on the XY plane as we move from past to future.

So let’s think about some beer history: we know that in the first half of the twentieth century, Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR for short) was one of the first beers to be made available in cans. During World War II, those cans were made in olive drab green and shipped overseas to troops. What that resulted in was a mass, non-elite taste for PBR developed among GIs. However, one might imagine that sets of contradictory tastes evolved in the postwar period, with the phenomenon of returning GIs having been exposed to a European taste for wine coupled to the immense expansion of the middle class thanks to the GI Bill and the boom in higher education leading to a change in the cultural valuation of PBR. This change may have been first evident in the 1960s deployment of the celebratory testimony of class allegiance, “Red neck, white socks, and Pabst Blue Ribbon!” One need look only to David Allan Coe’s 1976 declaration that his long hair just couldn’t cover up his red neck to see the ultimate end of that change: PBR lost capital overall, sinking on the Y axis, and in its increasing alignment with the working class lost the cultural capital of distinction, as well, moving down and to the right in Bourdieu’s space as it moved from back to front. (There’s an obvious problem here: Bourdieu’s model of the inverse relation between culture and economy in terms of capital doesn’t seem to quite apply to American culture. This may, however, say more about elitism and American class relationships than it says about shortcomings of Bourdieu’s theoretical model.)

Ten years after David Allan Coe’s song, however, an interesting thing happened: counterculture icon Dennis Hopper was heard to spout the praises of Pabst Blue Ribbon in David Lynch’s (at the time) art-house film Blue Velvet. Hopper’s PBR quotations were sampled and recycled into songs by such 1980s and 1990s avant-gardists as Skinny Puppy and Mr. Bungle, to the point where drinking PBR — perhaps in part due to its cheapness but also because of the generational associations made by David Lynch — became an in-joke among hipsters, something to drink to be funny and witty and to display one’s ironic cultural affiliations. In other words, in between 1986 and today (i.e., as we move forward on the Z axis of the space of symbolic capital), drinking PBR has moved back to the left on the X axis, and perhaps even moved slightly upwards on the Y axis. But only, as Bill’s comment implies, for certain people. Trucker-hat-wearing hipsters drink PBR slightly differently from how my Uncle Stanley drinks it, and the difference is entirely contained within cultural and class valuation and difference — but is also, to a degree, generational; a result of changes over time. For hipsters, the act of drinking PBR is an ironically classed cultural performance. For Uncle Stanley, it’s a straightforward but still self-consciously classed act of classed cultural performance: in other words, it stands in relation to a past different from that of the hipster. Time itself — the Z axis — is, necessarily, a space of class difference.

And I think you can do this Bourdieu-style class analysis with just about anything. I mean, if we’re going to go way up on the scale, look at, say, a Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru, with massive overall capital volume. In the first part of the twentieth century, it’s at the top of the Y axis, the best Chardonnay out of all of them, and so probably near the zero point of the X axis as well, simultaneously super-expensive and culturally distinct — but then there’s the massive explosion of artisanal wineries, and the explosion in the American acceptance of French table wines that goes along with the radical expansion of the American middle class, and the radical increase in cultural choice and distinction among wines. “Wine” as a category of distinction itself radically expands — and perhaps the Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru loses some cultural ground as the expanding wine-drinking public says, “Look! I’ve found another vineyard that’s really quite excellent!”

Vintners in Australia and California gain ground, only to face a cultural backlash from old-school wine critics who want to maintain the existence of some sort — any sort — of elite, and so maintain their positions as arbiters of taste. Coupled to this, one sees the variation in vintages (1992 was a good year, 1991 less so), so — compared to Pabst Blue Ribbon — the Z-axis trajectory of Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru is all over the XY map from year to year.

There are political dimensions, as well, of course, which make for even more interesting complications, as with the American political right-wing characterization of the American political left as wine-swilling elites. Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric who received a $200 million severance package, rather famously declared himself to be middle-class because he drinks beer.

So one must wonder: is it Pabst Blue Ribbon, Jack?

And is it ironic?

The Trajectory of Beer

7 thoughts on “The Trajectory of Beer

  • August 4, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    PBR me ASAP! I don’t intend on plotting PBR on your diagram, however I do intend on weighing in on the subject a bit. I don’t know what it is like in your neck of the woods, but the only trucker hat hipsters we have around here are between the ages of 14 and 25 and I have yet to see any of them walking around with a can (or bottle) of PBR. I see them with beer, but I think it has more to do with cost than choice. Just like you and I drank Old Milwaukee when we were younger (legalities aside) because it was the beer of choice for people without money. Once I started earning a somewhat respectable income I began to realize that OM pretty much sucks in the taste department. I would hold that the same is true about PBR. If an individual is drinking it now they probably fall into one of maybe two categories: 1. Broke 2. Drank it as a kid and are still broke. These two theories have one common denominator: Being broke.

    Now I’m being a little tongue in cheek here so forgive me, but do you actually know anyone who drinks PBR because they like it or because they think it is “cool”. If that’s the case I have some old Red White & Blue I’d like to sell them (or maybe some Hudey! Hudepohl beer from the Bengals last Super Bowl appearance).

  • August 4, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    I think Mike’s right. PBR is a beer occuping some strange class positions. In Lansing, MI one of the bars described by middle class college kids in East Lansing as a “dive bar” has had its PBR and hotdog special for forever and a day – a buck twenty five for the combo. The bar has a classed stigma that is conversationally and iconically referenced to by its PBR and hotdog special.

    Then in East Lansing, as is the case in many college towns, there’s the situation that on a Friday or Saturday night run to the package store a keg of PBR is one of the cheaper kegs. Buying a keg is usually a group activity and its usually less about the beer than it is about the act of having beer available for a party.

    I’m sure you’ll hear more than a few kids groan a few hours later about their cup of cheap/free PBR.

    On the same token though PBR as a corporation has done an impressive job of branding and finding new audiences for its product since its GI days. In most college poster stores I’ve seen PBR posters. PBR t-shirts are popular too. PBR also has a complex logo design that’s reached a point of brand maturity, which may impact its class status and account for how it has a class status for hipster kids. I’d wager that its a long (and half a century! journey for a logo such as PBR’s to reach a point of brand maturity. I think Foucault’s writings on the class value of food and drink may, in more advanced capitalism, (and I’m sure this has been somebodys old and filed thesis, somewhere) be said to apply to this type of symbolic value too.

    Interesting stuff


  • August 4, 2005 at 4:33 pm

    Rob, I think there’s more than material wealth driving the circumstance of PBR’s hipness, as perhaps (incompletely) evidenced by this Washington Post story from a couple years ago, or this brief observation (ninth paragraph down) on “brand irony.” So yeah, I think you might have a market for that Hudey after all, pardner — but really, what you’re saying about wealth being a factor in addition to ironic hipness totally reinforces my overall point anyway, which is that class and cultural valuation are overdetermined; shaped and influences by far too many factors for us to be able to point to any single one as determinate.

    Jim, I might argue that the “brand maturity” was reached a generation ago (my Uncle Stanley has some old PBR-branded bar coasters and a PBR neon sign in his kitchen), which is what allowed for the ironic twist from today’s generation. Can I ask which Foucault essays you’re thinking of?

  • August 5, 2005 at 10:41 am

    Smart stuff here, Mike. It’s interesting to think of PBR (which I love, by the way) in a tradition of, say, blue jeans and leather jackets. Symbols of working-class culture used self-consciously by professional/middle-class kids in the 50s for complicated reasons involving masculinity, fetishizing working-class life while ironically distancing oneself from it. I think PBR occupies a similar place in middle-class college bars, where drinking a can of PBR has similar gender/identity and class/identity implications. Hebdidge could be helpful as you think through these issues, esp. first chapter of Subculture: The Meaning of Style, the one that focuses on Brit punk.

  • August 19, 2005 at 11:38 am

    Interesting debate.

    I think it would be well worth remembering the battle aspect of taste distinctions in all of this, primarily the battle between financial capital and cultural capital.

    Individuals with large amounts of financial capital will always be more able to purchase the more expensive beers. So the only way people with smaller amounts of financial capital but larger amounts of cultural capital can strike back is to somehow — through their competence in developing and establishing trends — label expensive beers as less “cool” than certain cheaper beers. That is what has happened with PBR, for instance.

    The same has happened with lots of other items as welll. Take cars, for instance. The most expensive car is undoubtedly a Ferrari or something similar, possibly within the reach of a yuppie but probably out of reach to a hipster. Thus, to get even, the hipster uses his cultural insight to define the Ferrari as “garish” or “over the top” — i.e. not so cool after all. To complement this, the hipster may even go out and buy the exact opposite of a Ferrari, say a quirky Eastern European brand of car they only made 500 copies of in 1973, in an attempt to establish exclusivity in a hierarchy of knowledge as superior to exclusivity in a hierarchy of money.

    Another fitting example is travel. In Europe, yuppies, typically are the only ones who can afford to go on vacation to rich summer resorts — i.e. trips that are financially quite expensive, but which require hardly any cultural insight (local culture has been replaced by Western-style night clubs, hotels, etc). Not wanting to be seen as inferior to the yuppies, hipsters try to define such vacation packages as cheesy, preferring “study trips” to impoverished countries in Asia or Africa — i.e. trips which are financially very cheap, but which require a certain cultural insight (you may need to know the local language, have contacts to get entrance into the country, know which cities and regions are safe for Westerners, etc). Even though they may end up sleeping in a tent surrounded by fleas, eating rice and drinking water, they have been somewhat successful in defining this experience as superior to sleeping in luxury hotels surrounded by waiters and hot girls/boys, eating huge steaks and drinking champagne. Quite a feat!

  • November 7, 2005 at 3:51 am



  • April 17, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    i’m writing a thesis applying bourdieu’s analysis of cultural transmission to a local art scene which is thoroughly manifested with hipsters, so reading this spot-on connected to my research. thanks for being a fellow bourdieuphile. i realize this was written 5 years ago and pbr is already declining in cool factor among the upper echelons of hipsterdom, but of course it takes ages for the rest of the world to catch up. according to this, the sales were up another 25% last year.

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