The Show

New York City. Broadway tickets and dinner. What do you want to see? Where to eat? Before or after? What to wear?

I’m sure it classes me, in this post, to have vegetables before dessert. I’m afraid that, as always, I’ll talk too much, though never during the performance. And, yeah, I brought a book with me. No, honest: it was just to read on the subway. Really.

Oh, c’mon. No, what have you been up to?

The book? Well, yeah, I’m enjoying it, but it’s kinda dry.


Class, I guess. Class and culture. Performance. Cultural difference.

Where’s that waiter?

Well, see, according to Bourdieu, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” And besides which, “Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make” (Distinction 6), so that the judgment of class is itself a distinction, particularly based upon whatever criteria one might use. In composition, professors who name themselves as “working-class academics” distinguish themselves according to their allegedly working-class culture and background, since, according to the objective relational structure of occupation, they are members of the professional class. In other words, they rhetorically class themselves as distanced from economic necessity by their very definition of class as cultural, even — as Bourdieu, Brodkey, and many others have acknowledged — economic (and class) privilege exists in the ability to deny economic want or necessity. The class definition of the so-called working-class academic boomerangs ultimately untrue by its very definition.

To take this further: in my chapter 2, I demonstrate how one of the chief ambiguities in composition’s view of class is the same contrary tendency we observe in Marx; a desire, on the one hand, to define class as an objective relational structure (the realities of wealth, occupation, cultural practices, relation to the means of production), and, on the other hand, to define class as a felt sense of identity and political or cultural alignment with others sharing that sense. What seems to happen all too often in composition, however, is that (as in Shor, Seitz, Bloom, and many others) the tension is defused, the ambiguity resolved, by the one-way rhetorical transformation of objective relation into subjective sense, thereby placing the conflict entirely within the boundaries of subjective sense and obviating the need for change to the objective structure. This rhetorical transformation lines up precisely with Bourdieu’s observation concerning how individuals internalize the multivariate objective relational structures of wealth, occupation, cultural practices, relation to the means of production, or what-have-you, and then name them as acts of individual choice. Such rhetorical transformations, in fact, are how many find themselves able to name themselves as so-called working-class academics.

So we see again in Bourdieu, as in Brodkey and Williams, that distance from economic necessity is enacted by economically privileged individuals as the production of a culture that they see as autonomous from economy, even as their relation to economy overdetermines their class, and so in part their performance of culture. To the examples in Williams of the elitism inherent in Coleridge’s concern with a cultural “clerisy” and Arnold’s worries about anarchy and the uncultured mob, we might add Lynn Bloom’s essays on class and more than a few of the authors in This Fine Place So Far from Home and Coming to Class who explicitly turn their historical and professional distancing from economic necessity into a fetishizing of certain aspects of culture. My intent here is not to denigrate such authors’ work — their sophisticated understanding of class as identity politics is valuable and necessary — but rather to show the limits and possibilities of their approach as contrasted to other approaches to class.

Recall our recent discussion of the various dimensions of Bourdieu’s graphs. According to Bourdieu, “Social class is not defined by a property (not even the most determinant one, such as the volume and composition of capital) nor by a collection of properties (of sex, age, social origin, ethnic origin — proportion of blacks and whites, for example, or natives and immigrants — income, educational level, etc.), nor even by a chain of properties strung out from a fundamental property (position in the relations of production) in a relation of cause and effect, conditioner and conditioned; but by the structure of relations between all the pertinent properties which gives its specific value to each of them and to the effects they exert on practices” (106). In assigning value to various properties and performed effects, Bourdieu’s structure of relations is always, again, not something that concretely exists but rather something to be done; something that exists always in the performance and in the interpretation — and this is why I find his analysis, despite all its limitations, so compelling. For Bourdieu, class is not only overdetermined but networked, not homogenously and linearly and statically gradational, but rather performed and composed and interpreted as a multiplicity of factors by a heterogeneous network of individuals.

Furthermore, among individuals, as Bourdieu notes (270), similar cultural practices take on differing cultural values depending upon who performs them and the performers’ relationship to economy. Consider the composition of New York City audiences who might pay roughly equivalent prices for tickets at the same-day Times Square TKTS booth for two different performances: the Broadway “Chicago” revival at the Ambassador Theatre on West 49th and the off-off-Broadway performance (though only a few blocks away) of Vaclav Havel and Samuel Beckett’s “By and for Havel.” One understands that these audiences will comprise differently diverse modes of dress — is a night at the theatre “an occasion for conspicuous spending” (Bourdieu 270) and the experience of a pleasant spectacle, or an opportunity to intellectually experience the cultural juxtaposition of the uncomfortable works of a Nobel Prize winner and a Nobel-nominated political dissident? — and go to differently diverse arrays of restaurants before and after the shows and even have radically different sorts of comments about the shows they saw: the “Chicago” audience more likely, perhaps, to note with delight the choreography of Roxie and Billy’s ventriloquist act in “We Both Reached for the Gun”; the “By and for Havel” audience more likely, perhaps, to comment on the sublime inscrutability Beckett’s sole explicitly political work seems to have inspired in the performances of the actors. Yet those differently diverse audiences share (as is likely obvious) individual members, who are differently classed in different environments and in their relationships to others in those environments: imagine the situation of someone who consistently wears all black when spending a night at the theatre as opposed to the situation of someone who wears a suit with tie and corner square when spending a night at the theatre — and the situation of class difference for the person who misjudges the appropriate dress for “By and for Havel” or “Chicago.”

Again, as I’ve been repeatedly trying to use Bourdieu to argue, class is multvariate, relational, and performative, existing not in the subjective experience of individual identity or in the objective structures of economic and cultural relationships, but in the enacted and rhetorical hinge — the point of articulation — between the two. Still, one cannot ignore that class is, in fact, lived: “What is at stake is indeed ‘personality’, i.e., the quality of the person which is affirmed in the capacity to appropriate an object of quality. The objects endowed with the greatest distinctive power are those which most clearly attest the quality of the appropriation, and therefore the quality of their owner, because their possession requires time and capacities which […] cannot be acquired by haste or by proxy” (Distinction 281): the effort required to literarily appreciate the work of Havel and Beckett, some might argue, requires a substantially more significant investment of Bourdieu’s temporal dimension of symbolic capital than the effort required to appreciate the spectacle of “Chicago.”

So one wonders: how does this privileging of one cultural object over another translate online? I think a possible answer might lie in the consistent mainstream journalistic denigration of blogging as somehow inherently narcissistic and therefore less valuable than the for-hire practice of journalism — wait, where are you going?

Didn’t you think it was good?

Well, yeah, I liked it too. But that doesn’t mean I can’t like it and think about it too, right?


No, I didn’t know you worked for the paper.


Well, listen, next week there’s this Bertolt Brecht karaoke —


The Show

One thought on “The Show

  • August 23, 2005 at 5:23 pm

    Yes, taste classifies the classifier. We all have taste, good taste, bad taste. And class as in “high class taste” does not correlate so well with income and net worth, even over generations, nor even with education. What “class” does G.W. perform, or enact? How classy a guy is he? Classier than he pretends but not very by Yalie standards.

    Good taste, high culture, higher education in “good schools,” a high moral tone, high seriousness, good manners, all that seems so antique in America today.

    I wonder if in Paris they are not more like the old days in Boston and New York where you really could talk of a high society or high culture with highbrows and the tips of the various pyramids kind of converged over time, as new money became old money by being strained through certain schools, institutions, and private clubs.

    You might be interested in a book called Old Money by Nelson Aldrich about that bygone world, (or Max Veblen on the Leisure Class?

    High class with good taste makes you in America just another pointy head, an object of scorn, like Kerry educated at St Pauls and Yale, who never learned to pass for a man of the people. Nascar now that is the right taste for a man who would be King.

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