Not Working Class

A few weeks ago, Bill asked in a great post about poetics, rhetoric, and the logic of affect, “Is a ‘working-class rhetoric’ even possible?” I’d like to see more from Bill in this vein, partly because I’m not entirely comfortable with the implicit parallel I (perhaps mistakenly) infer from Bill’s post between poetics versus rhetorics and working class versus middle class (that seems to be hinted at in a heart-versus-head way in Julie Lindquist’s recent College English piece, as well), but largely because I agree with a lot of what he’s saying, especially the statements that “Our culture doesn’t have a vocabulary for having non-fiction discussions about class status. We lack terms with agreed-upon meanings. Statements about class (especially working-class) status are politically divisive, perpetually contested.”

We learn from Raymond Williams that class distinctions are inherently contradictory: the working class is characterized by its activity, while the middle class is characterized by its position. Yet there is a rhetoric of the working class academic, a status-claim performed in books, articles, listservs, and conferences.

I can’t perform that status-claim. I am not a member of the working class.

In saying that, I am not suggesting such claims are wrong or misguided. I am in no way trying to perform the rationalization of economic inequality in self-indulgent praise of the inherent moral superiority of the middle class that one prominent scholar in my discipline has deemed necessary. I am not attempting to indict the admirable scholarly work in such excellent volumes as This Fine Place So Far from Home and Coming to Class. I’m just saying: I can’t claim that. I won’t claim that. And I don’t want to claim that.

Why not? I’ve still got my Class A Commercial Driver’s License. I can still drive the biggest rigs and biggest loads out there. I hauled 72 tons plenty of times, and that’s bigger than most peoples’ houses. I worked construction as a teenager and temped in my 20s. I went into the regular Army as an enlisted trucker, and came out Sergeant Edwards. With a cross wrench, I can change a tire faster than anybody you know (well, OK, except for maybe Rob) outside of NASCAR. And I wouldn’t be finishing my PhD right now if I hadn’t had the Army’s GI Bill.

But I’m not working class.

And it’s obvious, from Raymond Williams, why not. The working class is defined, synchronically, by its activity. What it does. According to such a synchronic definition, I’m a teacher and a scholar; a professional; a member of the professional class. Position is diachronic. Where one stands, culturally, is not about the now of activity but about the history of position. Claims of working status are placed in the present — as I think they should be, since studies of class are inescapably political and aimed at remedying contemporary inequalities — while positional claims are necessarily based upon a historical foundation.

In other words: I’m not a working class academic because I’m an academic. And my commitment to political change is based on that awareness of difference. For me, to claim working class status would be to endorse an inherently conservative position, a position that privileges and celebrates a cultural identity rooted in the past, rather than to pay attention to my own labor and the classroom labor of my students. And I refuse to misname my own work, because I refuse to misname the work of my students. Economic change isn’t about who we’ve been: it’s about what we do.

I am not working class. We work.

Not Working Class

3 thoughts on “Not Working Class

  • October 15, 2005 at 6:52 pm

    Thank you. This gets at some things I’ve been thinking about lately.

  • October 16, 2005 at 7:44 pm

    There’s so much smart stuff here that I want to engage with, and I swear that this week I’ll blog more about the poetics/rhetoric issue, but in the meantime a few responses:

    Yes, per Williams w/c is defined by activity. But (partially by extension) w/c is also defined by *deficit*. Activity (manual labor especially, going back to Greece) corrupts. W/C activity takes place because of what the practitioner, the w/c individual, has not attained. Deficit. Definition by what you don’t have, haven’t attained, can’t access.

    And I think the rhetoric of the working-class academic is a concerted effort to transcend that deficit model. The trouble is–as I think you’re hinting at–that particular rhetoric ends up not engaging with/glossing over w/c activity.

    What I was getting at is the extent to which these contradictions are ever with us. The terms are divisive. The definitions are perpetually contested. Does that level of contestation allow for a “rhetoric” (a working-class rhetoric) that is even remotely stable? I’m trying to think about poetics as an ideology, as a practice, hell maybe even as a set of genres that can contend with the contradictions in a way that a “rhetoric” can not. More later.

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