Well, OK. It was actually called “New Perspectives on Class.” But if you’ve got that nostalgie de la boue, friend, that hunger for naughty words in academic contexts, you likely know that I’m disinclined to disappoint: read on.
I was happy to meet Jen Beech at this year’s Cs, and happy — however briefly — to meet Julie Lindquist, as well, both of whom were present at the “New Perspectives on Class” panel. Amy Robillard, whose recent CE piece on affect and student scholarship I totally admire, presented on “Humility, Immediacy, Necessity: Bourdieu and the Production of Authenticity in Working Class Narratives”: if you know my work and how close I’m getting to the end of the diss, and the prominent place affect and authenticity take in my chapters 2 and 5, you know I wasn’t going to miss her talk.
Plus she said “bullshit” 45 times. In a totally scholarly, deadpan, and rigorous way.
To start, she began by describing how she “asks students to compose two to three pages of bullshit on vague topics like fear or patriotism,” because plagiarism and bullshit both spring from a failure to prepare. (Moment of obnoxious vanity: what would Amy make of my plagiarism sequence?) Robillard cited Lindquist’s description of the “what if?” characteristics of academic discourse (and one of Lindquist’s working-class Smokehouse respondents, “Walter,” who declared “Bullshit on ‘What if!'”) in order to propose that writing teachers might do well to play up the connections between “what if” and bullshit. In characterizing some forms of discourse that he used as “bullshit,” Walter disowned his own rhetorical labor by devaluing it, and in so doing strategically held on to the working-class identity he privileged, by proposing that his affectual and authentic working-class rhetorical strategies were inherently more valuable that the “bullshit” that — to some — exists as rhetoric for its own sake; word-wanking without referent or valuation.
Tangent: this spun me a bit, because I’ve been lately looking at word-work done for its own sake and its use value in the writing classroom as that which might be privileged for the way it forestalls the evacuation of use value in favor of exchange value predicated on the future commodified instrumentality of writing skills — but I get where Amy’s coming from. Still, I’m always suspicious of two-category oppositions, so I wonder: what might Amy make of Shadi Bartsch’s “doublespeak” (Actors in the Audience) from Roman times, sort of the counterhegemonic twin of Leo Strauss’s ugly esoteric discourse, in which rhetors craft messages that carry different meanings to different parties based upon their positions of privilege? (This is different from irony, which can be read multiple ways by everyone: in some ways, it’s very much about class position.) Is there a possible continuum between bullshit and not-bullshit? How does it work?
Do working-class students see the labor of academics as bullshit? Well, let’s define bullshit: Amy uses Harry Frankfurt’s book to fine effect, particularly its definition of bullshit as carrying “a negative relation to the truth.” Liars care about their relationship to the truth; bullshitters don’t. So bullshit is blatant and overbearing, and avoids the equivocation of falsehood in its highly context- and audience-dependent rhetorical nature. Bullshit doesn’t even worry about the truth: it just does its rhetorical thing.
Robillard then moved to Bourdieu’s famous and ubiquitously quoted observation from Distinction that “Taste classifies, and classifies the classifier,” and Bourdieu’s concern with the “distance from necessity” and the way in which “the aesthetic disposition” brackets off material and practical and real-world concerns. The aesthetic disposition equals doing something for its own sake, disconnecting it from material and worldly concerns: in language, it’s word-wanking without referent or valuation. Academics like to argue, and they often do so for the sake of performance, rather than for the sake of utility or instrumentality. Given that circumstance, working-class students may see the conventions of academic discourse as lending themselves to a rhetoric that serves only itself while offering zero effect on their material lives: in short, they may see it as bullshit. We need, Robillard argued, a deeper engagement in cross-class conversations about what academic and non-academic argument does.