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.
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?