Category Archives: Class (Cultural)

Affect and Pedagogy

As a student or a teacher, are you emotional in public?

And if so, what did you make of the fierce review offered by James D. Williams in the November 2005 College English? I was looking at it again for its angle on the personal, but on a second read, it struck me as absolutely blistering in its privileging of rationality above all else, and it made me — someone who scores so far over at the “T” end of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that it’s not even funny — uncomfortable in that regard. Williams was talking about standards of evidence for academic texts, and while I agree that careful analysis quantitative data for such purposes is essential, I’d also propose that alternative forms of evidence are equally as important. In fact, I wonder whether the bruising critique Williams offers, in its supreme privileging of hyper-rationality and alleged objectivity, fails to allow for alternative possibilities.

Laura Micciche, in an essay I find somewhat problematic for its generalizations (“When Class Equals Crass,” in Blundering for a Change, Tassoni and Thelin, eds., Boynton/Cook 2000), suggests that working-class students are encouraged to “exercise ‘appropriate’ emotions” (25) because “emotions such as anger, rage, and sorrow are generally considered unacceptable in the classroom” (31). But the perspective Micciche offers is important for its view on the work of affect, although I worry that it’s too easy to perpetuate a binary that equates emotion with the working class and logic with the middle class, and I think that’s a class-bigoted simplification — not that Micciche is performing it, but I worry that the distinctions she sets up make it an easy place to which to go.

There’s an simple question: Are working-class students more emotional?

It’s a bad question, and the wrong question. Lynn Worsham argues (nod to the recent UMass guest speaker) that people separated by the reason/emotion binary are taught that emotion should be subordinate to reason and so that people categorized as “emotional” should take subordinate positions in society as well. Indeed, Micciche cites Spelman’s observation that “while members of subordinate groups are expected to be emotional, indeed to have their emotions run their lives, their anger will not be tolerated” (Spelman 264, qtd. in Micciche 33).

I’ve quoted before Hardt and Negri’s assertion that in today’s emerging economy, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293).

Political economy is personal, and the economy is affectual. This holds true for the classroom as much as for any other space.

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.

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?

Continue reading

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?

Analytical Scope

In Bourdieu’s Distinction, one way class inequality gets expressed is in the dominant classes’ distancing themselves from acknowledging the materiality of life. The judgement of distinction is a privileging of the abstract and the idealized and the rarefied and the immaterial; small portions over large portions; classical over jazz over pop. The more capital one possesses, the less one is affected by the quotidian concerns of the material world, and so one attempts to demonstrate one’s superior class position by enacting and performing that distance. The converse is also true: note the emphasis “vulgar” art — including musical forms like country, gangsta rap, and bluegrass — place on authenticity, on “keeping it real,” on the representation of the materiality of everyday lived experience. This trend, of course, is also highly visible in Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, particularly in his analyses of Coleridge, Carlyle, and (very much) Matthew Arnold.

In the Industrial Revolution of Williams’s analysis, technological advance was one of the chief driving factors of economic advance, and I’m arguing that much the same is true today. Steam, railroads, telegraphs, electricity: the emergence of these technologies produced immense and immensely unequal economic growth, just as the emergence of newer technologies has done today, and while the twentieth century’s division of labor led to a staggering increase in the volume of class positions, the class positions at the top are moving further and further away from the class positions at the bottom. But the core of the argument Williams makes is that economic changes, in confluence with changes in such factors as art and democracy, produced radical change in our understandings of class and culture: this is no mere techno-economic determinism. I’m saying much the same thing, although some of the other changes in causal factors Williams might note today include things like globalization, the post-ironic aesthetic, ethnic nationalism, and the conflict between energy consumption and environmentalism. My scope is considerably more narrow: I’m simply looking at the way certain (rather than all) factors — technology, economy — are helping to drive change in our understanding of class and its relationship to a certain aspect of culture: namely, the practice and instruction of literacy.

Paris and Me, Part 2

Digital reproducibility profoundly alters the relationships between production, consumption, the individual, and the economy. As Zuboff and Maxmin note, “the individuation of consumption [. . .] means that people no longer want to bend to the antiquated rule of business” but rather “want to be the subjects of a new commerce in which they are recognized as the origins of a new form of economic value [. . .] realized in individual space” (11). A careful reading of Raymond Williams, I think, gives considerable historical nuance to Foucault’s concerns with the nature of power (particularly in the economic sense), and while I’m certainly not enough of a new-economy fool as to dismiss Foucault’s work, I do think that context is important — and Foucault was writing in the context of an economy of mass production and consumption, when it was impossible to imagine any other situation. As a discipline, composition is in similar straits today: our big names, our super-scholars, are baby boomers. They grew up with three superpowers, three car manufacturers, and three TV networks. When Zuboff and Maxmin contend that “Rather than being diluted, the value of information can increase as it is distributed, allowing more people to do more with more, as it enables collaboration and coordination across space and time” via digital technologies (293), it’s genuinely startling to such scholars, turning the conventional economic wisdom, with its assumptions about scarcity and value, on its head.

Former Harvard president Derek Bok has observed, among others, that many academics seem to want to construct higher education as a space somehow outside of or immune to economic interests. This is rather foolish when we understand the economy as involving “making, holding, using, sharing, exchanging, and accumulating valued objects and services” (Gudeman 1), but perhaps not so foolish when we understand the widespread commonsensical notion that economics=money. Indeed, economist Colin Williams suggests in “A Critical Evaluation of the Commodification Thesis” that “The view that predominates is that the overwhelming trajectory of economic development is towards a commodified economy. Although the extent, pace and unevenness of this process is open to debate [. . .], the process of commodification itself is not” (527). Williams’s contention about the unquestionable trajectory towards commodification sounds very much like the transcendent and agentless power Gibson-Graham suggest contemporary views ascribe to the economy, as when they point out in “The Diverse Economy: Constructing a Language Politics” that there has been a “shift from an understanding of the economy as something that can be managed (by people, the state, the IMF) to something that governs society” and that this shift has relied upon “a hegemonic move through which representations of economy have slipped from their locations in discourse and landed ‘on the ground,’ in the ‘real,’ not just separate from, but outside of society” (1).

Bloggers and writing teachers know, not just in theory but in practice, that value is contextual and anything but monolithic.

Continue reading

Paris and Me, Part 1

What follows is a very early draft of the first half of the Computers and Writing presentation I’ll be giving in Palo Alto next week. I hope you might read it and tell me what’s redundant, what’s missing, and what’s foolish. The presentation’s major logical steps (of which tonight’s argument comprises points 1 through 3) are as follows:

  1. Rhetorical self-production can be understood today as an act of product differentiation or branding; conversely, consumption of products or services can be understood today as a technology of rhetorical self-production.
  2. Foucault’s governmentality — as the relation between technologies of self and technologies of power — is enacted in online writing on blogs and in the relation between individual and commercial institutions. [Sometimes, as implied by (1), the individual and the commercial can blur: see Paris Hilton and Jason Kottke.]
  3. This relation can be problematic in the case of public schools because of unequal power relations and the possibilities for domination. The massive resources of advertisers can change minds and shift opinion in undemocratic ways; more money can equal a larger voice and an increasingly unequal society.
  4. However, (3) is a characteristic of the environment of a mass economy. Today, self-production via branding is indicative of a move towards a distributed, peer-to-peer economy (facilitated by digital technologies) where the power relations we associate with a mass economy are being fragmented and replaced by other relations we haven’t yet completely fathomed.
  5. In this individuated peer-to-peer economy, not all transactions are market or commodified, and the most promising and interesting possibilities for individual agency may exist within non-market, non-commodified transactions.

Here’s the first half, with the second half to follow tomorrow:

Continue reading

The NYT Tries Class

Just a quick entry to note that I entirely agree with what Donna and Bill have had to say about the New York Times series on class: there’s not much blogging going on about the series because the series is one big yawn, with very little of interest to say on the subject of class in America, and certainly nothing new to add to the discussion other than its reportage on the stories of individual people — which, I’ll admit, lends the story some reportorial weight, but let’s not mistake weight for insight.

The good folks on the Working-Class Studies Listserv have lately been making a lot of smart and sometimes wonderfully snarky comments about the series, as you might expect from experts on class, but since those comments are addressed to a private list, I don’t feel comfortable repeating them here. However, there’s one observation I can’t resist sharing, simply because I so much agree with it: the misrepresentations offered by this poorly-designed interactive graphic are dangerous. The most obvious problem is that the quintile lines offered by the graphic cutting across all categories give the impression that there is a monolithic five-tier system of class, for which somehow adding up or averaging all the options offered will slot you into a solid position. The second problem is that the first graphic implies that class is entirely synchronic — a problem hardly corrected by the later graphics concerning generational mobility of income.

Again, I’m not saying the series is bad: I’m impressed with the way the reporting brings home the concretized, material, embodied effects of class on individual lives for the lay reader, and with the way it again repeats — for those that don’t know — that class mobility has slowed and the income gap between the rich and the poor is getting larger. But this pop-sociological approach seems to borrow quite a bit of its information and approach from the same sources cited in Dennis L. Gilbert and Joseph A. Kahl’s excellent and accessible synthesis The American Class Structure, a book much more worth your while — if you’re interested in sociological approaches to class — than the Times series.

The Worthless Slave

Elspeth Stuckey, in The Violence of Literacy, notes that “literacy legitimates itself. To be literate is to be legitimate; not to be literate is to beg the question. The question is whether or not literacy possesses powers unlike other technologies. The only way to answer the question is to be literate. What more effective form of abuse than to offer clandestine services” (18). This, to me, is the single most devastating critique of the ideology that technology is destiny, whether that technology be literacy or computers.

Understand: computers do nothing on their own. Marcuse and Feenberg remind us that technologies can never be isolated from the uses to which they are put, nor from the material and embodied conditions under which they are used. As such, computers are never outside of society, and their uses and effects never transcend the materiality of the everyday life of society, of its individuals and its classes. And so the refusal to discuss issues of access to computer technologies in conjunction with — no, not prior to or instead of — issues of the ideologies and uses and effects of computer technologies is a way of declaring those technologies neutral, transcendent, beyond intervention, and in need of no critical consideration. As Elspeth Stuckey and Cynthia Selfe demonstrate, such refusal discursively turns the technology — literacy, computers — into a tool of domination. Those granted technological access are blessed, and those so blessed take upon themselves the role of gatekeepers, declaring the poor preterite hopelessly damned, cast into the outer dark where we might hope to not hear their wailing and gnashing of teeth: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance” (Matthew 25:29).

Those who make public arguments about technologies — literacy, computers — are almost always those who have in some way mastered those technologies. They are, therefore, also those who have the most to gain from those technologies. Given such a circumstance — given that we who write about such things are the ones who tend to benefit from them — one might suppose it wise to attempt to see beyond our own noses.

I’ve seen a common thread in much of composition’s published work on class, from academics writing about the working conditions of academics to the self-admittedly middle-class Lynn Bloom singing the praises of the middle class to Julie Lindquist’s claim of a working-class background as partial rationale for her research on working-class rhetorics. The common thread is that, as far as class goes, much of the literature is compositionists talking in some way about themselves. Now: what happens when we shift the topic to computer technologies?

I’m sure I don’t have to give the answer: it’s obvious from Stuckey’s remarks. But for those who might need a broader hint, consider Linda Brodkey’s characterization of the “class narcissism that sees itself everywhere it looks” (“On the Subjects,” College English 51.2, February 1989). The essay as a whole is well worth a read for its thoughts on the ways in which such narcissism constitutes a blindly and blithely vicious form of domination.

On Wealth

Sometimes the New York Times gets it wrong, as with Bruce Bawer’s recent ridiculously myopic piece asserting that Norway is not a rich country because Norwegians bring their lunches to work. OK, I’ll go a step further: this isn’t just myopic, it’s stupid. Percentage of the population in Norway living below the poverty line: zero. Yes, that’s right: zero percent poverty. Percentage of the population in the U.S. living below the poverty line: twelve. Yes, that’s right: nearly one out of every eight people in the U.S. lives in poverty. One in eight, Bruce. The Gini index of the distribution of family income as a measure of a nation’s economic inequality goes from 0 to 100: if income in a country is distributed perfectly equally, the Gini index is zero; if income in a country is distributed with complete inequality, the Gini index is 100. For economic inequality, Norway scores a 25. Gini index for the U.S.? 45. Yeah: our national economic inequality is on a par with that of Kenya, Uruguay, and Uzbekistan. Apparently, Bawer is happy to see 2.3 million homeless Americans, as long as he can get himself a lunchtime cheeseburger at Applebee’s.

And sometimes the New York Times gets it right, as with Guy Trebay’s recent Fashion & Style piece, “Who Pays $600 for Jeans?”: the answer apparently being, “Lots of people.” According to Trebay, “blue jeans have suddenly shed their proud proletarian roots and turned into what retailers call a status buy,” and so-called “luxury” denim is now common: “jeans with price tags of $200 are now everywhere.” But what does $200, or $300, or $400 get you in a pair of jeans? In part, it gets you — and this is where things get, economically speaking, kinda freaky — “special treatments that abrade, distress and generally torture a pair of trousers until it has achieved just the right luxuriantly ratty patina of something that has been dragged behind a truck.” OK, let’s think this through: jeans are a classed economic artifact, but their class status is changing. Barry Schwartz is quoted in the article as pointing out that “Every consumer decision now carries with it class and status implications in a way it didn’t used to.” Indeed. But when one pays for jeans that are marked as being no longer new — as having a history in that “luxuriantly ratty patina”; as having an age — then one is paying for work time made fabric. Their value is a quality realized in the time and labor (performed by someone else, not the wearer) that produced their experiential history, and their value is then publically displayed as a $200 (or $300 or $400 or $500, you get the idea) badge of class distinction. As Trebay notes, it’s “like the punch line to some elaborate Veblenesque joke”: these jeans represent the commodification of everyday lived experience in precisely the same way that paid housekeeping services turned the labor of housework into economic labor, and in precisely the same way that offering term papers for sale made the labor of education into economic labor. Luxury denim makes experience itself — the embodied passage of time — economic. Consider, then, the article’s closing quotation from Lawrence Scott: “No matter how good the wash or the detail or the label, if it doesn’t look good on a behind, it won’t sell.” Indeed, and that’s the message: class, via your body, is destiny. Even if it costs a lot more.

So, class, your homework: using quotations from these two articles, as well as from Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor”, compose a brief essay describing why America Is Number One.