Class (Cultural)

Middle Class Blindness

To further the fleshing-out of my dissertation’s Chapter 2, I recently revisited Lynn Z. Bloom’s October 1996 College English article, “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise.” It didn’t make me as mad as it did the first few times I read it, but for me, it remains a deeply problematic essay, replete with contradictions, inconsistencies, and logical non sequiturs. Still, there are things to like about it, including Bloom’s remark that “Although class, perhaps more than any other feature, forms the basis for much of what the profession as well as the general public expects of freshman composition, the term is virtually absent from the titles and key-word indexes of non-Marxist professional literature and — even with Marxism factored in […] — seldom found in the composition data bases for the past quarter-century” (656). I agree, and Bloom’s point contains much of the argument I’m trying to make in my first two chapters: as a discipline, we don’t like to talk about class. I’d add a second point, however, to the point Bloom makes: when we do talk about class, it’s class without economics — and Bloom’s essay stands as a preëminent example of class talk that elides economic concerns.

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The Money Shot

(Warning for grownups: this is, by insinuation, a deeply crude post.)

I thought it was initially unremarkable: nothing more than the paper of record doing a little editorial slobbering over the way those two adorable NYU moppets were embarassedly pretending (well, not really: of course they’d never be so distasteful) to be poor. I mentioned it to the Tutor, who has his own fine take on what’s going on. But then I saw an English professor who talks about herself in the third person reference Paul Fussell’s rather obnoxious work on class in relation to that story, and y’know, she’s pretty funny, until she gets to the declaration that “Americans have wealth.”

It’s really a shame that the English departments and the sociology departments don’t talk much these days. They used to be so close.

But what Margaret Soltan did for me — yes, I know it’s a betrayal, dear liberal reader — was to set me on a search that ended at the doorstep of the Volokh conspirators. While the Olsen twins fashion story might serve as one possible primary argument, here’s the supporting evidence that the New York Times is a fluffer for wealth and privilege: gosh, making six figures sure is tough, and trying to find an apartment on a six-figure budget is even worse!

Please, somebody fetch The Gray Lady a warm washcloth. She’s fixin to head out for the Hamptons, but she’s got wealth bondage all over her face.

Lindquist and Class 5

I finished Julie Lindquist’s excellent A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar tonight, and as with my past several posts about the book, it’s given me considerable food for thought. Here’s my angle: I think that composition, as a discipline, tends to mostly avoid discussions involving economics when it comes to students — except when we talk about class. And then, even when composition talks about class, we talk about it in a variety of really strange ways that often seem to make every effort to avoid talking about students as economic beings, especially within the context of the classroom, so that the implication is that — while we can talk about “working-class academics” and the exploitation of academic laborers — students cannot ever be economic beings. I still don’t know how or why this is, but what made it particularly visible to me was Charlie Moran’s work on the intersection of computers and economic inequality — and the funny thing is, while that was my starting-point, I’m also looking towards computers and economics as a possible interesting ending-point, with the ways that the reproducibility of information (which is something that happens in a composition classroom, digital or otherwise) is now making our society re-think fundamental assumptions about economic scarcity. And economic scarcity is deeply connected to class inequality.

So one thing I need to work on is mapping the different ways in which composition as a discipline represents class inequality. Julie Lindquist’s work is particularly helpful to me in this regard, partly because of its clarity and sophistication, but also because she seems to have very firm and well-defined ideas about what causes class — or at least what causes the class of those within the working class.

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Lindquist and Class 2

Some more brief angles from Lindquist on how she’s thinking about class: “The experience of class in America is impossible to explain, difficult to render, and dangerous to address. It rests uneasily in the space between performance and evocation” (vi). Now, that first sentence strikes me as a little hyperbolic, and risks a reading as self-praise on Lindquist’s part: look at this dangerous and impossible task I’m taking on. The second part, though, seems to connect to what I was saying yesterday, in that your own class is partly what you say it is. On the following page, Lindquist asserts that class culture exists “between the material and the symbolic” (she likes that ‘between’ thing, no?), and the symbolic side is where the “performance and evocation” take place, I think. Queer theory helped us to see how all sexuality is performative; the important insight Lindquist seems to be getting at here — the one that I was wrestling with yesterday in attempting to connect what I thought about my own class background to the research I’ve read — is that while the experience of class is shaped my material concerns (that’s pretty much a given, I think), the place where class gets weird is in its performance as culture by the people who are situated within those material concerns.

Consider what Lindquist says in the very same paragraph: “It has often been remarked that all Americans, from welfare dependents to corporate executives, think of themselves as middle-class — and the ways Smokehousers speak of their own socioeconomic affiliations further confirm this observation” (vi). In other words, in a space that Lindquist the academic describes as a “working class” bar, the clientele describe themselves as “middle class” while she herself claims the status of “working class.”

Is this not strange?

Lindquist and Class 1

My project for the next few weeks is going to be retracing my steps through the readings in composition’s literature on class I did a while ago, to try to piece together a sort of map of the ways our discipline defines class. I’m starting with the work of Julie Lindquist, both because her angle seems fairly clear to me and because I admire the work she’s done.

Her focus, like that of many people in composition who talk about class, is on the working class; her book-length study, A Place to Stand, is an ethnographic examination of the rhetorical practices deployed by the patrons of a working-class bar in Chicago. On the very first page, Lindquist identifies herself as someone who was a “working-class teen” (v), and then describes the Smokehouse — the working-class bar — as a place “where idle learning is imagined as a luxury to be indulged in at the expense of those who have real jobs” (vi). So, as a working-class teen, she defined herself in opposition to those in academia, who don’t have “real” jobs.

This, of course, is a common tension: in the literature in composition devoted to class in general and the working class in particular, the academic’s claiming of a working-class background (and claiming of the subsequent conflict between class background and class position and ensuing deep psychic distress) is a nearly unavoidable trope. What strikes me as odd, then, is the basis upon which Lindquist lays her claim to a “working class” background.

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Class Rehearsal

As a way of getting back into the post-holiday swing of things, I’m going to rehearse some of the things I’ve talked about in the past, and try and draw them together into something resembling a problem statement. This’ll probably go at the front of my Chapter 2, where I try to review the literature in composition on class. I’d be grateful for any pointing-out of elisions, fallacies, misrepresentations, gross over-generalizations, or other critical comments folks might offer.

The histories offered by Raymond Williams (in Culture and Society) and James Berlin (in Writing Instruction in Nineteenth Century Colleges, in Rhetoric and Reality, and in two chapters of Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures) illuminate the ways in which economic, cultural, and institutional change are profoundly interrelated. In fact, a discussion of class in the context of Williams’s and Berlin’s writings might define class as the armature by which culture is connected to economy in the figure of the individual (who, of course, inhabits a multiplicity of societal groups, said groups themselves being sometimes called ‘classes’). Williams illustrates how the economics of industrialized mass production made possible the refinement of taste which defined the nineteenth century ‘cultured’ individual (who was, in part, produced by the programs of writing instruction at Charles Eliot Norton’s Harvard and John Genung’s Amherst). Today, the conventional wisdom is that a similarly massive economic shift is already well underway; a shift from an economics of monolithic mass production to an economics of mass consumption and flexible production. That shift is driving a shift in our conceptions of culture and the individual similar to the one described by Berlin and Williams, although the shift is still underway and its implications imperfectly understood.

We are aware, however, that the shift is simultaneously making heightened demands on some classes of people (including, for example, those with full-time jobs who take online or community college courses in their own scant ‘leisure’ or evening time) while offering heightened opportunities to other classes of people (including, for example, the digerati who construct new forms of online art and hyptertext literature). Furthermore, we ought to understand that the writing work undertaken in our composition classrooms in this changing economic and cultural environment helps to constitute changing classes of student selves. I think there’s an obvious cultural progression from the nineteenth century Romantic individual to the unitary self of Peter Elbow’s expressivism; what seems less clear to me is where the cultural progression from the postmodern individual leads.

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I’m SO Not a Designer

OK, so it’s a little less ugly, now that I’ve borrowed atthe404’s Vesuvius layout. Haven’t ever worked with PHP before, so while the learning curve isn’t exactly steep, it’s still making my head hurt. Had to try a couple different hacks to show recent posts; I’m sure I’ll have to try a couple more to show recent comments. And I’m still not sure I like the layout; I want to get the pictures back on the left and the links and stuff back on the right, because — knowing that people read left to right — I want readers to see the attention-getting stuff first (the tall skinny semi-abstract greenish pictures), and then get to the meat of the entries, with the admin business (the links and such) saved for last, on the right. And that CSS skullduggery will take a non-technically-oriented person like myself a little bit of doing — so, yes, this layout is gonna mush around some over the next few weeks. But the green and gray will stay. I like the green and gray.

What else is going on? Not doing much reading; trying to get some chapter-drafting done. The cats are at peace, and Dad’s said that — after a long, long time — he’ll be happy to host the extended-family Christmas Day dinner downtown again, which means I’m in for big-time cooking and cleaning duties. Having inherited my mom’s recipe collection and some of her cookware — including a molded English pudding steamer — I’m on deck for doing the steamed-for-six-hours holiday plum pudding, so I’m going through a series of dry runs, making sure I can do this big involved recipe right when the time comes. (The recipes are all like, “Make sure the suet melts before the flour particles burst,” and I’m like: huh?) I’ve never asked a butcher for beef suet before; never even thought I’d do such a thing, especially not for a dessert. But that’s the odd thing, I guess: the radical disparities in the class backgrounds of my mom’s side of the family and my dad’s side of the family produced the strangest mishmashes of holiday meals; English puddings and birds cooked within birds alongside black-eyed peas or collard greens boiled with ham hocks. With my mom’s family, you had stilton and scallion puffs as an hors d’ouvre; with my dad’s family, you had pickled pig’s ears as a snack. Popovers versus cornbread; grits versus grapefruit; “highballs” served at 6 p.m. on Friday versus a Pabst Blue Ribbon with lunch after you mowed the back pasture.

I learned about cars from my dad. The first car that was mine’ to drive was Granny’s farm-use 1974 GMC Custom 1500: a big, old, rusted-out pickup truck, painted Creme de Menthe green. To work on the engine, you had to actually climb inside the hood and sit on the wheel well with your head bowed. The do-it-yourself orientation I learned from driving and fixing that truck has really informed the way I approach Web technologies: while knowing I’m a complete novice, I’m not too afraid to climb in under the hood and tinker a bit. (My greatest victory with that GMC was using two scraps of pine 2 x 4 and an empty plastic oil bottle to get the engine to limp home a hundred miles from Harper’s Ferry.) But see, until lately, until checking out my mom’s handwritten recipes and comparing them to the dogeared and wine-stained pages in her Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Fannie Farmer, Julia Child, and other cookbooks, I hadn’t figured out that she did the same thing in her cooking. In that realization, stratifications of class and gender, men’s work and women’s work, seem to collapse in odd ways.

I’m wondering how those stratifications might play out in Web work. Historically, doing code has been a more male-dominated thing, and design as a field has had (a few) more women — does that divide point to a class divide, as well? Is design more upper-class, more stylish, more chic? Do we expect coders to have dirt under their fingernails?

The Acid of Money

I’ve been thinking here lately about questions of value: how do we determine what something is worth? The question stands at the heart of any examination of class and inequality. I think of the way recent discussions of the value of going to college have largely enacted a commodified dollar-value-only view of education, and the way I’ve wanted (and tried) to contend that there are other values that demand consideration. Bill Maurer, in “Uncanny Exchanges: The Possibilities and Failures of ‘Making Change’ with Alternative Monetary Forms” (Society and Space 21), asks, “Does the ability of money to render the qualitative into the quantitative flatten social relations” (317)? Maurer’s essay, which looks at how using, calculating with, and thinking about alternative monetary forms — his examples are the riba and zakat of Islamic finance specialists and the HOURs currency of Ithaca, New York — restage our economic beliefs about qualitative and quantitative valuation, problematizes this “false dichotomy between culture and practical reason” (318). In a similar vein, Steven Gudeman in Postmodern Gifts contends that “The many cases of reciprocity recorded by anthropologists challenge the idea that material life must be completely organized by market practices” (3): market modes of exchange and non-market modes of exchange, and their associated forms of valuation, can and do exist in a diverse economy.

Before I start sounding too hopeful, I should point out that Maurer sees alternative monetary forms as being “haunted by transcendental value” (332), and this transcendence is what I’ve followed Gibson-Graham in seeing as so problematic in contemporary representations of the economy, as well as in various instrumental representations of technology. Richard Barbrook, in “The Hi-Tech Gift Economy”, seems to completely buy into such conceptions of transcendence, suggesting that internet users “collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money or politics” and “give and receive information without thought of payment” to the point where, “In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligation created by gifts of time and ideas”.
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On Scarcity

We are asked to understand that competitiveness is important. We are told that accountability is essential in education, lest our students be denied the skills they need in order to compete in a global economy. An economy can’t exist without competition, we’re told: without competition, people will not work hard, they will not innovate, they will not improve productivity. One has to be competitive, or else one will be left out.

What remains unspoken is that competition insures that someone will, in fact, be left out. Competition insures that some family will undergo financial ruin, that someone, somewhere, will spend a winter night sleeping on a steam grate, or shoot himself for losing his job, or take an overdose of sleeping pills for not passing her exams. Competition ensures that someone with less money will do violence to someone with more money precisely because of that difference in the amounts of money they possess.

The commonly given reason for competition becomes evident in that final example: we are made to understand that there isn’t enough to go around. Enough money. Enough employment. Enough land. Shelter. Food. Water. (Air?) As we see from recent discussions of American national policy, there isn’t even enough education to go around: students and schools need to get competitive. To compete. For what? For spaces in the good schools, so one can get a good job, a privileged space in the economy, so one can get enough food, enough shelter, enough money.

By this reasoning, we can see as well that there aren’t enough A’s to go around in the academic economy. We understand that there are a limited number of passing grades.

Don’t we?
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Crowley and Class

Class shows up quite a bit in Sharon Crowley’s “Historical and Polemical Essays” on Composition in the University, though always tangentially, and never concretely defined. Still, to hear Crowley tell it, much of the purpose that composition classes in the university serve has to do with class distinctions, no matter what form of the university we’re discussing (English, German, American; liberal education, vocational education, et cetera).

Crowley spends quite a bit of time on “current-traditional” rhetoric and pedagogy, a term familiar to compositionists but probably not to many other folks, so maybe I’d best cite Crowley’s definition here. “Current-traditional pedagogy,” Crowley writes, “discriminated four genres: exposition, description, narration, and argument (EDNA). It idealized a single format — the five-paragraph theme, which after a brief introduction that stated its author’s thesis, presented three highly prescribed paragraphs of support, and concluded. Students were taught current-traditional principles of discourse through teachers’ analyses of professional examples, and they were then expected to compose paragraphs and essays that displayed their observance of those principles” (94). Current-traditional rhetoric is still prevalent at many American high schools, if my students each semester who have to struggle not to write five paragraphs for every assignment are any indication. Some compositionists associate other demons, such as students’ fear of the first-person pronoun, with current-traditional rhetoric as well, to the point where the term “current-traditional” has become a stick with which to beat ideas you don’t like.
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