Class (Other)

Various Narcissisms

OK, so the conceit of yesterday’s post — framing my working-through of Bourdieu in the context of my theatre example — was overdone and silly. I’m trying to make this dissertation stuff interesting — really, I am — but I should probably listen to the advice several people have offered: the only people you have to write the dissertation for are the three members of your committee. But isn’t that just a horribly depressing idea? Doesn’t that work against my whole rationale for bringing blogging into the writing classroom in order to make writing matter more? I know the advice is meant to be a relief, a way to deflate a dissertator’s narcissistic and self-important anxiety — but it also makes me say: well then why bother? If I were to use the same logic with my students, I’d tell them: you’re not really learning anything here. You’re just going through the motions for a grade.


In the faint and narcissistic hope that it might be of interest to somebody other than my committee: where Williams traces a classed history of the social trends of ideas in English literature, Bourdieu uses a massive ethnography of French society to compose a general theory of the individual’s relationship to class and culture. According to Bourdieu, taste “functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place’, guiding the occupants of a given place in social space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position. It implies a practical anticipation of what the social meaning and value of the chosen practice or thing will probably be, given their distribution in social space and the practical knowledge the other agents have of the correspondence between goods and groups” (466-467). Again, class is relational, and performed as an experiential process linking multivariate individual subjectivities to overdetermined objective social structures. In describing the difficulty of defining class, Bourdieu notes “the fuzziness inherent in all practical logics,” but adds, as well, the complicating factor that “people’s image of the classification is a function of their position within it” (473). In that last assertion, we see not only a prefiguring of Linda Brodkey’s remarks on class narcissism (and an echo of Marx’s remark that “men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; every thing speaks to them of themselves”), but also the clearest indication in Bourdieu’s work of a rationale for the movement from a mass definition of class to an individuated definition of class.

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.

As Marxist as They Wanna Be

I’m about halfway through Zuboff and Maxmin’s The Support Economy now. They continue to point to how the nature of production has undergone major changes in recent years, and cite many statistics and studies to support their contention. For example: in 1997, “31 percent of employees said that they bring work home at least once a week, compared to 20 percent in 1977, while those who say they never bring work home decreased by 16 percent” (125). Furthermore, “68 percent of [The National Study of the Changing Workforce] respondents in 1997 agreed that their jobs require them to work very fast, compared to 55 percent in 1977; 88 percent agreed that their jobs required that their jobs require them to to work very hard, compared to 70 percent in 1977; and 60 percent agreed that there is never enough time to get everything done on the job, compared to 40 percent in 1977” (125).

They couple these observations to an argument that the nature of consumption is undergoing profound changes, as well, from a model of mass consumption to a model of individuated consumption. The Baffler has done brilliant work following, analyzing, and satirizing this shift: anyone who’s read the writing of Thomas Frank will find instantly familiar the results of a survey conducted by “a New York City market-research firm”; namely, that “teens said their most valued traits are ‘individuality’ and ‘uniqueness’ — ‘being truly uniquely themselves'” (169). Zuboff and Maxmin summarize their argument as follows: “In the twentieth century, managerial capitalism created unprecedented wealth with an enterprise logic invented for the dreams of a mass society. It emphasized consumption and mass production. Its success unleashed the large-scale forces associated with health, education, communication, mobility, and so on. These forces transformed populations. They engendered a psychological reformation that imbued many people around the world, and especially within its industrial core, with an abiding sense of individuality and a deep impulse toward psychological self-determination” (174). Now, I’m absolutely dying here to use this passage as the foundation for an economic reading of the expressivist and individualist pedagogies typically ascribed to Peter Elbow (heck, there’s probably a book-length project in there about how contemporary capitalism formed and informed the reflective personal essay assignment; something along the lines of Raymond Williams’s brilliant Culture and Society), but I’ll have to hold off until I think through it more adequately — and there’s also something in there about re-understanding Marx’s arguments that capitalism drives itself into perpetual crisis: the effects of mass production and mass consumption have ultimately begun to destroy mass production and mass consumption.
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Messy Philosophy

This is gonna be a big, long, rambling post that tries to put together some ideas — often poorly grasped on my part — about philosophy, economics, and class. I hope you’ll bear with me, and I hope you’ll tell me where I’ve got it profoundly wrong.

Some problems with Rawls and the veil of ignorance: first, and perhaps most obviously, “we cannot liberate ourselves from the norms and prejudices which have formed our being simply by convincing ourselves that our social role (and even body) could have been different” (Varoufakis 270). In other words, despite the notion of an original position and a veil of ignorance, the fact is that a bigot who performs the thought experiment Rawls offers will still likely say, “Well, even if I’m somehow born the wrong color, I’ll just have to know my place.” An intellectual experiment can’t entirely overcome the values into which we’ve been socialized, and so it will still be difficult — or impossible — for a society to imagine what a more just society might look like.

Second, and more seriously, the intellectual experiment Rawls offers is synchronic rather than diachronic: in attempting to offer a rational argument for a just society which a group of people at any given time might agree on, Rawls ignores history and change. Varoufakis suggests that we “consider a society 1000 years ago (or even 300 years ago) trying to devise the best social distribution of roles, privilege and money based on Rawls’ scheme. All the options they would consider would involve some sort of slavery!” Ultimately, Varoufakis suggests, “alternatives to the current social arrangements are created by historical change and cannot be anticipated in advance” (271). I don’t agree with this last part — I think that imagining change is what opens up the possibility for change — but his point regarding the historical situatedness of values is well-taken. He also points out, quite rightly, that Rawls’s construction of the appropriate and just distribution of privilege in a society according to the original position and the veil of ignorance fails to answer the question: what happens after that distribution? What happens when the distribution changes?

But isn’t that asking a utilitarian question of a philosophy that critiques utilitarianism?
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Choosing Authenticity

I’d like to ask you to momentarily ignore the somewhat scary talk about ratios when Varoufakis writes that “When a person chooses between different combinations of quantities of two experiences/commodities X and Y, the Equi-marginal Principle suggests that she opts for a combination such that the ratio of the marginal utilities from Y and the marginal utility from Y equals the ratio of the price of Y and the price of X” (63). Sure, it’s easy enough to think through, but actually what I’m interested in here is the notion of choosing between two experiences. For now, let’s work with the neoclassical economic assumptions that experiences are scarce (i.e., in contemporary American culture, there apparently aren’t enough college educations to go around) and that experiences bear an opportunity cost (i.e., if you decide to become the world’s best shade-tree mechanic, that might rule out your dreams of an acting career), and finally the utility-maximisation thesis, “founded on the idea that people care ultimately about themselves” (76) and also on the idea that utility itself is scarce (scarcity being a concept that I think has recently become more complicated — but that can wait for another post).

So if we swallow all these assumptions, and we think about choosing between two or more experiences, let’s ask: what are the choices associated with the various models of socioeconomic class and class mobility?
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Mobility and Falling

I haven’t left town yet — another hour or two before I get on the road — so I thought I’d get in one last post, since what I wrote yesterday was rather unfocused. (Although I have to say I was mightily proud of that godawful pun.) A few days ago, I cited Wolff and Resnick’s distinctions about the foundational assumptions of neoclassical and Marxian economic theories. Chris’s insightful comments on that post indicate to me that I need to think a little more about how those foundational assumptions affect students’ reasons for going to college. On the one hand, the Marxian focus on exploitation would lead me to view college as preparing students to take their proper places within the exploitative hierarchy, with the vocational and liberal education models putting students into the same relative places because class hierarchies in the base and the superstructure are roughly isomorphic. (No, I have absolutely zero support for this assertion. Fire away.) This is an understanding of class that simply feels much too monolithic to me. On the other hand, the neoclassical understanding of the student who always acts rationally and in her own best interests, in order to maximize the utility she receives from her work and life, feels far too rationalist and idealistic for me. People don’t always act in their own best interests, or even think about what they’re doing all the time.

So why do people go to college?
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Materiality and Cartesian Dualisms

After arguing that economic issues are not to blame for discrimination — it’s simply not profitable for employers to be bigoted, or so the Pollyanna argument goes — Mankiw does acknowledge that “differences in human capital among groups of workers may themselves reflect discrimination. The inferior schools historically available to black students, for instance, may be traced to prejudice on the part of city councils and school boards. But this kind of discrimination occurs long before the worker enters the market. In this case, the disease is political, even if the symptom is economic” (427). Furthermore, “competitive, market economies provide a natural antidote to employer discrimination,” namely, “the profit motive” (428), which Mankiw assumes will lead competitive firms to hire those workers whose wages are cheaper due to discrimination.
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Where I’m Coming From

My discipline, composition, has only really started to talk about socioeconomic class in the past several years. Comp folks have been doing smart, rigorous work with other aspects of identity politics, particularly race, ethnicity and gender, for a while now, and we’ve started to pay better attention to sexuality as an aspect of identity politics, but the conversations we have about class have been problematic and inconsistent. So that’s what I’m after in my dissertation, generally speaking, and what I’m going on about here.

It’s not just an issue with compositionists, though; America has its myth of how nobody is ever really poor, we’re all just pre-rich (I think that’s a Geoff Nunberg quotation, though I’m not sure). But compositionists, aside from Richard Ohmann, John Trimbur, Bruce Horner, and a few others, have either ignored class, or treated it only as an authenticity claim based on lived experience: “I’m working class because I’ve had a working-class life and I know what it’s like.” (Never mind the adjunct with the million-dollar vocabulary and seven years of graduate school who claims she’s working class because she makes <$25K). Or, well, that's not entirely true. To be a little more rigorous: as I've suggested elsewhere, we discuss class in terms of (1) relations of production, (2) wealth and vocation, (3) values and culture, and (4) lived experience and authenticity claims, often without sorting those categories out, or even acknowledging them. So I could go a number of ways: I could say, "Here's how things look, and here are the teaching implications, if we use perspective 1," and devote a chapter to it, and then another chapter to perspective 2, and so on. Could be useful. Alternatively, I could try to come up with my own, more rigorous perspective, based on what people outside of composition have had to say about class. Although it doesn't come with its own handy dissertation-chapter-ordering-scheme, it's an approach that currently appeals to me a little more, in large part because I think even the 4 perspectives I've mentioned above are way too loosey-goosey to do anything with.