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Monday, 28 January 2008


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Karl Steel

Thanks for writing this Scott. Can anyone in the crowd say Bourdieu?


Thanks dudes.

Seriously, though...the debate between Dr. C and Kugelm finally snapped me into an organizing idea for my English 1 class: "Why Art?" We get to start w/ Plato (duh), go to Aristotle, maybe some Cistercian anti-ornament stuff, Matthew Arnold, some Russian formalist stuff, maybe John Berger, and then culminate, yes, in the Stanley Fish/Joseph Kugelmass/Dr. Crazy/SEK great debates. Chances are by the end of the semester here, Scott, you will have written something on the topic that you'll be happy to see shoehorned into my syllabus.

Dr. Crazy

Scott, Thanks so much for this post. You've articulated what I have been trying (and failing, apparently) to articulate about this stuff, and I really appreciate your weighing in. And Karl - of COURSE, Bourdieu! Of COURSE!


Yum, Bourdieu!


Thanks for this... 'intervention', Scott. I agree, and have been turning over writing a response (which you've now saved me from doing, thank you!).

What strikes me as particularly bizarre about the discussion over at the valve is a singular and somewhat unempathetic (hey, what, it's a word now) revelation of class privilege (quite aside from the assumption that Dr. Crazy must *not* under any circumstances be multifaceted!!). The presumption that the 'straits' ought not to exist (or that they're equivalent to being socially graceful at a cocktail party, which I tend to think dramatically underestimates the massive (embodied, as well as verbal) grammars of class), and that therefore we ought to teach as if they do not really does fail to recognise the extent to which we, as postgrads (graduate students), lecturers, profs etc, are already *extraordinarily* well educated in the navigation of those straits. (Bourdieu indeed, Karl!). It seems to me a failure to understand that class privilege (and yes, I kinda hate this terminology, but we work with what we've got) is multifaceted: it's not about whether one can claim to have gone to an ivy league school, but about the kinds of conversation one is capable of, as Dr. Crazy has said, over and over.

IMHO, it's not 'radical' to pretend that the world is otherwise than it is, or that we ought to pretend that it is; particularly when such a pretence would have working class/poor keep on suffering the ills of a class-based society until the whole society is reformed. Nor is it liberal to understand that the education of working class/poor might do more than reiterate the standards by which class is measured: that it might, in fact, have positive consequences not just for the individual concerned, though that could be enough, but for troubling the very class system that would have closed them out. In teaching the means to navigate the straits, we surely necessarily alter the straits themselves.


'Pretence' might be a little ungenerous in the previous comment. I just mean that we need to negotiate with the realities of the situation (as articulated by those suffering those realities), rather than thinking that the situation ought to be otherwise and would be if we'd just act like they are; and then thinking we shouldn't help people negotiate those realities. I get wanting to change those realities, but requiring that others suffer through the period of change is deeply problematic.

Sorry about that; this disagreement's heatedness has... erm... had its effects ;-P


WildParent (as I shall abbreviate his or her name) in talking about ivy league schools and the conversations one can have makes me wonder if this is the time or place to think about the class (mis)identifications of the professoriat and the grad students that aspire to misidentify similarly. Probably not, really.

Joseph Kugelmass

Scott, I like your metaphor about the ships and the ocean, but here's the sticking point: the "final cause" isn't there for everyone, which is why I'm quite serious about insisting that you find crassness and philistinism mixed in with every class.

Anyway, if you think there has been a mix-up of Aristotelian causal proportions, then it's not really about taking sides, is it? It's about sharing your perspective on the interrelation of passing, upward mobility, and other possible aims for literature.

John Emerson

The ability to appreciate the works Joe reads and teaches requires an amount of leisure time difficult to secure outside of the middle class.

My opinion on this is almost diametrically opposed to yours, except for middle class people (professors) paid specifically to appreciate literature, etc.

A lot of people can stay in the middle class only by working long hours. At Unfogged we just finished a long thread in which it was revealed that lawyers and architects think of a 50-hr. work week as short. And lawyers, in particular, are often people who once did want to be writers or scholars, but no longer have the time. It's one of the rather few options for all but the most elite PhD English majors (along with PR, HS teaching, and advertising).

Add to that the stress of maintaining a middle-class lifestyle (soccer practices, tropical vacations, fine dining, etc.) and there's really no leisure left.

By contrast, a job job (as opposed to a salaried career job) is 40 hrs. a week minus vacations, sick time, and holidays, and by and large you can't afford the expensive amenities so you're reduced to entertaining yourself with books.

The problem with that path is that you're a socially dead unperson crank, and people are reluctant to involve themselves with you for fear of cooties. Thus, no recognition and no colleagues.

Leisure can be got by abandoning the middle class status at least as well as by striving for it. But in fact, no one is willing to abandon the middle class status, so they become lawyers. And actually, not many people care a whole lot about high culture if they're not being paid to care.

You're all very welcome. These ideas are develope at more length at my URL.

New Kid on the Hallway

But aren't tropical vacations, soccer practices, and fine dining in themselves leisure? I realize that there are a lot of stresses on the middle class, but I don't think we can reduce it to, the poor middle class, no time for leisure! Now, the middle class may now be in a position where leisure is stressful, but I don't think it's any less leisure. (And what do you do on the flight to the tropical vacation, or sitting on the beach, but read?)

As for the 40-hr a week job job - I think a lot of the students Dr. Crazy refers to are actually working second jobs on top of that 40-hr a week job. (Or going to school full-time on top of the 40 hr/week job.) The 40 hr/week job only allows leisure if it actually pays for all your needs.

Finally: YES, Bourdieu! (That's what I'd been thinking all along in this conversation, but was reluctant to say, as he's one of the only theorists I have much familiarity with, and therefore wasn't sure if I was coming up with him by default. ;-D)

John Emerson

Rather than using their leisure to read books, most middle-class people choose competing forms of leisure. Possibly because their reading energy was all used up on law books.

I do know a guy working for $7 an hour who has lots of leisure for reading. He's very abstemious and not at all middle-class.

Rich Puchalsky

Against my better judgement, I've commented on this at the Valve. I think that the key to Joseph's statement is the "likably". "Likably bourgeois" does pretty much equate to narrowness, because it implies that in order to be likable you are being taught to conform to a stereotype.

For the rest, John Emerson is, as always, correct. People have all sorts of odd ideas about how class status correlates with leisure, how leisure time is spent, and interest in literature. The Noah Ciceros of the world exist; the lawyers who have no time to read exist in great numbers. The total number of people really interested in literature who do not work in the industry of teaching literature is small enough so that I'd say that as many of them may actually be lower-class in terms of income as middle-class. Or at least, like John E., they have a sort of non-standard attitude that can't really be classified as middle-class.

The appearance of culture and strong writing skills can help students who don't have them in all sorts of ways, sure. And no one should romanticize the lower class and what people need to do to get by; it's always preferable to have a job that gives you a middle-class income. But... well, why literature per se? Wouldn't you do better teaching students accounting, law, or business management? It seems like this is one of those post hoc things where people go into teaching literature, find out they're good at it, and then decide that they need additional social justification for doing it.


Quite a bit to respond to, so let me start by saying: Karl, thanks for reminding me that I'm congenitally Bourdieu-blind. I don't know why I don't think "Bourdieu!" every time I make a point now, since he's obviously the unacknowledged (by me) cornerstone of much of my thought. (Not kidding here, either -- I owe the man so much, but think of him so little.)

I'm going to skip around a bit, as everyone touched on the issue that class plays into this and I'm not sure where to start. John writes:

My opinion on this is almost diametrically opposed to yours, except for middle class people (professors) paid specifically to appreciate literature, etc.

Keeping Rich's caveat in mind, I want to offer my own example: I went to a terrible high school, graduated with a piss-poor GPA, but belonged to a small circle of very literate friends. We read and read and read, to the detriment of all else. So the summer before I got to college, I was able to talk my way into the Honors College, despite the fact that I was already on academic probation because of my high school GPA. I worked 35-45 hours per week, but at a used bookstore and coffeeshop: selling books, appraising them, and chatting with the people who bought them. I first learned about literary theory not in a class, but at work, from a group of graduate students mainlining coffee.

My friends, well, they weren't so lucky. Equally intelligent -- if not outright more so -- they also worked 35-45 hours a week, but not in a used bookstore. They worked the kinds of jobs the majority of college students worked -- exhausting shifts in food-service industry, mostly. They didn't leave work excited to read this or that author they'd spent all night talking about; they left work, went home, and did as much of their required reading as they could muster before passing out. All of which is only to say:

But for the Grace of God.

I easily could've fallen into those traps, because they were necessary, inasmuch as without them you couldn't afford to go to college in the first place. Eventually, I earned a scholarship, got to work with some brilliant people, and ended up in grad school.

Thing is, all of my friends from high school still read, now they've finished finished with college. They never graduated, but because they were bright and industrious, they've all worked their way up one ladder or another. And they read more literary fiction than I do, because they have the time. (All my spare reading energy goes into secondary materials on the dissertation.) They're now on the cusp of the middle class, and they're able to do what they couldn't as an undergraduate. Does this prove anything?

Absolutely not. My point is simply (as I wrote Joe privately last night) that I have a Stand & Deliver-type chip on my shoulder: I want the people who remind me of my friends to have a shot at success, however so defined.

(Wait, I had a point? Could've fooled me. Let me string the rest of my thoughts together a little later, when I can string a little better.)

Rich Puchalsky

Let me try to detangle your (interesting) statement of experience a bit, Scott. First, as a matter of politics / policy, I'd fully support redistribution of wealth (through progressive taxation) in order to provide everyone who wants one with a college education that they don't have to work full time through.

But, aside from that -- what has actually happened? You write that your friends are now on the cusp of the middle class, and in fact have more time for free reading than you do. You write that you want to give people like your friends a shot at success. That presumes that you've succeeded, and they have only after a long struggle, or anyways that people like them might not. Is that true?

Not to be pessimistic or anything -- but what if you turn out to be one of the people who only gets an adjunct job? Did your friends fall into traps, or did you? If you look at it purely as a matter of income, I'd guess that the average lit-grad-student-type makes less than the average equally smart, equally ambitious never-finished-college type.

At the same time, I'm really saying that you did succeed. That a job in a bookstore where you talk about theory really is preferable to a job in food service. But it's only so if you forthrightly say that intellectual work is good in itself. When you teach people literature, that's an innate good. If you teach it to them as preparation for middleclassdom in the income sense, you run into unforeseen consequences -- you may actually be holding them back, for all you know.

The Necromancer

This argument is problematic insofar as one conflates the notion of being bourgeois with class and class alone. You're first commenter threw Bordieu in the mix, which immediately makes me think of the intersection of class and culture (Ah, that other dangerous C word). At the risk of alienating a whole Marxist discourse of cultural analysis (Raymond Williams, anyone?), I will say that bourgeois is as much a style of sorts, and that its antithesis is bohemian. I think, despite the contemporary crisis of the bobo, that these two categories speak to more than just bank balances and investment portfolios. In 19th century France, the context in which the word bourgeois developed, this was pretty clear.

But then again, what do the French know.

John Emerson

My problems with education as a way toward class mobility are expressed at my URL. Basically, there can only be so many professors. This is especially acute in the humanities and less acute for example in accounting, or even in biology (a biology BS is usable in biotech, especially if it involved lab work and computers.)

The humanities used to be either a privilege of the aristocracy or else, to a degree, an avenue toward middling success. By now anyone talented enough to get a humanities PhD is most likely making a sacrifice by doing that instead of going into law, journalism, advertising, etc., and whereas lyric poets used to be lords and generals, nowadays humanities training more or less disqualifies you from that kind of thing.

So I say that the humanities are half-bohemianized already and on their way to becoming more so, as the English, History, Philosophy, and Anthropology departments implode.

For most humanities-type people, their humanities work will be one thing and their career track will be quite distinct.

Rich Puchalsky

John E: "My problems with education as a way toward class mobility are expressed at my URL."

Oh, right, that URL. I didn't express myself very well in comments then, and probably won't any better now, but I still think that there may be some interesting lessons for this from punk subculture, which had/has a specific do-it-yourself ethos that I still find similar to your thing.

One of the main questions being what "success" counts as. Let's say that there are people doing scholarly work without academic support. I think that there are clearly going to be such people. Does "success" count as their growing acceptance within the original status hierarchy (i.e. they get published in journals, perhaps get courtesy titles of some kind, etc.)? Or does it count as the formation of a supportive subculture, and the person who manages to jump ship for academia is considered to be a sellout? Or do neither of those things matter, but what does is that they get actual money to work with somehow?

Timothy Burke

Let me make a reading suggestion: Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. It's a great read, for one, but it shakes up a lot of the assumptions being made on all sides in this discussion. Among the things that Rose found was not only that some British workers were reading literature avidly at a time when elite intellectuals (including those on the left) would have said otherwise, but they also had an interesting range of claims about why they were doing so, in some cases very much refusing functionalist explanations that it was about social mobility OR that it was about empowerment or class awareness. In fact, what Rose found was that a lot of the most dedicated working-class auto-didacts were drawn to very "old-fashioned" or conservative literature and essays, and somewhat in the spirit that Kugelmass describes: as a productive encounter with minds and times unlike their own. But I also think they were perfectly comfortable with their understanding of the connection between their own reading and bourgeois practices of leisure, with no sense that consuming literature marked out a radicalizing distance between themselves and other reading cultures.


The problem that I have with the "Why is literary studies particularly useful for [negotiating middle class culture]?" question that I've heard Joseph Kugelmass, Rich Puchalsky (and others?) asking, is that it requires us to justify one aspect of the liberal arts as distinct from the whole. It's as if we have to justify the value of screwdriver studies when what's particularly important is the cultivation of a toolbox. Cetainly we have to justify the value of screwdriver studies/English/History at some point if we expect to continue to receive a portion of institutional space and resources. But if we approach the question of cultural literacy from the screwdriver point of view then it does seem were just in search of Ed Hirsch style cultural literacy: the ability to identity and navigate particular cultural touch stones. This is indeed a useful skill, though as others have noted it comes with a mentality that can also be a liability. What I see as the more useful aspect of undergraduate education is a general cultivation of critical skills in which all of the disciplines play their part (not that folks can't do this on their own, but there are some advantages to instruction and community). These skills, I believe assist one in pretty much any thinking job, and help one to navigate both a cocktail party and a job interview. I didn't take many English courses in college and never managed to read books like Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby or Finnegans Wake, but I now know how to recognize when people are referring to them and how to gracefully(ish) deal the a situation.

Joseph Kugelmass


Actually, I totally agree with you; the new post at the Valve says a lot that goes along with what you write here.


I agree about punk. Generally speaking, punk is what I would immediately contrast with NPR, since NPR, in all its aesthetic mediocrity and political timidity, has been repeatedly praised in the course of this exchange.


Great suggestion. I'll try to get my hands on Rose.


Scott: "I want the people who remind me of my friends to have a shot at success, however so defined." I agree, and say as much in my new post. Furthermore, let's allow them to define success however they choose, rather than telling them what to do if one hopes to get ahead with the vast American population that listens to NPR.

Craig Smith

Not to interrupt the discussion, but we over at Free Exchange just wanted to say thanks to Scott for picking up the meme--we will add you to the long list of posts over at our site.

cps @ Free Exchange

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