Class Dismissed

Class Dismissed
September 20, 2005

It is a commonplace that academic discussions of culture and society always pay homage to the unholy trinity known as Race, Class, and Gender. There is something calcified about that expression, which is a pretty good sign that we are in the realm of the cliché. The three terms are always recited together, and always in that order. While class may occupy the middle spot, it actually comes in dead last among the topics for analysis and debate. The other forms of "difference" somehow prove more urgent, or less awkward, or something.

And even when class does come up for reflection, there is the problem that Eric Hayot has recently pointed out in an article appearing at Printculture (a group blog with somewhat magazine-like qualities.) Hayot describes what you might call a certain lack of reflexivity by academics about their own class position. To be more blunt, it could be called an evasion of self-knowledge.

"Though academics are good at theorizing class when it happens to other people," as Hayot puts it, "in my experience they're not great at explaining or even seeing it as it operates in their own world.... Class in the American university is a subject that fades continually into the background, like a photograph that wishes incessantly the return to its condition as unmarked, unfixed film."

Such forgetfulness has consequences. It means that scholars are shirking the responsibility "to analyze, discuss, or attempt to alter their own community's class structures."

It's easy to imagine a reply to this -- namely, that higher education never really does "attempt to alter ... class structures," even if it does help some individual move up a notch or two. Rather, it serves to reproduce them, to reinforce them, even to fine-tune them. Inequality is not incidental to what a university does. Its real purpose is to sift, sort, and certify. No amount of egalitarian purpose will change that. (Please note that these assertions could be made with just as much conviction by either the most cynical or aristocrats or the lowliest of commonfolk.)

If so, the difficulty of thinking about where academics themselves fit in the class system would not be an accident. It would be, rather, a blind spot -- more or less like the one in the eye. A blind spot, in that literal sense, is the area on the retina that has no receptors. It's where the big nerve connects all the sensitive parts back to the brain.

The eyeball works as well as it does, not in spite of the blind spot, but precisely because of it. And so it may be that scholars tend, at best, to see class as something that "happens to other people," to borrow Hayot's nice turn of phrase.

Now, my own interest in this matter is not, as the saying goes, academic. Several years of moving along the boundary between the worlds of academe and of publishing have inspired (indeed, obliged) me to do a certain amount of reflection on the unstated assumptions about class that operate in each. And in large measure, this has been a matter of necessity. I grew up in a Southern, evangelical, working class family -- with part of that time spent living in, yes, mobile home communities, to use the most euphonious (if not euphemistic) expression available.

Social mobility is not always pleasant. As T.S. Eliot put it: "To be educated above the level of those whose social habits and tastes one has inherited may cause a division within a man which interferes with happiness." In spite of the chilly diction, or perhaps because of it, that is the one line from Eliot that has ever brought me to tears.

Don't worry, there's no memoir just ahead. The very thought of writing one feels like an ulcer announcing its debut.

Instead, I want to run through a very personal -- which is to say incomplete, skewed, and unsystematic -- list of recommended readings on the topic of class and intellectual life, academic and otherwise. None of the following titles offer the final word on anything. But all are useful for thinking, and they have kept me from yelling at people, at least for the most part.

Pierre Bourdieu is the one figure who Eric Hayot cites as an exception to the general rule that academics don't look at class as a factor within the academic world itself. In particular, he refers to The Inheritors, the sociologist's classic analysis of high-achieving students in France. That's a good place to start. But by all means also read Bourdieu's study of their professor in Homo Academicus, and his investigation of the nexus between higher education and government in The State Nobility. (See also this interview with Deborah Reed-Danahay, author of a recent study of his work.)

In Bourdieu, the examples are, for the most part, French. Hence they may seem very specific to a situation in which one city, Paris, serves as the hub of academe, politics, high culture, and business for an entire country. But in some ways, that just makes it easier to show how the power-grid of class works.

Bourdieu himself rejected any comparison of his thought to that of Thornstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class is now probably more often read as a work of literature than as sociology. Still, the points of resemblance are conspicuous. Reading Bourdieu on class and the university always reminds me of The Higher Learning in America, which Veblen originally wanted to subtitle "A Study in Total Depravity."

At the other extreme from the dense sociological prose of Bourdieu and Veblen, there is Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, a literary scholar with a certain knack as elitist curmudgeon.

When the book appeared in 1983, it was a best-seller, perhaps because it fit so perfectly the tendencies of the moment. After all the cultural leveling of the 1960s and the economic anxiety of the 1970s, the pop culture of the first Reagan administration reflected a yearning that indicators of hierarchy and status might prove both legible and stable. It was the time not just of The Preppy Handbook, but of prime-time soap operas about rich people ( Dallas, Dynasty, etc.)

Fussell offered a nine-rung version of the class ladder -- marking off the gradations from the top (those with inherited wealth) to the lower depths (people in jail), treating each level as its own social world and cluster of attitudes and expectations. His exercise in pop sociology was not just witty, but also perhaps a bit cruel in the game it played.

In part, it aggrandized the American fantasy of ascent: Why else call the book a "guide"? But at the same time, Fussell was merciless in showing how impossible this fantasy really was. Acquiring the mannerisms and commodities preferred by one's "betters" would never really work. Signs of effort would always give the game away. And preferences would shift accordingly -- just enough to keep everyone in their proper place. (Fussell himself had no problem with that.)

But far more interesting than the chapters on the lifestyles of the rich and famous was Fussell's conclusion, which described what he called "category X." This was a cohort that didn't really fit into the status hierarchy he had just described.

You are born into a class. But nobody is born into X: "You become an X person," wrote Fussell, "or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensible....If, as [C. Wright] Mills said, the middle-class person is 'always somebody's man,' the X person is nobody's, and his freedom from supervision is one of his most obvious characteristics. X people are independent-minded, free of anxious regard for popular shibboleths, loose in carriage and demeanor. They adore the work they do, and they do it until they are finally carried out, 'retirement' being a concept meaningful only to hired personnel or wage slaves who despise their work."

In keeping with his method throughout the rest of the book, Fussell went on to write about the taste of X people -- their need to live in a neighborhood with good bakeries, wine stores, and "a sophisticated newsdealer, for one needs British, French, German, and Italian periodicals." In short, he summed up everything David Brooks ever had to say about the "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians). And he did in just under nine pages, written almost two decades before Brooks published his book.

Academics were only part of category X. (Other members included "actors, musicians, artists, sports stars, 'celebrities,' [and] well-to-do former hippies....") But I noticed something about the list of concrete pointers that Eric Hayot gave in his article for anyone planning on an academic career: It overlaps closely with Fussell's description of the X sensibility.

"It helps to have some sense of the geography of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco," advises Hayot, adding, "Paris and London are nice, too." He also suggests knowing something about wine.

"There's one surefire way, other things being equal, to identify an X dinner party," wrote Fussell. "All the wine brought by guests, no matter the quantity, is inevitably consumed, and so is more of the host's stock than he's probably anticipated." As for geography, "X people tend to be unostentatiously familiar with the street layouts and landmarks of London, Paris, and Rome -- and sometimes Istanbul and Karachi."

Along the way, Fussell draws something like the idealized self-portrait that scholars might well prefer to imagine for themselves: "X people constitute something like the classless class. They occupy the one social place in the USA where the ethic of buying and selling is not all-powerful. Impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit, X people have escaped out the back doors of those theaters of class which enclose others.... And it's in the X world, if anywhere, that an American can avoid some of the envy and ambition that pervert so many."

Well, OK, so it sounded like academe right up until that last line. Even so, Fussell does supply a concentrated image of the ideal. For a more hardnosed look, you have to turn elsewhere. Fussell's book is still in print; at least, I could find a copy at a chain bookstore recently. But you might have to look around a bit for Terry Caesar's collections of essays on class and status in academic life, Conspiring with Forms: Life in Academic Texts (University of Georgia Press, 1992) and Writing in Disguise: Academic Life and Subordination (Ohio University Press, 1998).

Caesar is a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, but I have been reading his work since long before this online publication was so much as an improbable brainstorm. Probably the best place to start is his essay "On Teaching at a Second Rate University" (reprinted in the earlier collection). There are moments when Caesar has the wild candor of a Dostoevsky character, which can be either exhilarating or terrifying. Either way, you feel that unwelcome truths are being spoken with an unnerving indifference to the listener's comfort.

"Teaching at a second-rate university," Caesar writes, means "knowing, at least, that you're not worth knowing." It creates "a ceaseless condition of structural exclusion from any decision about what can and cannot be authoritatively said." It might be nice to imagine that academic life -- with its ideally "category X" outlook -- will foster a cosmopolitan generosity. Caesar writes of wishing for "a world where universities were more like towns, some, at least, so obscure that so much as to hear of their existence would prompt charm and wonderment." But no, not quite.

"Professionally," Caesar writes, "we move across a surface where only certain routes count, only certain places are comprehended as having depths, and only certain destinations can be found on the map."



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