Tag Archives: working class

Lauren Berlant – “Slow Death” (2007)

Berlant explains the concept of slow-death as a way of living in this current stage of capital. It is not merely the quiet desperation of Thoreau’s community-others, but a way in which life can be lived laterally, as a self-interruption of the capital subject otherwise exhausted by the forces of capital extraction that soak up all practical energies.

[The essay] argues that in the scene of slow death, a condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life, agency can be an activity of maintenance, not making; fantasy, without grandiosity; sentience, without full intentionality; inconsistency, without shattering; embodying, alongside embodiment.

She uses obesity as an example of how the processes of eating have become perverted by capitalist pressures. “In the contemporary U.S. context, obesity figures as the freshest case of slow-death crisis-scandal management.”

It is a form of slow death; in fact, the only form of slow death available to many marginalized peoples.

When one African- American essayist describes the ongoing familial and cultural lure of the actually existing American four food groups (sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine), we see that morbidity, the embodiment towards death as a way of life, marks out slowdeath as what there is of the good life for the vast majority of American workers.

She points out that being-fat was always associated with the rich not the poor, and now the number of “overfed” matches the number of “underfed” people in the world for the first time. Thus an old-fashioned Malthusian argument won’t work here—where it is the excessive resources that are killing the poor and people of color. Such “excess” dovetails with a whole range of racist associations: that African American are controlled by animal appetite rather than cultivated restraint; that this excess if marked by their political “excess” or expendability, etc.

She thus points out that the obesity epidemic cannot be explained in terms of liberal concepts of individual sovereignty, choice, freedom, etc. Rather, the biopolitical state forces us to rethink the modes of agency that constitute personal change—such as healthy or unhealthy eating. Remember that for Foucault, sovereignty “is not the right to put people to death or to grant them life. Nor is it the right to allow people to live or to leave them to die. It is the right to take life or let live.” Thus much of what Berlant is arguing is that life-maintenance can in and of itself be equivalent to a form of life-building, but with the idea of construction signifying otherwise than capital modes of accretion. [Relate this to Schilleren idea of not tasting more, but of tasting differently.]

But, for most, the overwhelming present is less well symbolized by energizing images of sustainable life, less guaranteed than ever by the glorious promise of bodily longevity and social security, than it is expressed in regimes of exhausted practical sovereignty, lateral agency, and, sometimes, counterabsorption in episodic refreshment, for example, in sex, or spacing out, or food that is not for thought.


Pierre Bourdieu – Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979, trans. 1984)

Bourdieu’s project, as he describes it, is to perform the “barbarous reintegration of aesthetic consumption into the world of ordinary consumption,” which in turn “abolishes the opposition which has been the basis of high aesthetics since Kant, between the ‘taste of sense’ and the ‘taste of reflection’” (6). He argues that the ability to engage in aesthetic judgment at all depends on a certain amount of cultural competency (“to see (voir) is a function of knowledge (savoir)” (2)). Not only this, but the pure aesthetic is rooted in an ethics, or rather, an ethos of elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social…and takes the bourgeois denial of the social world as its limit” (5). This detachment is the product of “negative economic necessities—a life of ease—that tends to induce an active distance from necessity.” Thus the aesthetic gaze rebounds onto the stylization of life itself: form is privileged over function, manner over matter. “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (6).

One of Bourdieu’s main points is that the object determines its subject:

Any legitimate work tends in fact to impose the norms of its own perception and tacitly defines as the only legitimate mode of perception the one which brings into play a certain disposition and a certain competence. (28)

But he also makes the reverse claim: that the aesthetic point of view can create the aesthetic object. This circle can be explained concretely by looking at two factors: education and social origin, both of which affect the ability to “distance oneself” from the aesthetic object. Thus food can be aesthetic of it is properly distanced. Thus Bourdieu can unearth the subtext of aesthetic language:

Detachment, disinterestedness, indifference—aesthetic theory has so often presented these as the only way to recognize the work of art for what it is, autonomous, that one ends up forgetting that they really mean disinvestment, detachment, indifference, in other words, the refusal to invest oneself and take things seriously. (34)

What Bourdieu calls “the aesthetic disposition, a generalized capacity to neutralize ordinary urgencies and to bracket off practical ends…can only be constituted within an experience of the world freed from urgency” (54). This is not so much a critique of Kant, as an elaboration of Kant. The real difference is that Bourdieu is giving an account of how the aesthetic can be experienced at all—an the answer to that question puts the concept of the beautiful at risk because its universal quality is based on a real system of exclusion and “distinction.”

Some of the more interesting parts of Distinction include Bourdieu’s analysis of “Life Styles.” It’s important to take the word style seriously, as the signifier of an artistic act—this connects these sociological analyses with thinkers like Foucault and Merleau-Ponty, both of whom theorize life stylistically: the former in terms of negotiating power structures, that latter in terms of linguistic development. For Bourdieu, any such analysis has a class element:

The art of eating and drinking remains one of the few areas in which the working classes explicitly challenge the legitimate (bourgeois) art of living. In the face of the new ethic of sobriety for the sake of slimness, which is most recognized at the highest levels of the social hierarchy, peasants and especially industrial workers maintain an ethic of convivial indulgence. A bon vivant is not just someone who enjoys eating and drinking; he is someone capable of entering into the generous and familiar—that is, both simple and free—relationship that is encouraged and symbolized by eating and drinking together, in a conviviality which sweeps away restraint and reticence. (179)

The practices of eating, therefore, offer a curious hitch in the scheme marked out by Bourdieu—not because his theory of “artistic living” is wrong, but because food itself, as something that is irreducible “sensual” no matter how reflective one’s relationship to it may be, refuses aesthetic categorization all together. Thus the inability for working class people to take “pleasure” in their food is exactly what enables them to take pleasure in it. That this matches what Adorno would call a “vulgar” identification highlights the pretensions of distinction grounding his concepts of both life and art.

“Plain speaking, plain eating: the working-class meal is characterized by plenty (which does not exclude restrictions and limits) and above all freedom.” Observations like this, however, reveal a blind spot: abundance is not always the norm, and freedom of form is not always accompanied by an abundance of content. But the contrast with the bourgeois meal stands, nevertheless.

 It is the expression of a habitus of order, restraint and propriety which may not be abdicated. The relation to food—the primary need and pleasure, is only one dimension of the bourgeois relation to the social world. The opposition between the immediate and the deferred, the easy and the difficult, substance (or function) and form, which is exposed in a particularly striking fashion in the bourgeois way of eating, is the basis of all aestheticization of practice and every aesthetic. (196)


Postscript: Towards a ‘Vulgar’ Critique of ‘Pure’ Critiques

This final chapter explains why a book about taste and art made no appeal to the canon of vocabulary associated with philosophical and literary aesthetics. The chapter is largely performative—i.e. I could have written this as a dense philosophical treatise if I had wanted to. He argues that if we must now allow for the “return of the repressed, having produced the truth of taste against which, by an immense repression, the whole legitimate aesthetics has been constructed,” then there should be an adjustment of vocabulary such that these two discourses are not allowed to exist as parallel, or alternative discourses—but rather as a unity of discourse on taste.

Pure taste, Bourdieu reminds, us is based on a refusal of the impure. Thus, the originary gesture marking out pure taste is a moment of disgust that cannot be registered as pure affect. This disgust is directed at the facile—associated with the charming and the agreeable, that which is immediately gratifying. He quotes extensively from Schopenhauer to illustrate the distinction: in short, art that inspires appetite defeats the aim of art. Kant’s principle of pure taste, Bourdieu extrapolates, is nothing other than a refusal of that which imposes enjoyment. Disgust is horrifying (passages from Kant and Adorno link disgust and horror repeatedly) because it results from the removal of distance, in which freedom is asserted between the representation and the thing represented, in short, alienation, the loss of subject in the object” (488). [Try to relate this to Marx on alienation in 1844 manuscripts.] Thus the object that insists on being enjoyed cannot be art. This is why Kant cannot give an account of how the aesthetic makes an appeal to the subject.

He reads Derrida reading Kant. Derrida basically approaches Kant’s object as if it were capable of producing the sort of pleasure that Kant assigns to the work of art—“making Kant’s object its own objective.” Bourdieu argues that deconstruction as a whole is yet another means of shoring up the circle of membership necessary for “enjoying” Kant’s text. Thus philosophy partakes in the modes of distinction that deny the processes of exclusion upon which they are based.

Empirical interest enters into the composition of the most disinterested pleasures of pure taste, because the principle of the pleasure derived from these refined games for refined players lies, in the last analysis, in the denied experience of a social relationship of membership and exclusion. (499)

Elizabeth Gaskell – North and South (1854-55)

The heroine Margaret Hale lives in Helstone in the South of England–which is associated with old pastoral England, the aristocracy, etc–with her father, a clergyman, and her mother (kind of a bitch) and the servant Dixon, who constantly threatens to usurp the daughter role. The father leaves the church out of religious conviction and moves North to Milton. There she meets the Higgins family (whom she takes on as a charity project, but soon becomes their friend) and John Thornton, a captain of industry (with an awful mother), that callenges her Southern prejudices. While facing down an angry mob, Margaret runs outside and tries to save Thornton and gets hit in the head. She loses blood. Thornton is totally in love with Margaret, and pursues her vigorously even after multiple rejections. With the mother Hale dying, Frederick Hale (who is wanted for mutiny) returns to England. John sees him and Meg at the train station and assumes it is her lover. While there, Fred accidentally kills someone that’s trying to turn him in. When asked later about the event, Meg denies having been there, but she finds out that John knows after the case is dropped. Now all this time Hale is doing fine giving tutoring lessons but he goes to visit his old friend Mr. Bell at Oxford and suddenly dies there. Bell basically adopts Meg  and she will later inherit his money and be super rich. Meanwhile, the poor factory conditions drive a mob to try to oust Thronton, who can’t hold up for too long after repeated strikes. [side note: Boucher, the person who threw the rock at Meg, drowns himself in a puddle of water]. The Higgins family is a paragon of community responsibility, adopting children, etc. Thornton ends up losing all his money, but after a while he marries Meg and her fortune saves the Mill, etc.

North vs. South – many passages detailing the difference between the industrial north and the agricultural south. interestingly, when Meg returns to Helstone, things have already changed, which calls into question the foundation of her original judgment…or perhaps, her time in the urban space makes possible the pastoral encounter that before was only a pastoral ideal. But a shift to thinking about the urban poor rather than rustic is crucial, because it upsets the country/ctiy divide that founded much of Wordsworth, etc. pontification.

Brigid Lowe (2005) argues that North and South dramatizes the tension between permanence and change. Time seems to move at carrying speeds according to the geography. But there is also the tension between a realism of everyday life and “narrative itself — the plotting inexorably leads Margaret, and the reader, away from homeliness” (204). An interesting contrast to the homeliness-unhomeliness binary in something like Villette, where breaking from the domestic becomes the liberating possibility allowed by fictional narrative.

Elizabeth Gaskell – Mary Barton (1848)

Mary is the daughter of John Barton, a worker that is actively involved in the labor movement and is critical of the current means of wealth distribution. His wife dies (along with all of his other children) in the first few chapters, leaving him with Mary, who becomes the object of Jem Wilson’s affection (anothe honest laborer) and Henry Carson’s affection (the son of Carson, the tycoon that runs the show in Manchester). Esther, the sister of Barton’s wife, returns to warn him to save Mary but he ignores her. Carson won’t marry Mary, and Jem knocks him down. Carson is killed and Jen is arrested on suspicion, but Mary (after seeing the piece of paper with her name on it) realizes that her father committed the crime (he was randomly selected to do so by his quai-anarchist Chartists). She tries to get an alibi and only barley catches Will Ladislaw’s ship before it leaves for another voyage. In court, Will returns just in time and Jem is found not guilty, but Mary swoons and almost does not recover. Eventually Barton confesses to Carson that he killed his son but he explains his motives as part of the poor fighting against the rich. Carson reads the Bible and decides nto to prosecute, and Barton dies in his hands. Jem and Mary get married and move to Canada. Margaret (a friend of Mary and a great singer) gets back her sight and marries Will.

Depiction of the working class from the perspective of the working class. She claims her original impetus in the Preface: “when I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town i resided.” To this end, the first half of the novel is devoted to “vivid” portraits of daily life in contrast to the sumptuous excess of the Carsons, while the second half of the novel revolves around the murder plot. There is an insistence on the maternal aspect of the working poor (men themselves must become maternal) as opposed to coldness of bourgeoisie.

Characterization is typical Gaskell, who attempts to create characters that are out of her control. A good example is Mary swooning in the court scene. The attempt to make them “life like” will be taken up in various ways by Eliot in particular, but not so much by Dickens or even James.

The mode of observing the streets at street level is merged with more abstract generalization. The convergence is on what we might call “personally verifiable material”–objective facts gathered through authorial experience. There is this an increased physicality and attention to detail that links her with someone like Engels. All this leads towards the goal of conveying “a sense of the real,” in Gaskell’s own words.

The mob: More prevalent in North and South, but the revolutions of the late 40s certainly registers as being connected to the struggles of the working class poor, and the fear that this will disrupt English stability.

The Chartists made demands fueled by economic hardship and fueled by the Corn Laws, which kept the price of gild high.

In terms of narrative, there is an attention to the interplay between knowing and speaking. Various characters can know things and don’t speak them, while others speak without knowing. Both are dangerous. Gaskell herself admits to knowing nothing about Political Economy, but goes on speaking about. The narrator has the most confident voice, but language itself repeatedly fails–perhaps pointing in the end, to a call for better listening above all.

Brigid Lowe (2005) uses Henry James dictum–the novelist is someone “upon whom nothing is lost”–as a way of locating Gaskell at the beginning of a tradition that stretches past James and into Joyce: the figure of the realist novelist who not only orders materials, but gathers and amasses detail. Woolf would complain about this impulse to focus on the trivial (an imposition of a modernist aesthetic peculiarly masculine according to Lowe), even though Gaskell’s attention to concrete detail is what earned her praise, and admiration from the like of George Eliot. Mary Barton in particular claims that workers are the fit subject for literature, in a way similar (but different) to Dicken’s attempt in Bleak House to look at the Romantic side of ordinary life. Pity is not always called for overtly, but the reader is able to feel poverty’s encroachment. In Mary Barton, there is still the hope that classes will be reunited into a social whole. In North and South, in response to criticisms that her first novel was one-sided or overly optimistic, Gaskell would portray the goal of various innovations (of factory owners) as hopefully softening the violence between classes. But the ending of that novel is not so hopeful, as the owner becomes churned up in the very turbulence of financial misery he sought ameliorate by reform, etc.