Classics and Class Aspiration


There’s something about “the classics” that seems to appeal to working class aspirations. When lending libraries were established, records tend to show that working class people mainly checked out the classics. In the Soviet Union, the Russian classics were prioritized even though they were obviously aristocratic and bourgeois in character, and classical music and ballet training was extremely robust. That effort found its echo in America in the Penguin Classics and the postwar efforts to popularize classical music, both of which were important in establishing the new “middle class” largely made up of workers.

My own life shows a similar trajectory. I was classically trained on piano, at the prompting of parents who — as I have slowly figured out as an adult — aren’t personally very interested in classical music, and I always seized upon any list of “classics” that I could find. During my naive and ineffectual college search, where I wound up defaulting to Olivet Nazarene University because (a) I knew about it and (b) I knew I could get a scholarship, the only college brochures that actually jumped out at me were from St. John’s. Reading a list of big books — that’s how you do it. I joke that teaching at Shimer College, a Great Books school, is my chance to finally get educated.

To be “educated” — as though it can be attained, as though there’s a list you can check off. It’s a seductive idea, at least to me, and I still catch myself thinking in those terms. For instance, I mostly don’t find opera intuitively appealling — it’s too long and the plots are often ridiculous — and yet I have this sense that I “should” go, simply for the sake of familiarizing myself with opera and filling out that part of my “education.”

This drive to be “educated” in some objectively verifiable way is of course naive. It’s as though your hard work of making your way through a set list of books and classical music will entitle you to respect, to a place in the conversation. It’s a democratizing impulse — everyone can have access to it, just take the list to the library — but an attempt at democratizing elitism.

We all know in our hearts, though, that that’s not how elites actually work, and I think all of us working class autodidacts have discovered, with some horror, that the real elites probably have not read Shakespeare or listened to Brahms. Now the way to signal cultural prestige is to frown upon the traditional “classics” in favor of some vague gesture toward non-Western cultures, or (better) to invest deeply in an analysis of the ephemera of capitalist culture itself — comic books, genre films, etc.

In terms of creative generativity, this trend is a mixed bag, with positives and negatives. But in terms of class aspiration, it shows the arbitarity of cultural “prestige” — and demonstrates that the elites are more nimble than the earnest, overliteral working class autodidact. By the time you’ve become “educated,” they’ve moved on to the next thing, and all your hard work will earn you nothing but condescension.

6 thoughts on “Classics and Class Aspiration

  1. I think it’s also the current rich don’t want to actually expend any effort. Read a book, oh hell no. Have opinions about the television version of game of thrones, yes.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this post for the past couple of hours, and it’s just struck me how similar this is to the ideological concept of labour, wealth, etc in capitalist ideology and how it loops back to the concept of capital.

    Here, for example, the idea that reading canonical books x, y, z will result in cultural capital, which will in turn allow the working class person access to the upper classes is fundamentally similar to the lie that anyone, if only they work a little harder, could join the elite.

  3. This reminds me of the “bad faith” character in Nausea who’s reading his way through the library alphabetically. As for the rich, there’s a $300 million good-but-not-great de Kooning at the Art Institute of Chicago right now because some asshole wanted to own The Most Expensive Painting In The World.

  4. Revolt of the Elites directly referencing Ortega’s The Revolt of the Masses:

    What would elite culture look like if you forgot about class for a second? Essentially an opposite point of view to Bourdieu’s was offered by Ortega y Gasset in his 1929 classic The Revolt of the Masses (which foresaw that European variety of politico-cultural populism known as fascism). The beautiful blindness of Ortega’s analysis was to ignore social distinctions in favor of existential differentiation. Aristocrat and mass man were, in his mischievous usage, not social categories at all but separate dispositions: “Doubtless the most radical division of humanity that can be made is that between two classes of creatures: those who demand much of themselves and assume a burden of tasks and difficulties, and those who require nothing special of themselves, but rather for whom to live is to be in every instant only what they already are.” The mark of superior people, in Ortega’s sense, is that they consider themselves inferior to what they may become. Self-improvement, for all that it smacks of the self-help shelf at Barnes & Noble, is also, in this way, the rallying cry of the only kind of elite worth having.
    Ortega’s señorito satisfecho, on the other hand — the little satisfied mister — is perfectly content with the mediocrity he has already attained and the common-sense vision he already perceives. His education stands at an end before it’s begun. Conveniently he confuses formal democracy, or the equal right to an opinion, with a democracy of quality in which all views possess equal value — until some are proved superior by commanding a mob following. Today The Revolt of the Masses reads like an existential X-ray of the soul of Bush or Palin, creatures of different social classes who account their similar stuntedness an achievement. This is the antielitism of the elites — by no means confined to the GOP — whose adherents despise the knowledge that things could be better, that they themselves could be better. Meanwhile they secure the ruin of our country by insisting on its perfection.

    As for wrestling over bildung and the ultimate value of the elite-appropriated classics–which must be an anti-elitist valuation either way, must it not?–it puts me in mind of this from

    On the one hand, Foucault espouses the idea that truth is an expression, a testimony to disobedience. Truth is on the side of rebellion, of resistance, of what Foucault calls the uprising of subjects. There are two elements to this claim: first, truth is a weapon ; second, the very movement of resistance expresses a certain kind of truth.
    On the other hand, Foucault expresses a completely contrary vision of truth, namely that truth produces obedience. Truth is a way of obtaining our obedience, and discourses of truth are instruments of submission.
    Thus, there is a tension – maybe even a contradiction – at the heart of Foucault’s definition of truth that allows these two statements : truth is what makes us obey ; and, truth paves the way for disobedience.

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