bell hooks on the “Faux Feminism” of Sheryl Sandberg

October 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

The great bell hooks just posted an awesome, fiery response to Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” brand of feminism, i.e. Hey Ladies! If You Really Want to Achieve Gender Equality, You Better Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Patriarchy. Per hooks:

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.

This is a long but worthwhile read; particularly important is hooks’ emphasis on what Sandburg omits from her narrative — the issue of money (which coming from the half-billionaire COO of an enormous multinational corporation is…striking), the issue(s) of race and class, the issue of patriarchy (the elephant in every boardroom), or even the slightest whiff of institutionalized systems of oppression. Then again, that’s not terribly surprising, since Sandberg directly and explicitly benefits from those same institutional systems of oppression — largely because she refuses to denounce, or even to acknowledge, that they exist. Start making a ruckus about the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world,” as hooks states, and you’ll find you have far fewer conversations into which you have the option to lean.

In her conclusion, hooks states:

Even though many advocates of feminist politics ere angered by Sandberg’s message, the truth is that alone, individually she was no threat to feminist movement. Had the conservative white male dominated world of mass media and advertising not chosen to hype her image, this influential woman would not be known to most folks. It is this patriarchal male dominated re-framing of feminism, which uses the body and personal success of Sheryl Sandberg, that is most disturbing and yes threatening to the future of visionary feminist movement. The model Sandberg represents is all about how women can participate and “run the world.” But of course the kind of world we would be running is never defined. It sounds at times like benevolent patriarchal imperialism. This is the reason it seemed essential for feminist thinkers to respond critically, not just to Sandberg and her work, but to the conservative white male patriarchy that is using her to let the world know what kind of woman partner is acceptable among elites, both in the home and in the workplace.

Basically, bell hooks is great.

Why Are You Reading This

December 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

mfw all of it

Exams! Has god ever created a more irritating exercise in self-loathing and manic depression, designed to call attention to the terrible life choices that have brought one to academia? I don’t think so!

The categories you are apparently now pursuing (first of all, why) –Oh My God Exams, Folklore, Symbolic Power Y’all and/or Digital Culture– were designed as study repositories for a series of PhD qualifying exams I took in the Fall of 2011, then promptly forgot ever happened. Such, such, such are the joys. In case you were wondering wtf you were looking at!

Symbolic Power: An Reflection

October 4, 2011 § Leave a comment


First some tl;dr’ing for posterity, plus Kwik Konnections between selections.

Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities”: We should be very suspicious of the assumption, no matter how well-intentioned or ostensibly positive, that “you people are all the same.” (Barthes)

George Lipsitz, “Bill Moore’s Body”: White people benefit from being white, and benefit from racial inequity. Cut that shit out. (Barthes, Dyer, Omi/Winant)

Roland Barthes, Mythologies: Myth naturalizes all stripes of fuckery; what we think is natural and necessary is actually historically contingent. (Hall, Omi/Winant, Radway, Freud)

Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation: Race is experienced but isn’t a thing. (Barthes, Dyer, Lipsitz)

Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Romance novels are kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic, with a lulzy twist. (Barthes)

Richard Dyer, White: It is important to remember that “white people” is not synonymous with “all people.” Nor is it colorless, you pinky-genitaled fucks. (Douglas, Barthes, Omi/Winant)

Mark Reid, “African-American Comedy Film”: Freud + negotiated reception strategies = 1993. (Hall, Mary Douglas?)

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: Taste –“distinction”– and social class are inextricable. (Foucault, Douglas, Dyer)

Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: In horror films, sex proceeds from gender; the Final Girl mans herself in order to lady-up and therefore vanquish the killer. (contra/troll Barthes, Hall)

Linda Williams, Hardcore: Freud is insane and porn can teach us things. (Foucault, Cohen, Sedgwick, Douglas)

Stanley Cohen, Deviance and Moral Panics: Social aberration is amplified via media-driven cycles of amplification. (Douglas)

Michael Kimmel, Guyland: Boys will be boys, especially if they’re white jk only white kids count in Guyland. (counterargs in Dyer, Hall)

Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to My Nutsack: Jokes are cultural release valves and I’m an asshole. (Sedgwick, though Freud would disagree; counterargs from Douglas, Clover, Williams)

Alexander Doty, “There’s Something Queer Here”: People are different & it gets better. (Hall, Douglas?)

Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding”: Meaning shifts depending on who’s doing the encoding and who’s doing the decoding. (Reid, Doty)

Robyn Weigman, “Race, Ethnicity and Film”: Films often reinforce racialist/racist ideologies. (Dyer, Lipsitz, Barthes)

Angela McRobbie, “Postfeminism and Popular Culture”: Women reject feminism because gains made by feminism has afforded them that choice. (Barthes?)

bell hooks, “Postmodern Blackness”: Postmodernism is code for white people weeping about white people problems. (Lipsitz, lord, Barthes)

Jaqueline Bobo, “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers”: Different audiences have different reactions to the same text. (Hall)

Jason Sperb, “Reassuring Convergence”: Sometimes fan responses are ambivalent or politically problematic???? (Hall)

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: Big Brother is watching you masturbate. (Barthes, Douglas)

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The repressive hypothesis is bullshit, since the repression of sex actually lead to the production of sexuality. And we fucking haven’t stopped talking about sex and fucking since. (Douglas)

audre lord, “The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”: lol white women. (hooks, Barthes)

Victor Turner, “Liminal to Liminoid”: I’m not a girl, not yet a woman, and the resulting ludic recombination gives me special powers. (Douglas?)

BillyJack Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”: Capitalism obscures the really real. (Foucault, Barthes, Douglas?)

Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire: Straight men are gayer than you think! (Freud, Douglas)

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: Shit’s only dirty if there’s some pure thing to compare it against. (everybody)

It's funny because that's how I felt all summer

Wow, turns out I’ve done quite a bit of writing these last few months. TO CONCLUDE, here are some preemptive answers for possible tripwire questions:

Yeah but what the fuck is symbolic power?

I’m sure this will be the first question I’m asked, and when I am, I’ll say something along the lines of, you know, symbolic meaning not a thing. I’m cordoning off power that smacks you across the face and instead am talking about all the things that shape the world but can’t be physically seen. “Embedded power” might be a nice synonym. So like, the difference between explicit racial epithets and white privilege. The former is more conspicuous but the latter is much more pernicious.

Of all the people on this list, in your written response you went for Dyer, Douglas and Foucault. Why? 

Frankly I wish I would have framed the essay using Barthes’ Mythologies and can’t understand why I chose not to include him — his approach to myth ties my entire response together, facepalm.jpg. Particularly the process by which historical contingencies come to be accepted as natural and necessary. I’m seriously only just now putting this together, god BRAINS! They’re so unreliable. But whatever because suddenly this question seems very easy: I chose to write about Foucault because he provides an alternative explanation for how/why given institutions took their particular shape, Dyer because he discusses the ways in which whiteness came to mean/symbolize/affect something above and beyond basic phenotype, which in itself doesn’t mean anything, and Douglas because she describes how certain cultural elements come to be experienced as “dirty.” THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN A SMART ANSWER IF I’D PROVIDED THIS FIRST BASIC PREMISE LOL

Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities”

August 31, 2011 § 3 Comments

Penguins, because why not. Actually I’ll get to exactly why in just a second.

I don’t always know how to respond to old theory. I realize that Date of Publication is something I frequently discuss, often derisively, especially in terms of digital culture stuff. Oh poo poo, I cluck like some 24k asshole. 2006How quaint. This isn’t fair; time passes, it’s no one’s fault, especially when one considers that –and this is a very painful “that”– theorists are by definition behind the curve. Because christ once something has successfully traversed Death Valley, i.e. made it through the publishing process, the subject of whatever study is often halfway out the door. Ahem Second Life, MOOs and MUDS, probably trolling, etc. So let the record show that I am fully aware of this particular tic of mine, and try to keep it in check. At the same time, it can be so odd reading groundbreaking things 15 years after the fact — a particular specialization of UO’s English department (OH I WENT THERE, see how many fucks I give on 3 hours of sleep).

Interestingly, this morning’s (second) selection provides a roundabout take on academic evolution. Course good old Stuart Hall isn’t explicitly engaged with the march of the theoretical penguins (get it???? it’s a metaphor) but the shoe still fits — I roll my eyes at what was said then because of all the other things that have been said since. As Hall argues, the past is only ever viewed through the present; we cannot step outside history, or whatever it is we happen to regard as historical, in itself an ideologically-loaded endeavor. Consequently we must approach our various origin stories (in terms of race/ethnicity, in terms of culture, in terms of THEORY WARZ, in terms of whatever else we assume has a discrete beginning) as both critical to our understanding(s) of our current selves and also entirely mythological.

Hall’s specific account centers on an emerging identity politics, one which acknowledges-slash-celebrates and simultaneously contextualizes the geographical, historical, and therefore epistemic origins of presumedly static racial categories. These new ethnicities, which can best be described as difference with a touch of Derridian differance, are needed to combat the essentialized and essentializing nature of so-called “black” experience, which was often cited in post-war Britain but wasn’t and still isn’t actually a thing. “Blackness” as a political concept may have arisen for very good reasons –as Hall explains, both to access and contest the right to representation– but it reduces individual people, all subject to divergent histories and origins and struggles and successes, to one certain kind of person, indivisible and indistinguishable in some apparently homogenous blackness. Simply inverting the racial dialectic and equating everything black with everything good doesn’t combat the truly pernicious nature of racism — namely the implication that “you people are all the same.” Identity is much messier than that; blanket concepts must give way to more localized identities.

In conclusion, this happened in 1995. Since 1995 many other things have happened. Also.

George Lipsitz, “Introduction: Bill Moore’s Body”

August 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

Of course you are, sweetie. It's hard out there for a pimp.

Lipsitz opens with a brief rundown of what it means to be white in America. Whiteness, he argues, is about options and access. It means being part of a system that works, and is designed to work, for you, or at least is weighted heavily in your favor. It means that the Man –embodied by the legal system, the housing market, accepted employment and educational practices– is, ultimately, on your side. In itself this isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that the more whitey gets the less is available to others; white supremacy is thus defined as the willful allocation of resources, the depletion of which has a direct and directly negative impact on those who weren’t born into the same strata of privilege — a far cry from the hood-wearing racism of yore, which was as conspicuous as it was destructive. Indeed, this so-called possessive investment in whiteness isn’t necessarily a mean-spirited or even a conscious act, making it all the more insidious. Lipsitz goes on to describe the murder of white civil rights advocate Bill Moore. A postman, Moore somewhat cutely decided to “deliver a letter” to Mississippi’s Governor Barnett, who had just refused a court injunction demanding the desegregation of Ole Miss. Moore planned to walk from Chattanooga to Jackson and really give Barnett a strongly-worded piece of his mind, but didn’t make it past Alabama. Because of course he didn’t, jesus. Moore became a martyr for the cause, and had a huge influence on the then 15 year-old Georgie Lipsitz. In fact he describes his own book as an effort to “deliver Moore’s letter” after all these years (annoying). The rest of the chapter chronicles the aftermath of Moore’s death, and argues that more white people need to choose not to be racist — the implication being that it’s as simple as flipping off a light switch.

There’s something kind of odd to me about this selection. For one thing I’m writing this at 4:30 in the morning, but it’s more than just that. I suppose if I had to pin it down, really barf up a nutshell version, I’d say that this introduction emits the slightest whiff of liberal white knight bullshit. It’s pretty clearly addressed to a white audience, and feels more than just a little self-congratulatory — it’s as if the reader (not to mention the author) is prefigured as some kind of culture hero just for thinking that racism is bad. I’m reminded here of Walter Benn Michaels, who argues in The Trouble with Diversity that the neoliberal and entirely well-intentioned equality fallacy –which posits that race is only skin deep and that ultimately all people are created equal — sure sounds great (I mean what self-respecting liberal would be caught dead claiming the contrary) but has the unfortunate side-effect of equating perceived inequalities with a failure of imagination. Unlearning prejudice thus becomes synonymous with eliminating prejudice, making the solution to inequality thought, not action — an outlook that tends to distract people from actual, material inequality (not a criticism I’d necessarily apply to Lipsitz, since he does address a number of structural issues).

More significantly in the context of this work, especially given Lipsitz’ weird assertion that racism and/or white supremacy-slash-privilege is something one can choose to cast off, just like that, the equality fallacy results in the –again, well-intentioned– belief that thinking nice things about them, whatever form this “them” might take, is a political action in itself. It’s not not a political action, but as Benn Michaels argues, thinking nice things about minorities is as far as most white liberals take their liberalism. This is the danger of the equality fallacy — not due to the sentiment it expresses, but because the sentiment it expresses is, more often than not, all it ever manages to accomplish. Status quo thus maintained, white people can go about their business convinced they’ve done their racially-sensitive deed for the week. Which isn’t to condemn Lipsitz, not exactly. More a recognition of the slight wariness I feel whenever I encounter white people giving themselves a big thumbs up for having the courage to read books.

Roland Barthes, Mythologies

August 30, 2011 § 6 Comments

I don’t know what’s going on with these lists, it feels like everything I read ends up feeding into the last selection even though the choice to read one thing before the next is almost always the result of blind happenstance. Which usually goes something like oh Amazon.balls I don’t have [book X] yet but lookie here’s [book Y], or when I randomly pull a shit out of my literary puppypile all like, it doesn’t make any big diff, at this point in the summer everything I read will make me want to cry. What can I say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

So Mythologies. The first section is a collection of sketches, some esoteric, some concrete, some chock fulla lulz, but all dealing with myth. Well, “myth,” since as he explains in Part II, Barthes’ conception of the term is less (though not not) about actual myths i.e. The Bull Who Couldn’t Stop Raping, or that thing they made into a movie, or the one with the golden shower. Instead, myth is framed as a mode of signification, one which builds upon an existing semiological system (words correspond to the things they refer to, forming discrete units of linguistic meaning i.e. signs). Just as the relationship between the signifier (the word “cat”) and the signified (an actual cat) is arbitrary, i.e. this could easily have been conjoined with this and the sign would still mean the same thing (seriously, the exact same thing), so too is the relationship between myth and the linguistic system out of which it emerged. That isn’t to say that the relationship between myth and language doesn’t matter; arbitrary means “could have been otherwise,” not “inconsequential.” The historical origins of a given myth are hugely important, and are precisely what elevate myth to its exalted status. The problem is that MYTH is subsequently taken as FACT, as some natural and necessary state of affairs. And why argue with how things are, naturally and necessarily?

I direct you to yesterday’s post.

Given that myth tends to naturalize all stripes of fuckery, for example patriarchy and racism and heteronormativity oh my, it’s important to guard against any account which renders “natural” historical contingencies (see above video; seriously, what does that even MEAN, “natural woman” — especially coming out the cupcake-hatch of an 11 year-old). Easier said than done though, due to myth is a slippery little bastard & insinuates itself into our (presumed) collective experience via seemingly innocuous rhetoric (again, see above video). Barthes’ formulation of the Innoculation, the privation of History, and Identification (among others, but my brain is seriously leaking fluid) all belie the tangled web myths weave. For example sad horny housewives are innoculated against myth via romance novels, which reinforce a patriarchal worldview even as they provide an escape from that same slophole; the seemingly commonsensical category of “race” obscures the historical march of racial classification, in turn obscuring the arbitrariness of racial subjugation; assface Freud and his fapping minions naturalize the inferiority of women by framing and subsequently pathologizing the vagina (read: woman) as an inverted and therefore failed penis (read: man).

In conclusion…oh god, I don’t know. Turtles all the way down, something about ideology, tonight I dine in hell. And so on.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant, “Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s”

August 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

Hey everybody do you want to know how not racist I am? I’m so not racist that I don’t even see color! Because color is only skin deep. And/or we’re all pink on the inside, the end.

Sure except for no, race actually matters quite a bit — for every reason except skin color. Well, skin color in and of itself. But as Omi and Winant argue, skin color isn’t and can never be considered in and of itself, and that’s precisely the issue. Specifically, per them, race is politically contested and constructed both on a macro (social) and micro (individual) level. In short, the concept of “race,” which arises out of a particular historical and political and social context, renders arbitrary biological traits (i.e. phenotypes) symbolic. Traditional paradigms of race –understood in terms of ethnicity (identity), class (inequality) and nation (territory)– don’t take the symbolic into account, thereby reifying the assumption that race is a thing in the world.

But it’s not a thing, is neither epistemologically natural nor ontologically necessary. You can’t count it, you can’t hold it. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t “exist” in the experiential sense (fucking semantics, how do they work). After all, when faced with biological difference, our perspectival imperative is to call it race. And when we see someone being an asshole in response to biological difference, our neoliberal imperative is to call it racism. That said, what sets off the race bells –skin or hair color, facial structure, whatever– are not accidental. How and why and through which channels these particular traits became symbolically loaded is the ultimate question, and is what the authors argue must be interrogated. Because a lot is at stake! For one thing, unless we know what exactly we’re dealing with, how might we hope to mitigate the effects of institutionalized inequity?

At first glance, this is probably an odd concept to parse. Because wait, race isn’t real? Then how come that guy’s black? And does that mean there’s no such thing as Mexicans? –not stupid questions, given what racial formation theory asks of its audience, namely to imagine a world without racial ideology. It’s sort of like imagining –at least, trying to imagine– a world without capitalism. Every single thing we see and think and do is tied into nests upon nests of ideological assumptions so pervasive and so thoroughly naturalized that the very structure and coherency of our world seems to hang in that balance. The concept of “I” for example, or “you,” or the fact that by virtue of being me I can never be you. Monads and shit! We take these things for granted — not because this is really how the world is, but because this is how the world ended up. Omi and Winant call this process “racial common sense”; it’s no surprise that people look at you like you have fifteen penises growing out of your forehead when you tell them that race doesn’t exist (in the way people think it does).

Video related, this is exactly what Omi and Winant are talking about i.e. arbitrary characteristics taking on symbolic significance due to historical and political factors.

Janice Radway, Reading the Romance

August 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Now I don’t normally talk about my “life” on this here blog, but when I do, it’s usually in reference to KATO. Whose birthday was yesterday! My little girl’s growing up so fast, sniffle. But! Back in the day when men were men, grass was grass and women were somewhere in between, my dear Kato and I would wander around bookstores and lol at all the romance novels. One day –god this would have been what, ten years ago? sheezus– we stumbled upon the aforelinked book cover, and didn’t stop laughing until the following June. The fact that we immediately started humming this bittersweet symphony didn’t help, that poor shopkeep.

Re: what I’m actually here to blather about, Reading the Romance is one of those early feminist ethnographic dealies that gets cited so often and in such detail that people who travel in feminist circles have basically already read the damn thing whether or not they actually have. Until today, I fell into the osmosis camp. And I have to say, as much as I was like oh groooaaaan, I’m very busy all the time and there are shitstorms to track (more on that later), I actually appreciated Radway’s analysis more than I thought I would. She’s not a “fun” writer, she doesn’t play, there is nothing unserious about her treatment of readers in Smithfield (lol close enough). But the conclusion is pretty funny. Or maybe not funny, but something.

In a nutshell, romance novels are, to use the greatest quote in the history of ever, “kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic” (seriously, Eve Sedgwick deserves a medal for that shit). They’re kinda subversive because they provide women (in Radway’s admittedly limited study, white, middle-class stay-at-home mothers somewhere in the mid-80s midwest) an escape from the drudgery of constant familial vampirism, and in that sense can be understood as “compensatory.” On the other hand they’re also hegemonic because they reify a fundamentally conservative worldview (the books Radway examines are more “true” romance than bodice-ripper). Which ties directly into the aspect of Radway’s analysis I find so…I don’t know, amusing. Rascally even. The idea is that men are terrible, and marriage is terrible, and — hence women’s attraction to distracting, non-depressing romance novels. The problem is that this particular form of escape reinscribes precisely the gender and social dynamic from which readers are trying to escape, oops!!

For the record I don’t think most men or all marriage is terrible, and actually have no investment whatsoever in these nice white ladies’ motivations. But the argument itself is twinkling and clever and appeals to me. I do take issue with the subsequent claim that the hero’s tough-on-the-outside-gentle-on-the-inside demeanor is indicative of some pre-oedipal desire to reconnect with the initial caregiver (thus making romance novels less about FUCK and more about MOMMY). But as Radway explains in her updated introduction, Reading the Romance originally emerged out of the THEORY WARZ what plagued the literary/humanities during the 70s and 80s. Radway was doing everything she could to shake off the stink of New Criticism, and went probably a bit too far in the other direction. But that kind of thing is cool! And contextualizes the book as a whole (i.e. its inception, its construction, the anticipated critical response), and not just its contents.

And now, Irene.

Mark Reid, “African American Comedy Film”

August 26, 2011 § 1 Comment


One of the fastest and most reliable ways to put my ass to sleep (and/or to piss me off, depending on my mood) is to bring up Freud in the context of humor. As far as I’m concerned, Freud + comedy =  automatic tl;dr, really it’s just the WORST. I’m happy to concede that his whole shit about tendentious humor i.e. rape triangulation (you have a speaker, an object of derision, and an audience; the speaker and audience tag-team whatever object) is…………well it’s a shape, and sometimes jokes do follow that formula. But to say that ALL jokes follow the SAME formula, and are motivated by the same libidinal urges across the board regardless of race, gender, class, whatever, is either tautological and worthless or so laughably offensive to be comical in and of itself.

Re: the former, once you plug the respective variables into their respective positions, what else is there to say? Especially if the triangulation is always-already configured as rapish, the joke can only be reflective of racism, sexism, or homophobia in the speaker/listeners, which may gesture towards racism and sexism and homophobia in the Larger Culture but otherwise has limited theoretical applicability (although I’m sorry, but the racist, sexist, and deeply homophobic Freud doesn’t have a chin to lean on when it comes to the condemnation of offensive cultural output). Re: the latter, the whole setup is as politically problematic as it is simply unhelpful — the speaker and listener are gendered MALE, and the butt is gendered female, which means not necessarily biologically female but something weaker than the joke teller/listener (weaker either literally, as in, some defenseless creature, or ethically/morally less-than, allowing for subordinated groups to mock those in more exalted positions of power deemed morally depraved or otherwise inadequate). The act of telling a tendentious joke is thus framed as homosocial, at least — the teller and listener of the joke touch tips via the symbolic degradation of the butt, and that’s a problem because fags, gross.

Thus I knew it would be a rocky road when I encountered Reid’s first reference to Freud in the third goddamn paragraph. OH GOOD, I wrote in the margins. TENDENTIOUSNESS. Because. It’s just. WHY. (granted , this essay was written in 1993, which is a totally, or maybe not totally, unrelated issue — still, there’s just no excuse for Freud ever) Otherwise the article is straightforward enough, maybe a bit too straightforward (again though, 1993) — Reid chronicles the development and popularity of blackface minstrelsy (performed by whites), hybrid minstrelsy (performed by blacks, though mostly just a continuation of earlier and more explicitly racist tropes) and satiric hybrid minstrelsy (occupies a more negotiated relationship to blackface). Although all three forms are racist in origins, both white and black audiences have a number of –sometimes conflicting– reception strategies, blah blah blah Stuart Hall.

God, it’s been so long since filing a breadth exam thing I forgot my standard protocol. Ummm relationship to other selections. Probably something with Mary Douglas, the assimilating impulse of matter out of place. And Eve Sedgwick, but only if I get to play the I-hate-Freud card, which I highly doubt. Oh man I have so many rude things to say here, but I’ll just keep my mouth shut due to self-preservation and the desire for similar. Smile and nod, honeybadger. Smile and nod.

Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste

August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

(specific, and actually entirely pertinent, discussion of the above clip at 1:50)

This book is effing long and I’m cranky, so the following will probably be a bit brusquer than usual — not due to Not Liking Bourdieu, but due to Mother Needs a Vacation. Oh but that statement! Right there! That’s part of what this book is about. Actually, to be perfectly honest, Bourdieu uses too many words and it makes my brain hurt. But I’m an academic (or whatever, that title is irritating) and academics aren’t allowed to be like, big words? No thank you — although, of course, that’s exactly what most of us are thinking most of the time, we just can’t say so, at least out loud. Because we’re supposed to be smart and like things that are smart. I mean can you imagine! An anti-intellectual intellectual! LOL YOU MEAN A REGULAR INTELLECTUAL. But I digress, sort of.

So Distinction, omg. Of the nearly 500 million words in this book, most of them come back to the idea that “distinction,” that is, the recognition of the apparent difference between –and subsequent valuation of– this thing verses that thing, isn’t just a matter of taste, it isn’t “just” a matter of anything. Instead, what we see when we look at something, what we strive to achieve or become, in other words what we like, is subject to and subjected by a nest of social and economic relations which enacts itself on our daily behaviors and proclivities and, through that enactment, reifies precisely those structures of differentiation. In short, it makes a constructed thing real, at least experientially. Take food, for example. As Chatty McFrench explains, the taste for particular foods constructs –as in, literally shapes– both the individual and the class/ed body. The obvious example would be the fast food diet vs the Whole Foods diet. Fruit and vegetables and health food generally is expensive, and is something to which only a certain class is privvy. So all the bourgie (read: white upper-middle class) claptrap about sustainability, buying local, only using organically-sourced tampons etc –which could be paraphrased as “if people would only respect the earth/their bodies the ways that WE do, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many diabetus monsters lumbering around”–is more about class privilege than it is about “simple” tastes for hummus over McDonalds anus burgers. Such rhetoric, in other words, is political — it implicitly expresses a particular ideology, and that ideology establishes a hierarchy of value, not just of the foods in question, but also the kinds of bodies, and the kinds of people, who buy one type of food over another.

Obviously Bourdieu’s analysis isn’t confined to food — any abstract noun will do. The important point is that certain kinds of people like certain kinds of things, based on how and where and with whom they were raised; as a result, rich people like the crap rich people like (The Theatuh, high fashion, cocaine, slaves) and poor people like the crap that poor people like (television, shirtlessness, Coors Light, babies)*. Consequently, by looking at what crap somebody likes (and/or the stuff they do), you can glean a huge amount of information about the person in question– an analysis that would remain mostly observational and/or tautological (i.e. “people like and do the things they like and do”) if Bourdieu didn’t take his argument one step further and emphasize the idea that taste functions as a form of social control. It establishes a series of cultural thresholds and ensures –through a kind of panoptic self-policing– that people don’t just know their place, but stay there. Hence privileged people stay privileged by metaphorically placing a metaphoric series of metaphorical “KEEP OUT” signs around their very sources of privilege (money, cultural capital, access, etc).

In terms of the exams. Eh something about “symbolic power,” for example the ideological significance of an organic cotton tampon. Connections to Foucault (power) and Dyer (the simultaneously self-sustaining and self-destructive nature of dominant tastes), Mary Douglas (what counts as dirt to whom), blah.

*Even Bourdieu admits that these sorts of categories are highly permeable and don’t hold true in every case — some people might have “upper-class” tastes in one area and “lower-class” tastes in another. The main point is that people’s tastes, whatever they might be, aren’t accidental. Also I’m sort of kidding with these examples. If I were being serious I’d add eating disorders to the rich people list. I am however trying to illustrate one of Bourdieu’s most salient points, namely that low- or working-class tastes are coded as “lesser-than” by definition, which is to say, not as good as what rich people like. In short, there is no way to characterize the behavior of poor folk without sounding dismissive, snobby or downright prejudiced, and per Bourdieu that’s how and where and why expressions of taste are inherently loaded, and therefore inherently problematic.

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