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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