Tuesday, February 13, 2007

"Cultural Capital" and "Alternative Culture"

If you’ll pardon the pun, I don’t buy into the notion of cultural capital. Knowledge of poetry, literature, art, music, high culture in general, isn’t fungible, has no exchange value: it can’t be converted into more concrete forms of capital, nor will it advance one’s social position in any significant way. At most it has an ancillary value in confirming one’s already existing social position, as an accessory indication of the possession of those more material modes of capital. A small proportion of those possessing certain academic credentials (not the same as cultural, artistic, or intellectual knowledge, as my experience in academia has repeatedly confirmed) can trade those in for a position (often low-ranking) at some level of the educational system, but that doesn’t represent many people in the aggregate. And again, most successful academics come from comfortable, not to say privileged, social backgrounds. Their success in academia is merely the confirmation of their pre-existing social success.

Many American intellectuals have been led astray in their thinking on this matter by too close (not to say slavish) adherence to theoretical models deriving from Europe and particularly from France, where high culture has had and still has a function of ideological legitimation of power, as attested to, among many other examples, by the numerous monuments to himself that François Mitterrand erected during his reign as president of France. They have read or heard about Pierre Bourdieu’s work, particularly his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, and have applied not the content of the arguments but the examples to the American context, which those examples simply don’t fit. High culture has never had such a central place in America, whose traditions are of anti-intellectualism and philistinism, of pragmatism and legitimation by what works and what turns a profit (what Jean-François Lyotard calls performativity), and of the suspicion of anything that smacks of pretension. George W. Bush would probably not argue with the call to burn down the museums—they’re so stuck-up and highfalutin’.

To the extent that there is such a thing as cultural capital, which is basically the extent to which education at certain institutions and publication in certain venues can be exchanged for academic employment and some tenuous place in the literary world, then I am interested in accumulating as much as possible. As a black gay man who grew up in poverty and still has no resources on which to fall back, no economic capital on which to rely, my interest in the “alternative” publishing and dissemination of my work is rather small: I simply cannot afford it. Straight white individuals from comfortable backgrounds can afford to rebel against the established cultural apparatus, to set up their little salons des refuses (or rather, salons des refusers) in a way that I cannot. I don’t have the means to do so in any case. It takes a certain sense of security to engage in such refusals, an entitlement to that which one is rejecting which I don’t feel. (It mustn’t be forgotten that, like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, such rebels can also refuse their refusals at any point and rejoin the social mainstream, a social mainstream to which I have never belonged.) It has been too difficult for me to attain whatever I have for me to feel free to turn my back on it: I’m not prepared to give up what I have worked so hard to (tenuously, contingently) attain. As an actual outsider, racial, economic, sexual, and social, I have no interest in romanticizing exclusion.

Many such transgressive subversives or subversive transgressors, busily undermining the foundations of the hegemonic capitalist institution of bourgeois literature, are simply hypocrites, published by university presses or the larger literary presses, drawing salaries from academic institutions whose function is largely that of the confirmation of social hierarchy and its systems of exclusion, part of what Louis Althusser called the ideological state apparatus.

Unlike the people with whom I lived in a Boston communal house in the early Nineteen Eighties (they lived there out of conviction, I lived there because I couldn’t afford anything else) who told their parents to stop sending them their allowances so that they could live like “real people,” who called me “bourgeois” because I didn’t want them to use my stereo or lend out my records when I wasn’t home, I can’t afford to turn my back on whatever opportunities may be available to me to legitimate my artistic activities and indeed my life, not on a theoretical level, but on the practical level of allowing me to continue to exist. Having grown up in actual poverty, I have no interest in playing at poverty. And I doubt that any of those people live in communes today.


Henry Gould said...

One might want to be careful not to engage in those same abstract social judgements for which the literary sociologists you described earn their pay.

There are many artists on the edge or the outside of established cultural networks - & for a wide variety of reasons (personal, social, artistic). It's not all made transparent by economic status.

Moreover, if you consider the history of poets and poetry through the centuries, it's hard not to notice the impact of various forms of ostracism or exile. Take you pick of literary ages & cultures : it's likely you'll find an outcast poet at the center of each.

Lawrence LaRiviere White said...

I'm afraid I'm an unreconstructed materialist. Not that I don't see the inadequacy of vulgar base-superstructure models, not that I don't see the need for a stronger understanding of how ideology works, but for me economics still is the final trump card. It may not be a sufficient factor in determining otherness (if I may borrow one of Reginald's keywords) to culture, but it seems a necessary one. & while I believe there are cases of non-economic alienation, I think they're rare & idiosyncratic, w/intense psychological & spiritual overlays. Not strictly political.

In other words, I was very disenchanted when I found out Thoreau left Walden every Sunday night for dinner at his mom's house. That fact doesn't negate the book, but it changes it, makes it dramatically less subversive.

Jasper Bernes said...

That's great, Reginald. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy.

I think I disagree with you about cultural capital, even if you have a point about the unconsidered application of french sociology to conditions in the U.S. Many poets do convert their readership and book publications, their c.v's and such, into tenure-track teaching positions, Guggenheims and Fulbrights and the like. They also get validation as human beings or a sort one does not get working at a gas station. And this kind of weight (the matter we sense inside a name, that inexorcisable aura) then gets stamped on the back of books in the form of blurbs. You're right, of course, that, mostly, the return on time-invested is dismal (I'd go with 20 yr. bonds or real estate!) but that's the case with many, many things people do, and just because one out of twenty is able to turn cultural capital into real capital (in the form of jobs, grants, associations which anoint and lubricate life, etc.) doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And, also, the idea that cultural capital must not exist because few working class people become middle-class through cultural production is kind of a false logic--one of the functions of capital is to reproduce class relations, n'est-ce pas? It requires capital (oftentimes cultural capital) for the middle class to stay middle class, the rich to stay rich--:if somebody does this through writing poetry and teaching, which they presumably prefer to others kinds of endeavors, that's capital that allows them to do so.

Obviously, this doesn't work out for many people--there are respected and admired writers out there who can't or won't translate that cultural value into something material, and who suffer as a result. That's fucked up, to put a fine point on it. It's an economy of extreme scarcity, this one is (sometimes illusory scarcity) and cross-assassination. But that doesn't mean that other people don't "cash in" on they didn't themselves produce, since a writer's work exists in an interspace where other people (publishers, younger writers, imitators, etc.) can extract value from it--editing, writing literary criticism, publishing magazines, etc. Think, for one, about how many people get paid fellowships to go into writing programs. Or the fact that for-profit presses continue to publish poetry books(for prestige value)that do not turn a profit.

And, of course, sometimes the term "cultural capital" gets used in the following way: an economy of attention and aesthetic valuation in the arts that looks and feels like capitalism, and makes many a body miserable, competitive, spiteful, etc. Spend a few year reading too many poetry blogs and you'll see the way names ping from site to site gathering gravitas. An economy of recognition, then, that mimes and reproduces material economies. Even if the points of interface between the two are sketchy, this still sucks, and is the cause of much nastiness and pain 'tween peoples.

That said, faulting a writer for trying to survive by such conversions of value is like faulting for somebody for working a job. It's sanctimonious and often hypocritical. Hate the game not the player, the sin not the sinner, as it is often nicely put. That same critique, if followed logically, would have the same person refuse to earn, say, more than 20,000/year. Or anything. Few of us have it in us, at least withtout the incentive of pain and more pain, to live off the grid. Or refuse health insurance. We all need to live, I say to these people, and most of the ways we do so aren't all that pretty. Poetry, unlike other arts (where cultural capital is an unavoidable maelstrom: look at painting these days) makes few people truly rich.

In the past, in the US and Europe, attempts to disable the interface between circuits of cultural capital and circuits of "real" have been inventive, brilliant, thrilling and sometimes stupid, false and cynical. But they have rarely been successful in any kind of permanent way. Nonetheless, I honor the attempt, the little virtual utopias of the moment, and I think these instances are those where the term "avant-garde" really truly applies.

Nowadays, though, the route which turns outsider into insider, which makes the refusal of valuation the tried-and-true method to supervaluation, has become such a footworn groove--the logic of the rare, unattainable, secret chapbook; the whispered name of the writer, the subculture that dare not speak its name-- that people who speak in such terms need to be questioned: this is the logic of Time-Warner's alternative "music," of the non-union Independent Film Channel, the "choice of a new generation", etc., etc. In other words, it's bullshit, and no doubt, you've been through this argument before (I'm saying this for other people's benefit). That's to say, many people publish in alternative presses not to *avoid* cultural capital but to *get* it, because they think (and perhaps are right) that they will gain more readers that way.

Is anything wrong with this? Not really, as long as one doesn't pretend that one's left hand doesn't know what the right is doing. If we had universal health care, a 35 hour work week, living wages, etc., the system of cultural capital would have much of its sting taken out it. And it wouldn't matter as much that one person is a celebrated poet and another not. It's the fact that the secondary, cultural, system constantly reminds us of the violent primary one we're in. The one that causes friends (and others) to suffer and live a life rifted with anxiety and alienation. That's what sucks.


Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Jasper,

Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comment. I don't have the energy to respond properly right now. But I did want to say that, unfortunately, I am familiar with the seamier and more ressentiment-infested corners of the online poetry world, having been attacked on more than one occasion by the fools at Foetry.com as an utterly and inherently corrupt member of the phantasmatic "Graham-Ramke cabal" (my membership in which I'm sure Jorie Graham would be surprised to hear of), not least for my anthology, which was characterized by one foetaster as "a monument of foetry." I have always hoped to be monumental, though I would have preferred to be a monument of unageing intellect.

I may well have painted things in too broad strokes, though part of my intent was to be provocative. Some of my perspective derives from my peculiar position as simultaneously an insider and an outsider to the literary world, in it but not really of it. I probably under-estimate the degree to which I am actually of that world, but my current situation makes it hard for me feel myself a club member. I would probably object less to clubbishness had I ever been a member of a club, but I never really have been, whether I've wanted to be or not. Some clubs, like the gay club, I've desperately wanted to join. I tried for years and never quite made it, though sometimes I came close. Perhaps having to try, or having to try so hard, by definition means that one isn't a club member and never will be.

I still hold that while there are some practical skill sets that even in our era of diminished and diminishing social mobility are convertible into social mobility and economic capital, by and large knowledge of poetry, and of high culture in general, which is for most people a luxury, is not among them, and is irrelevant to this country's actual power elites, social, political, and economic.

all best,


Tyrone said...

I tend to agree in large part with henry and jasper, but then I've only heard the term "cultural capital" used ironically or qualified in exactly the way yo argue, Reginald. Of course I might run in particularly "materialist" and cynical circles...


Blogaulaire said...

Call me orthogonal to every argument: what I'm thinking could be labelled a cliché if I merely put it as "dare to struggle, dare to win", But I think there is something very true to that slogan. I think you have to plunge yourself into a challenge, the outcome of which is not guaranteed in advance. You must 'break on through to the other side'.

What seems so obvious about your comments, Reginald, is that you write with an eye to the results. I believe that results are unknowable.

When you tell us you are gay, Afro-American and from a poor family, do you expect that the blog reader has absorbed this in some way to 'dimensionalize' you vis a vis your 'chances' on the track toward success?

I feel this: evaluating someone's liklihood of immortality
is not up to me. I'm curious, though, how Reginald Shepherd is 'dimensionalizing' himself!

I find all discussions academics from well-to-do families a no-brainer -- what you say is totally correct. What I would be examining, from what you say, is the relatively universal track record of upwardly mobile types hailing from the white lower-middle class; the 'theorists' struggling to become today's Establishment Iconoclasts (THE new elite, in other words).

The intellectual lower-middle-classer . . the one who knows that success in any field is a partly a game. But his or her class position prompts him or her to see it as largely a game based upon perceived merit PLUS playing a game of competition for meritorious positioning.

Reginald, impressionistically I feel that you are saying that, unlike the white lower middle class type of intellectual, that YOU DO have more to lose, e.g., that you could not walk away unscathed were people to perceive you as one of your own class = a poor black guy from the ghetto on the make.

I hear you saying that the academics will play your class background against you. But these people will play anything against anybody in a pinch.

Such stereotypinf exists inside a systeme of prejudice. But in a competitive world of people on the make from every-which-world (as was commented upon before), all these 'materialists' are on the make -- cannot be counted upon reliably to tear down the wall of prejudice when their own status is at stake.

At square one, you are who you are, which is elemental to every poet.

But, given your assessment of how you are received in the U.S., maybe you should shoot a little higher than the U.S. 'market'. Americans particularly are severely stuck inside this mode of inter-class, inter-race competition for recognition and status. American stereotypes are a prison.

Your preoccupation with your own individual (im)mortality (as a poet) boils down to a focus on how you can express the shit you have lived through onward through time using written words. (English words.) Your dowbts about how the sysem works are also doubts about how your worda will be treated inside the largest English-language-literate nation on the planet (majority white, I might add).

Do your preoccupations, given all this, boil down to how you will be received in the WASPish world of the USA today? Well, if so, you must draw your own conclusions! (The world is bigger than the US of A I might add!)

All poets down through time needed a group that could gather around their poems in a sense of solidarity. Latin American nations provide the examples readiest at hand; but France is not far behind on the continuum of honouring her poets.

But for the Afro-American poet, that solidarity has been so identified with the destiny of some Black civil rights, equality, or nationhood that the examples leave little room for the true individual as a poet.

Enough. I needn't carry this further except to note that the challenge to you as to everyone is how does one 'break on through to the other side?'

monkey said...


I have found you again if only on these pages. I lived with you in that "communal" house in Boston. I, like you, lived there because it was what I could afford but also to meet people who valued intellect. I think cultural capital splits all of us when we are trying to survive but don't want to lose our ideals.

I remember you as intellectually engaged at all times but kept distant from what I would call your own authenticity. You spoke with a faux British accent when we knew that you had grown up in the Bronx. I can see from this blog that you did embrace it at some point in your life.

The poems here, and your thoughtful essays, speak volumes about your inner life. You have left your mark for all to love.


finding said...