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.