Inevitable Elitism

A charge of elitism carries with it a healthy dose of opprobrium in today’s society.

First question to ask yourself:  Was it elitist to use the word opprobrium?

Second question to ask yourself:  “Would it be too Stalinist to exile to Siberia anyone who thinks big words are Leninist?”

That second questions is asked near the conclusion “Revolt of the Elites,” an exploration of elitism in contemporary American culture by the Editors of N+1.

It’s a longish piece referring to the likes of Pierre Bourdieu and Ortega y Gasset which will of course, in certain circles, mark it as irredeemably elitist.  But you may want to read it anyway; who will know unless you go off and talk about the “diffusion of a non-Bourdieu-reading-but-nevertheless-Bourdieuvian view of culture” at your local Super Bowl party.  I feel this might be particularly damaging among Steelers’ fans, although I can’t imagine that it would go over much better with Packer aficionados.

Here is what I take to be the heart of the article’s argument:

Who, then, is guilty of elitism, if not the elitely educated in general? The main culprits turn out to be people for whom a monied and therefore educated background lies behind the adoption of aesthetic, intellectual, or political values that demur from the money-making mandate that otherwise dominates society.

The funny thing about such cultural antielitism is how steeped in the work of the left-wing French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu all “real Americans” would appear to be. Bourdieu’s Distinction famously unmasked “good” or distinguished, educated taste as so much “cultural capital,” a mere panoply of status markers. To favor a more challenging type of book, a less strictly tonal sort of music, a less representational kind of painting — or, more to the point today, a less completely shitty grade of film product — mostly demonstrated that you came from a higher social class. And many Americans have come to agree. So when Al Gore said his favorite book was Stendhal’s Red and the Black, this could be boiled down to mean, You know what? I’m an upper-class guy who went to Harvard . . . .

The noxious thing about the cultural elite is supposed to be its bad faith. Everyone else in America more or less forthrightly confesses that they’re trying to grab as much money as they can, and if somebody has meanwhile forced a liberal education on them, that doesn’t mean they’ve had to like it. Upon making their money, real Americans are furthermore honest enough to spend it on those things that evolution or God have programmed humans to sincerely enjoy. In winter recreation, this might be snowmobiling — genuine petroleum-burning fun! — as opposed to cross-country skiing, a tedious trial of aerobic virtue. In wintry Scandinavian literature, it might be Stieg Larsson rather than Knut Hamsun. Oppositions of the same kind — between untutored enjoyment and the acquired taste — can be generated endlessly, and are. Half the idea is that genuine, honest people differ not so much in their tastes as in their economic ability to indulge those tastes; there exists an oligarchy of money but no aristocracy of spirit. The other half is that less sincere people — elitists — lie to themselves and everybody else about what’s really in their red-meat hearts. Instead of saying I’m pleased with my superior class background, they pretend to like boring books, films, and sports. Cynical common sense, a draught of table wine Bourdieu, permits you to see through this maneuver.

I suspect that there are many ways to parse the roots, essence, and consequences of elitism in America — Tocqueville launched the enterprise nearly two centuries ago — and this is a compelling enough analysis.  But here is my (third) question:  Isn’t something like a cynical, Bourdieuvian view of culture and elitism inevitable in the context of a generally agreed upon, yet unstated and perhaps “soft” relativism in all matters aesthetic and cultural?

To put this another way: in the absence of a shared vision of the true, the good, and the beautiful won’t every choice to “trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones” be seen as a transparent facade for some deeper, darker motive usually assumed to involve power, status, or ambition?

And to try it yet one more way:  unless I can appeal to some inherent worth and value independent of my own subjectivity, but to which my subjectivity is nonetheless drawn, in choosing this over that, then the choice of this over that will always appear to be motivated by something else.  And since we are all good Nietzscheans  now, it will be interpreted through a hermeneutic of suspicion which will judge my choice to be a grab for status, power, influence, etc.  — hence the inevitability of the charge of elitism.  In other contexts, elitism may not be a charge at all, but rather a compliment.

Or, since in fact we know that there are those who have always pursued power, wealth, and status through their cultural choices (Bourdieu was hardly the first to point out as much), perhaps we reserve the charge not for those who believe in a hierarchy of beauty, goodness, and truth, but rather for those who believe that their recognition of such makes them inherently better than others.

Of course, for such as those there are other more colorful words too, words which will fit in quite nicely at your Super Bowl party.

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