July 08, 2007

Punishment enough


Well, a great deal has happened since I last posted - never fear, I've been far from inactive and I hope to be able to share some of the fruits of the past couple of weeks here very soon.

What I must mention first of all is the Tent State University event at Sussex. This was a genuinely autonomous event, organised by students themselves. By wonderful contrast with the necrotically over-prepared regimentation of the typical academic conference, the provisional nature of Tent State, the fact it had no official web presence and a mutable programme, meant that it had an improvised freshness and a fugitive urgency. Simply by pitching a tent on the lawn in front of the library and following a programme of collective auto-didacticism, the event posed questions about access to education and the possibility of anti-capitalist dissidence. Initially, the neo-liberal university authorities sought to block the event. Organiser Andres Saenz De Sicilia, who had kindly invited me, wryly observed that if Tent State had been a gender or anti-racist event, there would have been no problem, confirming that insight of Jameson's I am so fond of citing: it is not 'particularly surprising that the system should have a vested interest in distorting the categories whereby we think class and in foregrounding gender and race, which are far more amenable to liberal ideal solutions (in other words, solutions that satisfy the demands of ideology, it being understood that in concrete social life the problems remain equally intractable).'

When, in the very interesting discussions after my talk, I argued that it's hard to imagine a website which would demonise women or racial groups in the way that something like Chavscum.com denigrates the working class, someone objected that the gender equivalent already exists, in the form of the likes of Nuts and FHM. I'm not sure that the parallel between Chavscum and lad mags is very compelling, however, in part because there are very vocal critiques of soft porn, whereas Chavscum seems to escape censure to the point where it is respectable (with Chavscum's webmaster occasionally being cited in the media as if he were a serious social commentator, rather than the proprietor of a hate site). The fact that there is no offence of 'classism' on the statute books is significant; not because anti-racist or anti-sexist legislation have succeeded in eliminating racism or sexism, but because it shows that class is not symbolically registered in the cultural-juridical reality of late, late capitalism. I hardly need add that this is no accident.

I would like to return at this point to the issue of class confidence raised both here and at Infinite Thought a while back. Dominic's remarks (cited on I.T.) are so germane that they bear repeating here:

    Public schools instil social confidence; the Winchester and Eton boys I encountered at Oxford seemed - to me, at least - astonishingly socially assured. They were also without exception self-loathing headcases, but I suppose that's the price you pay.

Quite so: class power maims at precisely the same moment that it confers its privileges, which is why, in my experience, so many members of the ruling class resemble Daleks: their smooth, hard exterior contains a slimy invertebrate, seething with inchoate, infantile emotions. Dominic is quite right to insist on the distinction between inner phenomenological states and social confidence. The ruling elite will often be in states of profound inner turmoil (which states they often believe are terribly interesting, even if they are tediously generic); yet this doesn't affect their social confidence a jot. The behaviourist philosophy of Gilbert Ryle may prove surprisingly useful if we want to understand how this is so. Ryle's dismissal of the 'ghost in the machine', his claim that there was no inner entity corresponding to the Cartesian notion of mind, might well have been polemical overstatement, but his emphasis on the external and behavioural quality of mental states is essential to understanding how class power operates. As Dominic goes on to establish, confidence consists in an ability to comport oneself in certain ways and to understand the rules of comportment:

    I think that at the highest level the question you're addressing is simply that of social privilege; what the wealthy have is wealth, ease and a sense of entitlement which suffuses as much as they can control of their social environment, including their schooling (although this may introduce artificial privations for the sake of "character-building"). They have a general expectation that things will go their way, and that any hardships or obstacles they may encounter en route are really only a sort of a game ("this person in this university / job interview is putting me down in order to see if I can shrug it off, rally and come back at him with something; the cut-and-thrust of the tutorial / trading floor requires that one not be an over-sensitive crybaby" - understanding that these are the rules makes a *huge* difference).

Social confidence is not based on achievements but on intrinsic ontological status: the ruling class are taught to see themselves as essentially talented and intelligent, irrespective of either achievements or failures. (Witness the forlorn but indefatigable figure of twice-bankrupted Rory on this year's Apprentice for an example of this syndrome). Hence Oxbridge types will happily call themselves novelists even if they have never written a novel, or curators even if they have never curated any events. The working class, meanwhile, tend to be more existentialist, believing that status has to be earned, and continually earned. One of the tensions that came up when I had Cognitive Behaviour Therapy was over precisely the issue: I refused to accept that I (or anyone else) had intrinsic value. I am valuable only insofar as I do things, or as Sartre puts it in Existentialism is a Humanism, 'You are nothing else but what you live'. My therapist argued that this is a highly risky position to hold, which makes one prone to depression. But better that hell than the empty certainties of ruling class confidence.

The opposite of social confidence and its attendant sense of entitlement, its urbane at- homeness-in-the-world, is a sense of inferiority, a constant worry about whether one should occupy certain spaces, the quietly panicky conviction that 'surely they can see that I don't belong here'. A sense of inferiority is so much a part of the background noise of my existence that until really quite recently I had tended to assume that it is a universal feature of human experience. That sense of - inherent, ontological - inferiority wasn't something that I railed against; rather, it was so naturalized that it was barely noticed, but constantly felt, distorting all my encounters with people and the world. (But of course, under capitalism, there is no social interaction that isn't distorted by class position, no neutral social field that exists beyond social antagonism). I suppose I had my first conscious tastes of inferiority when, in the school holidays, I went with my mother, who worked as a cleaner, to the houses of the well-to-do. Feeling lesser simply wasn't an issue; it was experienced as a non-contestable fact. At least now - and this is partly thanks to CBT - I am aware both of the way in which that the sense of ontological inferiority colours my experience - sometimes I can practically sense it as an entity, a grey vampire squatting on my shoulders, heavy and draining; and I have learned to reduce its power, if not to eliminate it. One of the other tensions that constantly came up with my therapist was over the cause of this feeling of inferiority: for me, it was clearly a class issue, and I dream of a Marxist therapy that could address the pyschic wounds of class society.

Mentioning a working class background may seem glamorous or cool to some, but what we are talking about here are the very non-glamorous feelings of shame, embarrassment and inadequacy. Tone of voice is sufficient to trigger that feeling of inadequacy: that is partly the reason that the sepulchural tones of Radio 4 drive me into a rage, the plummy, affectless voices sending the implicit message that any excitation is some juvenile deviation from commonsense mundanity. (Owen is just developing a concept of 'mundanism', which does seem absolutely central to Popism and other variants of deflationary hedonic relativism. Notice the way commonsense mundanism is integral to ruling class anti-intellectualism - see for instance Pseud's Corner and ILM - with Oxbridge graduates pretending to be plain, common men who just don't understand Theory but who know, by george, that it's damn silly.)

Raise the issue of class to many ex-Public School types and they will be flustered and offended, as if making them aware of their class position were some unpardonable impertinence. But I'm afraid that the rest of us are made aware of our class position almost constantly. At the same time, I believe that a measure of sympathy towards their plight is warranted. The maiming is so savage that Mark E Smith was surely at his most sage when he said that going to Public School was 'punishment enough'. A privileged background is usually an existential malediction, a psychic blight - expectations are raised so high that even becoming Master of the Universe would seem a failure, which is why so many Oxbridge graduates and Public School types have a cheated, world weary look on their faces. (Whereas, it was easy for me to feel that I had achieved something, because no-one in my family had got an A-level, never mind a degree.) If there is nothing more boring than a ruling class person in torment about their position and privilege, if there is nothing sadder than a Public Schoolboy pretending that eating spaghetti hoops is a revolutionary act, it is still possible for share the benefits of their learning with others: a redemption of sorts.

The very interesting discussions that followed my talk at Tent State focused most insistently on the issue of the family (and alternative kinship structures), questions to which I shall return in the two long-promised Edelman/ Queer Theory posts.

Posted by mark at July 8, 2007 08:53 AM | TrackBack