July 16, 2007

Epistemic privilege of the proletariat


(Image shamelessly plundered from Dejan, who reminded me of the excellent Society, more on which very soon.)

Thanks to everyone who responded, with observations that were captivating and sometimes very personal observations, to the post on class confidence, either via email or on their own sites. The personal very obviously is political here, though, and the sharing of such experiences is always valuable because it shows that they are structurally, not individually, determined. As to other responses - well, (working class) Supernanny knows best, and infants having a tantrum should not be given any attention, especially if they have been indulged in the past.

By email, Kim wrote:

    For me, I'm working class, no high school education, a bachelor's degree that I got from UC Berkeley on scholarship, I spent my teen years in the sex industry, and now I work a regular day job and spend what little free time I have -- when I'm not working or parenting -- writing, making un-trained art, reading, going to movies and thinking about culture in a way that's way outside my class or education. So the combination of my self-taught cultural capital, my class background, my outsider status as a former sex worker junkie loser leaves me pretty much alienated from everyone. I feel horrible around privileged cultured academics and when I'm around working class people I have nothing to talk about. I never even knew what class was and how it was making me so miserable while I was at Berkeley until long after I finished going there.

I never even knew what class was and how it was making me so miserable while I was at Berkeley until long after I finished going there. My coming to class awareness was similar; indeed, before I went to university I believed that I was middle class, since I hadn't experienced any material hardship, and I was interested in books and writing (although as Dominic sagely pointed out, geeks are always in a minority, no matter what social class they are in). It is only by being 'projected out of my class', as one of my lecturers at Hull put it, that I became aware of my class position. Naturally, 'being projected out of your class' means that you only retrospectively aware of your previous position - now you belong nowhere, you are permanently exiled from your class of origin, but you are not yet accepted in the Master Class, nor sure that you want to solicit such acceptance. The angst and alienation that this position of anomie produces is not especially interesting; it is as generic as the self-loathing/ sense of entitlement exhibited by the Masters. What is valuable about it, however, is that it denaturalizes class, changing class expectations and behaviours from a series of unthought presuppositions and default behaviours, to a visible structure.

The importance of these unthought presuppositions is one reason that I disagree with Steve Shaviro's claim - made during a highly eloquent and powerful post - that There is nothing besides, nothing outside of, experience.

My objection to this is in part a Kantian one: in addition to experience, there are the structural pre-conditions of experience, and surely any transcendental materialism must centrally involve an investigation of the structural pre-conditions of experience in class society.

I do not waver in any way from my previous wholehearted support for Deleuze's claim that all arguments from experience are bad and reactionary. That is why I would never make any such argument. But, as Steve suggests, there is a difference between an argument which appeals to experience as some ultimate authority, and an argument which uses experience as an illustration. Political and psychoanalytic theory which cannot explain experience is self-evidently vacuous. The great appeal for me of theory - and of love songs and fiction - is that they allow me to escape from my own experience, to re-frame what was previously experienced as a natural fact into a structural effect. As Brecht and Dennis Potter appreciated, it is only those experiences which distance us from our ordinary, habituated experiences that are politically potent.

But the working class never experience their own lives and behaviours as natural or normal in the way the dominant class does. The encounter with the education system immediately makes working class people aware that their use of language differs from - i.e. is inferior to - the 'standard'. As Basil Bernstein's work on elaborated and restricted codes demonstrated, the working class child experiences the classroom as a break from its experience outside school: the language that the teacher uses will be different from that used by its family or peers. The dominant class child confronts no such ontological breaks, since it experiences school and the home environment as continuous, sites in which the same types of language is used. This experience of double consciousness is the beginnings of process of politicization. In epistemic terms - i.e. in terms of knowledge of the true nature of the social - the subordinate group is in the privileged position precisely because its experience is incommensurate and discontinous, precisely, you might say, because it experience is not (a consistent or quasi-natural) experience at all. It encounters the social field not as some natural(ized) home, but as a series of irreconcilable antagonisms and discrepancies. But this sublime and traumatic 'experience of the unexperiancable' is an encounter with the social field as such - which, in class societies, is not contingently but necessarily and inherently distorted by class antagonism. The working class becomes the proletariat when it recognises this - when, that is to say, it begins to dis-identify with the 'class fantasy' which has kept it in its place.

Of course all experiences presuppose an element of the fantasmatic but that gets us nowhere, unless we believe that all fantasies are the products of an individual's pyschopathology (i.e. if we were adopting the kind of anti-Marxist methodological individualism that Deleuze and Guattari rightly excoriated in Anti-Oedipus, and which put many of us off psychoanalysis for years). What needs to be accounted for is why certain groups have the 'fantasy' of being inferior (and why certain groups have the 'fantasy' of being superior). I place the word 'fantasy' in inverted commas here because, surprise surprise, in the case of the working and ruling classes, the 'fantasies' of their social status correspond with their actual position in the social hierarchy. But we must go round the whole loop here: there is no neutral social reality beyond fantasy, and the class structure can only persist so long as people act in accordance with their class fantasies.

Class fantasies are indivisible from the economic. I hasten to point out here that the economic is not a Marxist concept; it is, rather, the pre-eminent category of capitalist realism. It is political economy that is the crucial Marxist notion - a notion that, as both Karatani and Zizek have observed - is in some senses unthinkable under capitalism. But we can see the indivisbility of politics and economics, of affect, belief and class position, very clearly in relation to attitudes to debt. The working class traditionally abominated debt, whereas the middle classes have always understood that you must 'speculate to accumulate', that money borrowed is not a fixed substantival sum, but a mutagenic agent that can be induced to work and grow. That distinction corresponds exactly to the distinction between payment capital and investment capital. Because of a whole set of beliefs and perceptions, the working class tend to treat money as payment capital, as something, that is to say, which is earned and then either spent or saved. The idea that you take on debt in order to make more money, that money does not have an absolute but a differential value, remains opaque. Of course, the exigencies of late capitalism require that the old working class antipathy towards debt has been removed; yet, working class debt is far more likely to come from treating money as payment capital (e.g. running up credit card bills) than from using it as investment capital (e.g. university tuition fees).

I will end now - though there is far more to be said - by echoing Steven's claim that it is grotesque to blame the victims of class warfare for their psychic scars To insist that inviduals are responsible for their own position as a subject is not only the mantra of neo-liberalism, but of therapy par excellence, and exactly what I had to resist when I was undergoing CBT. In a paradox that Althusser and Spinoza would appreciate, however, it was only when I was able to see many of what I had previously thought of as individual feelings of inferiority as structural effects that I was able to claim responsibility for my own position as a subject. Which is why I hope that Dejan was right, when he argued, in Steve's comments boxes, 'if it is true that Lacan felt the subject should take responsibility for himself, because I only ever heard him saying the subject should take responsibility for his symptom - k-punk took on psychoanalytic responsibility par excellence for himself when he acknowledged (made conscious) the psychological motivation of his resentment against the ruling classes.' I certainly aimed to do so.

By email, Hessian Pepper notes:

    Oxford University allegedly laments its problems attracting students from low-income backgrounds, yet as recently as five years years ago 'chav' themed college discos were very popular. An Eton educated colleague asked me whether I knew what a 'chav' looked like, since I'd been to comprehensive school. He claimed, somewhat proudly, never to have been in contact with one himself. The disgusting sight of these overprivileged imbeciles mocking and imitating modern poverty in Kappa and gold jewelery was magnified by the sight of the few from genuinely poor backgrounds following their lead.

    Posted by mark at July 16, 2007 03:26 PM | TrackBack