Eclecticism and Class

For Pierre Bourdieu, the cultivation of taste was a key way elites entrenched their power. By devaluing cultural styles embraced by the vast majority, and by embracing highly exclusive cultural forms that take a lot of time and money to fully appreciate (classical music, opera, etc.), elites create high barriers to scrappy strivers who want to reach the commanding heights of society. This has been a running theme for a long time — think of Lucky Jim or any of the good, totally tragic Merchant-Ivory films. In the film adaptation of A Room with a View, which my sisters made me watch hundreds of times when I was a kid (I’m still scarred), the hero is this democratic freethinker who has an undisciplined and semi-untutored love of beautiful things, so intense that he at one point climbs up a tree and yells like a lunatic. And of course you root for him, even though Daniel Day-Lewis Cecil Vyse was clearly the cooler dude. But yeah, Cecil Vyse, who hates Lucy’s country cronies and is a massive snob, is the classic elitist Bourdieu villain.

But wait — in America, as far as I can tell, members of “the elite,” understood as people with the most occupational prestige, take great pride in their broadmindedness. Distinctions are important, but the distinctions aren’t classic high-low distinctions. I talked to this brilliant, brilliant kid a few months ago, an African American student at an exclusive Southern prep school, and he noted that the cool kids — the kids with the most cultural capital, so to speak — listened to a dizzyingly wide range of music, from extremely twee indie pop to the grimiest hip-hop. So in a sense the cultural code was actually more inscrutable: there was no stable canon one could master. Rather, you had to be sufficiently and continuously plugged in to sense which way the cultural winds would shift, which is exhausting for those trying to succeed at status politics. One could argue that this is at least as insidious as cultural elitism along the lines described by Bourdieu. There’s no denying, however, that it is different.

In “Anything but Heavy Metal,” Bethany Bryson described how “cultural omnivorousness” and exclusion can co-exist. She coined the term “multicultural capital.”

Tolerant musical taste, however, is found to have a specific pattern of exclusiveness. Those genres whose fans have the least education — gospel, country, rap — are also those most likely to be rejected by the musically tolerant. Broad familiarity with music genres is also significantly related to education. I suggest, therefore, that cultural tolerance constitutes multicultural capital as it is unevenly distributed in the population and evidences class-based exclusion.

The paper was written in 1996. Since then, my sense is that the terrain has shifted: no one can be both musically tolerant and dislike gospel, country, or rap, at least not in any thoroughgoing way. As for the title of Bryson’s essay, it is also a sign of the times: metal is increasingly seen as the most innovative popular genre, and it is fast fragmenting into extremely stylized, impenetrable subcultures. I’d say the cultural omnivore of this moment is obligated to have some familiarity with extreme doom sludge metal. Which is why I’m not a cultural omnivore. To me, sludge metal sounds like someone drilling into my brain. But I digress.

My brief forays into elite America have frequently involved extremely long conversations about the popular television sitcom Martin, which starred comedian Martin Lawrence as a fast-talking radio DJ and as an unpleasant, hirsute, “round-the-way” girl named Sheneneh. The main way I form friendships, and I don’t think I’m alone in this regard, is by drawing on this shared stock of lowbrow cultural references. I recently spent a frighteningly long time with my high school friends constructing detailed fan fiction scenarios about Family Matters, the premise being that the actors Jaleel White and Darius McCrary, who played Steve Urkel and Eddie Winslow respectively, despised each other because McCrary was a militant black nationalist and White was a scene-stealing scoundrel keen on “mainstreaming” the series. We also devised an unctuous white executive producer who insisted that his naked attempts at increasing series ratings were in service to his radical brand of Freirian Pedagogy. It made more sense at the time.

The point is, this stock of references has proved an essential substrate for forming friendships with other anglophone North Americans. I recall going on a date once with a young woman who had never watched much television — a good thing — and discovering really quickly that we had very little to talk about. (There were other reasons too, rest assured.) Yes, this reflects kind of poorly on me. Yet I certainly don’t think I’m alone in this regard, and I wonder how the simultaneous pervasiveness and exclusiveness of this cultural style will change as we transition fully to a distributed, digital culture. Will we still have the common substrate? Or will we cluster early — say in our teens — and hive off? Or, and this is an optimistic scenario, will we expect to have less in common and expect to learn more, to be more open and flexible in our tastes? This is a big subject.