Dara on Cultural Capital

Dara Lind writes, astutely:

Part of it might be that in the era of conventional “high culture,” familiarity with certain acceptable kinds of art was telegraphed much more publicly. Going to the opera was an event and, therefore, an opportunity to signify your sophistication to anyone who happened to see you on the way. Even hanging a work of art in the foyer was something that people would see before they necessarily had an intimate level of acquaintance with you. So in addition to serving as a “common substrate” that you were required to master in order to become one of the elite, it signaled a warning bell to anyone who wanted to interact with you but was firmly outside the elite: don’t even bother.

The dominant art forms of the present, on the other hand, are mediatized enough that we consume them in much more private settings. So in order to know a person’s taste in something it is necessary to have a relationship with him/her first, thus making it impossible for elite preferences to serve their second function. This is infinitely more true now than it was in 1996: back then, if you didn’t think you were the kind of person who liked gospel it was more or less impossible to discover it without going out in search of it, and therefore risking the disapproval of others, whereas now you can figure your tastes out pretty well without leaving the (solitary) glow of your laptop screen.

So maybe you’re barking up the wrong tree: instead of comparing the taste of today to the taste of twelve years ago (or the last few hundred years), maybe the source of cultural capital has shifted. Is there anything that serves both as a vocabulary to be mastered and as a signal for who it’s acceptable to approach? (My guess is that technology and social media fit the bill—signifying status via standing in line for an iPhone 3G, etc., with people with MySpace accounts constituting a sort of “anti-elite”—but I could be persuaded otherwise.)

I think this comment is totally dead on, particularly the last part. Which raises lots of new questions.

The act of cultivating a public identity through declared tastes and preferences — often lies, by the way: compare your Facebook favorites to your Top 25 Most Played and see how much overlap there is — lends itself to the cultivation of eccentricity and also to herding and clustering. How will social media self-fashioning shape how we find our social archipelagos, and figure out who we want to exclude?

Michael Crowley wrote a really memorable TNR Diarist about the death of music snobbery — it’s too easy for ex-partners to simply download all of your music onto their digital device. Connoisseurship of the old school is thus all but dead. Or almost.

My post was originally prompted by further thoughts about my friend Emily R-L’s mix, and about how there’s an expectation that the same person who likes Casiotone for the Painfully Alone will also like the song halfsharkalligatorhalfman. (I am, by the way, carrying a dead walrus.) Actually, Michael Hirschorn wrote about this in the context of Last.fm.

I’d long felt a profound sense of loss over the demise of the Mancunian band the Stone Roses, whose eponymous 1989 album raised rave-y Britpop to the level of sacrament. So I keyed in Stone Roses, expecting to hear the similar- sounding Charlatans UK or Kasabian, a current Roses-ish group. Instead, I was kicked back Neutral Milk Hotel, an Athens, Georgia–based collective centered around an artist named Jeff Mangum. NMH’s 1998 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a wildly over-the-top cult masterpiece, an operatic song cycle that probes the mystical import of the fate of Anne Frank and other tragedies. Take my word: it sounds only marginally like anything by the Stone Roses. But both albums are on my mental top-ten-of-all-time list, and I had flattered myself that only I saw the cosmic linkages between the two albums’ mystico-religious sound washes, rave-ups, and idiosyncratic lyricism. Having it recommended to me was a goosebump-inducing moment—and a neat demonstration for me of why social media is sweeping the Web: There are other people out there who feel this as deeply as I do! Maybe we can all get together and achieve a higher unity!

Perhaps this is the future.

I actually do think there are many ways we still wear our taste on our sleeves, at least in broad outline. Perhaps I’m revealing too much about myself, but: I am obsessed with this one kind of shirt. I only wear these shirts. I’m pretty sure no one notices or cares — other than, like, ten people I like, and who have similar shirt sensibilities. You might say I am telegraphing something to them: Hey, I like shirts! This is all true. And insane. Similarly, I assume people who wear certain kinds of shoes are people I’ll understand. I remember when people stopped wearing Onitsuka Tigers and started wearing enormous throwback-ish Nikes, and how I decided I couldn’t convincingly wear the oversized Nikes and subsequently discovered that a lot of other people my age were in the same boat. I also really loved the Saucony Jazz for a long time. I think I’m getting distracted here.