Wariness and skepticism.

I don’t have much to say about race issues in the USA, since I think I’m still at a stage where I should be doing much more listening than speaking, but this month-old blog post by Pitchfork critic Nitsuh Abebe seems sharp enough that I should post an excerpt and point you to the rest of it.

…But I do want you to think about the culture of our criticism, because I feel like it’s ever more beholden to a kind of blind posturing that wants to stop it from saying anything useful or true. Let’s go ahead and call this posturing The Game.

The Game is largely played by people who are white and/or middle-class, and much of it involves trying to outmaneuver one another about precisely that fact. At the heart of The Game is fear and loathing and boredom concerning the possibility of being bourgeois. Being bourgeois is The Game’s great sin, and it is often referred to using the code word “white.” If you can’t avoid this sin by virtue of being working-class or Ghanaian or something, your best bet is to deftly corner the market on wary “whiteness”-based critiques of anything that smacks of being bourgeois. The critique will try to present itself as an incisive dismantling of class/race/privilege, but at its heart it will just be “oh noes bourgeois.”

The full piece has to do with an argument about indie band Vampire Weekend.

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17 thoughts on “Wariness and skepticism.

  1. He’s right about this American weirdness of using racial terms as class signifiers, to the extent that it strips people of their identity. To act middle-class is to be “white”, regardless of if your name is Rostam Batmanglij, or Maricruz Gonzalez, and if you try and assert an ethnic identity other than white, it’s a pose (even if it isn’t).

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    • The way to avoid the problem seems to be to talk more honestly about class, right? But the tough thing is that I have to admit that my vocabulary doesn’t have the right terms to talk about class in a serious way. One big joke presented by Stuff White People Like is that most of the readers immediately recognized the “kind of white people” the website talked about, and most of us also defaulted to some variation on “white” or “hipster”—the latter term is far too narrow—to describe a social class that should really have a better label. But what’s the phrase? “The Creative Class” also seems too broad. Millenial bobos? Even if that’s a good description of what they (we?) are, I’m pretty sure that they (we?) would never accept a Brooks-derived name.

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      • That’s certainly true, although I think part of the problem is there’s a lack of effort as well. I mean, Stuff White People Like is one of the worst offenders. Another problem is that really any term you come up with instantly becomes derogatory. It’s hard to have an honest conversation about class when talking about class is itself taken as a class signifier.

        I think it helps to try anyway, and I find the idea that Vampire Weekend are actually doing this, pointing out the ridiculousness of the upper class while owning it, to be an interesting one.

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        • Abebe’s interpretation of Vampire Weekend is so interesting that it almost makes me wish I owned one of their albums. I really liked “Oxford Comma” when I first heard it, though, and I would probably still like it now.

          On balance, I think I learned something about myself from SWPL, though not so much from the site as from talking about it with friends. But, yeah, that sort of thing can’t be more than the beginning of the conversation, and improperly used something like SWPL can just add another three or four layers to the posturing.

          I think part of making the effort, for someone like me, is listening to the stories of other people until one’s own story makes sense. And, like I said, I think I’m still in the listening phase…

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  2. I think Abebe is basically right that the people who use talk of race to dismiss Vampire Weekend are playing some sort of cynical game. But I think that a similar thing is taking place when people constantly claim that Sarah Palin is an elite — after all, they say, she has a book deal! and she ran for vice-president! What could be more elite than that?

    These people are trying to attack Palin’s populist credentials, but they ignore the fact that the culture war is, in some incredibly complicated sense, a class war. Say what you will, Palin is not a member of the same class as Charlie Rose. Contra won’t give you any insights into the way she lives or thinks. For that, you need to go to Taylor Swift.

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    • The jump from Vampire Weekend to Palin doesn’t make sense to me yet, though I’m willing to be convinced. I see the loose class-confusion connection, but the relationship between music critics and “rockism” is not really like the relationship between pundits and populism. The “rockism” thing is about, if I may speak really broadly, music critics trying to deal with issues of appropriation and diversity and hype internal to a subsection of culture, while the populism thing is about elites and non-elites trying to make sense of each other. Sarah Palin is an outsider to pundits; Vampire Weekend is an indie band, and therefore they are “insiders,” in a sense, to music critics.

      Or maybe I should have asked at the outset: which Palin detractors are you talking about? On the left or on the right? I can maybe see the analogy working for rightward criticism.

      As for me, I think I understand the cultural reasons that so many people are enthralled with Palin, but she just has too many disqualifiers for me to even feign support for contrarian purposes.

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    • Yeah, this is kind of off.

      “…the culture war is, in some incredibly complicated sense, a class war.”
      I think this is part of the problem, actually. We don’t talk about class, except through race and through cultural signs, both of which obscure more than they reveal. If anything it’s Palin herself, knowing playing the culture war game for power, who is the analogue to the misguided critic, railing against elites for daring to have different “values”, which is culture-warrior speak for tastes.

      And look, I kinda like Taylor Swift, but there’s no way she says anything about how Sarah Palin lives or thinks either. Maybe you meant Gretchen Wilson?

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      • I’ve also had this problem with how we talk about culture to mean class. It strikes me how hard it is to find a good class analysis of pretty much any political phenomenon in American life. I can’t even find a class analysis of the Tea Parties, which would seem obvious.

        It’s probably just me, but I’ve also been thinking lately that, while I can’t stand Marxist historicism or politics, and certainly couldn’t survive in a Marxist society, there is something to Marxist class analysis.

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        • There’s an essay at Unqualified Reservations that discusses the caste system that exists in the US. (He argues that we have Brahmin, Dalit, Helot, Optimate, and Vaisya. Brahmin, of course, are the “white people” who like “stuff white people like”.)

          http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/05/bdh-ov-conflict_07.html

          Lord knows, I agree with him on precious little. I found this essay insightful, though.

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            • The thing I notice about the link is that the writer’s set up all the labels to illustrate a political conflict, and his agenda undermines the usefulness of his terms for the stuff I’m trying to figure out. I hope to find/build a more flexible (and, err, defensible) taxonomy.

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              • It was a way to look at it that I had never before considered and found useful to reframe the issue in my head, even if I abandoned it the second I finished the essay.

                (He’s got other essays on the Brahmin/Stuff White People Like connection that I found screamingly funny, even if I were ashamed for laughing after the fact.)

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          • His blog is totally new to me, so even with your warning I didn’t know what to expect – the first post on the subject was interesting and seemingly insightful (if a bit off – he lumps the people he seemingly admires the most all into one caste, the Vasiyas, and splits the poorest of the poor into two, Dalit and Helot, based solely on his assessment of their work ethic, which I don;t think is justified.)

            Then I read the post you linked to. And and all the “insight” basically vanished.

            But I can at least agree that “we tend to think in terms of euphemisms that conceal the total and existential nature of this nasty and pointless struggle”, and commend him for not doing so (even as I disagree with EVERYTHING ELSE.)

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