The Booker prize grants a literary work a level of authenticity and authority which it might not really earn. It also commodities works of literature that are believed to represent the exotic “other”. Although books that are awarded the Booker Prize end up gaining a larger reader audience, these readers don’t always receive these books in the manner that they are meant to be received.
The prestige of the award causes the audience to presume that the work being awarded, especially when it revolves around ethnic and culture groups that are regarded as the “other”, presents a factual and complete representation of the group the work revolves around. For instance Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” after wining the Booker Prize Award, is referenced to in the Guardian as a “historical tragedy”, which would cause many readers to misguidedly mistake it or group it with guidebooks and travel narratives. When in reality the book was written as a form of anti-imperial writing which reshapes history in order to suit it’s purpose. The award manipulated the way the book was meant to be received, causing people to read it as an exotic novel, instead of an oppositional work.
Read Graham Huggan’s “Prizing ‘Otherness‘” and the following four short articles from the English newspaper the Guardian:
Prompt for group B
Think about illusio. What is at stake when people are arguing about the meaning, significance, or criteria for the Booker prize? Use a specific example from one of the Guardian pieces. Think carefully about context.
“The weight of items of legitimate culture can also be analyzed by looking at the importance attached to purchasable signals in contrast to culturally acquired ones….In the U.S., in contrast to France, access to goods…is more important than modalities of consumption…This trait might be becoming more pronounced, as exemplified by the recent rapid diffusion of the expensive yuppy culture, and the simultaneous decline of cultural literacy” (page 163).
Lamont and Lareau are very critical of the ways in which cultural capital as a theory has been distorted by U.S. sociology into a much narrower and exclusive theory that focuses primarily on high culture. In opposition to this phenomena, they offer a modification of this approach that would actually look into all forms of American cultural capital. “Legitimate capital” is of particular interest to Lamont and Lareau, as it seems to have become something focused more on items’ material values than on the value of their consumption and the ways in which we can mobilize them. I feel this idea can be applied to the culture of literature, as we often see literature as simply physical texts that are produced and reproduced in order to be possessed. Extending the ideas of Lamont and Lareau, literature becomes less of a tool that we can put into use and instead is reduced to something we are only interested in creating and obtaining. The status that U.S. society has assigned to literature is largely superficial; we put texts on a pedestal as if some sort of prize to aspire for (and not necessarily to aspire to), but we fail to remove the prize from the pedestal to actually comprehend their internal value. It’s as if literature itself (and thus, literacy and literary circulation) have simply been reduced to status symbol.
While reading Bourdieu’s explanation of how some kids have an advantage in school because they are part of the dominant (class) culture, my honest reaction was: My friends and I have been talking about how this works since middle school.
Then again, perhaps Bourdieu’s discussions of institutional power seem instinctual to me only because some of his ideas are prominent ways of thinking about social difference. But to go back to my middle school, the question was not about who was reading certain higher-status-signifying books, but which children chose to read at all. There was no simple social and academic domination of the elite children over the children of the working class. The cool kids were white, working class kids, and they said they didn’t read; so no child, regardless of class background, could openly admit to such behavior with impunity (regardless of how beneficial it might be for job prospects). The dominant culture of the school was not that of the “dominant class,” and the tastes that would make one accepted among the majority were certainly not something that could be acquired in school.
Bourdieu’s analysis feels as disconnected from the American Midwest public school experience as it does to Rutgers, where learning “high status cultural signals” is near impossible and potentially not beneficial. As Lamont and Lareau note, there is “a greater autonomy of lower class high status cultural signals from middle class ones” (162). Perhaps Bourdieu’s discussion makes more sense in an elite university, where upper class American students are able to have a jumpstart on academic culture, than any of the schools I have inhabited.
Even if I’m not that impressed by Bourdieu, I can recognize that Lamont and Lareau are (dare I say it) enchanted with him. For example, as they are painstakingly disentangling Bourdieu’s inconsistent and unclear use of the term “cultural capital” over the course of several books and articles, they say:
“Subtle shifts across these analytical levels are found throughout the work. This polysemy makes for the richness of Bourdieu’s writings, and is a standard of excellence in French academia.” (156) I wonder what it is about Bourdieu that makes them defend his style, even as they seek to “rescue” the term cultural capital.
“American research suggests that class culture are weakly defined in the U.S.; that ethnic and racial minorities reinterpret mainstream culture into their own original culture; that high culture is being debased by commercialization; that the highly educated consume mass culture, but also have a wider range of cultural preferences which distinguishes them from other groups “(161).
In the U.S., the question of literature and its place in high culture is relevant because our society is one that consumes and creates different forms of literature. In a society with many different identities and ideals, one cannot help but confront mass culture. The educated elite of Ivy League schools are familiar with Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. These individuals mainly of traditionally high cultured lifestyles live and function within a society that recognizes these types of works as widely influential and even “brilliant.” Despite the fact that works such as these have achieved global critical acclaim, have been adapted into films featuring Academy Award recognized actors, and have earned the kind of dollars the high cultured cultural capitalists wish they could have, conformists to Lamont and Lareau’s new definition of cultural capital reject HP and HG as “pop literature” since their existence reverberates within mass culture and because they have become forces unto themselves that reach all levels of American social strata.
“It is important to note in this context that we believe that lower class high status
cultural signals (e.g., being streetwise) perform within the lower class the same exclusivist function that the legitimate culture performs in the middle and the upper-middle class. However,for the purpose of clarity, the term cultural capital is not applied to these signals because they cannot be equated with the legitimate culture. A new concept needs to be coined for these signals; “marginal high status signal” is a potential candidate” (157).
This part stood out to me…I think they were wise to pick up on the differences in what is considered, “legitimate culture” in the U.S. and in France. In this passage there is attention paid to the fact that power dynamics exist within all classes. One of the things they did not point to with the same level of attention is the very American brand of racism we have here and how that works on acceptance of different types of culture or the appropriation of certain cultural expressions. I tend to think in terms of music, but as far as literature goes, I would say even using the dialect/slang of the deep south or the city and the stories that expose some of this history of (and present) racism in literature does some work in crossing boundaries and broadening access to information that has been suppressed. For example, “Praisesong for the Widow”, a story of a Black American woman’s struggle with upward mobility and identity formation in a white supremacist society points to some of the ways in which people must learn to navigate multiple cultures and also the power dynamics within each competing culture. There needs to be some discussion about why people become turned off of “high” culture in the U.S. What does it represent and to whom? We also have a culture of animosity towards those awful “elitist” college folk trying to shove their liberal propaganda down people’s throats…Even the very wealthy right (especially in the political realm) are compelled to align themselves with the white working class (i.e. sports knowledge, country music, perhaps Mitt Romney donning a cowboy hat…) There is very rarely any public (mass media) discussion of literature or philosophy. We don’t even have a poet laureate in this state anymore because it became too political and that also has to do with race and class politics.
In their essay on Cultural Capital, Lamont and Lareau begin by explaining the many different concepts associated by the term “cultural capital.” They propose a new definition, defining it as institutionalized, as in “widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preference, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials) used for social and culture exclusion” (156). This definition becomes problematic when discussing American society where there is no single cultural center. One modification they set out to make is in response to the micro-political dimension that they believe should be preserved in the American study of cultural capital. They say that “the relative absence of interest in the micro-political facet of cultural capital in the U.S. literature parallels the traditional resistance of American sociologists to deal with exclusion as a form of power relations; they tend to conceive it as an unintended consequence of action, and to understand power as involving coercion” (161). In this sense, Lamont and Lareau seem to be saying that American literature reinforces the negligence that Americans give to exclusion as a form of power relation. It seems that literature has helped maintain this idea – that power relations is simply not a thing in America.
Read Lamont and Lareau’s review essay on “Cultural Capital.” They devise a way to translate what they think are the French-specific features of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital into a definition and research agenda that make sense in the U.S. context. Choose one or two of the ways they seek to modify his concept for the U.S. present and then consider how it might apply to specifically literary production, reception, or circulation. What part does literature play in cultural capital in the U.S.—at least as Lamont and Lareau define it? Write a paragraph.
(Note: the representation of the U.S. reflects L&L’s view in their particular time (1986–88) and place. Do you recognize the country they describe? —No need to blog about this, just reflect.)
Marcel Duchamp. Fountain. Porcelain, 1917 (replica 1964). Tate Gallery, London.
To avoid reiteration, I’ll simply add the disclaimer that I also think the point of this article is not to choose sides, but rather to tear several arguments apart from their inherent paradoxes. I’d like to add to the discussion a moment where I think I found the sort of answer Guillory is searching for throughout his meticulous working-out of the canonical problem of representation:
“Acknowledging the conditional force of literacy in the history of canon formation would thus disallow us from ever assuming that the field of writing is a kind of plenum, a textual repetition of social diversity, where everyone has access to the means of literary production and works ask only to be judged fairly” (18).
Since most of his ideas as so compounded, it took some extra time to wheedle out the meaning from this moment, but what what struck me the most was the idealistic scenario that emerges in the last part of his sentence. Much of the paradoxes surrounding canonical and noncanonical literature maintain this vision of an ideal space impossible because of the problems surrounding inclusion/exclusion. However, the ideal canon would reflect the ideal social empowerment of all minorities, thus becoming a shared reflection of “social diversity,” and where the canon is not the only type of “literary production” that everyone would share equally. And, finally, it would result in the judgment of subjects/pieces/academic objects “fairly,” as in, not simply as a stand-in for the aspired-but-perpetually-unachieved-political/social-representation-of-minorities.