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.