Originality, Cultural Capital, and Class Distinction

by Ralph Dumain


Who thinks an original thought in this society? The definition of original should not mislead us. The question is not, who thinks thoughts no one has ever thought before—a rare phenomenon—but, who originates one’s thoughts from a creative process organic to oneself rather than in slavish imitation of official society?


My daily conversation on the job with working class people in my younger days was hardly edifying. I preferred to spend my break time reading rather than discussing football. It’s a miracle I could completely ignore the Buffalo Bills and yet be allowed to live. One got rote, routine, ritualistic conversation at best. At worst, working with the lumpenproletariat, I had to suffer the constant exchange of racial slurs, perpetrated mostly by the white trash faction, which I presume originated largely in South Buffalo. Even where the working environment was better (with respect to one’s fellow employees, if not to management), conversation did not interest me much. Curiously, given my customary attitude to religious people, the one rewarding conversational experience I ever had at Buffalo General Hospital was with a rather straight-laced, short-haired (rare for that time) fellow who was a member of an esoteric sect known as the Holy Order of Mans. Presumably because he possessed a perspective beyond the trivial and mundane, he instantly recognized someone else who had something interesting going on beneath the surface.


Many many years later, in Baltimore, though I had a white collar job, most of my conversations on the job or within earshot involved working class people. The number one topic of ritual conversation was the lottery and picking numbers for same, in hopes that one would not have to return to work the next day. People seemed to be interested in church, sports, soaps, and little else. The best I can say—not to be downplayed—is that among the black working class (above the teenage years) I would find reserves of human sympathy and decency growing much scarcer elsewhere in society. And Baltimore was pretty grim back then, much worse now, I hear.


One would have hoped for more stimulating conversation in the Washington, DC area, given the high concentration of highly educated professionals. First, I had to get past the yuppies and Inside-the-Beltway political gossip. Why did I not buy a ‘Die Yuppie Scum!’ T-shirt when they were in vogue? As years went by, and as the implications of my work in New York in the 1990s became visible to me, I became conscious of the logic of psychological compromise at work among my liberal professional friends I would not have been sophisticated enough to analyze in my younger years. (See Jim Murray Memorial Speech.)


One friend in particular had me perplexed. He was a very decent fellow for the ambitious and unprincipled profession he had chosen, putting his analytical skills in service to whatever political official or special interest group to which he would hire himself out, and he did have political scruples about the positions he was asked to advocate. He also had a wide variety of personal interests and talents, and he would discuss his creative writing projects with me. There was also an obsession over fame—not movie stars or sports celebrities—but famous figures and places of all sorts. His creativity also seemed to be reactive: he would begin with some event or concept and played ‘what if?’ games with it. He never questioned the premises of the formulaic ideas which he permuted to purportedly novel ends. In short, his creativity did not seem to emanate from a center with which he was in touch, but rather as an accommodation to existing structures and conventional ideas. This pattern was replicated in his political activity, debasing himself like innumerable yuppies and buppies I have known in service to a Democratic Party continually reneging on its long-lost liberalism—swallowing its propaganda, living in delusion. In all of his mental activities, decent liberal that he was, he could not find a central point inside himself beyond ideology with which to transcend the categorial framework of bourgeois bureaucratic existence.

I don’t think I could have grasped the psycho-logic of accommodation when I was young and naïve, and before I experienced such overpowering doses of it as I came to be exposed to in Washington. Everyone must compromise in order to survive—that’s a given. Yet I marvel at how compromise does not stop where the air meets the skin. Compromise goes all the way inside, to the conceptual framework with which the structures of social and cultural forms are grasped. In addition, while it would seem that the educated are better positioned to analyze and criticize how society is structured as a whole, they seem to be subject to an even greater pressure due to their positioning as professional administrators of higher-level social cognitive functions to get locked into the conceptual structures of bourgeois society. Noam Chomsky has commented that the educated stratum of society is the one most susceptible to official propaganda. Before him, Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that the educated were the main generators of societys most prejudicial ideas. But rather than pursue this argument here, it suffices to address the logic of the psychological accommodation driving intellectual accommodation that goes beyond what one might naively think strictly necessitated by survival-oriented practical accommodation.


My next topic is the relationship of professional people to the sophisticated cultural and intellectual products they consume. There are bountiful cultural resources in the Washington area, many which don’t cost a penny, others requiring more disposable income. One can find both extremes at the Kennedy Center. It would be fruitless to speculate who appreciates any of these cultural offerings more. What about the originality of responses? In artistic matters, again, it would be difficult to say, unless we canvassed the upscale consumers of Kulcha as to their own critical interpretations, or for that matter, of their own history as creative writers, artists, musicians, etc. The objective pattern is that culture is a high-priced ornament to daily existence. Whether art appreciation bears a critical relationship to the rest of life, especially one’s business or career, is our question here, and it must remain an open one, but keep it in mind as we proceed.

A way of addressing this last question more to the point is to participate in some of the innumerable literary and philosophical discussion groups and book clubs in the Washington area. There you will find the mind of the upscale professional literary and intellectual consumer in its natural habitat. There is, of course, no lack of intelligence in such a milieu. But is there originality?

I sense the same lack that I analyzed in my friend. Intelligence is to be found, but not profundity. There are certain professions whose members chronically annoy me—people in law and management especially. I think most telling of all, though, is the relationship that seems to obtain between free-time intellectual consumption and professional life. These people’s professions rarely provide satisfactory intellectual stimulation, which professionals then seek in their free time. But there seems to be little critical reflection on the institutions in which these people are engaged for a living. Strictly speaking, their intellectual and cultural life supplements the professional grind, but does not criticize social organization as a whole. It thus remains a functional ornament. These people have the cultural and intellectual capital not to be found in the dreary proletarian environments of my young adulthood. What do they do with this capital, if they dont make original use of it? It is in the end a marker of class distinction, something they can consume or deploy that others cannot. And just because they cannot discern the implications of the class system, they cannot discern the limit set on their creativity and originality. (See Simplex, Complex, & Multiplexity according to Samuel R. Delany.) This does not necessarily imply that they are snobs, but minimally that they are clueless. The relationship of originality to cultural capital and class distinction eludes them as it does everyone else in this society. The Washington functionary cannot experientially grasp what it means to be an original.


The most obnoxious manifestation of class arrogance can be found in the relations between men and women—platonic or otherwise—especially when the male is an original but ranks socially lower than the female professional. (It is worst of all in a dating situation—the logic of which is accepted by all social classes, but reaches the height of arrogance in the petty bourgeois stratum, where class arrogance meets female hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness—but we will discreetly leave such close encounters out of account here.) People, when they don’t categorically shun originality, leech off it insofar as it entertains them, but they don't know how to respect it, because they don't think critically. The educated are not inherently more sophisticated in this matter than the uneducated: they disguise their mental bankruptcy by means of the appropriation of cultural capital. Being an original, I’ve suffered a number of encounters with women who are not. Granted, the logic of the situation is not far removed from that of situations where gender difference is not a factor. Basically, for middle class professionals of either sex, I am an exotic zoo animal that functions as an object of passing curiosity and entertainment. My relationship to all of them as an original person involves the triangulation of originality, cultural capital, and class distinction. But the track record of how I am treated by women of the professional middle class is the paradigmatic form of the ideological bankruptcy of bourgeois society.

I will continue with case studies of two women of former acquaintance—one white and one black. The difference between them is not sizable, but the distinction is worth mentioning, because black professionals are subject to cultural realignments in the process of adjustment to the demands of upward mobility or professional life in relation to a hostile or just plain stupid majority. But first, let’s dispose of the white woman.

In my early years in Washington, I learned from a co-worker that she had graduated from a Great Books academic program. I can’t imagine why anyone would seek a degree in the Great Books, so I assumed that the academic institution in question is essentially a finishing school for rich white girls. Of course, anyone working side-by-side with the likes of me is unlikely to be rich in anything but attitude. Anyway, I foolishly thought I could engage this woman in intellectual discussion. After all, she must know the cultural and intellectual heritage of Western civilization with a thoroughness lacking in a freelance dilettante like myself. Her Great Books education included the history of philosophy. So I decided to share with her an intellectual problem of current interest to me. I had just unearthed a fascinating essay in a rather obscure publication: "The Late Medieval Attack on Analogical Thought: Undoing Substantial Connection" by Sheila Delaney, a medievalist also interested in the history of radical thought. While her previous disquisitions on matters of intellectual history were delivered with an air of casual self-assurance, her reaction to my explanation of this topic and its importance was one of extreme discomfiture. She had mastered the art of regurgitation, but the prospect of having to offer an original thought on a subject not pre-digested elicited palpable resentment.

Case study #2 claimed a select circle of friends, as opposed to traditional social circles and the usual conformist associations and entertainments. She was always reading this book, or off to that art exhibit. She spoke with somewhat of a clipped, sometimes precious voice, with a touch of bemusement. She had grown up in Europe in the militant years, and thus proclaimed indifference to the racial distinctions that rule American life. She mentioned some book she was reading, whose topic I can’t quite remember, but it had something to do with some dysfunctional behavior of black professionals which narrowed or closed them off from full participation in the mainstream. I didn’t recognize the title or author, but I assumed it must belong to that genre emanating from black neoconservative apologists, or executives or professionals ensconced in corporate America, who criticize the psychology of victimization and self-marginalization. While I vaguely grasp their issues, I must confess that they are not real to me, or at least not framed in a way I would really care about. So this woman asked me what I was reading at the moment, which was some esoteric philosophy book. She acknowledged the importance of reading philosophy, but she evidently could not place my interest in a recognized hierarchy, so she couldn’t do anything with it. She told me what book she was reading—my guess is you would find it in Kramerbooks or Chapters—but I didn’t get sufficient elaboration to assess whether she had an original take on it. I sensed, however, that we were not on the same wavelength, and that I was too low rent for her. Her investment in culture may have been different from mine. Do I appreciate art, music, and literature any less than the upscale crowd, or is there something about my attitude that is different?

These two women were passing acquaintances at best. The dynamic becomes more injurious the closer the two parties approach, i.e. when they enter the domain of male-female relations. Here I’ve noticed two characteristic patterns which partition along class lines. A subset of all women can be found to show a respect for, or even attraction to, men whom they perceive to be intelligent. In some cases, practically oriented working women will accept to some degree even an intelligence that doesn’t bring home the bacon. Intelligence accrues some value as long as it keeps its distance from the conventional views of these women, which it might threaten. It might as well be another of those male quirks, like poker playing or football watching, that is accepted as part of the package. It’s OK to use that mind to take care of business or just to do your thing but don’t bring it around me and challenge my belief system. Such odd pairings are not all that uncommon. Whether in the end they add up is another discussion.

Much more sinister pairings are the seemingly educationally matched ones. Case study #2 is only a foretaste of what single professional women in Washington are capable of. Here we are not talking about disjoint spheres of interest that intersect only for purposes of mating and general companionship. The philistine behavior of the petty bourgeois professional woman may in the final analysis be far more objectionable than the anti-intellectualism of the working class woman. The upscale educated woman will interact in some way with your interests, and thus a clash of perspectives will have a different set of consequences. She may find you intriguing because you are different and offer something her existing network of colleagues and friends does not. But beware being flattered or seduced by said interest, because you are likely to be only a passing interest, an exotic object of curiosity.

And then there is the insufferable hypocrisy. This hypocrisy is both intellectual and behavioral. In their own professions, these women are as ambitious and intelligent as their male counterparts. But in the realm of the intellect outside of their professional sphere, they are as uncritical and conservative as can be. Lawyers and MBAs may be at the top of the game in their own fields, but in the realm of critical, philosophical thought, they are leeches, if they even take an interest. And, those middle class females who have the nerve to call themselves ‘feminists’ arrogate to themselves the right to have it both ways: to demand equality in their professional life but to insist on being catered to in their intimate life. Never mind the financial or emotional burden on you. You are there to entertain them, and you can be sure that your entertainment value is shakier the more originality you manifest that does not conform to their uncritical, conventional value system. And woe to you if your economic bracket does not match theirs. Here is where the arrogance of class distinction and the appropriation of cultural capital hit closest to home.


Keep all this in mind and ponder once more the original question. Who thinks an original thought in this society?

Conceived 11 April 2005, Written 21-24 April 2005
©2005 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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