[11 November 2009]
PopMatters General Features Editor
At Generation Bubble, Anton Steinpilz brings up Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, which played as a sort of fond lament for the1980s. The film is extremely enjoyable despite being borderline reactionary—it’s open to an interpretation (not a likely one, but one useful for the suspension of ideological disbelief) in which the implicit politics are meant to be foibles of the characters rather than Stillman’s own, which makes it pleasantly watchable. (I’m especially fond of its weird, stilted Hal Hartley-esque quality, it’s closet-drama dialogue.)
The beaus and debutantes of Stillman’s hyperstylized New York were meant to be old, old money—so old that social-capital preservation was never supposed to be a concern for them. But as Steinpilz notes, the film is shot through with melancholy at the possibility that the whole social-capital system (which the film, with its coming-out balls and stilted drawing-room conversations and Victorian concerns about moral turpitude, lovingly depicts/invents) is becoming supplanted by a raw-money culture in which manners don’t matter. The unleashing of the financial sector brought about a whole new class of “vulgar rich,” the sort of people that Tom Wolfe (in many ways Stillman’s artistic grandfather) scorns in his work. Stillman’s characters—even the crypto-Marxist among them—all subscribe to the primacy of social capital; they are all entranced by the same chimeras of tradition, which they take to be lineaments of an eternal and proper social order—the inverse of the Fourierist fantasy one of them espouses. Rather than an explicit program that must be imposed, entailing all sorts of overt dislocation, the traditional order Stillman idealizes works hegemonically, which means that it has an effortless grace, the sprezzatura of the privileged. Though the character Charlie appropriates the term “bourgeoisie” for his neologism “urban haute bourgeoisie” to describe the characters in the film, they are really anachronistic petit aristocrats (which makes sense, since they are styled after the gentry from Jane Austen’s novels.) The bourgeoisie, in actuality, were the ones who routed Charlie’s kind in the 19th century. The bourgeois ideals—opportunity, mobility, enlightened self-interest, economic transparency, etc.—are what Charlie rejects; he implicitly endorses a rentier system where social betters are ensconced in a divinely ordained hierarchy.
Arnold Kling recently cited a quote from Gordon Wood that I think is relevant here:
After all, wealth, compared to birth, breeding, ethnicity, family heritage, gentility, even education, is the least humiliating means by which one person can claim superiority over another; and it is the one most easily matched or overcome by exertion.
That’s a justification for wealth betokening meritocracy, an order to supplant the unjust aristocratic one based on inherited social capital. The virtue of hard work supposedly replaces the genetic lottery, though humanity is basically consigned to eternally squabbling over status as part of its inherent nature.
Nowadays, the term “urban haute bourgeoisie” most likely does not conjure up debutante balls and Upper East Siders. For me, it evokes the scene on the Lower East Side, the cultural entrepreneurs and their hangers-on. It turns on cultural capital rather than old-style social capital, which has perhaps receded to an inaccessible demimonde, far away from hipsters and reality TV cameras.