Love in the time of cultural-capital-acquisition strategies

by Rob Horning

9 April 2010


I have an essay up at Wunderkammer about strategic taste formation and the difficulties faced in opting out of that sort of game. It was prompted by this strange dread I felt at the prospect of having to listen to the new Joanna Newsom album and investing the requisite amount of time to be fair to it somehow. I started to wonder if it even makes sense to try to be fair to cultural product, whether that isn’t some sort of mystification for cultural-capital acquisition. Cultural capital seems to be the same sort of thing as the courtier’s sprezzatura—it needs to appear effortless and unselfconscious in order to be efficacious. The best way of accomplishing that is to try to take oneself out of one’s own loop—to trick oneself with the idea of “really liking” certain highly unlikely things.

Douglas Holt’s 1997 paper (gated link) “Distinction in America? Recovering Bourdieu’s theory of tastes from its critics” has some interesting insights on the subject of cultural capital. First, he captures the essence of Bourdieu’s Distinction in this sentence, which is the animating idea of the Wunderkammer essay, though I don’t think I stated it outright: “Bourdieu argues that cultural capital secures the respect and esteem of others through the consumption of objects that are ‘difficult’ and so can only be consumed by those few who have acquired the ability to do so.”
But it is not as simple as that—the signaling function of difficulty needs to be aestheticized, generalized, and hidden from ourselves. Basically, various genre-specific forms of cultural capital are useful only if they allows seemingly subjective tastes to become commensurable, weighed on the same scale, and to have that scale describe the social hierarchy in a direct and experiential way. In other words, cultural capital is a process by which we abstract from the specifics of what we like in order to understand where our tastes place us in the status hierarchy. But the tricky part is that this process of abstraction is less a cognitive operation than a praxis—we don’t calculate in our minds what our tastes mean; we live them and in the process reveal to ourselves the class status embedded in our habitus, or the approach to life we have learned from our upbringing and environment, plus the modes of cultural appreciation we have managed to master and internalize so that we operate them convincingly.

Why can’t I ever seem to put this idea across without jargon? The display of taste can’t be a tactic; it has to play naturally to have its desired effects. So our strategic acquisition of cultural capital has to disavow itself in our own minds. This leads to our living some contradictions: this is what I think I was experiencing in my dread about Joanna Newsom.

The problem we face is how to convert cultural capital into something “spendable” in social interactions without destroying its value in the process—without seeming to be trying too hard. This involves all sorts of contortions and feints; it involves a perpetual process of becoming that mirrors the perpetual evolution of fashion. After all, if we achieve a sense of being what our cultural capital implies, we would nullify it.

Thus Holt makes the point that consumption style is more important than its substance, as the substance is designed to continually change. The specifics of fashion change, but understanding how and why it changes can provide an unchanging modicum of social status. We are becoming at the level of specific tastes, so that we have being at the level of consumption style (habitus). Consumption styles are commensurable, even when specific tastes are not. What’s important about finding the commensurability is not being able to rank ourselves so much as it is to help us form our social bonds, to help us read the social terrain. It seems likely, in fact, that those social bonds are what mirror back to us the sense of our own status—that confirm what we otherwise can only suspect about ourselves. Here’s how Holt puts it:

Class boundaries are formed only to the extent that there exist social interactional processes through which otherwise incommensurate field-specific cultural capitals are aggregated into meta-field attributions of status. For example, does one, as a nonparticipant in the consumption field of leisure reading, acknowledge and grant status to friends and acquaintances who have highly developed tastes for prose? I believe that this conversion of field-specific to abstracted cultural capital - while a problematic iterative process - is a pervasive feature of contemporary social interaction. People constantly make such judgments to assess their affinities with others’ tastes in the process of choosing friends, lovers, and business acquaintances. If this process is significant, it suggests that in an increasingly fragmented cultural world, status judgments based on shared interests are less important than those based upon similar styles of consuming, which can be applied to any cultural category.

I bolded the part above. The depressing implication (but maybe it shouldn’t depress me) seems to be that we choose friends the way we choose any other consumer good—it’s all with an eye to cultural capital, how it will play. The process of cultural-capital conversion makes friends and lovers equivalent to tennis rackets and interior decor. It’s all on the same continuum. As Holt puts it: “a single symbolic currency that functions as a status resource.” I wonder if this has always been the case, or whether it is a manifestation of a more open and mobile society, or whether it is a reflection of capitalism reorganizing our personality structures.

As a by-product of the cultural capital process, Holt notes, “status boundaries are reproduced simply through expressing one’s tastes.” This poses problems for cultural egalitarianism, if there is such a thing—and I think there is and that “poptimism” is a expression of it. The cultural egalitarian wants taste to be a kind of democracy, with each person’s taste validating that person’s equal standing in the aesthetic realm. But the signaling we perform to find one another reproduces the social (not personal) hierarchy that makes us prefer some people to others, that allows us to experience love and friendship in the first place, such as it is in our culture. Companionate marriages, for instance, depend on “consumption complementarities”, as this essay by Stevenson and Wolfers details. We need the hierarchy to order our social lives in a way meaningful to us—to find the “one.” And by reproducing the “code” of that hierarchy (the various nuances of consumerist signals defined in their expression) in our courtship rituals, we make that hierarchy stronger when we find that person (or thing). Ideally, the mate/consumption partner stays loyal and true even as the objects they consume together change. Hence our choice of partner substantiates our habitus (or consuming style) that might otherwise be lost in all the surface changes to the specifics of what we consume.

Choosing a partner then is first enabled by the little ephemeral choices: these allow us to find “the one”. Then having the “one” stabilizes the overriding meaning of subsequent choices, reorienting them back to that original partner choice, which becomes a touchstone for their meaning even as the social meanings at large, at the level of the broader consumption code, are changing uncontrollably (and faster than ever with the advent of the internet.) That is to say, falling in love or choosing close friends is (among other things) a way of trying to seize control back over the meaning of our consumption, to create consumption communities that seem to stabilize the meaning of products and practices that, in the wild of the globalized meme market, change faster than anyone can keep up with. The consumption community defrays the damage, distributes it among the group so that one need not face it alone. It makes the whirlwind of fashion manageable, allows it to pass through our lives as harvestable energy - turning over our belongings and behaviors as a means of letting us grow closer to the loved ones in our lives—rather than blowing us around like paper dolls.

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