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April 19, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
We live in the emerging mainstream moment of the sociology of taste. Think back to the first time you heard someone casually talk of “cultural capital” at a party, usually someone else’s inglorious pursuit or accrual of it; or when you first listened to someone praise “the subversion of the dominant in a cultural field,” or use the words strategize, negotiate, positioning, or leveraging in a discussion of a much admired “cultural producer’s” career. (For it was always careers, never single works, that were being considered.) You might have thought that you were listening to Wall Street bankers detailing mergers and acquisitions, but these were English majors! Then there appeared those charticles at the back of New York magazine, weekly guides to the rise and fall of tastes, which derived directly from Bourdieu’s maps of the field of power. Few things are less contested today than the idea that art mostly expresses class and status hierarchies, and only secondarily might have snippets of aesthetic value.
This spread of sociological thinking has led to sociological living — ways of thinking and seeing that are constructed in order to carry out, yet somehow escape, the relentless demystification sociology requires. Seeing art as a product, mere stuff, rather than a work, has become a sign of a good liberal (as opposed to bad elitist) state of mind. This is why you must support upper-middlebrow Terrence Malick one day, and the next spuriously shock everyone with a loud defense of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Too often, being on the left tasks you with a vigilant daily quest to avoid being tagged with snobbery. In sociological living, we place value on those works or groups that seem most likely to force a reevaluation of an exclusive or oppressive order, or an order felt to be oppressive simply because exclusive. And yet despite this perpetual reevaluation of all values, the underlying social order seems unchanged; the sense of it all being a game not only persists, but hardens.
The initial demystifying shock of the sociology of culture in the academy partly accounts for its popularity. Thanks to the dead ends of certain kinds of European hermeneutics — the realization that repeated analyses of Balzac novellas might not shake the foundations of the subject, let alone those of capitalism — it became more promising to ask why certain classes of people might be interested (and other classes not interested) in Balzac at all. No more appeals to the inexplicable nature of genius. Seen from the longue durée of social change, individual authors or works were less important than collectives or status groups, cities or systems. Like latter-day Northrop Fryes, armed with data, the critic-sociologists converted writers back into “literature” as a system, and from there into refractions of codes, institutions, and classes.
The effect on a sector of the professoriat, at least, has been liberating. It has led to a new wave of semi-sociological studies of institutions instead of works. Many of these, such as The Economy of Prestige or The World Republic of Letters, are, if we permit ourselves a value judgment, among the best works of criticism in our time. The overpowering influence of sociology outside its own disciplinary borders was recently verified in a list of “most-cited” intellectuals in the humanities. Sociologists varying in methods and political affiliations from “third way” liberal (Anthony Giddens) to radical (Latour) hold seven of the top ten spots: Foucault, theorist of institutional power, and Bourdieu lead the pack, six hundred citations ahead of the first nonsociologist, Derrida, whose posthumous cultural capital isn’t what it used to be.
These would be footnotes, but what happens at the university doesn’t stay in the university. The generation taught by these sociologist-citing literature scholars has now graduated and is attempting to make a place for itself in the arenas — once blandly uncontested “areas” or vague “spheres”—of cultural commentary, formerly known as “criticism,” and cultural production, formerly known as “the arts.” Not everyone can be a professor. But without thinking too much about it, most of us, especially on the left, would agree that our cultural preferences (what used to be called “judgments”) are fundamentally influenced, or even determined, by a number of external factors, not just the trinity of race, class, and gender, but also nuanced subfields: urban versus rural, regional, sexual preference, professional versus entrepreneurial versus proletarian. The sociological view that both the production and consumption of culture originate in institutional environments, subject to power but also subject to changing powers, offers its own deterministic counterweight to the trending, neurology-based literary studies of “cognitive literary criticism” and other evolutionary psych–based attempts to argue that humanity is hardwired to enjoy marriage plots.
Adapted from nplusonemag.
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This was an article on Sociology.
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MCAT CARS Instructor.