In recent years students have gained a renewed appetite for discussion of social class. Stephanie Lawler’s ‘Disgusted subjects: the making of middle class identities’ (Sociological Review 2005) certainly sparked a lively response this semester.
I find it hard to warm to Pierre Bourdieu’s work. But Lawler and others (notably Beverly Skeggs) have taken his analysis of the cultural violence of capitalist class relations, translated it to a British context, added a much-needed feminist dimension and produced work that brings the contemporary realities of inequality and identity to life. A key feature of this approach is an acknowledgement of the ways in which class relations are affective as well as material and invested with high levels of emotional energy.
Lawler’s paper considers how the middle-class defines and distinguishes itself via expressions of disgust towards the working-class (or rather towards an imagined working class). This process has a long history. Lawler begins her paper:
“George Orwell, writing in the 1930s, famously declared ‘the real secrets of class distinctions in the West’ to be summed up in ‘four frightful words’: ‘The lower classes smell.” (p429)Lawler points out that, eighty years on:
“ If people are embarrassed and evasive when discussing class as a system there seems little embarrassment in characterizing white working-class people in the most horrific and disgusting terms.” (p431)Focusing on expressions of disgust at working class existence in the British media and other public fora, Lawler examines the particular forms that the ‘othering’ of the working class now takes. She highlights how class is racialised (disgust is aimed at ‘the white working class’) and how an older hyper- masculine view of the working class has been largely superceded by feminine folk devils (the harridan ‘pram face’ single mum with ‘bingo wings’ or the drunken ‘Essex girl’ spoiling the metropolitan cool of the town centre on a Friday night).
As my examples above suggest, bodies, their adornment and their need for control are central to the representation of the white working class. These folk devils defy neo-liberal discourses of self-improvement and body management. The working class are typically discussed, according to Lawler, in terms of ‘lack’: lack of taste, lack of parenting skills, lack of control of reproduction, lack of self-control, lack of appreciation of multiculturalism, lack of aspiration etc, etc.
“This constitution of working-class existence in terms of ‘lack’ is now so widespread as to be almost ubiquitous. It informs social policy (‘social exclusion’ presumes a deficit model, as do discussions of ‘widening participation’) and is present even in some (though by no means all) analyses which are sympathetic to working-class people.” (p434)Narratives of lack are frequently combined with a narrative of the decline of a once progressive and productive working class. Thus the poor are no longer working class but an ‘underclass’ discursively separated from both conservative notions of respectability and radical notions of a proletariat.
“For about 150 years, ethical and intellectual justifications for middle-class disgust at working-class existence have sat side by side, forming a neat boundary which precludes any middle-class questioning of their own position.Within this dynamic the working class “become little more than personae in a bourgeois drama”. Their subjectivities are assumed to be knowable through their appearance (and failings in appearance deemed are taken as signs of moral failure). What is really happening here is, of course, the normalization of middle class lifestyles and worldviews and the claiming by the middle classes of a monopoly on ‘true humanity’.
“What as changed in recent years is less the sentiments than the explicit naming of class as such. ‘Class’ is rarely explicitly invoked in contemporary expressions of disgust: instead, the ‘disgusting’ traits are presented as the outcome of individual or family pathology.” (p437)
Perhaps best to finish with another of Lawler’s quotations from Orwell:
‘The fact has got to be faced that to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing a part of yourself.’