Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Class Without A Culture?

I've returned from the IASPM/CSTM conference in Regina, which was entitled Spaces of Violence, Sites of Resistance: Music, Media, and Performance. The quality of presentations was quite high, and I enjoyed lots of stimulating papers and discussions.

My presentation on the problems and potentials of studying the middle class and popular music was well-received, and lots of people have followed up with suggestions for other sources and papers.

One strand from the paper which bears further elaboration concerns the (white) middle class's cultural obsession with alterity and the other. I argued that the perception of the middle class as an invisible "norm," and also as something prosaic or lame, has led middle-class cultural consumers to be looking continuously outside themselves for something more real, authentic, vivid, etc., than what traditionally middle class popular culture has provided. This process accelerated during and after the big cultural and political changes of the 1960s, altering middle-class tastes, both in content and range, beyond recognition.

In a discussion with my colleague, Norm Stanfield of UBC, we talked about how the white, American middle-class culture which has been all but rejected by its inheritors (think here about orchestral pop, Tin Pan Alley crooning, etc.), has been enthusiastically picked up by other middle classes emerging around the world (China's emerging middle class and Chinese-American immigrants provide good examples). Crooners are popular, as are lush orchestral (or synthesized) textures, ballad-type songs and a relaxed, sophisticated atmosphere. Yet, in most white, middle-class circles, few such pop sounds could be more unhip. It's like a mirror on what white, middle-class music used to be like, and for some reason, it makes a lot of people like me recoil.

Why is this?

Norm recommended an article in The Atlantic, entitled "The End of White America," by Hua Hsu. It's largely about the coming demographic shift when, in the 2040s, white people cease to be the majority ethnicity in the US. What kind of multi-ethnic or multi-racial country will the US (or Canada) be by then?

More urgently, how will white people respond to this demographic shift, and given that ethnic identity is always changing and evolving, what will it mean to be white then?

In discussing this question, Hsu talks about the state of white culture, although I think he's talking more specifically about white middle class culture. It's not simply that it's so ubiquitous that it's invisible, or considered just "normal," but that it has pretty much been abandoned.

Much like I argued in my own paper, Hsu discusses how the baby-boomers (and later generations) ceased looking towards the genteel culture to which the middle class has traditionally been heir, and has instead embraced a fluid, eclectic cultural field focussed principally on people unlike themselves.

The consequence of this is double-edged: perhaps white middle-class North Americans have become more open-minded and tolerant of the culture of others, but at the expense of having any substantive culture of their own. They have become, more literally than before, cultureless.

Hsu quotes sociologist Matt Wray, who notes of his own white, middle-class students:

They don't care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, "I don't have a culture." They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don’t have a culture that's cool or oppositional.

Hsu holds up William "Upski" Wimsatt's book Bomb the Suburbs (1994) as a symptomatic text documenting the move towards a white, middle-class culture that is focussed almost exclusively on alterity. Wimsatt valorizes the white middle-class hip hop fan for adopting black American culture as fully as possible, much as Norman Mailer did 50 years ago in The White Negro. The very implication of Wimsatt's book title -- destroy where we live, erase what we are -- is evocative of the kind of self-loathing that marks modern, hip attitudes towards middle-class identity.

In a future where there is no majority, Hsu surmises, a cultureless whiteness may be a problem indeed.

The reason I see Hsu's cultureless whiteness as being more of a middle-class issue than a working-class one is that I don't think the white working class has been nearly as quick to abandon its culture. They're far less embarrassed about their country music proclivities, for example, than we've been about our mainstream pop.

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