Friday, September 24, 2010

Class, Race, and Visibility

There is a great article by Henry Giroux on the topic of class and race. Giroux reflects on how these impacted him as he grew up in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1960s.

It got me thinking further about the old cliche of the middle class being "the class that won't speak its own name," a seemingly empty, normal identity. Giroux remembers how class affected every aspect of his upbringing (he was raised in a blue-collar family), yet no one ever talked about it. Instead, it was race that was openly discussed, affirmed, fought over, etc.

Giroux describes "working-class" and "white" not merely as adjectives, but as verbs -- the very means by which those in his neighbourhood related to the social world around them. This was often through conflict. He notes,

Most of the interactions we had with others were violent, fraught with anger and hatred. We viewed kids who were black or privileged from within the spaces and enclaves of a neighborhood ethos that was nourished by a legacy of racism, a dominant culture that condoned class and racial hatred, and a popular culture that rarely allowed blacks and whites to view each other as equals, except of course, in athletics. Everywhere we looked segregation was the order of the day. Community was defined within racial and class differences and functioned largely as spaces of exclusion - spaces that more often than not pitted racial and ethnic groups against one another.

In spite of living through the divisions of race and class, Giroux notes how there seemed to be no language to talk about it. The divisions were so naturalized that they were assumed to be differences arising out of human nature, rather than constructed social divisions.

Music played an interesting role in all of this: for the working-class white kids (of which Giroux was one), African-American popular music was acceptable for listening, even if fraternizing with actual black kids was taboo. Meanwhile, the feeling of difference from middle-class kids resulted from being segregated from them at school (they never took the same classes), their ways of speaking, and, of course, their taste in popular music. The richer kids liked the clean-cut, mushier music of Pat Boone and stars of his ilk, which became an icon of effette elitism to the working-class kids.

On popular culture, Giroux elaborates,

Popular culture provided the medium through which we learned how to negotiate our everyday lives, especially when it brought together elements of resistance found in Hollywood youth films such as "Blackboard Jungle" (1955) or the rock n' roll music of Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Etta James, and other artists. Moreover, working-class street culture provided its own set of unique events and tensions in which our bodies, identities and desires were both mobilized and constrained.

Giroux remembers how being working-class in the US at this time meant being valued (if at all) for your physicality -- your ability at athletics, or your ability to labor manually -- and remembers how more affluent kids seemed to live outside their physicality.

Giroux notes that much of his own work in cultural studies has been a kind of "memory work," learning to understand explicitly the things about his early social environment which were never talked about openly and only understood implicitly. The activism of the 1960s, he says, did much to open his mind critically to class and racial divisions. But, as he notes, the pressure to keep perceptions of social difference under the surface of daily discussion remains pervasive.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cultural Influence: Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down

I want to make some notes on cultural influence across class lines. Charles Seeger is one of the few musicologists to make an issue of this. He wanted to document the emergence and eventual merging of class-based cultures in the US. Seeger was particularly interested in the notion of subacculturation, the process by which musical influences from one class became adopted by another.

Seeger used the familiar (if now outdated) three-part paradigm of the folk arts, the popular arts, and the fine arts. The folk arts were the home-made and passed-down musics of the rural settlers; the popular arts were the semi-literate and mass-distributed musics of the urban working class and middle class, while the fine arts were European classical music.

I realize that my statement in the previous post about class being more fluid in North America may miss the point. Mass communications in the 20th century probably made the cultures of different classes and regions more fluid, mobile, and open to appropriation by others. But it’s not the same thing as class itself being fluid.

This is significant because, as Seeger points out, the cross-fertilization between the folk and popular arts is a huge part of the story of popular music in the first half of the 20th century. The influence of rural forms of music (early folk balladry and fiddling, field hollers, gospel, country blues) on the music of the city was tremendous.

But the city and the world of vaudeville, film music and Tin Pan Alley (middle-class and middlebrow musics) left their stamps on these rural musics as they migrated into the urban centres. Thus we see the development of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country music of various types, soul music, and so on.

The flow of cultural influence, in these cases, was mostly bottom-up. The music business took the music of the poorest in America and commodified it, allowing it to appeal across class lines, and sometimes across racial lines.

But, as Seeger notes, the attempt to send cultural influence from the top-down was not overly successful in the US. He references the nineteenth-century efforts, which he calls the “Make America Musical” movement, to implant European high musical culture in the US.

Orchestras were founded, music critics had columns in major newspapers, philanthropy by rich men like Andrew Carnegie led to the building of elite concert halls and opera houses, conservatories and musical pedagogies based on the European model were established, and on it went. Many music departments in universities across the US still bear marks of this effort to use European high culture as a standard for musical training in America.

Its success was mixed. Classical music in America struggled against a colonial/provincial mindset. The classical orchestra flirted with jazz at times, and the use of orchestral composition in American film-making has a distinguished history. But the sense of classical music as a central tradition (as in Europe) was never very strongly established. At best, it filtered downward through middlebrow channels, but even this way of mediating high culture seems to be fading away.

I wonder to what degree the relative success of bottom-up subacculturation accounts for the “culture wars” that have riven the US at various points. Since the nineteenth century, the American elites have had difficulty asserting their culture in a top-down process of assimilation, and they have had to adapt by colonizing and disciplining popular culture in various ways.

Perhaps the PMRC, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, conservative rock canons, and (in a way) talk radio represent elite reactions to the challenge of bottom-up subacculturation in American popular culture.