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La classe sociale

W. David Marx  —  Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change

Viking 2022 368 p. 978-0593296707 Lu en 2022 Calibre

« Likewise we must transcend the boundaries of academic disciplines to excavate and synthesize the wisdom of sociology, anthropology, economics, philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, cultural theory, literary theory, art history, media studies, and neuroscience », rien que ça ! W. David Marx est habité d’une ambition folle, celle d’expliquer « le grand mystère de la culture », et mesure le risque de travailler à cette échelle démesurée, « the loss of nuance, the neglect of edge cases, the high potential for oversights. » Status and Culture manque de nuance, néglige les cas particuliers, et oublie tant de choses évidentes. Malgré cela, grâce à cela, c’est un ouvrage brillant.

Marx cherche comme un thésard, mais écrit comme un (bon) journaliste. Le mystère de la culture est celui du statut, explique-t-il, et « once we understand status, cultural change is much less mysterious. Just as microeconomics posits that markets form as self-interested individuals maximize utility for their money, a similar “invisible-hand” mechanism exists between status and culture: in seeking to maximize and stabilize status, individuals end up clustering into patterns of behavior (customs, traditions, fashion, fads, taste) that we understand as culture. »

Or le statut est un jeu à somme nulle, la promotion d’un individu entrainant nécessairement le déclassement d’un autre, autant qu’un jeu de dupes, chacun sachant que l’autre affabule autant que lui. Le « style de vie » est une expression en même temps qu’un prérequis du statut : il faut être riche pour montrer que l’on est riche, et il faut montrer que l’on est riche pour être riche. Esse ergo videri, videri ergo esse.

Un aspirant à la promotion sociale ne pourra jamais qu’imiter le style de vie des classes supérieures, qui n’auront aucun mal à « contre-signaler », et le font d’ailleurs systématiquement dès lors que leurs signes ne sont plus distinctifs. La plèbe doit consommer pour montrer qu’elle gagne sa croute, les élites peuvent se complaire dans une ascèse savamment travaillée. Le minimalisme signale que l’on ne signale pas, donc que l’on ne fait que cela.

Fort heureusement, Marx ne s’en tient pas à cette analyse somme toute convenue. S’il élude le problème épineux de la financiarisation du capitalisme, en refusant de tracer le parallèle entre l’esthétique punk et la politique libérale, il consacre une longue partie au rôle joué par le web dans la dévaluation du capital culturel au profit du capital économique. Le relativisme intellectuel, tous les gouts et toutes les opinions se valent, ouvre le champ au nihilisme financier, tous les gouts et toutes les opinions rapportent.

« In many ways omnivorism is the only possible taste left. A singular notion of good taste is unjustifiable in a cosmopolitan world », et la culture ne peut plus être dissociée de la finance, « omnivore taste is also a precursor to ultraindividualism: for everyone to follow their hearts, all idiosyncratic choices must be tolerated. » Marx ne craint pas le fantasme de la cancel culture, mais plutôt la réalité d’une culture cancellation, la stase d’une culture cyclique, « vous avez aimé ceci alors vous aimerez cela ».

Lorsqu’elle n’est pas circonscrite par une avant-garde ambitieuse, la nostalgie aboutit au simulacre de la réinterprétation d’un passé qui n’a jamais existé, à l’ersatz de culture vitrifié par le marketing. « With so much time, energy, and attention channeled into excavation, fewer seemed to be working toward the radically new », et pourquoi en serait-il autrement dans un monde qui n’en peut plus de courir à sa perte ? L’ennui est plus sûr que le vertige : « rather than pose unfamiliar threats to mainstream culture, many artists, youth, subcultures, and minority groups chose to relive the glory days on loop—a “slow cancellation of the future.” »


Une tache d’huile :

In almost all instances, new behaviors begin as an exclusive practice of smaller social groups—whether elites or outsiders—and then eventually spread to the wider population. This is true for the diffusion of superficial hairstyles but also applies to things not considered “fashions”: practical technologies like cars and hybrid seed corn, delicacies like chocolate and gin, political and spiritual beliefs, and the succession of artistic movements in modern art. The thing we call culture is always an aggregation of individual human behaviors, and if taste were the mere product of random idiosyncrasies and irrational psychologies, culture would display no patterns, only noise.

Nobody knows you’re a dog :

The reasons are much clearer when viewed through the lens of how the internet has changed status signaling. Where we once pleaded for status in person (or through media reporting of real-life appearances at social events), there is now a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week pageant of flexing on social media apps. Elites could once protect their status symbols behind information barriers and exclusive access to products; now nearly everything is available to nearly everyone. Meanwhile, the fragmentation of culture into the “long tail” has diluted the power of taste to serve as an effective means of social exclusion. And the inherent hyperspeed of the internet means fashion cycles pump out ephemeral fads rather than era-defining trends. Subcultures once provided society with a constant stream of cultural innovations, but the most notable outsider group of the twenty-first century has been the internet trolls rebelling against diversity, equity, and inclusion through revanchist slogans and memes.

La mécanique du statut :

Four important principles emerge from the internal logic of status hierarchies: Status maximization: We desire high status and fear low status. Status achievement: We can modify our status through talents, contributions, possessions, and virtues. Status integrity: We should not claim more status than we deserve. Status mobility: We can choose to move ourselves to new social contexts that better value our talents, contributions, possessions, and virtues.

Illusion illusoire :

If status guides our behavior, we make many choices for nonrational reasons. And this leads to skepticism about status value as a genuine value. Status value is fleeting and out of our personal control. It is always contingent upon where a convention sits within the social structure. Where we do choose for status value, our brains obfuscate the reasons and tell us we are desiring something more rational. But status value, despite how much we dislike and distrust it, does make a material impact on our lives. We must adopt practices with status value to gain higher status.

On est tout le snob d’un autre :

Every person who donned a moptop, dressed in Chanel’s designs, or bought a Harvestore did so because these collective choices offered higher status value than alternatives. And no matter how distinct these individuals are on a micro level, the participation in the same conventions forms patterns when aggregated on a macro level. In the end, individuals’ self-interested pursuit of status leads to the mysterious commonalities of behaviors we interpret as culture.

Moda povera :

Such choices were fundamental to the artifacts and conventions known as the “preppy wardrobe,” as Nelson Aldrich Jr. lists out: LL Bean boots, Top-Sider moccasins, tasseled loafers; pure wool socks, black silk socks, no socks; baggy chinos, baggy brick-red or lime or yellow or pink or Pulitzer trousers, baggy Brooks Brothers trousers, baggy boxer underpants; shirts of blue, pink, yellow, or striped Oxford, sometimes buttoned down, some made for a collar pin, usually from Brooks or J. Press or The [name of town or college] Shop; jackets of tweed, corduroy, poplin, seersucker with padless shoulders, a loose fit around the waist, and (if tweed) a muddy pattern; a shapeless muddy-patterned tweed overcoat, its collar lopsidedly rolled up under one ear, a shapeless beige raincoat bleached by years of use and irresistant to rain; no hat, a cross country ski cap, a very old snap-brimmed felt hat, a very old tennis hat.

La tragédie culturelle des « travailleurs de l’esprit » :

The other faction is the creative class, a term coined by the sociologist Richard Florida to describe those who find stable middle-class incomes through “creative” occupations such as writer, journalist, magazine editor, graphic designer, photographer, fashion buyer, and interior decorator. In their proximity to celebrity and the high-status milieu, creative-class jobs offer more in the way of status than in financial rewards. Being an obscure novelist doesn’t provide enough income to thrive but can lead to esteem and other material benefits. The playwright Lillian Hellman noted, “[Horace] Liveright was possibly the first publisher to understand that writers care less for dollars than for attention.” Not only do these individuals prefer cutting-edge culture and use it to signal, but their professional careers depend upon keeping up with the latest trends. The clerks at the indie music store Championship Vinyl in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity spend their days in pedantic discussions about the best albums and the ethics of music collection; however tedious, these debates are arguably core to the job. At the bottom rungs of the creative class, lower incomes mean partaking in an ersatz version of sophisticated lifestyles. Instead of saving up to buy garments from high-end avant-garde designers, young creatives shop at thrift stores. At the same time, the creative class, as we’ll see in subsequent chapters, is the first to embrace new styles from nominally lower-status groups and, in doing so, takes the lead in promulgating cultural change.

Qu’importe le flacon :

Due to the inherent elitism in most cultural criticism, “kitsch” is a pejorative term. But we should think about kitsch in a value-neutral way—as a specific type of commercial product that copies the format of high culture (books, music, films, clothing, interior goods) but removes its artistic aspirations. Kitsch is low in symbolic complexity: little irony, few ambiguous emotions, and muted political gestures. Using stock emotions, kitsch meets consumers’ expectations, thus requiring no specialized knowledge to understand. Kitsch may be ersatz art, but it delivers the experience of art to everyone. It entertains, reassures, and connects the audiences with others.

Il y a riche et riche :

When signaling, individuals show off their most exclusive and most powerful status assets. These signaling needs then create a communal sensibility among people with the same capital. Companies respond by manufacturing specific goods that serve as status symbols for those classes’ positional strategies. The end result is that a majority of society’s cultural artifacts and stylistic conventions—at least the most conspicuous ones used in signaling—exist in large part to serve the distinction needs of classes. Specifically, New Money’s use of economic capital in signaling spurs the creation of expensive luxury goods such as sports cars, limousines, mansions, yachts, summer homes, designer clothes, and furniture. Old Money’s countersignaling and focus on patina and cultural capital incentivize companies to make classic, modest goods with a functional appeal. The professional class’s signaling through information creates a market for middlebrow mass media/consumer guides, functional goods, artisanal goods, and copies of Old Money lifestyles. Underprivileged individuals’ desire to take part in culture and outdo peers pushes companies to offer kitsch and flashy entry-level luxury goods.

L’originalité est un conformisme :

New Money deploys easily interpretable signals. Groups with limited economic capital, in contrast, must rely on symbolically complex conventions for effective barriers. With no money at their disposal, punks raise fences through radical fashions and behaviors. This means status motivation spurs more cultural creativity on the right end of this spectrum, as these groups’ need for distinction produces new ideas, sensibilities, styles, and artifacts—not just more expensive things. This may explain why ultrastratified countries, with vast inequalities in incomes and limited internecine struggle inside the upper and professional classes, produce fewer complex inventions. In these cultural systems, status struggle focuses on conspicuous consumption, which reduces the incentive for individuals to pursue distinction within complex symbolic realms. This is not to say that all status seekers make important contributions to the expansion of human consciousness. Most aspiring artists secure their desired level of status through repeating others’ inventions. But in societies that value originality, influence, and mystery, many people will attempt to attain high status through the creation of subversive ideas. In past ages, where artists received relatively high standing as part of a guild or caste, these occupational groups enforced certain artistic standards, and virtuosity was the ideal. Creators in such environments tend to innovate through small incremental changes after embracing the core conventions over a lifetime. In Japan, traditional crafts allow a slow-moving, conservative form of change called shu ha ri—protecting the convention (shu), breaking the convention (ha), and then separating into a new convention (ri). But once Western society began to value radically distinct individuals, status rewards went to fierce artistic originality instead.

Invention et innovation :

The role of status seeking in cultural change is well attested in sociologist Everett Rogers’s authoritative theory on the diffusions of innovations. (“Invention” is a new idea; “innovation” describes the invention’s use and widespread adoption.)

Qu’est-ce qu’un classique :

Retro is not about honoring lost genius but celebrating the rote executions of dated conventions to convey a feeling of the past. […] In the modern age, however, history is never fixed. Permanent value is never permanent. Customs are more reliable than fads, yet paradigms shift enough to devalue many customs. Each generation overvalues the art popular during their youth, and their hunger for nostalgia as wealthy adults pushes pop culture toward their particular sensibilities.

Sans même parler des « intelligences » dites artificielles :

We can enjoy more varieties of more content from a greater diversity of voices at greater convenience. In fact, the level of creativity and innovation in contemporary artworks may not actually have changed; the problem, rather, is in our perception of the output. The move from analog to digital has altered the nature of social interaction, consumerism, signaling, and taste. And all of these structural changes hinder the creation of a critical ingredient underlying our appreciation of culture—status value.

On sait quelle est la plateforme choisie par la classe des « petits fachos qui croient que la liberté d’expression est une obligation d’écoute » :

Social media apps are more likely to splinter into separate platforms for each status tier, just as there were different General Motors cars for every salary band.