August 19, 2007

Fussell's category X and conspicuous ignorance

In the comments on the cleaning up your nerdy appearance post, someone recommended that I read Paul Fussell's Class, which I did. I thought I had read some of the passages before, and as it turns out, I'd already read a review of it. While most of the book takes a fairly accurate and humorous look at the American class system,* there are two chapters that missed the mark, one only somewhat, but the other completely.

In the chapter on language as a class-marker, there are the predictable worries about the decline of language caused by not following some grammatical rule** or not honoring some obscure etymology. But there's also a more technical problem: he doesn't know linguistics. He claims that a prole would pronounce "corned beef" as "corm beef." This is a basic (not base) linguistic process, the same that often turns "handbag" into "hambag." The cluster of consonants "ndb" don't really get along well, so the "d" is elided, making "nb". But since "n" uses the tongue against the teeth, while the following "b" uses both lips together, a more fluid pronunciation changes "n" to "m", which also uses both lips together.

There couldn't be a more pervasive cross-linguistic pattern than this (phonological "assimilation"), and as far as I know, the upper classes are not immune to it. Certainly Fussell provides no hard evidence, a rather typical case when doomsayers discourse on technical aspects of language.

Putting this minor concern aside, the final chapter on "Category X" is not only clueless but celebrates what a Veblenite might call "conspicuous ignorance." The Udolpho review linked to above provides some key quotes that define X (basically, self-styled non-conformists and Bohemians). Fussell sees X as a non-class, a group that's managed to find a way out of the class hierarchy, and so a group to be emulated by those who are smart and curious enough to be able to adopt Bohemian ways.

First off, we already see the primary marker of X's class insecurity and envy: thinking of oneself as Plato's prisoner who's escaped the cave and who is in a sense chosen to lead the benighted from their world of illusions. The bestseller version of this allegory, The Matrix, became an instant hit among ambitionless geeks by selling them the dream of social importance, in much the same way that "Go Yankees" caps sell well among proles by letting them identify with something powerful and important. Thus, pace Fussell's claim that X is the one group among whom the religion of buying and selling has been dethroned, X-ers are easily manipulated by marketing teams. Their blind allegiance to "organic" food also shows this, since aside from the very hardcore, most Bo-Bos shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and other corporate chain stores that target the middle class.

The worldview of X therefore combines envy and resentment of the upper classes that's not unlike what you see among other middle-class groups: "Well, if the game doesn't reward intelligence and curiosity, then to hell with its fouled up priorities. I just won't enter in the first place!"

Indeed, in the brief final chapter, the words "intelligence" and "curiosity" are so frequently name-dropped that we are lead to conclude that they are markers of insecurity -- those who truly rest atop the apex of intelligence and curiosity don't feel it necessary to incessantly throw these words in people's faces to convince them. They serve the same purpose that "good taste" does in Fussell's mocking presentation of middle-class values. And they show that X-ers are not drawn from proles, who are more likely to hate middle-class know-it-alls than the elegant patricians who they rarely come into contact with.

Now, I don't deny that many X-ers are smart and curious people, even if they're not the unrecognized geniuses they think themselves to be. What's really appauling about them is that they have wasted their high levels of IQ and Openness to Experience by pursuing things that are, on an intellectual level, utterly frivolous. They are not contributing to our understanding of how the world works, since Fussell describes them as inveterate "verbal people" -- in short, those adapted to bullshitting, hoodwinking, and pranksterism. They are not creating valuable art, literature, or music either, although they may play an instrument or regard themselves as writers.***

What accounts for X's disdain for doing anything worthwhile, preferring faux contrarian behavior? A cynic would say this group is merely flaunting its intelligence and curiosity by investing them in perfectly pointless pursuits. And I don't mean "pointless" in the way that number theory has few real-world applications, but in the sense of "let's psychoanalyze the Transformers cartoon" or "let's make an AdBusters design." Or perhaps "let's maintain a weblog." The intended social signal is, "I've got so much IQ and curiosity to spare that I can afford to fritter a lot of it away on this useless crap." For example, Kant was reknowned for his appetite for arcane knowledge of obscure cultures. However, he was a highly disciplined, productive, and original thinker.

Unfortunately, though, the outcome for X-ers is as if a prole wore jeans and a t-shirt to ape the "understated chic" style of the upper class. First of all, the prole's jeans and t-shirt are poorly constructed, ill-fitting, and visually unappealing, just as X's actual output tends to be unimpressive. And if prodded for further proof, the prole would have no way to show he was upper class, while the true upper class can point to their houses. Similarly, X-ers cannot, when questioned, point to their Nobel Prizes, nor even to early work tending in that direction, or great works of art they've created. By contrast, if Robert Oppenheimer talked your ear off about Indian spirituality, leading you to suspect he was a halfwit, he could always have scores of eminent physicists vouch for his smarts and originality.

An apologist for Bo-Bos would claim that Fussell's final chapter is simply a subtle, ironic "deconstruction" of X's behaviors and motives. But his tone is too enthusiastic, and the other markers of class insecurity and envy too naked, to conclude anything other than that the chapter is a failed attempt at conspicuous ignorance. In reality, X-ers are just a particularly dopey subset of the middle class.

* My favorite finding of his is an ad in The New Yorker, most of which reads (original format):

"Dr and Mrs Jeffrey Logan Brandon
request the pleasure of your company for
[at this point the higher classes might say cocktails, or, if thoroughly secure, drinks. But here, "Dr." and Mrs. Brandon are inviting you to consume specifically]
Champagne and Caviar
on Friday, etc., etc."

** Throughout, Fussell adheres to the rule "never to split one's infinitives," even though this prescription is a perfect example of inorganic, rule-by-committee abominations that he derides elsewhere.

*** By the way, thank god the sexiness of "writers" has thoroughly evaporated -- imagine how difficult it would be today to adopt the earlier Woody Allen convention that cool intellectuals almost invariably aspire to be writers or architects. Hopefully, this will mean that only the serious will write for a living.


  1. Don't forget that Class is almost 25 years old. Fussell's Category X people really may have been different and less class-envious than similar people are today.

  2. "just as X's actual output tends to be unimpressive"

    I'm sure Fussell considers himself an X, and his output has been anything but unimpressive.

  3. I read an interview with Mr Fussell in which he said that the book was at least partially a parody. I read the book when it came out and even at that time I suspected the X Chapter was a put on.

  4. writers and literary types will always be cool...a voltaire can always make an euler look stupid.

  5. Don't read too much in the last chapter of Class. Fussell is just rooting for the return of the Bohemian 60s (of which he was a part), but his prediction didn't happen. The became Bobos.

  6. I dunno. Openness to Experience isn't really a good thing in the corporate world, where you have to fit in and follow the rules. Yes it correlates with IQ (and recall that high IQs are good for income until you start getting really high), but the most successful are probably the low-Openness, moderately-high-IQ types in management.

    These Xers might be doing the best they can with what they've got, just as most proles can't really move up and might as well buy the Yankees cap. Sports fandom has positive social effects, too; in most towns you can always break the ice by discussing the local team. NY, with its Mets/Yankees division, is something of an anomaly. But at least the Mets give you an excuse if you get trapped on a plane with an angry Bostonian: "Yeah, I'm from New York...and I'm a Mets fan!"


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