On Our Critical Categories: Pretentiousness

by Ryan Ruby

“Ordinary men commonly condemn what is beyond them.” —François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

6a01bb08d71165970d01bb08f31a8b970d-350wiFor the American reader Dan Fox is an ideal guide to the murky space where class overlaps with taste. His position in the art world—he is a co-editor of the renowned contemporary art magazine frieze—has furnished him with ringside seats to some of the “nastiest brawls over pretentiousness.” Moreover, he is British. The class education the English receive as a matter of their cultural heritage enables them to view the matter more clearly than their American counterparts, whose understanding of class has been systematically retarded by taboo, ideology, and denialism, resulting in a deeply classed society that has no idea how to talk about this aspect of itself.

Class is not “just a question of money and how you spend it,” Fox helpfully reminds us in his book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). It's also “about how your identity is constructed in relationship to the world around you.” When we divide classes solely on the basis of wealth—into upper, middle, and lower—as we tend to do in America, it becomes easy to forget that the division is not only arbitrary, but also a gross simplification. In fact, the more generally we talk about class, the easier we fall into confusion. The so-called upper, middle, and lower classes are by no means unified groups, whose members view themselves as bound by the same interests. Every member of the “upper class,” for example, may be considered an elite, but this elite group is comprised of a number of class segments, whose members may in turn be ranked on the basis of their access to various kinds of capital (financial, educational, social, cultural, geographical, symbolic, etc.) whose relative importance is in a permanent state of flux.

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Why you can’t buy a first class ticket to Utopia

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_411 Nov. 23 14.03Just about every high school would like more money and harder working students. I have a modest proposal to address both problems. In every high school cafeteria let there be two groups—call them, say, “premier” and “regular.” To be in the premier group, students must either pay an additional fifty percent on top of the normal price for a school lunch or be ranked academically in the top five percent of their class. Those in the premier group would enjoy a number of privileges: they queue in their own line, which gives them priority over “regulars” for receiving service; they sit in a separate section at special tables adorned with tablecloths and floral centerpieces; their chairs have padded seats; and they have more choice at the food counter. In addition to the options available to the regular group, they can avail themselves of a complimentary hors d'oeuvre, sparkling water instead of tap water, and an after-lunch coffee or cappuccino (with complimentary chocolate mint). Best of all, perhaps, they enjoy unfiltered internet access.

The benefits of the system should be obvious. The extra revenue generated by the premier group will (among other things) enable the school to offer better food to all while lowering prices for those in the standard group. And students will be inspired to work harder so that they can enjoy premier group privileges, or at least ensure that one day their own kids will do so.

Objections anyone? I can't think of any apart from the thought that the whole scheme is utterly pernicious, likely to breed arrogance on the one side, resentment on the other, and to foster social divisions that subtly fracture the community spirit that ideally would unite all members of the school.

My modest proposal occurred to me the other day when, for the first time, by some inexplicable fluke, I found myself assigned to a first class seat on a jumbo jet flying from Denver to Washington.

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