Revisiting The Cultural Omnivores

Back in January, I reviewed Philippe Couleangeon’s book on the metamorphoses of distinction, a book in which he examines the changes in the concept of cultural capital and distinction in the context of mass education and multiculturalism. In the review, I noted,

“Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.”

Today, in a New York Times column, Shamus Khan produces a similar argument regarding elitism:

“Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it.”

Khan notes the new character of this development in the context of rising cosmopolitan individualism and self-cultivation (the self as individual project, a theme upon which I have touched many times). In the process, the class-based nature of cultural is nicely made to disappear:

“Whereas the old elites used their culture to make explicit the differences between themselves and the rest, if you were to talk to members of the elite today, many would tell you that their culture is simply an expression of their open-minded, creative, ready-to-pounce-on-any-opportunity ethic. Others would object to the idea that they were part of an elite in the first place.”

And Khan makes a point similar to Couleangeon’s mixed with some culture of poverty-as-justification:

“Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self. Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.

By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans — are subject to disdain. If the world is open and you don’t take advantage of it, then you’re simply limited and closed-minded. Perhaps it’s these attributes that explain your incapacity to succeed.

And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.”

And cultural openness becomes another tool for symbolic violence and a justification for social inequalities as reflection personal defects rather than products of class dynamics that are hidden and the Khan neatly highlights:

“Look at who makes up the most “talented” members of society: the children of the already advantaged. Today America has less intergenerational economic mobility than almost any country in the industrialized world; one of the best predictors of being a member of the elite today is whether your parents were in the elite. The elite story about the triumph of the omnivorous individual with diverse talents is a myth. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed.

Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old. Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited. But if they can recognize the class basis of their success, then perhaps they will also recognize their class responsibility. They owe a debt to others for their fortunes, and seeing this may also help elites realize that the poor are ruled by a similar dynamic: their present position is most often bound to a history not of their own choosing or responsibility.”

Welcome to the world of the cosmopolitan ethics and the spirit of 21st century capitalism.

Read the whole column, it’s great.

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