Class is back (sort of)
On the cultural boredom debates
Last week’s micro-debate over the demise of contemporary culture went something like this:
In a May Substack post, literary critic Christian Lorentzen wrote that Biden-era culture, like Biden-era politics, is mostly boring. The culprit, he argued, is the hegemony of the brand: “The cult of marketing is the reason for cultural boredom.”
More recently, NYT opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg cited Lorentzen in working through her own boredom with contemporary art, music, film, literature, etc. Yes, contemporary culture is boring, Goldberg agreed, but the reasons go far beyond marketing malaise. Paraphrasing David Marx’s new book Status and Culture on the social mechanisms that support (or hinder) quality cultural progress, Goldberg prefers to view
cultural evolution as a sort of perpetual motion machine driven by people’s desire to ascend the social hierarchy. Artists innovate to gain status, and people unconsciously adjust their tastes to either signal their status tier or move up to a new one…The internet, Marx writes in his book’s closing section, changes this dynamic.
According to the Marx/Goldberg analysis, the real scapegoat is the internet.
A few days later, Max Read picked up the thread in his own Substack. I was sympathetic to his response, which shares my innate suspicion of arguments that suggest our cultural-political moment is historically unique. It was Read’s post, furthermore, that pointed me to Marx’s own response to the NYT, in which he attempts to clarify/correct Goldberg’s positioning of his thesis. (Speaking of marketing: Marx is the clear winner in all this back-and-forth.) With artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift garnering millions of fans, Marx writes, he hardly means to suggest that everyone is bored. He’s simply arguing that in times past, truly avant-garde culture was stimulated by artists and audiences jockeying to acquire “status value,” and that the internet “conspires against providing such content with status value,” leaving a vacuum that tends to be filled by mass culture instead.
The internet has presumably anesthetized the “status struggle” so crucial to generating creativity. Meanwhile, everyone gets in a few references to Dimes Square, no one makes any dumb jokes about Marx’s name being Marx… End scene.
As these articles have filtered through social channels, the general takeaway seems to be that class competition yields good culture. The internet has collapsed class hierarchies by democratizing access (good), but also ruined culture by making everything instantly available and removing productive frictions (bad), ultimately plunging artists into a popularity contest (bad). There also seems to be a general impression that through this discussion, we’re revitalizing debates about class (good). As the NYTBR titled its recent review of Marx’s book, “Money Can’t Buy Class. Or Can It?”
I wonder, however, if something has been lost in translation here, with Marx’s idea of “status value” so easily conflated with “class status.” While these concepts are closely related, they are also distinct.
The real question at the center of this debate would seem to me to be the following: What counts as “status value” today? If Marx is correct that the desire to accrue status is what greases the cogs of interesting cultural production (and explains why previous decades of cultural production were “better”), we’re not arguing “class” so much as we’re arguing that more elusive concept of “value.” That is, the other Marx’s favorite topic.
According to Goldberg and — despite his corrective post — Marx, “status value” in the digital age has dissipated into mass market popularity: “[M]arkers of high social rank have become more philistine,” Goldberg writes. As a result, cultural progress - that perpetual motion machine - has reached a point of stasis.
Lorentzen put a finer (and perhaps more class-conscious) point on this idea, I think, in an influential book review published last year, in which he memorably claimed that “[T]he dominant literary style of America is careerism.”
The diagnosis of careerism applies especially well, I think, to the elite group of cultural producers Marx’s book would seem to concern. Contemporary writing, for example, may very well be boring and bankrupt (my bad!), but plenty of people are still producing it, not for the money (ha) or for mass market popularity (ha), but, as the editors of n+1 echoed in a lament of the contemporary book review(er) last summer, in part to add literary accolades to their resumes. n+1 argued that the primary motive behind this resume-building is the possibility of landing a bigger paycheck on the next assignment. Yet there simply isn’t enough money (or staff writer positions) to go around to account for the steady number of participants. An alternative motive might be the simple love of the job. Another might be status.
The effect of this potential careerism on shifts in conceptions of “status value” might look something like this: When economic conditions conspire to encourage a generation to define itself through professional success and security, and when members of that generation also happen to see themselves as cultural trendsetters and workers, “status value” can amount to simply being in culture and/or having work that is culture-adjacent. Especially if you believe it can be converted into better paying or more rarified status value in the future. (See Max Read on how today’s corporate cultural producers increasingly think more like risk-averse asset managers than they do like talent seekers.) Ipso facto, status value (not to mention the value of the work produced) amounts to the accumulation of bylines that can be waved in front of a peer or potential employer’s face.
Critics Lauren Oyler and Becca Rothfeld, in their smart condemnations of moralizing, sanctimonious, and/or virtue-signaling fiction, offer another way of defining contemporary, internet-inflected status value: status amounts to one’s moral worth; to being a good person. I put my own spin on this take in a previous post on Salley Rooney and the American tendency to view reading as a form of self-improvement. From the self-improvement/moralizing camp, literature isn’t art (let alone an expression of the avant garde), but a vehicle for moral instruction.
Neither of these possible (and, to me, viable) definitions of what constitutes “status value” today points directly at the idea of being cool. Neither do they point to the exclusivity or esotericism that Marx and Goldberg assign to previous decades’ status struggles. Goldberg draws on Marx’s example of how an appreciation of John Cage was once transformed into a mark of cultural sophistication.
Here’s the full quote she provides from Marx:
“There was a virtuous cycle for Cage: His originality, mystery and influence provided him artist status; this encouraged serious institutions to explore his work; the frequent engagement with his work imbued Cage with cachet among the public, who then received a status boost for taking his work seriously.”
In this example, the artist’s status value depends on her having established the opportunity for others to feel like they’re “in-the-know.” The class component comes in to the extent that “being-in-the-know” remains exclusive and expensive—a luxury good.
The John Cage cycle is of course highly related to class status. But in a moment of cultural production governed equally by careerism, economic precarity, and performative virtue, “status value” might map not so much to the logic of insider-/outsiderness or exclusivity, or even to expense. It might map instead to sheer power. Moral authority. Social influence. That is, the power to shape the conversation, or to tell other people that they are in the wrong. This has probably always been the case.
I haven’t read Marx’s book, and I sense I’m not even entirely in disagreement with him. But his argument about the struggle to acquire status value reminds me of my favorite essay by Ralph Ellison, which I previously wrote about here in a post titled “American Pretension.” Back in 1978, Ellison argued that the “melting pot” of American culture is more like a rat race up a ladder. Different groups steal cultural capital and innovations from one another, ascend the social hierarchy, and use this new position to prevent other minority groups from joining them.
It remains, I think, an evergreen argument.
I’ve also always admired how Ellison, ever light-footed (not to mention an incurable real-life snob), makes it impossible for the reader to peg him to any single position on the status hierarchy. In constantly scrambling statuses and evading labels, he claims ultimate artistic freedom.
The Conclusion (sort-of)
In her review of Marx’s book for the NYTBR, Kaitlin Phillips writes that, “As to whether we’re in thrall to what others think: Marx says yes, basically — but he doesn’t believe that’s necessarily a bad thing.” It’s other people, after all, who invest you with “status value.” That’s how culture gets made.
As a fiction writer, I may be biased on this question of caring what other people (what your readers, say) think of you. As long as we’re blaming the internet — that ultimate easy target — I sometimes think that the most detrimental effect being online has had on writers is the proliferation of unchecked self-consciousness. More and more writing reeks of social calculation. The best writing, by contrast, appears effortless, but aims for truthfulness.
In our highly self-conscious environment, if those without any shame seem to have suffered the least, it’s because they had the least to lose to begin with. Other writers fare well enough by either a) getting offline or; b) staying online while somehow managing to not care what others (that is, the internet) will say. Or, better yet, by caring deeply about what only a very few, hand-selected people will say. In his original May post, Lorentzen points out that perhaps the most dangerous and alluring thing about Dimes Square isn’t its supposed proto-fascism, but the simple fact that it exists outside corporate or institutional marketing and funding structures. (Again, it helps that key members seem to have a lot of cash/private funding on hand to begin with!!) The point is that the scene represents cultural content made, for the most part, by and for a circle of friends, whatever you might think of the resulting aesthetic quality or political implications.
Meanwhile, those of us still trying to court virality run the risk of trying to be ultimately interesting and ultimately inoffensive at once — or else so offensive that we’re no longer interesting. (The latter endpoint seems to more or less summarize the critical blow-up over the latest Ottessa Moshfegh novel, which I also wrote about here.)
If this bid for mass appeal through strategic, self-conscious in/offensiveness is what Marx means by the substitution of “status value” with pure popularity, or what Goldberg means by artists and writers being “boring,” then I guess: Touché.