Archive: January 15th, 2009

Paul Fussell: Class

[Readings] (01.15.09, 10:40 pm)

It is productive to look at class as another dimension of status and social standing. Fussell’s book is on the role of class in America. It is important to add that the book was published in 1983, so the actual class differences have changed. There is also an omission of issues of race and ethnicity which seems oddly conspicuous at this time. Nonetheless, Fussell does pose a key way of understanding how classes work. The argument, which is strongly reminiscent of Goffman, is that class signs are broadcast based on behavior, dress, and other chosen and visible traits. Class thus has less to do with money than with choices. These choices together can cast a legible code of someone’s social standing.

Like Johnstone’s status, class is performed, and it is performed to everybody. Fussell connects this to a cause which seems uniquely American. A democratic society produces a condition (or an illusion) of uniformity of the citizens. Fussell quotes Alexis de Tocqueville who observed that citizens appear the most insignificant in democratic societies. Thus, in order to attain self respect, individuals must achieve social approval. This makes a lot of sense when compared against the idea of dramatic status. This would suggest that American society has a rule where every actor must try to elevate their status with respect to their co-actors. The idea of approval is somewhat different than status, though. Approval suggests that individuals strive to be good enough, not better, than their colleagues. So maybe the rule is to even out status with respect to colleagues.

Class is meaningful from the perspective of media and semiotics. Objects do not have value in merely functional sense, but in the sense that they say something about their owners. This ranges from the gamut of objects consumed, objects worn, and objects kept in the home. Each of these broadcasts the meaning and desires of their owners. This sort of broadcasting can be compared to the broadcasts of functionality by objects in The Sims, but operating at a different level of meaning. The importance of these objects is not between the owner and the object, (although there is some self-reinforcement that takes place), but between the objects and the others who view those objects, and thus make conclusions about the owner. This reinforces the internal leveling effect within classes by encouraging identification and identity formation. A purchaser might buy an object that he identifies with, and others who view that object may identify with, or admire, or disdain those objects, influencing the relationship between the buyer and the other.

What class actually means though is ambiguous. In its various contexts, class can mean social status, political power, and money. All of these are are factors, and they tend to be strongly correlated. Fussell explains that his sense of class more strongly resembles the idea of a “caste”, which implies that class boundaries are rigid. In terms of defining classes, Fussell explains that there are many ways of partitioning society. It is possible to look at classes as a binary, between some general delimiter. There are haves and have-nots, those who entertain versus those who would never do so, those who have desk jobs versus work with their hands, those who can afford to buy a house versus those who can’t, those who have cars versus those who don’t, those who feel guilt at their possessions versus those who think they deserve more. A poignant way of looking at a two-class division is that work may be either safe or dangerous. In the scope of dangerous work, workers are in danger of work related death, illness, or injury, which are unheard of in the other classes.

Fussell devises his own class system into nine categories, which are further divided into three tiers:

  1. Top out-of-sight
  2. Upper
  3. Upper middle
  4. Middle
  5. High proletarian
  6. Mid-proletarian
  7. Low proletarian
  8. Destitute
  9. Bottom out-of-sight

The differences are primarily due to style and behavior rather than money. The differences also include how the classes generally interpret objects, the behavior of others, and other elements of the world. I’ll review each of the classes briefly. Also: I know that some people read these reading summaries, and occasionally think that they reflect my own views. I feel the need to point out that, no, I am only summarizing Fussell’s breakdown, which is somewhat tongue-in-cheek as it stands. I may not capture his wit in my transcription, though.

The top out-of-sight class is characterized by purely inherited money, and they dwell in locations that cannot be seen. The top out-of-sight class prefers to be distant and invisible, not desiring or needing to flaunt its status. Those whose houses are big and showy, on landscapes designed to impress rather than obscure, belong to the upper or upper-middle. The key differentiation between the upper and middle classes is that the uppers are secure and do not care about the opinions of others. Fussell compares the top out-of-sight with the bottom out-of-sight which are equally elusive from the sociological perspective.

The upper class is distinguishable from the top out-of-sight by a couple of differences: The upper class works for some of its money by doing attractive and “slight” work, such as managing banks, corporations, and the executive branch of the government. They would feel embarrassed without having earned at least some of its wealth. The upper class has ostentatious houses, designed to be visible and evoke respect and awe. Compliments are very much of a faux pas with the upper class, as of course their things are beautiful, expensive, and impressive. Life is leisurely, focusing on activities that are particularly tasteful.

The upper-middle class is different from the upper two by making almost all of its money, and from professional skills or corporate roles. They do have some inheritance, but suffer from a kind of bourgeois shame from owning inherited possessions. Upper-middles will live in houses with more rooms than they need, costly educations, and a desire to communicate and reinforce messages of success. They are interested in reinforcing others impressions of their own tastefulness. Otherwise they are relatively secure and free of anxiety. Upper-middles abide by social codes, even if those codes may be kind of ridiculous, although they still do have some elements of playful frivolities.

The middle class is characterized by its earnestness and insecurity. Money actually has very little to do with it. Rich people may be middle class because they are very worried of what others think of them. The middle class is affected by a perpetual anxiety and insecurity of falling down a rung, and is terrified of being looked down upon. The middle class is prudish and uses embellishments and euphemisms for fear of alluding to lower subjects. Of the others, the middle class is the most self reflective of its own broadcasting and consumption, valuing extroversion and lack of privacy.  Middles thus develop a kind of salesmanship, which is a form of performance oriented towards selling themselves and their message of importance.

Proles are generally workers, and are emphatic about the professionalism of their own jobs. Generally, they are characterized by being in some sort of bondage, due to monetary policy, debt, and few choices. They too suffer from class insecurity, for fear of falling down a rung, but also have a sort of independence that comes from the consuming paranoia of the middle class. Proles feel pride in their work, and are shrewd in exercising freedom. High proles will spend money on things that are showy and big, buying into advertisers’ claims, rather than fussing about the taste of things which is a preoccupation of the middles. Generally proles will buy literally into the messages put out by advertising. Low proles are characterized by having uncertain employment, and are remote and isolated.

The last two classes, the destitute and the bottom out-of-sight, are given very cursory description. Fussell explains that the destitute are those who live on welfare and are socially visible, while the bottom out-of-sight are perpetually institutionalized, elusive, or on the run. I find this simplification to be problematic and unsatisfactory, but Fussell’s emphasis is focused on the upper, middle, and high-prole classes.

Classes may be differentiated according to appearance, which is largely a matter of choice in personal behavior. The key differences in defining classes in dress are materials (synthetic being low and natural being high), with archaic references being indications of the upper classes. Physical weight is also an indicator, the upper classes are not driven to overeating, while in the prole classes both the message of food indicating stability and the messages of advertisers are soundly received. In England, class has traditionally been indicated by height rather than weight, with taller indicating higher class. The legibility of messages on clothes is an important factor. The more legible the messages, the lower the class. Middle classes will wear things that they consider tasteful or “classy”, and thus are legible with the messages of taste and low key branding. Class signs and indicators are thus broadcast.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFussell, Paul
TitleClass: A Guide Through the American Status System
Tagsspecials, sociology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon