Join 3,524 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation."
July 9, 2012 9:14 AM   Subscribe

The New Elitists (NYT) - "...omnivores seem highly distinct and their tastes appear to be a matter of personal expression. 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."

Related, from The Global Sociology Blog:
"...Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphor 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.

...the possession of such multicultural capital is a 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 not 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..."
posted by flex (128 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
So, buy buy buy!
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:19 AM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is interesting...connoisseurship as a negative.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 9:22 AM on July 9, 2012


What an amazing coincidence that people who inherit a billion dollars ALSO have the eclectic taste it takes to be a billionaire!
posted by DU at 9:23 AM on July 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


Previously: Why Elites Fail.
posted by Cash4Lead at 9:26 AM on July 9, 2012


I read that whole article, and still have no idea what they are talking about. Pure bunk, IMHO.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:32 AM on July 9, 2012 [29 favorites]


I see the NYT is competing for the New Yorker's readership....
posted by schmod at 9:32 AM on July 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


This is interesting...connoisseurship as a negative.
See also: Specialization is for insects. Often used to denigrate those who have devoted a good part of their life to becoming an expert at a particular trade.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:38 AM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Can't we just all let people like what they like without overthinking it all?...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:38 AM on July 9, 2012 [19 favorites]


Same old game with a new flashy board due to a generational shift. Exclusivity is just as vibrant as it always was.
posted by snaparapans at 9:39 AM on July 9, 2012


Can't we just all let people like what they like without overthinking it all?...

then what would we have to talk about
posted by ninjew at 9:40 AM on July 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


The references to a lack of "mobility" in the US are evidence-free as usual.
posted by John Cohen at 9:41 AM on July 9, 2012


God, what an incoherent argument. First of all, because it doesn't even momentarily acknowledge that the kind of "culture of individual self-cultivation" represented by a diverse iTunes library is a matter of cultural consumption, not self-improvement — indeed of cultural consumption masquerading as self-improvement, of status consumption rather than actual critical cultivation. And even more damningly, the conclusion seems to conclude that this kind of talk of cultural "elites" is just a product of actual economic causes (OMG someone managed to use "class" unironically in the Times!) but then take it back in the next breath, as though convincing the "elites" that omnivorousness is just a new form of snobbery were the same as working toward a more egalitarian society and economy. Which is a complete non sequitur; the article has argued nothing at all about how cultural-consumption as a means of definition of an "elite" affects economic or social equality.
posted by RogerB at 9:44 AM on July 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


I'm with Roomthreeseventeen. I read the article. What's his thesis?

Although, I don't know about necessarily "bunk." It can be hard to communicate a complex idea. Some academics do this really, really well, and for others it often seems like the writer got tangled up in his own vocabulary and doesn't really understand how to communicate his point. This here is pretty bad writing.
posted by cribcage at 9:44 AM on July 9, 2012


Hmmmm. Okay, I just read this thing, and I'm not sure if there's much of a point to it underneath all the layers of academic jargon.

Today's "elites" (however you define that) participate in various elements of mainstream society. I think that's his point.

Is that a particularly new thing? "Old money" in the US is rarely actually all that old, not terribly common, and has a strong tendency to die out within a few generations. Apart from far outliers such as the Vanderbilts and Rockafellers, I'm not sure that any particular class of Americans have ever been completely and totally removed from the cultural mainstream -- if anything, that more commonly happens at the other end of the spectrum, with the extremely poor (and xenophobic target demographic du jure). The (comparatively) level playing-field was more or less America's defining attribute for quite some time.

Looking way back, even the Roman emperors attended the gladiatorial battles, which were hardly posh events.

In the more modern era, the Bushes and Kennedys both have well-known mainstream indulgences, and the sports stars and trashy pop musicians both tend to be part of that "elite" class.

To be a viable politician in America, you need to at least give the appearance of being an everyman or member of the mainstream, even though this is almost never actually the case (notable exception: Joe Biden). Ann Romney drives "a couple of Cadillacs," and Obama's favorite beer is a cheap macrobrew.

Perhaps he's observing the emerging "foodie" culture that celebrates inventive $1000 meals almost as much as it acknowledges the existence of legitimately-great "dives." Amongst various elitist circles, I think this might actually be a new thing. (On the other hand, this isn't widespread in other circles -- don't you dare question the stalled evolution of classical music, literature, 'legitimate theater,' or 'modern' art.)
posted by schmod at 9:49 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the article: Poorer people are likely to have singular or “limited” tastes. The rich have the most expansive.

I don't believe this is true. They may have more ability to expand their tastes, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they will do so. The idea that wealthy people don't have insular likes and dislikes seems a little ridiculous to me.
posted by zarq at 9:51 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


The article is excellent. One of his key points is that the modern rich and powerful embrace diversity, but only in areas that don't really matter, and so that's a problem. In other parts of the article he is really talking about the American myth and privilege, which again is a good thing because not enough people seem to understand these as important concepts.
posted by polymodus at 9:51 AM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Spending $1000 on what will essentially be tomorrow's bowel movement doesn't make one a "foodie"; it makes one a "foodiot."
posted by Renoroc at 9:53 AM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


The markets, in their majestic equality, allow the rich as well as the poor to listen to hip hop, enjoy street art, and to eat at Gray's Papaya.
posted by zamboni at 9:53 AM on July 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


The references to a lack of "mobility" in the US are evidence-free as usual.
posted by John Cohen at 12:41 PM on July 9 [+] [!]


That's because this is a well-established fact that has been talked about by knowledgeable people for years.

We also don't tend to demand citation that the Earth is the third planet from the Sun.
posted by jb at 9:55 AM on July 9, 2012 [40 favorites]


Not that there is no social mobility - but social mobility is lower in the US than in many comparable nations.
posted by jb at 9:58 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like rap, techno, and classical... therefore Ayn Rand.

I see this argument ALL THE TIME. Especially here on MetaFilter. This author is so plugged into the mindset of the educated upper middle class it's scary.
posted by dgaicun at 10:00 AM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh man, I take it this means the NYT has finally finished working out the bugs in its Vapid Pointless Not-A-Thing Article A.I?
posted by The Whelk at 10:01 AM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Spending $1000 on what will essentially be tomorrow's bowel movement doesn't make one a "foodie"; it makes one a "foodiot."

I get where you're going with that.. but first, ew, and second, it's a very reductive argument. dining out, like many other things, is an experience. experiences are transitory. an expensive meal (or a cheap one, even) is something you do, beyond the food that's eaten. saying that a meal is a wasted experience is like saying that show you spent $100 on last night and are not still enjoying the next day was a waste. you can listen to the album on your ipod, but you're not still there, with the 2,000 people being bumped into and having beer dumped on your shoes.

I've never spent $1,000 on dinner but I've spent $250 for 2 people and I remember the night the same as I remember any other thing I'm not still doing.
posted by ninjew at 10:01 AM on July 9, 2012 [16 favorites]


Well, who would've guessed that an article slightly critical of the omnivorous cultural consumption would go over like a lead balloon on Metafilter?
posted by graphnerd at 10:04 AM on July 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


I like rap, techno, and classical... therefore Ayn Rand.

I see this argument ALL THE TIME. Especially here on MetaFilter.


I read a lot of MetaFilter and have never seen this argument or anyhing close to it here. Back this up, please.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:04 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, haha. This is so not even remotely true.

In my experience, "elites" tend to think their tastes are broad and eclectic, but actually they are extremely narrow.
posted by Sara C. at 10:06 AM on July 9, 2012 [17 favorites]


I've often thought about food in more of ninjew's way, it's more enjoyable because it is transitory and the experience cannot be taken away from you like an object can be - that and I have Thoughts and Feels about the ratio of time spent making something vs. the time it takes to consume the thing. Photoshoots take hours to capture something that will be seen in an instant, movies takes years to create 90 minutes, novels or essays can take years and years to produce something someone reads on a busride- its so absurd and wonderful.
posted by The Whelk at 10:10 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


In my experience, "elites" tend to think their tastes are broad and eclectic, but actually they are extremely narrow.

Example A: W. Bush's White House menu....
posted by The Whelk at 10:10 AM on July 9, 2012


If you're a professor at Columbia and writing for the New York Times, you are very likely an elitist yourself.
posted by schmod at 10:13 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


The argument strikes me as interesting, but incomplete. There have been more comprehensive critiques of elites recently, both from the left (see my link above to the thread on Chris Hayes) and the right (e.g., Charles Murray). If you paired Khan's argument with one of those, it would have a lot more force.
posted by Cash4Lead at 10:13 AM on July 9, 2012


My own interest is in the development of musical taste, so I'll apologize in advance that the links below tend toward that end of things. But here are brief summaries of some more research and perspectives:
[S]ince the first release of the NEA survey on public participation in the arts, several researchers have pointed out that the data were consistent, showing a pattern different from the one expected: an omnivorous pattern of consumption showed by highscale consumers, versus a univorous pattern for middle and low scale consumers . . . (Are Americans' musical preferences more omnivores today? Yes, but not everone)
Two major theories structure debates on the relationship between socioeconomic status and aesthetic tastes. The distinction hypothesis, developed by French scholars with French data, claims that high-status people with highbrow tastes shun popular culture. The "omnivores" hypothesis, developed by U.S. sociologists with American data, states that highbrow respondents have on the contrary more tolerant and omnivorous musical attitudes than other respondents. (Omnivores versus Snobs? Musical Tastes in the United States and France)
One of the seminal articles analyzing this phenomenon is by Peterson & Kern, 1996:
Appreciation of fine arts became a mark of high status in the late nineteenth century as part of an attempt to distinguish "highbrowed" Anglo Saxons from the new "lowbrowed" immigrants, whose popular entertainments were said to corrupt morals and thus were to be shunned (Levine 1988; DiMaggio 1991). in recent years, however, many high-status persons are far from being snobs and are eclectic, even "omnivorous," in their tastes (Peterson and Simkus 1992). This suggests a qualitative shift in the basis for marking elite status-from snobbish exclusion to omnivorous appropriation. Using comparable 1982 and 1992 surveys, we test for this hypothesized change in tastes. We confirm that highbrows are more omnivorous than others and that they have become increasingly omnivorous over time. (Changing highbrow taste: From snob to omnivore)
posted by flug at 10:20 AM on July 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


Yeah, it seems like religion is a huge factor here.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:23 AM on July 9, 2012


I don't believe this is true. They may have more ability to expand their tastes, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they will do so. The idea that wealthy people don't have insular likes and dislikes seems a little ridiculous to me.

It seems reasonable to assume that, absent any information to the contrary, a professor of sociology is basing that claim on empirical research, which rules out intuition as a valid basis for counterargument.

I'm not really sure what's controversial here, except that it's probably hitting too close to home. It's true that the article's attempt to jump from positive sociological observation to normative moral conclusion is pretty clumsy, but that's not really the point here. The counterexamples cited upthread, like gladiator tournaments, aren't very convincing, because obviously if elite culture had previously been entirely hermetic we would know nothing of it. The stratification of tastes along class lines has fluctuated in magnitude over time, so I don't see what about the assertion that such stratification is at a relative low right now merits immediate dismissal. The normative conclusion is at its heart pretty reasonable too -- the author is merely cautioning people in a privileged class not to think that their simultaneous enjoyment of traditionally elite media and traditionally popular media is a result of the abolishment of class.
posted by invitapriore at 10:26 AM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you're a professor at Columbia and writing for the New York Times, you are very likely an elitist yourself.

Yeah, see also "elites tend to think their tastes are expansive." The writer, as a member of the elite, thinks that his and other elites' tastes are a lot broader than they really are.
posted by Sara C. at 10:27 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


The references to a lack of "mobility" in the US are evidence-free as usual.
posted by John Cohen at 9:41 AM on July 9 [+] [!]


Well, 2 minutes of goggling found these [2nd is a pdf]. There are many, many more I didn't bother picking through.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:27 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure the article is saying anything that hasn't been said before, e.g. in The Millionaire Next Door. Lots of rich people like a shitty American canned beer from time to time, despite the fact that they could easily afford to drink something else. Which isn't to say that they don't also like Unibroue, but by not giving a shit about what anyone else thinks, they are able to enjoy a Shitty American Beer in a way that a more self-conscious member of the low bourgeoisie is unable to.

Vanderbilt and other "new money" scions in early New York were hyper-conscious of status because they were in social competition with the remnants of the (basically pre-industrial) old-money aristocracy, such as it was. But there isn't really an equivalent to that aristocracy today, at least not for most people, and thus nothing stopping today's nouveau riche from picking and choosing much more broadly, and demonstrating their status through the breadth of that selection.

Not really very surprising, although I don't know that there's really anything quantitatively better about the modern system of class markers from the older, more restrictive one. I suppose it probably leads to more rich people drinking PBR, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:28 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


goggling? goggling? Sheesh.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:29 AM on July 9, 2012


Can't we just all let people like what they like without overthinking it all?...

Wow, there's a lot to unpack in this question. Where to begin?
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:30 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hmmmm. Okay, I just read this thing, and I'm not sure if there's much of a point to it underneath all the layers of academic jargon.

Yes, indeed. Journalists who compulsively analyze and categorize in the absence of conclusive information remind me of Wile E. Coyote running straight out off a cliff and treading air for a bit, and I only wish there were a g-force that would deliver similar consequences.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:32 AM on July 9, 2012


Can't we just all let people like what they like without overthinking it all?

I don't understand. On what basis am I then supposed to judge people's decisions and find them wanting?
posted by elizardbits at 10:33 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Others are far more eclectic, their collections filled with hip-hop and jazz, country and classical, blues and rock.

Am I the only person who would define liking country and classical as anything approaching eclectic? Even then, it depends, where a person love old style country and a bit of classical every now then or old classical with a bit of country. The article is painting in broad brush strokes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:33 AM on July 9, 2012


I genuinely don't understand how the word 'elite' is being used in a modern context. I'm with the article during the Rockefellers and opera and all that. But then there's an unexplained shift where he's basically saying that hipsters have become the new elite. Because they're the only people, across a wide swath of class and wealth in the people I know, who consistently flaunt their omnivorousness. But they have no real capital or political power, or any power outside of their niche art, music and fashion scenes. This essay needs to be expanded into a book just to explain and justify itself, but I expect that this would lead to even more tangled incoherence.

And yeah, true omnivorousness most certainly includes things like hip-hop. You'll be laughed right out of these circles if you're boorish enough to say something like "that rap noise the kids are listening to."
posted by naju at 10:35 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, because his quick one-off example must be perfectly precise. What is this, an opinion column??
posted by invitapriore at 10:36 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have an iPod half full of free jazz, 20th century piano & musique concrete, that I mostly skip over to get to the Deep Purple & Bruce Springsteen.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:36 AM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


People have issues.
posted by infini at 10:42 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


What a poorly written article! I think the author is trying to argue that: "Elitism (nearly?) always comes before the snobbery. Snobbery is desirable for economic well being. Thus, in order to improve the lives of those poor souls who are not snobs, they need to achieve 'elite status' through redistribution of resources."

I know the socialism-capitalism debate gets a little tiring, but do we really need to cloak it in terms of eating or musical habits?
posted by Jurbano at 10:44 AM on July 9, 2012


I love how there's a crowd of people complaining that the column is incoherent and poorly written and then one or two dissenters chiming in to say, "You only disagree with it because it hits too close to home!"
posted by cribcage at 10:44 AM on July 9, 2012


To me, the clear bullshit comes in this sentence:

Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.


Which he probably added, or his editor added, because he knew that he didn't really have an argument without it. But which is completely implausible. The omnivorous of elites is a cultural epiphenomenon -- resulting a combination of better education, cultural forces, and (ironically) the desire not to appear elitist -- but it doesn't cause anything. The job market doesn't give a shit about what movies and music you like, except in industries whose salaries leave you, uh, less than elite.
posted by TheWash at 10:46 AM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Which isn't to say that they don't also like Unibroue,

I like Unibroue, and my ipod is mixed up between classical, folk, pop, rock and Muppets - does this mean I'm rich?

Someone please tell the payroll department they've made a terrible mistake, my salary was supposed to have an extra few 000s on the end. Sometimes cultural capital doesn't translate well into actual capital.
posted by jb at 10:47 AM on July 9, 2012


Another summary of relevant research--feel free to ignore as necessary:
Using data on musical dislikes from the 1993 General Social Survey, I link literatures on taste, racism, and democratic liberalism by showing that people use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike.

Contrary to Bourdieu's (1984) prediction, musical exclusiveness decreases with education. Also, political tolerance is associated with musical tolerance, even controlling for educational attainment, and racism increases the probability of disliking genres whose fans are disproportionately non-White.

Tolerant musical taste, however, is found to have a specific pattern of exclusiveness: Those genres whose fans have the least education - gospel, country, rap, and heavy metal - are also those most likely to be rejected by the musically tolerant.

Broad familiarity with music genres is also significantly related to education.

I suggest, therefore, that cultural tolerance constitutes multicultural capital as it is unevenly distributed in the population and evidences class-based exclusion.

(Bethany Bryson, "Anything but Heavy Metal": Symbolic exclusion and musical dislikes, paragraphing added)
The General Social Survey is a survey of U.S. adults. As the articles I summarized above show, these patterns can vary quite drastically in different countries, so the above conclusions may or may not apply outside the U.S., or even within the U.S. at times other than 1993.
posted by flug at 10:52 AM on July 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


I love how there's a crowd of people complaining that the column is incoherent and poorly written and then one or two dissenters chiming in to say, "You only disagree with it because it hits too close to home!"

I don't know what other conclusion to draw from the fact that people are casting doubts on the (well-documented, not especially contentious) premises of the article because of issues they have with how it was written. It looks like reflexive behavior to me.
posted by invitapriore at 10:53 AM on July 9, 2012


Well, I do notice that several of my friends who are picky eaters grew up in a very sheltered/limited environment - they never traveled or were exposed to new things by their parents. I can see how an unwillingness to eat anything new would be interpreted as a sign of a blue collar lifestyle/mindset.
posted by clockworkjoe at 10:54 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I know what I like, and what I like thrashes.
posted by Decani at 10:55 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is pretty much exactly what I've been saying for a while.

To people of my generation, "liking" something is not an adjective; it's a discrete act, a statement of identity.

Attributing social position to "liking" something has been around as long as culture itself, but was long the property of the snob, or the dandy. Now it's been democratized. It's one of the reasons "hipster" is supposed to be an insult : it's taking a now-common form of social interaction and equating it with its previous lifetime in the parlors and parties of once-relevant social elites.

30 years from now, nobody is even going to think twice about this. I don't even think the word "hipster" will mean anything to them.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:55 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


He's saying elites congratulate themselves for their eclectic tastes like they congratulate themselves for their economic success, not realizing that both are class determined and require privileged circumstances to obtain.

Not sure what's controversial about that.
posted by Ictus at 10:55 AM on July 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


He's saying elites congratulate themselves for their eclectic tastes like they congratulate themselves for their economic success, not realizing that both are class determined and require privileged circumstances to obtain.

Not sure what's controversial about that.
posted by Ictus at 6:55 PM on July 9


I am not sure you have established your proposition.
posted by Decani at 10:59 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


He's saying elites congratulate themselves for their eclectic tastes like they congratulate themselves for their economic success, not realizing that both are class determined and require privileged circumstances to obtain.

You should have been this guy's editor. Seriously.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:00 AM on July 9, 2012


Well, I do notice that several of my friends who are picky eaters grew up in a very sheltered/limited environment - they never traveled or were exposed to new things by their parents. I can see how an unwillingness to eat anything new would be interpreted as a sign of a blue collar lifestyle/mindset.

The place I've noticed this being absolutely truest is in food preferences. I work with people who are from a very different socioeconomic background that I am, and their food preferences are (to me) sometimes shockingly limited. Some of that is obviously economic (Banquet Pot Pies for lunch every day is pretty cheap), but there's also plenty of perfectly cheap food that they've never even heard of. Just today I had to explain to someone what a scone was, and they sell those across the street from our office. There's also a broader range of food that they find exotic or foreign that, to me, are just food, like the time someone in my office asked me if I was Jewish because I was eating hummus. As a person who is probably an elite, I hope I'm not too judgmental about it, but it's absolutely true that my tastes are broader than theirs.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:04 AM on July 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


The article struggles to articulate something I've been struggling to articulate:

in today's culture, the hipster is the agent of conspicuous consumption. Due to a number of economic and social factors (one being the recession) it's not as cool to brag about your money as it used to be. Now we brag about what we like. Liking has become the proxy for having, and even better, liking something allows you to avoid the social issues of wealth while freely appropriating "lower" culture to your own ends.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:05 AM on July 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


It doesn't hit too close to home - I'd be fine with being labeled 'elite' if that's what I am, I like a good provocative article that points the finger at me and my friends - it's just too short to explain several things which are glossed over. I'd like expanded thoughts and clarity on stuff like...

1. Cultural taste as the new capital, with social media etc. playing into this
2. Tecnology leading to open access to more artistic content than ever before
3. What leads to omnivorousness
4. What the modern definition of elite is, by the author's reckoning - something about status no longer being about wealth or even class but social capital and online meritocracy, or I don't know
5. Whether we're talking about 'omnivorousness' in a fairly narrow sense, as Sara C. points out, or true record geek style insane eclecticism ('stuff and genres you've almost certainly never heard of' omnivorousness)
6. The implications when omnivorousness is often a reaction against snobbery
7. Explaining why true omnivores usually end up in creative professions for low pay, etc.
8. "Elitism" vs. "Snobbery", where elitism has a class and power element but snobbery doesn't - and how one can be a snob without being a member of the elite
posted by naju at 11:05 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I feel compelled to take his examples down, one by one.

Some have narrow tastes, mostly owning single genres like rap or heavy metal.

OK, so his baseline "not-eclectic" is to like only a single genre of music. Who, exactly, is that supposed to describe? Even the least elite people I know like both classic rock and country, or both hip-hop and metal.

Others are far more eclectic, their collections filled with hip-hop and jazz, country and classical, blues and rock.

I'm sure there are some people that this sentence describes, but to claim that it's the average American cultural "elite" would be a blatant lie. I mean, it's almost a cliche for upper middle class white people to say, "I like any music except country, rap, and metal." And those people are likely to be speaking in a pop idiom, and usually talking about what music they are willing to expose themselves to, not what their iTunes looks like.

...but so is a cheap Sichuan spot in Queens, a Papaya Dog and a favorite place for a slice.

This is even more ludicrous than the music claims.

I work with people who could legitimately be called elite. They are wealthy. They live in neighborhoods like TriBeCa and the Upper East Side. They have summer homes.

None of them would be caught dead eating at Papaya Dog. Not in a million years.

Some of them might, if they consider themselves "foodies", be willing to try a quirky Asian dive out in Flushing. But it would definitely be an exotic experience, and it would be described as good despite the humble ambience. The very same "foodies" would be totally unwilling to try something comparably humble from a less trendy ethnicity, in a neighborhood with less culinary provenance. And again, here we're talking about what elites would be willing to try. Not what they have in their speed-dial.

Pizza is a little more complicated, but these folks are more likely to be into elite artisanal Neapolitan pizza, not, like, a slice joint down the block. They will order the latter for their kids, maybe. And even there, they're likely to order from Two Boots, Patsy's, or other fancier pizzerias.

I'd buy someone talking about the middle-brow-ization of the American elite. It's true that there's less emphasis on classical music and French cuisine. But the wealthy aren't interested in diversity, they're just interested in Nora Jones and Momofuku rather than the Metropolitan Opera and Lutece.
posted by Sara C. at 11:06 AM on July 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Research! There is research linked upthread! The premises are not necessarily wrong just because they don't describe your friends!
posted by invitapriore at 11:15 AM on July 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


Defining elite is something that I think would do this conversation some good. I think the definition is a lot broader than many here seem to think it is.
posted by cell divide at 11:16 AM on July 9, 2012


I think this is a fascinating topic (even if the article's execution was off). It sounds intuitively correct that there has been a cultural shift towards valuing a diversity of experiences and tastes, as distinct from earlier generations where the "elites" set the standards, and their tastes tended to be more limited and exclusive.

But the term "elite" is confusing. Today's cultural elitism is correlated more to education or a gregarious urban lifestyle than wealth itself. To be sure, poverty limits one's access to a variety of experiences, e.g. eating out, traveling, going to cultural events, while wealth facilitates it. But most of these valued experiences are accessible to the middle class; it's more about interest and openness than affordability.

Thus the bias I've noticed is that those who value a diversity of experiences and tastes will look down on those who do not, regardless of their comparative economic situations. Whereas a member of the "wealthy elite" in the early 1900s might have been admired as having refined tastes for listening only to classical music or opera, today's "cultural elite" would be more likely to knock them for having narrow tastes. The dynamic goes doubly for (ethnic) food.

You can knock it for being a different kind of elitism, or a different way of being judgmental, or being annoying simply because of its association with pretentious hipsters. But at its core it seems to be a byproduct of embracing (cultural) diversity itself. And it's accessible to almost anyone who is interested in sampling widely from life.
posted by Davenhill at 11:16 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it seems like religion is a huge factor here.

I thought it gets classed with Hip Hop or Metal. There are some things even an omnivore won't eat. Maybe it's more the sin of gluttony.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:16 AM on July 9, 2012


> Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like,

Opera is middlebrow.


> I can see how an unwillingness to eat anything new would be interpreted as a sign of a blue collar lifestyle/mindset.

Just the opposite, I would think. Raw oysters are (...words fail me, "overwhelmingly wonderful" is the best I can come up with, but it's inadequate.) But the first person to overcome instinctive revulsion and actually put one in his mouth and swallow had to be pretty damn hungry.

Also: palolo worms.
posted by jfuller at 11:18 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the Bryson article flug quoted:
Those genres whose fans have the least education - gospel, country, rap, and heavy metal - are also those most likely to be rejected by the musically tolerant.
This is tautological though. One can assume that, in general, a given artist is going to write to his/her perceived audience. An audience is going to form around that, which in turn will likely influence the artist's next work either as a reinforcement (as with, say, Metallica albums, each of which progressively sounds like a marketer's idea of what Metallica fans want to hear) or as a thing to push against (as with, say, the weird forays into electronic music U2 took in the 90s as a deliberate attempt to distance themselves from the preachy image they'd developed in the 80s, before they settled on making albums that sound like a marketer's idea of what a U2 fans want to hear) but either way, the result is an audience that relates to the themes, imagery, tensions and risks taken in those songs.

In short, it's not surprising that the usually educated fans of musicians who write songs that appeal to people with educations don't enjoy the music of artists whose songs appeal to fans who are less likely to be educated. That divide isn't a sign of snobbery or classism or racism or anything. It's art functioning normally -- people with lives and concerns similar to mine are going to be more likely to make art that expresses those concerns. So yes, one will find that white educated people with graduate degrees are going to be more likely to appreciate Jay-Z (who is not college-educated but who summarizes Plato's dialogues in his lyrics) or Mos Def (who studies experimental film at NYU) than, say, Lil Scrappy.

That's not surprising, or especially enlightening.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:21 AM on July 9, 2012


Er - Mos Def studied experimental film at NYU.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:22 AM on July 9, 2012


I wonder if the issue isn't so much the eclecticism/diversity of the elites as the way that consumption of this stuff in general has changed.

It used to be that, if you wanted to listen to music, you had to go out and buy a big plastic disc, that you then owned, and it took up space in your house and was displayed for everyone to see. Or you could pay money to go out and see musicians perform, which, again, was something you had to seek out, obtain for yourself, and dedicated the time and energy to go do. And, one assumes, later talk about it with people in your social circle.

Now, listening to music means turning on the satellite radio in your car, of which there are literally hundreds of station choices separated out by micro-genre, or downloading something for pennies (again, of which there is unlimited choice and no space constraints).

So when we talk about what music we "like", we're talking about something a little different from what our parents or grandparents were talking about. I like that silly Call Me Maybe song, and I paid $1 to download it, and I listen to it with my headphones on. In a year I'll probably have deleted it. Or, alternately, I like jazz. If I'm flipping through radio stations and jazz music is on, I might stop and listen for a few minutes.

I'm unlikely to buy Carly Rae Jepsen's album in a physical copy and display it in my home for all to see. I'm equally unlikely to pay money to go see a jazz ensemble perform live. But I can say that I "like" both silly bubblegum pop and jazz. And thus, in 2012 terms, my tastes are extremely "diverse".
posted by Sara C. at 11:26 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


To me, the clear bullshit comes in this sentence:

Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.
Well, the causality probably runs a little different direction.

For instance, the research seems to show that in France, elite tend to be snobbish in their tastes whereas in the U.S., the elite are more omnivorous. I very much doubt that the French narrowness of taste makes it more difficult for them to function and remain as elite. In fact, it probably helps them, socially if in no other way.

Given the documented differences among cultures, it's pretty hard to argue that special characteristics of omnivorousness (or snobbishness), beyond their use as a social signifier, really explain why elites are elite.

What's more likely is that elite status and the social milieu, opportunities, and advantages that come with it, tend to lead to omnivorousness in the U.S. social system and to snobbishness in the French social system--and maybe to all sorts of other combinations in other times and places. These then become part of the social signifiers of status in that culture.
posted by flug at 11:26 AM on July 9, 2012


Looking way back, even the Roman emperors attended the gladiatorial battles, which were hardly posh events.

I am afraid you are wrong here. The games were bloody and nasty and likely inhuman (there is some dispute over how many gladiatorial matches ended in death), but they were gala events on which money was spent lavishly. That was the point of them, after all, to prove you could host such an event.

On to the article. I am unconvinced that this measures what he thinks it does. I mean, there is a difference, surely, between enjoying a range of music and being able to buy a range of music... Additionally, how would we measure this? I mean, an "elite" could, say, claim to enjoy jazz and rap and metal and yoiking, but still, somehow, always has that one Billy Joel album in the car.... I would support a program of tagging Elites and following them around to record what they actually read and watch and eat....

Anyway, I find the world is more divided into people who keep looking for new music of all sorts and people who mostly prefer what was on the radio when they first started getting laid (or, at least, trying to).
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:27 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just want to say that I've been poor and I'm doing well now, and I don't care how wealthy I might someday become (or not): you will never get me to stop eating Papaya King hot dogs when I'm in New York. Never. In fact, the only thing that will change if I'm quite wealthy is that I'll eat them more because I will be able to visit New York more often.

sadly, the Papaya King in Los Angeles isn't nearly as tasty; I can only assume they source local dogs.
posted by davejay at 11:29 AM on July 9, 2012


I think a lot of people are getting caught in the evidence (such as it is) the author marshals and are perhaps failing to note that his central point, namely that modern American elites tend to self-present as possessing diverse and/or "globalized" tastes, points directly to an important feature of specifically modern superior S/E status: pretending to not be elite, pretending to be, rather than elite, simply well-cultivated. This is one way that privilege disguises itself now, is the point, I think.
posted by clockzero at 11:30 AM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think a lot of people are getting caught in the evidence (such as it is) the author marshals and are perhaps failing to note that his central point

Heh - but that's because his evidence is expected to prove his central point.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:32 AM on July 9, 2012


To me, the clear bullshit comes in this sentence:

Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.


If only you had brought yourself to read the complete article linked in the post here, which continues to say:

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.

Certainly a poorly written article, but it has had the interesting effect of exposing the fact that most people commenting here appear to have barely skimmed the article, if that, before rushing to share their pearls of poor reading comprehension here.
posted by jacalata at 11:37 AM on July 9, 2012


Heh - but that's because his evidence is expected to prove his central point.

So what do you make of what he offers as evidence? And apart from that question, what do you think of his argument?
posted by clockzero at 11:42 AM on July 9, 2012


I thought it made some rather good points actually about the ways in which the upperclass have maintained their distinction from the Middle / Lower/working classes. As the Middle Classes have become able to easily absorb the cultural affectations that used to delimit the upper class so significantly. This is due to i think to the spread of ideas of multi-culturalism and cheap airtravel. The middle class is now quite well read and "experienced" however the middle class still suffers an extreme aversion to anything striking them as Lower class.

take the "Foodie-ism" scene; which is a distinctly middle class phenomenon and is distinct from this Omnivorism by the sense of the foodies pride over absolute avoidance of things like McDonalds (because they taste too heavily of the lower/working class which they are want to distance themselves from).

The Upper/Elitist however is free to eat across the entire spectrum and feels no shame in admitting that they will eat McDonalds . - And that is how they are now distinguishing themselves from the Middle Class.
posted by mary8nne at 11:46 AM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


This has been touched on a couple times, but I think the old "stuffy upper crust" elite play a bigger role in this than people are crediting.

I grew up in a "new money" town, and the Rockefeller types were our "old money," and it was the nouveau riche all over again. Old money saw us as tacky, coarse, and unrefined. We saw old money as stodgy, unimaginative, and cloistered in its own weird enclave.

I see omnivorousness as much more a product of that conflict than of any elite/non-elite distinction. In fact, I think the whole point of omnivorousness (if you insist that it's an affectation rather than, you know, actually trying to appreciate diversity) is that the new elites are taking sides with the non-elite against the old elite.
posted by bjrubble at 11:53 AM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT I WON'T SHUT UP ABOUT HÜSKER DÜ.
posted by samofidelis at 11:58 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I see omnivorousness as much more a product of that conflict than of any elite/non-elite distinction. In fact, I think the whole point of omnivorousness (if you insist that it's an affectation rather than, you know, actually trying to appreciate diversity) is that the new elites are taking sides with the non-elite against the old elite.

Only in the most superficial way, though, to deflect attention from the fact that they resemble the old elite in most other important patterns of behavior.
posted by clockzero at 12:01 PM on July 9, 2012


So what do you make of what he offers as evidence? And apart from that question, what do you think of his argument?

The evidence, such as it is, seems lacking. Inasmuch as he's pointing out that diverse taste in music or food or art indicated a likelihood that the person in question is a member of what he's calling the elite is another matter. Am I a member of said elite? I make a middle-class salary, and that only very recently in my life, and my father made a middle-class salary and took care of a family of 6 with that. I had to take out student loans to go to college, and having graduated, worked service industry jobs for years afterward. Yet all that time, I enjoyed listening to a wide variety of music and have been fairly adventurous with food as well. So his definition of elite would include someone who's had to declare bankruptcy and who has spent most of his adult life teetering near the official poverty line. All because I like Rachmaninov, Coltrane, Pantera, Jay-Z, Wilco and Ingid Michaelson. And steak frites. Ok.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:02 PM on July 9, 2012


Okay, I believe this piece emerges from Shamus's research for his recent book, which was an ethnographic study of the production of privilege at St. Paul's, the boarding school where he taught for a year (and studied as a student back in the 1990s).

His argument was clearer in the book -- namely, that "eliteness" is no longer marked by a mastery of high culture, but rather by a carefully calibrated fluency in a variety of cultural registers, both high and low, and that "meritocracy" is the ideology that organizes it.

I'm going to slaughter this brief summary because I read the book very quickly, right when it first came out. But what does remain with me very vividly is a particularly illuminating vignette in which he talks about how a couple of St. Paul's students signed up to do an independent study with him on a set of classical texts. He was, initially, impressed by their claims that they were more than prepared for the material; he thought, "Wow, my alma mater really does educate them right!" But when he sat down to actually work with these students, he realized they weren't nearly as prepared as they thought. They knew how to talk a good game, though. They felt supremely confident about their ability, and were excellent bullshitters (to the point where they convinced *themselves* of their ability).

This ability to persuasively dabble across a broad variety of fields, or to broadcast comfort in a wide variety of contexts (be they concrete subjects like Greek or Latin, or discrete locales like the Metropolitan Opera, or a community pool, or a roadside shack outside Dhaka) -- constitutes, in Shamus's view, a skill significantly linked to (premised on, and constitutive of) privilege. That is, a big part of being a student at St. Paul's is learning how to "develop" intellectually through the pursuit of various (often unconnected) interests that serve to define the student as unique in some way. The student succeeds insofar as s/he can talk confidently about this field of interests as part and parcel of expressing herself as an individual.

In my view, this kind of "omnivorousness" is really just a shockingly broad sense of entitlement. The kids are taught that nothing is out of reach, and they're encouraged to chase after this idea and that idea and the other idea (never with any depth, though -- that would require specialization!), and are rewarded with praise for mastering just enough knowledge to be convincing at a cocktail party. (This is my cynicism showing, of course. A high schooler who can talk convincingly about Barthes is one up on me, that's for sure!) Of course, this sort of performance doesn't seem, on the surface, like entitlement because it is expressed through a language that is fiercely supportive of diversity and meritocracy. ("Everything is of value! Follow your curiosity! Discover your passion! You can be good at anything if you work hard enough!") This kind of meritocracy, though, is inherently based on privilege: you can be good enough at X if you have the support network to help you learn that X exists, and pursue X with all the resources required.

This latter bit -- that privilege is required to be good at X -- is the thing that most of the students conveniently don't realize. They believe in a pure meritocracy -- that they ARE the best of the best. After all, look at all the neat things all of them are doing! Why, Joe Schmoe went to Tibet last summer to carry out a hunger strike with some lamas! Aren't St. Paul's kids amazing>

Admittedly, per my caveat above, this is a wretchedly flawed glimpse of the broader issues explored in Privilege. But perhaps it illuminates, somewhat, the article linked here. The basic idea is: Privilege used to be about mastery of a narrow sphere marked as high culture. Now privilege is about cultivating a broad set of interests. Those who cultivate these interests do not do so in the name of High Culture. In fact, they turn up their noses at the idea of an Elite who is Elite because their parents were Elite. They tell themselves that they are elite because they work hard and are the best at what they do -- when, in fact, to become the best requires a fuckton of resources and connections. Hence, omnivorousness is the new look of privilege, and meritocracy is its new rallying cry.
posted by artemisia at 12:02 PM on July 9, 2012 [42 favorites]


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.

This depends on your definition of talent and your definition of success. No amount of elitist schooling is going to transform a mediocre artist into a creator of masterpieces. No schooling is going to develop a talent for song writing if you are tone deaf. Is a degree from an elitist school going to give you the empathy required to become a good counselor or a good teacher? Granted that these jobs are not going to make you rich, but successful is another story
posted by francesca too at 12:08 PM on July 9, 2012


Only in the most superficial way, though, to deflect attention from the fact that they resemble the old elite in most other important patterns of behavior.

Financially, sure. But this was about culture.

I'm not saying that elites don't have markers of elitism. But those are the traditional elitist things -- the $1000 dinner itself. The guy who eats a $1000 dinner one day and a slice at the corner pizzeria the next day isn't "aiming" at the guy who just eats at the pizzeria, so much as at the guy who eats only the $1000 dinners.
posted by bjrubble at 12:10 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


bjrubble:

The guy who eats a $1000 dinner one day and a slice at the corner pizzeria the next day isn't "aiming" at the guy who just eats at the pizzeria, so much as at the guy who eats only the $1000 dinners.

While this question might be beyond our ability to easily answer, I'd say that he is absolutely aiming at the guy who eats just at the pizzeria because the elites want to be culturally invisible, in part to avoid any unpleasant questions about distributive justice.

eustacescrubb:

The evidence, such as it is, seems lacking. Inasmuch as he's pointing out that diverse taste in music or food or art indicated a likelihood that the person in question is a member of what he's calling the elite is another matter.

Yeah, I see what you mean.

My take is that he's making (or attempting to make) an argument of about the self-presentation of elites; I think he's right that a certain kind of elites are more likely to express their cultural capital nowadays by talking about the amazing goat stew that they had for 10 cents in Tanzania than the $1000 dinner at a haute French restaurant, but the fact is that they can do both.
posted by clockzero at 12:27 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ninjew, I bet it was the company that made the meal memorable more than the actual food itself. In fact, I bet if you reassembled the same crew of people and had lunch at a taco stand for 20 bucks total, you'd have a similarly great experience.
posted by Renoroc at 12:32 PM on July 9, 2012


The point is they can do both, while the working classes can do neither.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:33 PM on July 9, 2012


As usual, I come for the vaguely provocative jibber-jabber in the quote, and stay for the dissection, pulverization, and reintegration in the comments.
posted by lodurr at 12:36 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for that summary artemisia. I don't know if it's faithful to the book, since I haven't read it, but it makes much more sense to me than the argument in the article in the OP.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:37 PM on July 9, 2012


As the old saying down south goes, "we like both kinds of music here . . . country AND western!"
posted by spitbull at 12:43 PM on July 9, 2012


a certain kind of elites are more likely to express their cultural capital nowadays by talking about the amazing goat stew that they had for 10 cents in Tanzania than the $1000 dinner at a haute French restaurant

Sure, but I don't know if that's really what's being discussed. There's a straightforward explanation for bragging about the goat stew: the dinner at the French place was $1k, but actually going to Tanzania -- not just the actual cost of going there but the opportunity cost of the time required -- is many times that. The goat stew is clearly the more expensive, exclusive, rarefied experience, if you're an American (without any family or background in Tanzania).

A member of the "new elite" -- in Khan's view, anyway -- would be equally conversant and able to talk about their preferences in low-status fast-food franchises (e.g. McDonalds) as haute cuisine restaurants, and would eschew the "old elite" preference of affecting unfamiliarity with anything less than the best. This is because there's an implicit rejection embedded in their worldview of the existence of social status and hierarchy as anything that's relevant to them, and their embracing of meritocracy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:02 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Omnivorous here seems to be used as a proxy for free time and mobility, both of which are, of course, the demesne of the elite.
posted by NathanBoy at 1:18 PM on July 9, 2012


A better example than McDonalds would be the hipness of knowing the secret In & Out Burger Menu. Our society glorifies anything that seems to indicate 'insider status,' up to and including familiarity with sociological terms of art and Marxism a la mode.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:20 PM on July 9, 2012


While this question might be beyond our ability to easily answer, I'd say that he is absolutely aiming at the guy who eats just at the pizzeria because the elites want to be culturally invisible, in part to avoid any unpleasant questions about distributive justice.

I don't see how this fits. How can these elites be both culturally invisible while at the same time marking themselves as elite by their culture?

And I agree that part of the embrace of common culture is as a salve on the conscience -- "I'm not really a bad elite, since I like the same things as everyone else" -- but I don't see why this has to be a pernicious thing. In my mind it reveals an underlying recognition of shared humanity; it's harder to talk about "those people" when you like the same food and the same music.

Mostly, I guess I just don't really buy the notion that elites (at least economic elites) are that concerned with marking themselves as elite by their cultural consumption. Those that I know seem to feel that money does the job fine on its own. When they rub shoulders with the average joe at the taco stand, it's not last night's meal at the sushi bar that they see as the distinguishing feature, it's the beachfront house they're going home to afterward.
posted by bjrubble at 1:28 PM on July 9, 2012


Its interesting to note that historically "elite" meant education, class, status, standing and breeding and less about money. The meaning has changed in the US to imply wealth first and foremost, and the privileges drawn from wealth rather than standing in society or social networks i.e aristocracy or nobility or the priesthood or some such who were/are "elites" in many other societies.
posted by infini at 1:31 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Has it really, though? Consider the phrase "liberal media elites." It's the very embodiment of a distinction drawn on education and status.
posted by lodurr at 1:38 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting how I'm forced to limit my tastes and range of experience, not because of my lower-than-low middle class standing, but because there's no damn money nowadays to even get the cheap seats at the theater, or to buy gas to travel the US, or to indulge in fine wines and meals at the nicer restaurants. And then there's the flying lessons and travel (in that new motor home) and paying expensive entries to the big horse shows and five-day endurance rides. I'd like to purchase fine art, travel to Europe, China, Russia, the Middle East, raise orchids, go to spas. I love my library card, but it would be heaven to just be able to just purchase books, CDs, or DVDs on the spur of the moment. We haven't been bowling lately, either. Hell, I'd try to experience everything this world has to offer (except maybe microbrews--bleah.)
posted by BlueHorse at 1:49 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


> Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like,

Opera is middlebrow.


Said, no doubt, from quite a lofty perch, thank-you-very-much.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:53 PM on July 9, 2012


There's a straightforward explanation for bragging about the goat stew: the dinner at the French place was $1k, but actually going to Tanzania -- not just the actual cost of going there but the opportunity cost of the time required -- is many times that. The goat stew is clearly the more expensive, exclusive, rarefied experience, if you're an American (without any family or background in Tanzania).

Yes. This.

It's not that the elite are more "omnivorous", it's that different things are considered "elite" nowadays. There's a French restaurant in every mid-sized American city. And so the wealthy look for experiences that are truly exclusive.

It's along the same lines as all the kids at liberal arts colleges wearing Feiyue and Bensimon sneakers while the kids in the projects flaunt designer clothes. You can buy "designer" labels at TJ Maxx now. The truly exclusive way to dress is to figure out some obscure brand that doesn't even have a label on it, which comes from a boutique you need insider knowledge to find.
posted by Sara C. at 1:53 PM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Has it really, though? Consider the phrase "liberal media elites."

/not hamburger

Please unpack that phrase for me, for it doesn't convey that and perhaps I'm not familiar with its implications?
posted by infini at 1:56 PM on July 9, 2012


The truly exclusive way to dress is to figure out some obscure brand that doesn't even have a label on it, which comes from a boutique you need insider knowledge to find.

I hear rumors that all the really cool kids are wearing gabriel hounds.
posted by lodurr at 1:59 PM on July 9, 2012


Please unpack that phrase for me, for it doesn't convey that and perhaps I'm not familiar with its implications?

Just that the phrase is normally delivered with the implication that those elites are marked primarily by their education and [over-]schooling. It has a lot of other baggage of course -- as well as including snotty Bryn Mawr grads it also encompasses George Soros -- but the education aspect is one of its key markers.

What I was reaching for -- didn't articulate for myself indeed until I'd hung up, so to speak -- was that "elite" is really a word with too many different contextual meanings to be very useful in an un-qualified form.
posted by lodurr at 2:02 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Omnivorous here seems to be used as a proxy for free time and mobility, both of which are, of course, the demesne of the elite.

I think this gets at my problem with the article. Sure, it's easier to be omnivorous if you are in the elite, but is it really a proxy?

It reminds me of the argument that buying, say, a BMW means paying thousands of dollars for a logo. And while I think it's true that there are people who will pay thousands of dollars just for that logo, it doesn't mean that there's no difference between a BMW and a Kia*. The simple fact is that quality has a cost. It sucks that everybody can't get the best of everything, but that won't change just because you don't like it.

(* Note that 20 years ago you could have compared BMW and Toyota, but brands like Toyota and Honda have gained pretty much full credibility among the elite, and it sure looks to me like they did it by building a better product and simply charging accordingly.)

Omivorousness seems like a terrible proxy for wealth, in fact. You can't buy it, and you don't actually need money or background to achieve it. It's like saying that being healthy is just a proxy for wealth, like the only reason anyone would be healthy is to show how much better they are than those sick poor people.

What's more, I don't see anyone arguing that it's not an actual good. Between omnivorousness and parochialism, which would you choose? If you are able to be omnivorous, why would you choose not to be?

Now that I think of it, what this really reminds me of is the term "limousine liberal." It's like, if you don't benight yourself in a life of ignorance and penury, you're just as bad as the people working to promote ignorance and penury.
posted by bjrubble at 2:05 PM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anyway, I find the world is more divided into people who keep looking for new music of all sorts and people who mostly prefer what was on the radio when they first started getting laid (or, at least, trying to).

Aha, you've succinctly summarized two of the commonly accepted models for development of musical preferences over the lifespan--the "impressionable years model" (musical tastes are set during adolescence and remain fairly well set thereafter) and the "lifelong openness model" (people remain completely open to new types of music during the entire life span).

The third commonly accepted model is the "aging stability model," which applies to those people whose musical attitudes harden and become less changeable over a lifetime, but only very slowly--in comparison with the 'impressionable years model,' where almost all flexibility in musical preference is lost over the course of just a few years.

Research seems to show that most people seem to fit into the impressionable years model or the aging stability model--though that is a generalization and there are certainly exceptions. (And there is an obvious similarity between the aging stability model and the lifelong openness model--under the aging stability model, if your musical preferences harden up very, very slowly that is basically indistinguishable from the lifelong openness model.)

Summary and explanation of the three models, along with references, here starting on page 13.
posted by flug at 2:07 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Poorer people are likely to have singular or “limited” tastes. The rich have the most expansive.

AH ha ha ha ha. Look at the 'rich' taste in art. In clothing. In taking care of the world and other people. In presidents.

Case closed.
posted by Twang at 2:17 PM on July 9, 2012


I hear rumors that all the really cool kids are wearing gabriel hounds.

It's funny you bring up William Gibson.

When I was reading Pattern Recognition, I tried valiantly to understand Cayce Pollard's label "allergy" as a legit character trait. But for some reason the more he talked about it, the more it read to me like she was just an elitist snob. Something about her love of exclusive Japanese military-issue stuff read not as whatever illumination of character Gibson intended, but as the current iteration of privileged materialism. Like the inverse of Oprah's Favorite Things.
posted by Sara C. at 2:42 PM on July 9, 2012


Interesting how I'm forced to limit my tastes and range of experience, not because of my lower-than-low middle class standing, but because there's no damn money nowadays

that's....kind of exactly the point here. Unlimited tastes and experiences are only available to people who are wealthy enough and have enough free time to do whatever they want. Therefore, it is a sign of being 'elite'.
posted by jacalata at 2:59 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Unlimited tastes and experiences are only available to people who are wealthy enough and have enough free time to do whatever they want. Therefore, it is a sign of being 'elite'.

I dunno. I've met some homeless fellows at the public library who read A LOT.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:11 PM on July 9, 2012


Sara C: I read it less as a legit "allergy" and more as a psych disorder of some kind that she'd luckily figured out how to exploit to her own benefit. I didn't see Gibson as wanting us to admire Cayse for the trait, any more than he wanted us to admire, say, Millgram for his years as an addict which have the (fortunate for him) result of his not having an internet presence, or Bigend for his obliviousness and weird apathy, which always have the effect (again, fortunately for him) of behaving just like a kind of Zen mind.


--

I came back to this thread because I have been listening to the same Tom Petty song over and over today, and it occurred to me that the article's author doesn't really take into account how complex human motives are for enjoying art. I love this Petty song because the music is gorgeous and because the lyrics break my heart. And sure, that I have the privilege to have had the chance to hear the song probably means something, but I think it speaks to a very pragmatic issue here: people 'use' art/music/food differently.
I have a friend for whom music serves a reminder of stuff that happened to her about which she is nostalgic. I, on the other hand, almost never remember what was happening the first or last time I heard a song. She likes and dislikes songs based on what happened to her when she heard the song. I actually only have a small handle on why I like and dislike songs, but the ones I really love make my heart beat faster.

I think that part of what's bugging people about this thesis is just that - it's not that I can't square the thesis with what I know about rich people, or hipsters, but I can't square it with what I know about myself. The Petty song is 20 years old and I was meh about it for years until I randomly remembered the final verse and went to listen to it again, and was struck by how much Petty manages to express in so few words, and also, how fucking great Micke Campbell's solo is - how it captures the lonesomeness of the lyrics but also the seemingly impractical hope.

The article smacks of determinism, is what I'm saying.
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:15 PM on July 9, 2012


a psych disorder of some kind that she'd luckily figured out how to exploit to her own benefit

Well sure, but I still got possibly unintended notions about Cayce based on this trait. Then again, it's possible that Gibson is all over The New Elitism and intended Cayce to come off as a snob.
posted by Sara C. at 3:31 PM on July 9, 2012


After reading the article and all of the comments here, I still have no idea what the author meant by the word "elite." Does he just mean "wealthy," or is there something more to it? And how wealthy does one have to be to be elite? I guess what I really want to know is whether I qualify as an "elite" of if I'm a boring plebian. I mean, I like a lot of stuff---but not, you know, for the sake of liking a lot of stuff---just because a lot of stuff is likable. Am I supposed to identify with the people he's complaining about, or can I safely join in mocking them?
posted by dilettanti at 4:03 PM on July 9, 2012


After reading the article and all of the comments here, I still have no idea what the author meant by the word "elite."

I actually thought he was reasonably clear on the issue. He's talking about the intersection of money and culture: upper class financially plus high culture equals "elite," in this essay. Quote: "This was the birth of the modern upper-class elite; its own schools, clubs and cultural artifacts made it quite distinct from other Americans." And a few paragraphs later, contrasted with "those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans".

In the essay he doesn't define it precisely by income level or cultural attainment, but like pornography one can know elite when one sees it: "Some have narrow tastes, mostly owning single genres like rap or heavy metal. Others are far more eclectic, their collections filled with hip-hop and jazz, country and classical, blues and rock."

He's talking, in part, about status displays. Do I display cultural status by having a music collection that is monolithic, or by having one that is wildly eclectic? Same with films: having Criterion Collection dvds next to vintage grindhouse next to Pixar says something about one's "eliteness"; having only Dolf Lundgren films says something rather different.

I guess what I really want to know is whether I qualify as an "elite" of if I'm a boring plebian.

That's the question I wish he had been more precise about. I mean, I definitely qualify as "elite" in his terms culturally. But I probably don't qualify financially, unless he's actually drawing the line a long way south of the kinds of families he mentions by name in the article.
posted by Forktine at 5:02 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


"...Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphor 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.


This "eclecticism" of the "elite" is purely a manifestation of fear.

The elite need houses in several countries, familiarity with several languages, cultures and cuisines, and a globe-spanning network of close relationships with others of their class because, wherever they are, they live in perpetually renewed terror that they will have to flee at a moments notice to avoid being lined up against the nearest wall come the revolution.

They know exactly what they are doing to the rest of humanity, and their dread of deserved retribution has reached such a pitch that it oozes from their pores like greasy sweat.

Which is merely a sign of the superiority of their judgment and taste, of course, just as their lickspittle literati are paid so well to tell them.
posted by jamjam at 5:42 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, someone arguing in favor of 'elitism,' considers himself a member of the elite. Big Suprise.

(One great thing about getting older is that you can simply ignore all this bullshit and just like what you like.)
posted by jonmc at 6:19 PM on July 9, 2012


(One great thing about getting older is that you can simply ignore all this bullshit and just like what you like.)

That's what I kept thinking as I read this piece - at age 40 I don't find the music (or books, movies, food) I like a signifier of status or a indication of the kind of person I am. When I was in high school, I was a Deadhead, and that was a huge part of my identity, but do people really think that way after high school? Does my music collection make me an elitist if most of the time I just listen to it, and don't really talk about it very much? (Also, I know people from lots of different socioeconomic strata, and I don't know a single person who only likes one kind of music.)
posted by Daily Alice at 7:24 PM on July 9, 2012


This is a great article, and I agree with invitapriore that Metafilter is getting upset about this because it hits too close to home.

Omnivorousness doesn't really have the same kind of exclusiveness as a vacation in Saint Tropez. As you can easily tell from Metafilter, it's not reserved for the very wealthy. Flug's links tell us that the genres of the poor are excluded from this broad-mindedness, so this means that the function of omnivorousness is not so much to distinguish the upper class from everyone else, but to distinguish the lower class from everyone else.

It's a middle class prejudice, and the elites use their money to opportunistically install themselves as the chief representatives of this value system to get the middle class on their side. It's the old story of conquerers co-opting local religions for their own purposes. Omnivorousness isn't the authentic culture of the elites. Nor is highbrow culture. They just adopt whatever happens to be dominant, and use it to secure their power.

I don't think Metafilter's omnivores are insincere in liking a lot of things, as if they really they are just mimicking the elites and displaying status. The elites are most likely mimicking them! But at the same time, the cooptation is complete. Some of this research that flug is linking to is over 15 years old. It doesn't matter if you genuinely enjoy everything, omnivorousness is now part of the maintenance of elite power.

What's really interesting to me: the new form of high-status cultural consumption is not attached to any specific set of things that are considered the best, unlike highbrow art, which has a set of classics. In fact, high brow culture snobs, with their attachment to only a very limited set of artistic work, resemble the lower classes.

It follows that today's truly egalitarian form of cultural consumption is to read Virgil while listening to exclusively to dubstep.
posted by AlsoMike at 8:43 PM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


The article smacks of determinism, is what I'm saying.

Yeah, well that's why it's called "social science." You try to figure out what the underlying causes of social behavior are. Many of us (I think Khan would be among them) see causality in the social realm as more stochastic and indeterminate than in the physical world, but that doesn't mean we give up on the idea that one factor "determines" others. And in fact, most comments in this thread are implicitly presuming the same thing -- that there is some deterministic (or overdetermined) relationship between, say, income and taste, or occupation and ideology, or class and culture. This is not a new argument. It's the basis of Western Marxist social though (and, with different "determinants," every other version of modern social thought, up to and including evolutionary psychology, which sees "social class," for example, as "determined" by long-established adaptive behavioral patterns). So calling something "deterministic" is only an insult to a humanist who believes "taste" is just a reflection of the inherent experiential, subjective, and unique properties of one person's singular interaction with one aesthetic object out of any historical context.

Actually, I did not find the article poorly written at all. It's quite resonant with a whole bunch of other work on technology, media, and culture I'm more familiar with. The book looks really good and I'm looking forward to reading it.
posted by spitbull at 5:35 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


See, the issue is not sincerity or authenticity. A theoretical argument that you like what you like (or hate what you hate) because of your social experience (class or whatever) is in no way incompatible with everyone's subjective experience of liking what they like because, well, they like it. Where things go wrong is when "because I like it" is backed up with appeals to universal standards of beauty or truth (that have never been, and can never be, proven to be "universal" at all, and that we know in fact are quite variable across cultures, historical periods, and individuals in any given social context).

You feel like you choose your own food too, but you didn't invent agriculture.
posted by spitbull at 5:38 AM on July 10, 2012


So calling something "deterministic" is only an insult to a humanist who believes "taste" is just a reflection of the inherent experiential, subjective, and unique properties of one person's singular interaction with one aesthetic object out of any historical context.

Heh. I don't intend it as an insult, but rather as a description of a flaw in the author's reasoning. A good theory ought to be able to predict or describe phenomena with some level accuracy, and I'm saying that the author has merely lined up a bunch of correlations - some people with a certain amount of money and education tend to like these sets of things in this sort of way. To the extent that the articles is saying that omnivorishness has begun to replace snobbery among the elites, I'm with him. But the rest? Doesn't square with what I am able to observe. Maybe I need to spend more time with the elite?
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:38 AM on July 10, 2012


Then again, it's possible that Gibson is all over The New Elitism and intended Cayce to come off as a snob.

I really think she's intended to be just a tad mentally ill. She's the edge character he's always looking for to give his PoV a particular flavor. From another writer I might think her relation to brands is supposed to represent something about why we fetishize brands, but with him, you can never be certain that a mental disability isn't just a mental disability.
posted by lodurr at 6:51 AM on July 10, 2012


the new form of high-status cultural consumption is not attached to any specific set of things that are considered the best, unlike highbrow art, which has a set of classics. In fact, high brow culture snobs, with their attachment to only a very limited set of artistic work, resemble the lower classes.

This is not really true.

For example with food.

McDonald's is not ok. Super authentic regional Chinese from a restaurant out in Queens that caters to people from that region is ok. Less authentic American-style Chinese in your own neighborhood, not really OK. Super authentic regional Caribbean or Latin-American cuisine in Spanish Harlem or Canarsie, also not OK. Vietnamese, good. Thai, less good but not as bad as American Chinese.

It's good to eat offal if it's presented as French, Mediterranean, or East Asian cuisine. It's bad to eat offal if it's Soul Food or a hot dog.

I'm sure every other aesthetic/cultural context has its own version of this. Again, the point is that the new canon is obscure, inaccessible to the general public, and has a ton of arcane rules and social codes that distinguish it from just doing whatever willy-nilly. Blues: timeless! Reggaeton: noise! Kanye West: great! Flo Rida: awful! Banksy: genius! Kinkade: tacky! Toms: cool! No-Name slip-ons from the dollar store: ew! Worishorfers: adorable! Actual orthopedic sandals: for the elderly only!
posted by Sara C. at 8:55 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]



This is not really true.

For example with food.

McDonald's is not ok. Super authentic regional Chinese from a restaurant out in Queens that caters to people from that region is ok. Less authentic American-style Chinese in your own neighborhood, not really OK. Super authentic regional Caribbean or Latin-American cuisine in Spanish Harlem or Canarsie, also not OK. Vietnamese, good. Thai, less good but not as bad as American Chinese.

It's good to eat offal if it's presented as French, Mediterranean, or East Asian cuisine. It's bad to eat offal if it's Soul Food or a hot dog.


The fact that there are certain things that aren't acceptable to the elites doesn't really mean that their tastes aren't broad. Elites might not eat at McDonald's but they do eat fast food cheeseburgers, they just eat them at trendy local places. They eat burgers, but they also eat fancier cuisine. An elite person who out and out refused to eat any sort of ethnic food would be weird, but it's not that uncommon among lower class people that I know. That's anecdotal, but among the elites that I know, basically everyone single one of them is willing to try new food, whereas I know plenty of working class people who won't eat something they haven't had before.

Like I said, I don't mean any judgment in this, I don't much care what other people at. I also think it's driven by economics first because it's expensive to eat at enough restaurants to try a wide variety of cuisines, but in my experience, it is absolutely true that elite tastes are broader than lower class tastes with regard to food.

Also, for what it's worth it seems like every single trendy restaurant in my city is a soul food place. I don't think anyone is rejecting soul food out of hand anymore.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:10 AM on July 10, 2012


I was replying to the idea that the new "eclectic" elite doesn't come with an agreed-upon canon.

It absolutely does. It's just not obvious what that canon is. There definitely ARE rules and conventions and a clear "set of classics".
posted by Sara C. at 9:33 AM on July 10, 2012


... a clear "set of classics".

I wouldn't say it's always "clear". Often the "classics" are deliberately unclear. That gives the elite greater flexibility with who it admits & ostracizes, extolls & excoriates. In fact I'd argue that most fashion-regimes only really work if the criteria are a challenge for even most members to parse.
posted by lodurr at 9:50 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


No one has linked to the obligatory Portlandia sketch?

Did you read ... ?

Sure.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:53 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, it's not that soul food is a no-go in general, but that there are rules and conventions about what makes a soul food place acceptable in the eyes of the elite.

Barbecue is OK. Meat-and-three setups where you get something homey like meatloaf or roast turkey, also good. Chitlins? FUCK NO. Even though the same person would happily eat the same animal part if they were in a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place out in Flushing.

I've also observed the fact that, aside from a couple of exceptions, elites like some cuisines to be authentic, and others to not be authentic.

Soul food goes in the category of "not authentic". Well off cultural elites would prefer to eat at Blue Smoke in Murray Hill or Fette Sau in Williamsburg than some hole in Bed Stuy where half the menu is going to be pigs' feet and the collard greens won't be organic.
posted by Sara C. at 9:55 AM on July 10, 2012


Also, it's not that soul food is a no-go in general, but that there are rules and conventions about what makes a soul food place acceptable in the eyes of the elite.

Barbecue is OK. Meat-and-three setups where you get something homey like meatloaf or roast turkey, also good. ...

Soul food goes in the category of "not authentic". Well off cultural elites would prefer to eat at Blue Smoke in Murray Hill or Fette Sau in Williamsburg than some hole in Bed Stuy where half the menu is going to be pigs' feet and the collard greens won't be organic.


Good to know I'm not a cultural elite, or else a different sort ... I LOVE soul food and hate "authenticity" - Souley Vegan for me! MMM, collards and black-eyed peas.

Of course, no I don't want pigs' feet, and yes, of course, I would prefer all produce to be organic for all sorts of reasons. So I AM the cultural elite. Huzzah!

That's my biggest problem with the article. The variety of "cultural omnivores" is probably pretty large.

among the elites that I know, basically everyone single one of them is willing to try new food, whereas I know plenty of working class people who won't eat something they haven't had before.

That's one of the more useful indicators of social class, though I'm not sure I'd call it elitism, cuz I know plenty of lower class people who will eat anything.

I went on the worst dinner of my life not so long ago, to the fancy restaurant Cyrus with a 1 month old (!!) and a 3 year-old (!!!) and they didn't even have a cheese plate (!!!!). We tried to leave halfway through (the 3-hour meal) and were insistently rebuffed by our host (!!!!!). A literal nightmare of the first-world problem variety.

In our party was a guest from West Texas who, although comfortable eating all sorts of odd animal parts sauced with Velveeta or a "good salad" made of jello and artificial cherry topping--would not even try anything from the five-course meal except the steak. (I gobbled down everything presented as quickly as possible to show our host, yes, please, we want the fuck out of here.)

Is the "no thank-you bite" for kids only a rule for the cultural elite? I remember watching "Try it, you might like it" PSAs on Saturday mornings. Do we need them again?

The willingness to eat any food (sushi, indian, raw vegan, etc.) is a true indicator of the cultural elite ... of which I suppose I am included, cuz I eat absolutely anything. Except meat, of course. Ewwwww.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:28 AM on July 10, 2012


Sara, it's obvious from your examples that the "new canon" is just a prohibition on hanging out with the working class. That's exactly the same as "listening to everything" except of course gospel, country, rap, and heavy metal; and totally different from only listening to Beethoven. More differences: what's in the canon is not obscure knowledge -- you can easily find out what's in it, since it's actually documented. The canon also doesn't change from year to year like trendy restaurants or fashion.

I think it's interesting that you are emphasizing how the elites are able to distinguish themselves from the middle class. Isn't the point is obvious? To get the middle class off the hook from the way they support and participate in oppression of the poor, and obscure actual social and economic privilege and making it into snobbery. The issue becomes about someone having attitude because they have a Harvard degree, making you feel bad because you went to a lesser school, and is what's behind nice fantasy slogans like "People will real class are gracious and kind!" But this is the hypocrisy of middle class, who want an oppressive class system that discriminates against the poor and working class, but never really feel the brunt of it in their personal lives. It masquerades as morally- and politically-correct anti-elitism, but the focus on personal attributes is part of the elite culture of individual self-cultivation.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:15 PM on July 10, 2012


« Older The creator of OK Cupid Enemies (nsfw) and the cre...  |  What happens when four superfr... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments