Friday, 1 March 2013

Identifying with Rita, "Passing/Out: Thoughts on Split Class Subjectivity"

Since starting higher education, my class has been on my mind: does it show? In what ways do I pass? What am I assumed to be? How to present myself and my roots without being obnoxiously bolshy, etc? In one of my first A-level Art History lessons, the lecturer in her 60's, who ordinarily was lovely (resembling Marianne Faithful, with grey mullet and cough mixture addiction anecdotes), was trying to help the class imagine the traditions of the put-on poverty of many middle-class artists, who after leaving home and rejecting financial assistance live in poor areas and experience life (or the earthiness of poverty or whatever it is they are looking for) away from their bourgeois family nests. Anyway, my lecturer asked us to imagine that we all left home and "moved to Saint Mary's, or Northam Estate say", and the second of these "poor rough" areas was where I was living at that time. Looking back, I regret that I did not point this out to the lecturer, who teaching an Art History A-level class standardly (and wrongly) assumed us all be middle-class; but at the time I was embarrassed by this slight, and perhaps even ashamed. Embarrassed of being poor and not even in a glamorous-struggling-artist kind of way.
Awkward scenes such as this have been a recurring presence from that point onwards, and I believe the more you progress within the education system the stronger the assumption becomes - to the extent that your progression is taken as proof you have assimilated and that their assumptions are finally correct: you are middle-class now! More recently, starting my MPhil, thoughts around class and education, about passing or being assumed to be middle class have returned. How to mix identifying myself as working-class while doing a PhD - yet I have no income/salary nor enjoy any of the connections, safety nets, security, or status of the middle-classes? I have no reason to rethink the kosherness of that identification, simply because I have ideas above my station. Part of the first chapter of my PhD will be dealing with class and the body, and I've been looking at the work of Jo Spence. I found a wonderful piece of writing by Spence in her book Cultural Sniping - it is helpful in making sense of the experience of being a working-class student or academic, the feeling that you do not fit neatly in either class and are somehow an intruder in both.

Jo Spence writing in 1991:
"Going into higher education was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me, but it was also one of the most painful because it couldn't deal with the conflict that I wanted to theorise, which was class. It gave me some amazing tools, though, which I'll always have, but I felt very much like the woman in the film Educating Rita who says she feels like an intellectual 'half caste'. I've had neither a good education nor a thorough education, nor have I had no education. I have crossed boundaries and I am in limbo land. I'm sorry to talk in parables but I think the story of the ugly duckling is very important because it ties up the story of Cinderella. If I was going to do the Cinderella work again I would concentrate on the ugly sisters. The point about the ugly duckling story is that you have to know who you can relate to, who are your group. In class terms, crossing social barriers, my greatest pleasure in life would be to understand what group I belong to. But at least now I understand that I never assimilated, I only masqueraded".

7 comments:

  1. "identifying myself as working-class", what does that mean for you exactly? Beyond possibly a sense of allegiance, or the relative state of your (family's) bank account?
    (I'm not from the UK, which is probably why I don't understand implictly. I follow your anecdote in the first paragraph, and then there is a kind of jump...)

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  2. identifying myself as working-class, means for me in the most basic terms: being poor and having grown up poor. The anecdote serves to illustrate the continued assumptions made about class in higher education and my experiences of that then and now.

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  3. I was in that boat. I don't think education level determines class, neither does money. It's a complex matrix that determines class but imputation (as explained by Lukacs) is a big part of that and it's a sense of alienation (like what you describe above) that actively makes me feel w/c.

    One word of warning/encouragement: if you're looking to get an academic job after the PhD you need to work really hard and publish as much as possible to get a job/post-doc as soon as possible as only those who have "independent" means (i.e. inheritance/family/spouse) can survive the months and even years of piddly contract work as lecturers.

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  4. Thank you for your comments. Re your last points, yes, this is something I'm becoming more aware of, and it doesn't become any less precarious it seems..

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  5. Good piece. I constantly feel that I AM in that boat. Working class Mum (occasional office cleaner) and Dad (factory machinist) and me belatedly (at 29, in 1989) doing what is sadly now an outdated TJ Clark-like (before he sold out) 'social' history of art and design degree, eventually becoming 'an academic'. Education level does not determine class, it eventually and inevitably reinforces it. I teach in a university school of art and design and, as such, I constantly and uncomfortably feel wrong in a middle-class skin, while also trying to keep my head above water with the more resolutely middle-class art/design practitioner/academic 'colleagues' who patronise me and my teaching by casually referring to it as 'theory'. Is it working-class alienation, or pathetic middle-class 'angst'? I'm not sure I can tell anymore.

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  6. Thanks for your comments Ian. I would tend to go with "working-class alienation", but with trepidation, as that fact makes many middle-class academics uncomfortable and so has to be turned around, to become someone's working-class chip on the shoulder.

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