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«Distinction, intentions, and the consumption of fiction: Negotiating cultural legitimacy in a gay reading group Daniel Allington European Journal of ...»

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European Journal of Cultural



Distinction, intentions, and the consumption of fiction: Negotiating cultural

legitimacy in a gay reading group

Daniel Allington

European Journal of Cultural Studies 2011 14: 129

DOI: 10.1177/1367549410396002

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co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav of fiction: Negotiating DOI: 10.1177/1367549410396002 ecs.sagepub.com cultural legitimacy in a gay reading group Daniel Allington The Open University Abstract The relationship between the ‘legitimate’ (or highbrow) and the ‘popular’ (or lowbrow) in cultural consumption has been extensively researched and debated in relation to Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘distinction’ and ‘cultural capital’ and Richard Peterson’s concept of ‘omnivorousness’. This paper contributes to that sociological tradition by carrying out qualitative discourse analysis of a gay reading group’s verbal responses to Joe Keenan’s comic novel, My Lucky Star (2006) – a strategy that is acknowledged to be controversial, given the discourse analytic critique of sociology. It is found that members of the reading group studied here exhibit aspects of distinction and omnivorous openness in their arguments over the novel’s merits (or lack thereof), and that perceptions of authorial intention – in particular, Keenan’s non-intention to write a ‘serious’ book – are deeply implicated in this evaluative discourse. Evidence is found not only for a high degree of alignment between the group’s discourse on the novel and written discourse on the same novel in the mass media, but also for the importance of a specifically gay variety of ‘subcultural capital’, to which some group members appeal in order to contest other members’ dismissal of the book as insufficiently ‘serious’ to be worthy of discussion.

Keywords book clubs, cultural capital, discourse analysis, distinction, gay readers, gay writing, Joe Keenan, omnivores, reading groups, reception Introduction Distinction and omnivorousness In his most celebrated work of quantitative sociology, Pierre Bourdieu (1986) argued that members of the late 20th-century French bourgeoisie (or ‘dominant class’) were

Corresponding author:

Daniel Allington, Centre for Language and Communication, Stuart Hall Building, The Open University, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK.

Email: d.allington@open.ac.uk

–  –  –

divided according to their possession of two very different forms of capital. Intellectuals were culturally rich but economically poor, industrialists were culturally poor but economically rich, and members of the professions were rich both culturally and economically. According to Bourdieu, this led bourgeois consumers to favour goods whose position in the cultural field was homologous with their own class-fractional position, with intellectuals having a taste for the avant garde, industrialists having a taste for luxury, and members of the professions having a taste for established high culture. The idea that ‘whereas economic capital is expressed through consuming goods and activities of material scarcity, cultural capital is expressed through consuming via scarce aesthetic and interactional styles that are consecrated by cultural elites’ (Holt, 1997: 98) is intuitive, and following convention, I shall refer to it as the ‘distinction thesis’.

A key element of the distinction thesis in its classic form is the idea that ‘tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (“sickmaking”) of the tastes of others’ (Bourdieu, 1986: 56). For this reason, it is challenged by Richard Peterson’s finding ‘that a considerable fraction of the elite are not highbrow snobs, as predicted by Pierre Bourdieu and American sociologists dating back to Thorstein Veblen.

Rather, they are quite eclectic in their tastes’ (Peterson interviewed in Santoro, 2008: 51).

Peterson’s analysis of American survey data suggests homologous hierarchies of occupational groups and musical genres, with ‘higher cultural’ professionals and classical music at the top, and farm labourers and country music at the bottom (Peterson and Simkus, 1992). However, it also suggests a correlation between position in the occupational hierarchy and breadth of taste in musical genres, suggesting that ‘elite taste is no longer defined as an expressed appreciation of the high art forms (and a moral disdain or bemused tolerance for all other aesthetic expressions)’, but ‘as an appreciation of the aesthetics of every

distinctive form along with an appreciation of the high arts’ (Peterson and Simkus, 1992:

169; emphasis in original). This idea is conventionally called the ‘omnivore thesis’.

Both theses have received qualified support from subsequent quantitative studies.

Bryony Bryson finds that highly educated people tend to be ‘tolerant’ of a wide range of genres of music, but that ‘the genres most disliked by tolerant people are those appreciated by people with the lowest levels of education’ (Bryson, 1996: 895). Gindo Tampubolon finds that ‘[h]igh status people actually form different groups and they dislike different items’ (2008: 258; emphasis in original), with ‘strong dislikes... to be found across all groups of omnivores and univores’ (2008: 256), and Peterson himself suggests that ‘there may be several distinct patterns of omnivorous inclusion and exclusion’ (2005: 264). On the basis of Danish survey data, Annick Prieur and colleagues argue that the symbols of elite taste have shifted, but the underlying practice of distinction remains: ‘Scoring high on adherence to [relatively] highbrow tastes goes together with the refusal of [relatively] lowbrow tastes, and vice versa’ (Prieur et al., 2008: 66). Alan Warde and colleagues find that, in the UK, ‘alongside a relative openness to popular culture evidenced by their volume of likes, omnivores disproportionately favoured legitimate items’ of the type ‘that would earlier have conferred cultural distinction in the sense implied by Bourdieu’ (Warde et al., 2008: 158) and, concomitantly, ‘are more dismissive of popular culture than of other types’ (2008: 159). Analysing data gathered in the same project, Tony Bennett and colleagues find the most omnivorous consumers to be highly educated people who may like some popular forms, but disproportionately prefer items of legitimate culture: thus, ‘it seems likely that their pluralism contains the elements of distinction, rather than being an Downloaded from ecs.sagepub.com at Open University Library on October 24, 2012 131 Allington expression of pure tolerance’ (Bennett et al., 2009: 189). Much as Bourdieu would have predicted, Bennett et al. also found ‘that cultural enthusiasm, especially for legitimate culture, concentrates among those in occupations specifically concerned with education and culture,’ (cf. Bourdieu’s ‘intellectuals’), ‘while those in more instrumental and business-oriented professions’ (cf. Bourdieu’s ‘industrialists’) ‘are less fussed.’ (2009: 181) Intriguingly, the general principles of Bourdieu’s theory have proved applicable to other groups within society and their associated subcultures. While John Fiske (1992) appeared to assume that non-official forms of cultural capital would be intrinsically democratic, compensating those who lack cultural capital of the kind described by Bourdieu, subcultural capital has been shown to produce inequalities and exclusions of its own (indeed, if it did not, then it would be counter-intuitive to describe it as a form of capital). Katherine Sender, for example, argues that gay lifestyle magazines such as The Advocate have promoted a gay form of subcultural capital as a means of distinguishing their (which is to say, their advertisers’) ideal readers – ‘gays of the professional-managerial class’ – from a rejected outgroup of less affluent consumers (Sender, 2001: 99).

What is left out of the above picture is any real sense of the mechanisms by which distinction or omnivorousness might operate in actual acts of cultural consumption. Literary reception might be a particularly good test case, due to print culture’s evident potential to discriminate between groups. Survey-based studies in a range of national contexts consistently have found reading to be a powerfully segregated activity, giving the lie to fanciful claims for the universality of ‘great’ literature (e.g. Rose, 1992). Bennett and his colleagues in Australia find a strong relationship between a high level of education and legitimate tastes in literature: only one in five respondents with primary education, but three in four of those who had completed a tertiary education, owned copies of literary classics (Bennett et al., 1999), while members of the latter group were just over four times more likely to prefer classical authors than less educated respondents (Bennett et al., 1999). These scholars find class to play a role, too, with ‘the high literary genres [being] most clearly associated with professionals’ (Bennett et al., 1999: 163). In Hungary, Erzsébet Bukodi finds that ‘serious readers’ – that is, ‘readers of classical and modern novels, drama, poetry, etc’ (2007: 117) – ‘are a kind of cultural elite comprising high-status people coming from highstatus family backgrounds’ (2007: 125). Working with less detailed survey data, Florencia Torche finds that in Chile, ‘a country where books have traditionally been associated with the cultural elite’, the reading of books (as opposed to magazines) ‘still appears to be

a powerful vehicle to express, and perhaps maintain, status distinctions’ (Torche, 2007:

89). In the UK, Bennett et al. find that while magazine and newspaper reading is very widespread, book reading is relatively exclusive, and ‘[t]hose few interviewees who choose modern literature titles are... graduates and professionals in “cultural” occupations of various kinds’ (2009: 100): that is, ‘intellectuals’ in the Bourdieusian sense.

Discourse, reception and sociology The research reported here falls within the discourse analytic school of reception studies (see Alasuutari, 1999). In its close attention to what consumers are doing with language on a turn-by-turn basis when they talk about books, it has much in common with work (e.g. Eriksson, 2002a, 2002b) that applies elements of discursive psychology (see Edwards and Potter, 1992; Potter and Wetherell 1987) to reception data. However, it attempts to Downloaded from ecs.sagepub.com at Open University Library on October 24, 2012 132 European Journal of Cultural Studies 14(2) carry out such analysis in a manner compatible with sociological studies of cultural consumption, and this may be problematic both from the viewpoint of cultural sociology and from that of discursive psychology. While the above-cited sociologists view distinction and omnivorousness as competing theoretical explanations of general phenomena, this article investigates how they are accomplished in specific social interactions, which could be taken to undermine the reifications of a sociological approach. However, this article also employs the sociological concept of cultural capital (itself a reification) as a theoretical explanation for much that occurs in these interactions. While this is not unprecedented in reception studies drawing on discursive psychology (see for example, Hermes, 1995), it certainly runs counter to the spirit of discursive psychology, which, as Martyn Hammersley observes, ‘refus[es] to attribute to particular categories of actor distinctive, substantive psychosocial features – ones that are relatively stable across time and/or social context – as a basis for explaining their behaviour’ (Hammersley, 2003: 752).

This study thus attempts to straddle a methodological divide, acknowledging both a discursive critique of sociology and a sociological critique of discourse analysis. On the one hand, the standard sociological method for acquiring qualitative information – that

is, the interview – produces highly ‘artificial’ data, and as David Silverman observes:

if categories are utilised in particular contexts rather than simply pouring out of... people’s heads, [no] method we use... [can] transform what interviewees say into anything other than a category used at a particular point in some interview. (Silverman, 2007: 51) On the other hand, there is obvious justice in Bourdieu’s (1988) complaint that, in its attempt to understand discourse solely by reference to discourse, discourse analysis must fail to take account of the conditions of the production of discourse (which are not reducible to discourse alone).

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