Words and things, pt. 2

by Carl Dyke

Bobby P. was like the evil twin of a Victorian gentleman. No one was more careful with their language around ladies than these profoundly sexist patriarchs. After all, they thought, proper ladies are delicate flowers of virtue for whom fainting couches and smelling salts must be provided lest the slightest vulgarity upset their fragile equilibrium and bring on the vapors.

Women were actually being used symbolically there (or participating actively in a class and family project that gave them some relative perqs; analyses differ in their subtlety on this point) to demonstrate the distance of the Victorian bourgeoisie from vulgarity on two fronts: the working class on one hand and their own non-noble pedigrees on the other. Propriety was the thing – a very strict, gendered discipline the middle classes deployed to leverage themselves into position as the heirs of the civilizing process and the rightful wielders of power and status in the new modern world. This discipline may have had its origins in the protestant ethic, but its elective affinity with the industrial and financial bourgeoisie’s rising entitlement and the marginalization of the old nobility fully vested only in the 19th century. The new elite took over the old one’s touchiness about honor and propriety as part of their power grab.

Working women and the working class in general were a different story. Their feelings were not the issue. They were expected to get on with the task at hand regardless. This attitude persisted well into the 20th century. I vividly remember hearing an old working-class black guy marveling (critically) at the younger generation: “Used to be guys just worked. Now guys got feelings.” Beside this stoicism fractions of the working class trending upward struggled to create spaces where they could support their own hierarchies of offendability, while others resisted the class stigma by reveling openly in their vulgarity and toughness, e.g. by ritualizing mutual insult in games like ranking or the dozens.

This contrast is instructive, because it spotlights the class and gender relations behind aversion to coarse or vulgar vocabulary. In terms of Western cultural history there are two kinds of people who can lay claim to offense at the words used around them: the delicate, and the entitled. Both delicate and entitled, the ‘ladies’ of the Victorian bourgeoisie enjoyed the kind of defenses against upsetting verbiage that had previously been reserved for princesses, although in both cases because of the delicacy it was men’s job to do the actual work of policing interactive entitlement.

Of course, the luxury of touchiness is rooted in economic power and a certain leisure. People with imperative stuff to do can’t afford to be touchy. The ability to enforce rules and vocabularies of interaction and to take offense at their breakage, i.e. to become ‘classy’, looks like a victory for the oppressed in the 20th century, and in a sense it is. But the success of this strategy lies in its dependence on the expansion of the capitalist global economy. History is chock full of impressive freedom-fighters who never got much of anywhere with it; conditions have to be right. In the core of the global economy women, the working class and minorities have been pulled into and up the professionalization scale of the production side by this expansion, and entitled on the consumption side by their paychecks and access to credit. Despite wage gaps and credit crunches more people are more distant from the vulgarity of starvation than at any time in history.

In this process women, the working class and stigmatized minorities are following the trajectory laid out by the European bourgeoisie in the 19th century. Although gender delicacy remains as a culturally-embedded interpretation of insistence on linguistic propriety around them, the dominant dynamic is one of class entitlement.

But because everyone is now entitled, power is spread very thin and there’s little discipline to be found anywhere. Funny.

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