U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Referential Slipperiness: Bourgeois, Bourgoisie, And American Class Anti-Intellectualism

Long-time USIH reader Varad Mehta posted this piece from Slate—“Is ‘Middlebrow’ Still an Insult?” by David Haglund—on our Facebook page. He added this short article from Maria Popova as a supplemental read. Both intelligently discuss now well-known problems of the high, middle, and low cultural distinction tropes (i.e. these categories are historically shifting matters of perception, made problematic by the advent of mass culture and the ongoing development of democratic cultural forms in the twentieth century).

The occasion for Haglund’s post is that The New York Review of Books is issuing a new collection of Dwight Macdonald’s classic essays, titled Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain.* It will be of interest to USIH readers that the editor is John Summers, and the collection contains an introduction by Louis Menand. [*Who knew that NYRB published books, let alone essay collections and “classics”?]

Haglund’s article is a first-rate abstract on the history and usage of the “brow hierarachy” for cultural theory novices. Explore all the links if you have some time. Otherwise, near the top Haglund refers to a line from Menand in the collection, about “Masscult and Midcult,” that reads as follows: “Louis Menand…calls the title essay ‘a kind of summa of the New York highbrow’s contempt for bourgeois culture.’ “

This created an immediate disjunct for me; the line derailed me from finishing the article for another 15-20 minutes. Why? Far be it from me to question the thinking and prose of Menand (I bow at his feet…seriously), but aren’t “the highbrow,” as a class, either overlapping or the same as the bourgeoisie? After a bit I realized that this muddled use of the term “bourgeois”—especially in relation to American class categories—has bothered me for some time. As a quick and dirty reference* and review, I scanned Wikipedia’s entry for bourgeois—which immediately redirected me to its entry for bourgeoisie. [*I’m shocked with myself that I had never tried to explore this etymology before, but that’s a question I’ll leave for another day—chalking it up, for now, to the usual professional distractions.]

The opening line of the Wikipedia piece reminds us that bourgeois and bourgeoisie are moving targets—as nouns representative of groups of people over time. It’s a fairly obvious point, and I knew that Marx’s bourgeoisie was not the same as bourgeois described by communists, socialists, and class-aware academic types all through the twentieth century. In other words, I knew the term did not strictly describe a group that owns the means of production—that bourgeois describes an attitude, a disposition, or a cultural matrix, and not just one’s economic means.

What has bothered me for so long, however, is the inbred, slippery nature of the term bourgeois when it’s used as a pejorative. Those who use the term are usually of an upper-middle (economic) class background, or of a minority of disaffected upper class, and they use it to describe the materialism of their hereditary social set. It’s those who, by training or empathetic moral sensibilities, use the term to describe the lack of a true Christian gentility in their peers (i.e. modern condescension).

Proof the term’s inbred nature lies in the fact that it feels awkward to imagine lower or working-class folks accusing those of relatively higher classes of being bourgeois. First, it’s not a regular part of lower class or lower middle class vocabulary, at least as I’ve experienced, first-hand, those categories of income/wealth. Furthermore, the inherent American anti-intellectualism of large swaths of the American working class preclude use of the term: you would be “putting on airs” by using three-syllable word when you can use the one-syllable “snob.”

Consulting a common reference book, the online Merriam-Webster (MW) dictionary, we find this definition of “bourgeoisie”:

1. Middle class; also plural in construction : members of the middle class
2. A social order dominated by bourgeois

And here’s MW’s definition of bourgeois:

1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of the social middle class
2. Marked by a concern for material interests and respectability and a tendency toward mediocrity
3. Dominated by commercial and industrial interests : capitalistic

So if we strictly followed MW’s normalization of both terms, we would not use either term to describe America’s upper classes of capital owners and accumulators.

Things get more confusing, or slippery, when we recall that Americans normalize “middle class” to include large swaths of the upper and working classes; it’s used by both of the latter as a term of humility and aspiration, respectively.

In other words, the American bourgeois and/or bourgeoisie includes—by definition (literally above) and convention (usage of the terms)—probably 75-80 percent of the American populace. Even so, we hardly ever observe the terms in use except, as noted above, in upper-middle and upper class circles. In those circles it’s a pejorative, not a class descriptor.

In sum, in American culture and history the terms bourgeois and bourgeoisie have no stable meaning in relation to communicating real economic information across American classes. If you use these terms, you’re likely to confuse your audience—especially those in America’s bourgeois middle class. We don’t even have, or teach, the baseline knowledge of Marx to utilize as a referential starting point. We are so startlingly and willfully blind to class distinctions in our education establishment (not in everyday life, where we are acutely aware of them) that we have no shared vocabulary to discuss inequality. Our “economic class anti-intellectualism” prevents us from understanding the nature of the bourgeoisie as Marx communicated the term.

There’s much more we can say about this topic, but I’ll stop now to let you take over. What have I missed? What have I exaggerated? How am I missing the larger picture?* – TL

[*I’m serious here because I wrote this post while in a late-night, post-midterm grading haze of exhaustion.]

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I was just grousing about this problem in relation to Sven Beckert’s _Monied Metropolis_. He invokes every possible permutation of bourgeois, but it’s not clear to me how he is using it as an analytical category. Maybe the scales will fall from my eyes. Maybe not. In any case, it has to be the most heavily used and important term in his book — some definition / clarification would have been nice.

  2. I don’t think the term “bourgeois” as a cultural epithet is hard to understand, actually — it refers, simply, to the use of material things to distinguish yourself socially, and, by extension, to the social imaginary of people who do this. Originally this was in contrast to an aristocracy, whose distinction derived not from possession or accomplishment, but from birth. (Hence the damning review, for example, of Cozzens’s BY LOVE POSSESSED, which Macdonald quitely correctly perceived to be an uncritical exploration of the mores of this social set — in contrast to, say, Flaubert, who also explored the mores of this social set, but with devastating intent.)

    The New York Intellectuals hated bourgeois culture, very simply, because they preferred a model of social distinction based on intellectual and aesthetic discernment. (This was made somewhat more complicated by their various overlapping leftist political commitments, but the core of this debate centered on a debate over aesthetics.) Thus they were dead-set against the kinds of books and movies and art preferred by people who defined their social distinction by their material position in American society.

  3. @LD: I’ve found that there is no more annoying trait among historians generally (though thankfully not USIH types) than their neglect of philosophical thinking about terminology. It’s as if some historians think that by being careful philosophically they’re destroying their story, or somehow not thinking historically. It’s one thing to falsely pretend that your definition of a term applies universally over time, and another to deny that your story is a narrative containing an argument that speaks to present-day readers. If a term appears in more than half of your chapters and it applies directly to your thesis (provided you admit you have a thesis), you need to define it carefully in your introduction for your readers.

    @Nils: The term bourgeois is not hard to understand if you live in a culture that admits of class distinctions. Americans in general, however, like to pretend that class distinctions are just superficial—related merely to things—that you can have those things and not be morally removed from the middle class (i.e. that your interests are the same). America’s group imagination of class is rather limited. The New York intellectuals sought to replace one form of bourgeois culture and thinking with another, but didn’t seek to destroy it. That’s the point that Haglund makes in his piece when he says that Macdonald (and Woolf before him) still appear snobbish even as they derided middlebrowism. – TL

  4. The thing I’ve always found interesting is that bourgeois used to refer to owners–what we would now term the upper middle class, the highbrow, or even the 1%. People with political and financial capital. Now it refers to the middle class and the middle brow.

  5. @Tim – The ultimate put-down of the American bourgeoisie is Hemingway’s line about how “Yes, they have more money” – the characteristic bourgeois pretension was that money bought you more than just itself, it brought you distinction.

    No one, I don’t think, would argue that NYIs were doing something other than trying to replace one form of snobbery with another. They were in no way populists, or even postmodern relativists, claiming that all forms of expression were of equal merit. They absolutely believed in a cultural hierarchy. However, they believed that it lay in creative and intellectual originality and signature (and the appreciation thereof) rather than in one’s material accomplishments.

    The weird thing about “bourgeois” as an adjective is that it doesn’t just refer to materialism, but also the penumbra of cultural associations and tastes associated with those who have money. And Americans absolutely recognize and name that, even if they don’t use the term — call it “arugula vs. NASCAR,” if you will. The NYIs would have rejected both arugula AND NASCAR – the latter for being banausic, the former for its insipidity.

  6. The confusion about the meaning of “bourgeois” reminds me of a funny story (funny to me, anyway). A few weeks ago the Phillies were in Houston to play the Astros. The Astros’ first batter was an outfielder called Jason Bourgeois. I was watching the game with my parents, and when Bourgeois was introduced, my father asked me if his name was the same as “bourgeois as in bourgeoisie.” I said yes, then my mom chimed in asking about whether that was the same as “middle class.” Then I said sort of, and explained that “bourgeois” simply means someone who lives in a city. This led to questions about whether there’s an equivalent in English, to which I said there’s “burgher,” but it doesn’t have the same connotations. I threw in a dab of Marx, and then Bourgeois struck out (or something) and we got back to the game. And I’m thinking, “I’m just trying to watch a damn baseball game, who invited Karl Marx?” Who knew baseball was so intellectually demanding?

    Menand’s comment strikes me as being perfectly sensible, in the sense that “middlebrow” seems like exactly the kind of term someone would use to attack so-called bourgeois philistinism. I think that menace (philistinism) is always lurking in the shadows of the “contempt” Menand identifies.

    “If a term appears in more than half of your chapters and it applies directly to your thesis (provided you admit you have a thesis), you need to define it carefully in your introduction for your readers.”

    That is exactly what I did in the intro of my dissertation. I had three key terms/concepts, and I took it for granted that if I wanted my readers to know what I meant by them, I would have to define them. Heck, it helped me understand what I meant by them, which is probably the most important thing.

  7. While bourgeois as a pejorative term might not be widely used in the U.S., there is one exception. A derivative, the word ‘bourgie’, has found its way into urban black usage for at least a few decades. You can look it up in the Urban Dictionary.

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