Monday, May 17, 2010

Fussell on SWPLs

I finished reading Paul Fussell’s book, Class:  Inside the American Status System, and all told I was disappointed.  Not because it didn’t have its entertaining moments, but because it’s subtitle is misleading.  Candidly, I read the book with an eye primarily for identifying upper-middle class markers, but in this the book was sadly lacking.  Instead, Fussell spends most of his energy mocking the middle class.  In this he follows in a distinguished literary tradition – H. L. Menken and Sinclair Lewis come to mind – but, like them, Fussell has little useful instruction on how to make an upper-middle class presentation.

It my last post on the book, I confidently asserted that Fussell’s category “upper middle class” was coterminous with the kind of White People described in the book Stuff White People Like.  In this, I may have been premature.  In Fussell’s final chapter, he describes the habits of what he calls “Class X”, so called because the designation allegedly transcends the class distinctions Fussell spent the rest of the book making.  But “Class X” turns out to be a deadly-earnest description of exactly what Christian Lander mocks:  young, urban, “arty”, social-status-obsessed consumer culture – the difference being that Lander’s work was ironically self-aware.  In fact, I find it nigh impossible that Lander was not familiar with Fussell’s work when he came up with the SWPL concept.  Here is Fussell’s description of Class X:

Identifying X people is not difficult once you know the signs.  Their dress and looks, for one thing.  Since there’s not one they think worth impressing by mere appearance, X people tend to dress for themselves alone, which means they dress comfortably, and generally “down.”  One degree down will usually do the trick:  if black tie is designated, an X person appears in a dark suit (of a distinctly unstylish, archaic cut) and a notable necktie.  If suites are expected, he omits the tie.  If “informal” is the proclaimed style, his jeans will be torn and patched, his cords very used, if not soiled.  If others are wearing bathing suits, X people are likely to show up naked.  X shoes are always comfortable, regardless of current modes, and they usually suggest that they have been chosen (like sandals and moccasins) for walking on soft carpets of pine needles.  Indeed, L. L. Bean and Land’s End are the main costumers for X people, who annually consume the bulk of the down vests, flannel shirts, and hiking boots vended in this country.  Xs are likely to wear these things specifically where most people are got up in jackets and nice dresses.  If the Xs ever descend to legible clothing, the words – unlike BUDWEISER or U.S.A. DRINKING TEAM – are original and interesting, although no comment on them is ever expected.  Indeed, visibly to notice them would be bad form.  When an X person, male or female, meets a member of an identifiable class, the costume, no matter what it is, conveys the message “I am freer and less terrified than you are,” or – in extreme circumstances – am more intelligent and interesting than you are:  please do not bore me.”  The question of whether to select a black or a beige raincoat never troubles X people, for they don’t use raincoats at all:  they either get wet and pay no attention or wait under cover – they are not the slaves of timeclocks – until the rain stops.  X people are almost never fat, for they exercise a lot, naturally and for the fun of it.  They were exercising thirty years ago, before the upper-middles had been instructed about jogging by the popular press.  Favorite X sport:  ad hoc games of touch football, especially while slightly drunk.  X people tend to eschew the obvious kinds of pets, leaning instead toward things like tame coyotes, skunks, peacocks, and anteaters.  X people are likely to appear with unexplained sexual partners, and some have been known to become pregnant at socially inappropriate moments.  Their infant issue they may tote about in ways that appear novel, if not shocking, to the middle class:  in slings, for example, or backpack papoose carriers.

The places where X people choose to live usually have a decent delicatessen and a good wine store.  There is likely to be a nearby Army and Navy  or hiking shop, for the dress-down clothes, and a good public or university library as a stay against boredom.  A sophisticated newsdealer is also an attraction, for one needs British, French, German, and Italian periodicals.  X people move away when they, not their bosses, feel they should.  They like where they live, and when they stop liking their location – when, for example, it seems drifting too speedily middle- or prolewards – they move.  Their houses, which are never positioned in “developments,” tend to be sited oddly – on the sides of mountains, say, or planted stubbornly between skyscrapers.  Their houses (never, of course, “homes”) are more likely to be old than new:  old ones are cheaper, for one thing, and by flaunting a well-used house you can proclaim your freedom from the childish American obsession with the up-to-date.  Since X people Disdain the standard kinds of status display, their houses are likely to have no driveways, and their cars, unstylish and most often unwashed, will be parked in the street.  The understatement principle governing the kind and condition of the automobile will determine that no stickers, college or any other kind, ever appear in the windows, although a black-and-white “A” sticker, indicating the minimal gasoline ration during the Second World War, would be a permissible archaic gesture.  Of course X people shun turnpikes and freeways, those tedious, characterless conduits for the middle class, preferring instead slowpoke back roads because of their “charm.”  in the X spirit of parody, the lawn and yard of the X house are never impressive and often give off powerful satiric overtones.  Thus instead of grass the front yard may feature a spread of gravel, asphalt, or cement (sometimes painted bright green), haphazard arrangements of stones and weeds, and ostentatious marijuana patches.  In addition to parody middle-class effects, parody prole items may make an appearance, like ironically ugly lawn furniture and joke flower-bed diggings.  But regardless of the way it’s furnished, the front yard must be nondescript, for the street facade of the house is negligible to Xs, the backyard being the important place because private.  There you can play unobserved.  X people like to have houseguests, although they never designate them by that upper-middle-class term.  They lodge them not in guest rooms but on spare couches or in sleeping bags, and there may be lots of coming and going at night, never mentioned in the morning.

The readiest way to describe an X living room is to say that anything recommended in a sound home-furnishings magazine will not appear there.  The guiding principle will be parody display:  there may be an elephant’s foot umbrella stand and some unlikely manifestations of the art of the taxidermist – stuffed cats and dogs, penguins, iguanas.  Lots of campy fabric – odd curtains, fringed shawls draped about, walls covered in museum clot.  The pictures on the walls will bespeak vigorous inner-directedness:  there will be shameless nudes (all sexes and ages), and instead of the chart of Nantucket or Catalina Island favored by the upper-middles, a chart of Bikini Atoll or Guadalcanal.  On the coffee table, Mother Jones and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  The nearer you approach pure X the closer to the floor you find yourself sitting.  The ultimate X living room displays no furniture legs at all, no sitting, dining, or reclining surface being higher than twelve inches from the floor.  The floor is either entirely bare wood or covered irregularly with thick rugs, always from uncommon places like Nepal or Honduras.  There will usually be a large and not too neat working fireplace, less because it’s pretty than because it’s fun to copulate on the floor in front of it.  And there are copious bookshelves packed with hardbound books, most of them dating from well before the 1950s.

X people watch a lot of TV but never look at anything remotely improving, regarding National Educational Television as a menace to culture.  On their sets, which will often display a fairground plaster Popeye on top, Xs like to watch classic reruns like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, experiencing ecstasies watching for the fiftieth time Jackie Gleason’s Chef of the Future or Lucy’s manic game of golf.  By these pursuits X people pay their own obeisance to the great status principle of archaism.  They will often seek out live transmissions, in the hope of witnessing comic error – the football flubbed, the manuscript of he public speech blown away and scattered by an impudent gust, the gaffe extempore committed by a President, governor, senator, mayor, or high clergyman.  X people still treasure the moment during John F. Kennedy’s inauguration when the speaker’s stand being used for public prayer by His Eminence Richard Cardinal Cushing suddenly caught fire, the ominous wisps of smoke unperceived by the unwitting grandees on the platform.

Drinking:  X people drink not to show off but to get quietly tight.  Vodka and gin they find the most expedient means to this end, although some Xs will also be seen drinking white wine pretty freely.  Regardless of the tipple, X people like to buy it in quantity and cheaply, specializing in excellent but unknown liquor store house brands – Beefeater Gin and Cutty Sark Scotch betray the credulous victim of advertising, and hence the middle class – and on X premises gallon jugs of drink are commonly seen.

X people seldom eat at stated mealtimes, hunger and convenience being their only motivations for eating.  Like the uppers, Xs generally eat late rather than early, and their meals tend to last a long time, what with all the prolonged comic and scandalous narrative at table.  The X cuisine is seldom the pseudo-French or mock-British of the upper-middle class:  it is more likely to be North African, or Turkish, or “Indo-Chinese,” or vegetarian, or “organic,” or “health.”  Feeling no insecure need to display themselves in the act of dominating inferiors by issuing orders and demanding that their whims be honored, X people generally avoid eating out.  Intelligent and perceptive as they are, they know that if you’re at all clever, you can feed better at home.   Besides, Xs go in for a lot of things you can’t readily get out, like herbal teas, lemon-flavored vodka, and baked goods made of stone-ground flour.  Now and then X people will suddenly, without warning, lurch away from their usual exotic foods and go ape American, eating nothing but apple pies, hams, hot dogs, hamburgers, chili, and turkey.  But regardless of the style of the cuisine, X food is always (1) good and (2) un-praised by the company, its excellence taken for granted.  Except for the occasional sauterne or after-dinner port, the wine is dry, good, and never discussed.  There’s one surefire way, other things being equal, to identify an X dinner party.  All the wine brought by guests, no matter the quantity, is inevitably consumed, and so is more of the host’s stock than he’s probably anticipated.

Instinctively un-provincial, X people tend to be unostentatiously familiar with the street layouts and landmarks of London, Paris, and Rome – and sometimes Istanbul and Karachi.  This is in accord with their habit of knowing a lot for the pleasure of it, as well as their more specific curiosity about people, no matter where or when they live.  Hence the X interest in history, literature, architecture, and aesthetic styles.  (The critic of Aberdarcy’s main square is right in the center of the tradition.)  Regardless of the work they do, the Xs read a great deal, and they regard reading as a normal part of experience, as vital as “experience” and often more interesting.  They never belong to book clubs.  Because they choose their own books entirely themselves, they will often be heard complaining about the vulgarity and hopelessness of their local book outlets.  The X reader reads everything, his curiosity being without limit.  On occasion he will even read best-sellers, but largely to see if their cliché content is as high as usual.  X people have usually “been to college,” but they generally throw out unread, together with other junk mail, their college alumni magazine.

Being entirely self-directed, X people pursue remote and un-commonplace knowledge – they may be fanatical about Serbo-Croatian prosody, geodes, or Northern French church vestments of the eleventh century.  When in a flux of joy X people burst into song, the air is likely to derive from opera of the Baroque period, or from Don Giovanni or The Messiah.  Even the tunes they whistle will be from the classical repertory:  a really able X person can whistle a given Beethoven quartet with hardly a lapse.  X people are good a playing musical instruments, but seldom the expected ones:  instead of the violin or the recorder, they will play the melophone, the auto harp, or the nose flute.

Although X people abjure the word creative, regarding it as stylish, sentimental, psychologically naive, and therefore middle-class, they adopt toward cultural objects the attitude of makers, and of course critics.  It’s not hard for an X person to imagine himself producing any contemporary work of art or drama or architecture.  Thus with films X people are as interested in the styles of directors as of actors.  Although they may know a great deal about European ecclesiastical architecture and even about the niceties of fifteen centuries of liturgical usage, X people never to to church, except for the odd wedding or funeral.  Furthermore, they don’t know anyone who does go, and the whole idea would strike them as embarrassing.  When obliged to bow their heads in prayer in public places, some X people have been known to raise their eyes surreptitiously to inspect the expressions, postures, and clothing of their more conformist neighbors.  X people tend to make their own rules and to get away with so doing, which means that many of them are writers.  And, as Diana Trilling has said, “If everyone . . . wants to be a writer, this is not only because of the promise of celebrity but also because of what the life of the artist promises of freedom to make one’s own rules.”

X people are verbal.  They’re good at languages and take it for granted that it is disgraceful, because merely American and provincial, to remain monolingual.  Instead of the occasional dress-up foreign word of the middle and upper-middle classes (gourmet, arrivederci, kaput), Xs can deliver whole paragraphs in French, Italian, German, or Spanish, and sometimes Russian or Chinese as well.  The more self-conscious Xs will sometimes go so far in the international direction as to cross their sevens.  Soliciting no reputation for respectability, X people are freely obscene and profane, but tend to deploy vile language with considerable rhetorical effectiveness, differing from proles by using f*cking as a modifier only now and then and never dropping the g.  They may be rather fonder than most people of designating someone – usually a public servant or idol of the middle class – an asshole.  This will suggest that generally they eschew euphemism, as, for example, when they insist that their children use the words penis and vagina.  But they don’t always call spades spades.  Sometimes they will euphemize, but unlike more genteel speakers Xs like to use euphemisms ironically or parodically, favoring those especially which low newspapers use with a knowing, libel-skirting leer.  Thus when an X person lifts one eyebrow slightly while referring to someone as a confirmed bachelor, we are to gather than flaming homosexual is meant.  Similarly, as Neil Mackwood observes, starlet is the ironic euphemism for whore, constant companion for lover, tired (or overtired) for publicly drunk, and fun-loving for promiscuous.  Applied to young women, willowy means near death from anorexia.  X people can also use the middle class’s euphemisms for sardonic effect if sufficient irony is signaled at the same time.  Thus it is possible so speak of some poor soul’s kleptomania problem in such a way as to install viciously skeptical quotation marks around the words.

But I want to put a question to my readers, especially those who have read Class:  is the Class X / SWPL category really class-transcendent as Fussell claims?  Does it constitute a separate layer in the class hierarchy?  Or is it a subset or superset of one of the other classes?

My personal take is that X/SWPL is what many upper-middle-class people play at before they grow up.  I am struck while reading Fussell’s description especially how juvenile their preoccupations seem.  I find it difficult to believe that people could keep up that kind of pretense once they have children, for instance.

Update: Authenticity Hoax has a post about the lack of an X/SWPL movement in China.

7 comments:

Dexter said...

Did they have SWPLs, as such, back in the 1980s? I can't remember any, but they certainly weren't very common in Arizona, where I was at that time. Maybe Class X is a proto-SWPL class - what Upper Middle Class people were before they were the SWPLs of today. Status markers, after all, are constantly in motion.

My personal take is that X/SWPL is what many upper-middle-class people play at before they grow up.

Maybe. Where I am now (northern VA) it seems like there are lots of SWPLs who are in their 40s or even older. Have they not grown up yet?

Φ said...

Have they not grown up yet?

Sheila observed that we are a nation of adolescents. Sad, but true.

Sheila Tone said...

Yeah, "Class" was written in 1983. There were apparently bohos back then, although I was too far down the ladder to know any personally. I first heard the term "Class X" from a boyfriend in 1993, who had grown up in more privileged circumstances. He didn't tell me he pulled it out of a book; he presented some of Fussell's concepts as his own. I was confused at first, as in, "You mean, Generation X?" (That book, by Doug Coupland, had just come out). "No, Class X." They were presented as noble intellects above grubby status-seeking.

Not sure if he considered himself one or not. He was on his way to law school, so I suppose not.

Sheila Tone said...

Upon further consideration, I see the above didn't really answer your question, so I'll try again: No.

To elaborate: It was different then than now. Nowadays, the "Class X" attitude is mainstream among the educated, liberal metropolitan. Back then, my sense is that it was more of a vanguard hipster thing.

I'm sure you won't disagree that anyone you've known who remotely resembles Class X was a liberal.

JC said...

Fussel was a neat writer, but this book really missed the mark. I have to go along with you and Sheila - the "class X" just morphed into the Left/intelligencia movement, and is most often to be found in city planning meetings (they're for it) and green energy conferences (they're for it, but somewhere else)
I did love his distinction on vehicles, though: Lower class -"a big ol' Caddy", Middle class - "a Limosine", Upper class - "the car".
Snarf.

Φ said...

So to return to the original question, do X/SWPLs really transcend class or are they a subset of one of the other classes?

Sheila Tone said...

Wow, I can't answer a question to save my life lately. No, they do not transcend. Yes, they are a subset of all the more privileged classes.