“I got an image, out of control./ Identity crisises.” — Alice Cooper, “Identity Crisis.”
[Y]ou hint at what I think is an under-discussed phenomenon: How moving as an outsider into an academic (or other sort of high-culture) milieu makes us take a hard look at the stuff we used to like and prompts us to ask: “Why did I like these things? Do I still like these things? What do the answers to those questions say about me?
[…] I’ve seen lots of successful people, both in academia and in other careers in D.C., who never ask those questions and deliberately forget where they came from. I’m baffled and disturbed by the ease with which they accomplish that.
So am I, but at the same time, I’m not really surprised. I’ve mentioned before that folks have described academia as following a guild model, and part of what a guild did/does is provide an acculturation process. The process is easy for some — people from backgrounds with higher amounts of what Bourdieu would call cultural capital. These are often people from the middle or upper classes, especially in the humanities, which the culture frequently sees (both for good and for ill) as disconnected from/unsullied by the mundane, workaday world of seemingly more practical fields.
(I disagree with this cultural stereotype, but I acknowledge its existence. At the same time, I think that much of the political agon in the humanities stems from a misguided attempt to overcome the stereotype by making the subject matter “relevant.” I would contend that the subject matter is always relevant, and that the political thrust of the past few decades is merely another sort of buying into the stereotype. But that’s probably a different post.)
As I said, some classes of society are more to the academic manner born (and some are to the manor born as well). Those who are not often find themselves both challenged and expected to adopt those manners. For example:
Because of my non-traditional degree, I didn’t have any traditional scholarship to submit when I applied for my M.A. Instead, I enclosed a lengthy statement/explanation of my background, and some of the other writing I had done, including some writing about heavy metal music and some fiction with a rock and roll setting, because it was stuff I knew about, played, and liked. Although I was accepted into the program, it wasn’t long before one of my professors came into the office I shared while I was sitting around jawing with an officemate and another friend.
The professor looked at me as if I were an exotic, but potentially dangerous animal. “Mondo,” he asked me, “What’s the deal with this heavy metal stuff?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you writing about stuff like that?”
“I like it. Most of my bands have played it. I listen to it when I write.”
He walked away after a bit of small talk, and my officemate, who was a New Yorker, and the son of an engineer and a professor, said, “You blew it.” I asked what I had done, and he said, “You should have told him you listen to Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus when you write.”
“But I don’t. I mean, I listen to them sometimes [and I had in fact had a front-row seat for Miles the year before], but not much. Mainly I listen to Priest or B.O.C. or something proggy.”
“Yeah, and now [the professor] is gonna think of you as ‘that guy who listens to stupid people music’.” It wasn’t stupid people music, of course, but folks like my prof thought it was, and that was enough.
At this point, you’re probably thinking “OK, Mondo, some profs are snobs. So?” Well, the “so” brings us back to the acculturation process. People who come from/are interested in scenes with low cultural capital (e.g., hard rock) are informed, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, that is they want to fit into the guild, they need to trade up. And if they don’t, they won’t fit in very well — groupthink takes a lot of forms, social as well as intellectual. (This is a process that can take place at any and all levels. Do a search for collegiality and tenure denial and see what you find.) Even acceptable eccentricities may fall into a fairly narrow band.
But the pressure doesn’t have to be a harsh as tenure denial. Academics (unsurprisingly) tend to be folks who have done well in school, and in our educational system, part of that is fitting in/following orders/not making waves. Embracing the attitude of the guild is just another example of that self-selected disposition playing out.
Of course, looking at Jeff’s point in a larger way, the idea of leaving one’s past/reinventing oneself is common enough in our literature, and especially in American lit — consider Silas Lapham, Sammy Glick, or Jay Gatsby, for three different takes. But I could never be a Jay Gatsby; I’ve never really had that kind of protective coloration. Or maybe it’s just a familial history of contrariness, or the working-class trait of pride in their lives, with the corollary anger at disrespect from outsiders or former insiders who have “gotten above their raising” — hard for me to say, as I’m too close to my own situation.
I think about the questions Jeff raised earlier, but maybe because I never really fit in when I was a kid and an adolescent (a stage the Mondettes might tell you I haven’t yet left), I’m OK with not entirely fitting in now. The Spawn is in middle school now, with all its pressures to conform, and I tell her to be who she is. It’s all I really know how to do.
So however it plays out, I do what I do. It’s not a case of “keepin’ it real,” because again I think that indicates assent to someone else’s definition of what authenticity is for me. It’s just about liking what I like, and if you think it odd that there’s room for William Cowper and Alice Cooper, then I give you a little Whitman: “I am large; I contain multitudes.” And now I’ll go back to my reading and to some Mitch Ryder.