Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Re-reading Fussell's X Category

I have been teaching Paul Fussell's Class: A Painfully Accurate Guide to the American Status System for twenty years. It is usually the last book in "Introduction to Sociology." Students find it disturbing and very helpful. Fussell spends almost the entire book making fun of every social class. At the end, he offers "The X Way Out." X is not a class, but a category of personhood that one can earn by pursuing your own interests in freedom. He calls the X category a "parody aristocracy" or an "unmonied aristocracy" because of this freedom.

For years I have thought that Fussell hoist himself on his own petard. He condemned all others for their status-seeking, while reserving for himself a category free from status-seeking. Yet clearly it is better to be X than any class. Better means higher status.

His summary of what is good about the X category is this:
They occupy the one social place in the U.S.A. where the ethic of buying and selling is not all-powerful. Impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit, X people have escaped out the back doors of those theaters of class which enclose others.

This year, though, I read this very familiar passage in a new way. X offers an escape from the ethic of buying and selling. X is an escape from class. It is not, and is not meant to be, an escape from status. Fussell is not being a hypocrite in exchanging the status system of curiosity and freedom for the status system of material goods and the control of the means of production.

X offers a different standard of status, not an escape from status.


Adriana said...

It's interesting that you post this, as I have reflected on Fussell numerous times throughout the years since Soc 11. Now that I am immersed in academia in nearly all aspects of my life, I can see a great deal of truth in your statement - beyond yuppiehood, and into status being determined by intellectual property rather than physical property.

Michael D. Bush said...

I wonder how many people end up with new neurotic patterns in their lives because of that book.

I read it as an undergraduate, and ever after I've cleaned everything out of my wallet that I can possibly do with out, striving at first obsessively but now just habitually for thinness. Nothing in my wallet except my insurance card and my driver's license could conceivably be used to prove anything.