August 22, 2007

"X" Marks The Spot

Agnostic of Dusk in Autumn tears into the final chapter of Paul Fussell's Class, in which Fussell posits the existence of a "Category X" of free-thinking Bo-Bos outside the convention hierarchy of American society:

Now, I don't deny that many X-ers are smart and curious people, even if they're not the unrecognized geniuses they think themselves to be. What's really appauling about them is that they have wasted their high levels of IQ and Openness to Experience by pursuing things that are, on an intellectual level, utterly frivolous. They are not contributing to our understanding of how the world works, since Fussell describes them as inveterate "verbal people" -- in short, those adapted to bullshitting, hoodwinking, and pranksterism. They are not creating valuable art, literature, or music either, although they may play an instrument or regard themselves as writers.

What accounts for X's disdain for doing anything worthwhile, preferring faux contrarian behavior? A cynic would say this group is merely flaunting its intelligence and curiosity by investing them in perfectly pointless pursuits. And I don't mean "pointless" in the way that number theory has few real-world applications, but in the sense of "let's psychoanalyze the Transformers cartoon" or "let's make an AdBusters design." Or perhaps "let's maintain a weblog." The intended social signal is, "I've got so much IQ and curiosity to spare that I can afford to fritter a lot of it away on this useless crap." For example, Kant was reknowned for his appetite for arcane knowledge of obscure cultures. However, he was a highly disciplined, productive, and original thinker.

Unfortunately, though, the outcome for X-ers is as if a prole wore jeans and a t-shirt to ape the "understated chic" style of the upper class. First of all, the prole's jeans and t-shirt are poorly constructed, ill-fitting, and visually unappealing, just as X's actual output tends to be unimpressive. And if prodded for further proof, the prole would have no way to show he was upper class, while the true upper class can point to their houses. Similarly, X-ers cannot, when questioned, point to their Nobel Prizes, nor even to early work tending in that direction, or great works of art they've created. By contrast, if Robert Oppenheimer talked your ear off about Indian spirituality, leading you to suspect he was a halfwit, he could always have scores of eminent physicists vouch for his smarts and originality.

An apologist for Bo-Bos would claim that Fussell's final chapter is simply a subtle, ironic "deconstruction" of X's behaviors and motives. But his tone is too enthusiastic, and the other markers of class insecurity and envy too naked, to conclude anything other than that the chapter is a failed attempt at conspicuous ignorance. In reality, X-ers are just a particularly dopey subset of the middle class.

It's been maybe twenty years since I last read Class, but even at the time it struck me that "Category X" could really be narrowed down to Paul Fussell himself, together (by implication) with anybody who read Class and laughed in superiority at all the hopeless conventional dopes described therein.

There is much to be said for Fussell's writing in general, but one must always be conscious of the Giant Fussell Ego floating just beneath the surface of it. I sensed this first with this particular chapter of Class, but confirmed it when I read Doing Battle, his personal account of his service as an infantry line officer in WWII, which, from its quite blatent references and parallels to Goodbye To All That, I've always taken as Fussell's deliberate effort to crown himself the Robert Graves of the Second World War.

Yips! to Michael Blowhard.

Posted by Robert at August 22, 2007 11:47 AM | TrackBack