Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Translating Transclass: Or Teaching Eribon in America

Since this is a post about class, family, and returns
I thought that I would illustrate it with pictures illustrating
the fact that I now live in the same neighborhood my mother lived in, 
but the neighborhood has changed except this old fishing/gun store


I have often considered teaching to be a kind of translation and not just because much of the history of philosophy is written in different languages. Part of what one does in teaching is try to take the questions and concerns of a different time and figure out some way to bridge that gap, while at the same time being faithful to its original sense and meaning (just like translation). These thoughts occurred to me again when I decided to teach Didier Eribon's Returning to Reims.

I first heard about Eribon's book when I read Chantal Jaquet's Les Transclasses, and was happy to learn that it was translated by Semiotext(e). After reading it I gave a copy to my father, and he loved it; as a first generation college student from a small mill town in Maine he could really relate to it. It was for that reason that I was excited to teach it in my seminar on Race, Class, and Gender. Many of the University of Southern Maine's students are first generation and higher education in part justifies itself by its ability to supposedly transform class belonging, so it seemed worthwhile to teach the book.

With the first discussion it became immediately clear how much work would need to be done to translate the book to a different time and place. Eribon's trajectory, in which the transformation of his class position was made both possible and desirable by a transformation of his cultural coordinates, a transformation made possible by reading Proust, Sartre, and Marx. Such a trajectory seemed difficult to understand in the American context where class was not only disconnected from such cultural markers, but actively repudiated them. This might be what it means to be transclass in the post-bourgeois age, there is no longer a reading list, the accumulation of capital has become divorced from cultural capital. As one student put it, her uncles had all changed their financial situation, but rather than cast off the culture that they grew up with they had made that transformation maintaining their connection with NASCAR and pick-up trucks. 

However, it is possible to make these awkward elements of translation the basis for an engagement rather than a rejection of Eribon's book. It is through the difficulties of translation that it becomes possible to rethink the nature of class and its relation to individual and national identity. It is possible to delineate three levels of class in Eribon's analysis. The first is the one that describes one's position in the economic system. As Eribon writes, "In my case, I can say that I have always deeply had the feeling of belonging to a class, which does not mean that the class that I belonged to was conscious of itself as such. One can have the sense of belonging to a class without the class being aware of itself as such or being "a clearly defined group." This could be called the class in itself, if one wanted to use that language. It is the aspect of class that is written on the body, on the exhaustion of work and the effects of poverty. In contrast to this is Eribon's memories of what class meant for his family when they were members of the communist party. As Eribon writes describing this dimension of class for itself, or for itself through the party, "You became a political subject by putting yourself into the hands of the party spokespersons, through whom the workers, the 'working class,' came to exist as an organized group, as a class that was aware of itself as such." In between these two there is what could be called the class of itself, the way that class constitutes not just an economic position or a political subject, but a way of life or a habitus of a sort. As Eribon writes of these divisions of class, "These boundaries that divide these worlds help define within each of them radically different ways of perceiving what it is possible to be or become, of perceiving what it is possible to aspire to or not." This is class as it was lived in terms of the things one does and does not do, in terms of tastes, habits, and dress. 

Eribon's story is one of both his own personal transformation, his own non-reproduction, to use Jaquet's term in which the son of a factory worker becomes a journalist and then a famous academic. It is also a story of the larger disarticulation of class composition, of how the working class in the economic sense, shifted from being a class organized by and through the communist party, to a bastion of nationalist and racist sentiment. This disarticulation has two aspects, first there is the transformation of the communist and socialist parties after 1981. As Eribon writes,

What actually occurred was a general and quite thoroughgoing metamorphosis of the ethos of the party as well as of its intellectual references. Gone was any talk of exploitation and resistance, replaced by talk of "necessary modernization" and of "radical social reform"; gone the references to relations between classes, replaced by talk of a "life in common": gone any mention of unequal social opportunities replaced by an emphasis on individual responsibility. 

At the same time that the party moved away from the class struggle, the terms of that struggle where changing for the workers, defined less in terms of revolution and more in terms of the hopes and dreams of a consumer society. The rhetoric of class struggle, of nothing to lose but chains, begins to sound hollow to a class that aspires to buy a car or a vacation. As Eribon writes, 

But what is the point of a political story that doesn’t take into account what people are really like as it interprets their lives, a story whose result is that one ends up blaming the individuals in question for not conforming to the fiction one has constructed? It is clearly a story that needs to be rewritten in order to make it less unified and less simple, to build in more complexity and more contradictions. And to reintroduce historical time. The working class changes. It doesn’t stay identical to itself. And clearly the working class of the 1960s and 1970s was no longer the same as that of the 1930s or the 1950s. The same position in the social field does not correspond to exactly the same realities, nor to the same aspirations.

This disarticulation, the party moving away from class struggle, and the working class defining its struggle differently made possible a new articulation, not in terms of class but of nation. As Eribon writes,

Whose fault if the meaning of a “we” sustained or reconstituted in this way undergoes a transformation such that it comes to mean the “French” as opposed to “foreigners,” whereas it had used to mean “workers” as opposed to the “bourgeoisie”? Or, to put it more precisely, whose fault is it if the opposition between “worker” and “bourgeois,” even if it continues to exist in the form of an opposition between the “have nots” and the “haves” (which is not exactly the same opposition—it carries different political consequences), takes on a national and racial dimension, with the “haves” being perceived as favorably inclined to immigration and the “have nots” as suffering on a daily basis because of this same immigration, one that is held to be responsible for all their difficulties?

This story, which I have given here in terms of just a few key moments, is one of the disarticulation of class and revolution, class and party, and the rearticulation of class and reaction, class and nation. As we discussed in class, this story, the story of the disarticulation of the workers' party and the aspiration of workers' cannot be simply transposed onto the US, even if the ending is the same in terms of the similarity of the National Front and MAGA parties. It would be a massive mistranslation to simply replace the Communist Party with the Democratic Party. There is a much longer story to be told about the disarticulation and the disarray of class and party in the US, and it is told in W.E.B. Du Bois' Black Reconstruction and Mike Davis' Prisoners of the American Dream. (So basically if you want the TL:DR version it is the wages of whiteness and Ronald Reagan). However, it might be possible to use Eribon's categories to make a different disarticulation or rearticulation, not that of the class in itself becoming another for itself, the for itself of the French, of the nation, but the way in which what could be called the class of itself, the habitus of class, the taste, habits and customs have shifted from one class to another. The lack of an articulation between economic position of class and political party has made way for a different articulation in which class is defined in terms of the cultural signifiers of guns, trucks, and Carhart. It is a brand and not a politics. This is the way in which our modern politicians appear to be "of the people" in Machiavelli's sense. This in part accounts for the bizarro world version of class in the US.

This difficulty in translation, the impossibility of neatly mapping Eribon's French story onto an American one made for interesting discussions, but I wonder if we were talking about something that went beyond the classroom. The devaluation of a certain kind of symbolic capital, that one no longer has to read a certain set of books or listen to the right kind of music, is part of the story of the decline of the university, or at least the humanities. The university, at least a state university, is no longer the same institution of transclass transformation. I think that things might be different at elite private colleges, but even there it is more about who one knows than what one knows, connections rather than cultural capital. At small state colleges people still seek to change their class status, but do so through trying to figure out how to accumulate capital in its more material and less symbolic form, they major in business or finance. 

Where does this leave Eribon's own story of transclass transformation, his desire to become someone different, to leave Reims, to leave a culture dominated by sports, restricted gender roles, and fishing, to go to Paris, to a culture dominated by books and ideas, where it is possible to become someone else, something else? I still think people come to the university to do that, to transform themselves, and become something different, but that transformation has been disarticulated from class transformation. 

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