Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Are you tired of reading about sourdough bread? I know I am. First, it was touted as a nice social-isolation idea, baking your own staff of life from a low-effort template without store-bought active yeast. Back to our roots! Long live Red Fife flour, the pride of Peterborough, Ont. – Canada’s oldest wheat! Who needs commercial bakeries when we can do it ourselves with warm tea towels and an oven? And it’s so much better: not putting undue pressure on beleaguered retailers; channelling our grandmothers; keeping it real!
Then, naturally, came the backlash. Signalling your virtue by way of bread baking was just a form of status-seeking under straitened conditions, critics grumbled, almost but not quite as bad as Marie Antoinette playing at milkmaid on the palatial grounds of Versailles. The overentitled princess is supposed to have said, upon being informed of the famine-borne suffering in Revolutionary France, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” – let them eat brioche (not cake, as usually quoted). Now that’s truly monumental disdain.
But then, just as naturally, came the inevitable counter-counterattack. The critics of home-kitchen Fifers were themselves snobs of privilege, the home bakers said, and they should eat their words, especially when their local Loblaws ran out of supplies of spongy prebaked loaves. A Maclean’s columnist, usually hyper-ironic, earnestly wrote this: “Try and remember that all those food posts you see, all those loaves you scroll by, are not a boast, let alone a judgment. They are a testament to our basic human need to feed each other, to keep the dinner conversation going under any circumstances.”
Well, go ahead and bake bread. But your homemade toast is a boast, and the food posts are a judgment, a declaration of authenticity. Also – here’s the kicker – so is the act of claiming that they aren’t. In fact, that last move is the ultimate attempt to leapfrog into meta-boasting and meta-judging.
Let’s pause here and note that this is all just the newest guise of the oldest form of social distancing – much more basic and defining than staying two metres away from each other. I mean the inescapable human practice known as trading in positional goods (per Thorstein Veblen) or conveying social distinction via cultural markers (per Pierre Bourdieu). My colleague Andrew Potter noted this some weeks back about the original sourdough rise. Successive waves have only confirmed the remarkable tenacity of the human need to establish rank even within what is supposedly a shared predicament.
To be clear, I’m not really interested in the bread part of this equation. I have eaten bread from bakeries large and small, and also baked bread myself sometimes and eaten that. Bread is a great human achievement, sure. But like every aspect of everyday life, it is also a pawn in a larger chess game of status.
Mr. Bourdieu’s monumental 1979 book Distinction – almost 650 pages, translated into English by the nicely named Richard Nice – makes the general anthropological point. No matter what your particular tastes and inclinations (what Mr. Bourdieu calls habitus), there are always ways to feel superior to others, with their own tastes and inclinations, and ideally also to make them feel inferior for having theirs.
The most obvious form of this game is snobbery: the various mechanisms by which financially or socially elevated classes manage, first, to establish an in-group identity and then, second, to make out-groupers feel excluded and bad.
The weapons here are many and varied, but often involve dress, manners, language and pointless social cues invisible to the untutored eye (pass the port decanter to the left, dear boy). Aristocratic novelist Nancy Mitford, in her half-ironic treatment of “U and non-U” language (the U is for “upper”) offered contrastive linguistic examples: motor house, not garage; looking glass, not mirror; napkin, not serviette; trousers, not pants; braces, not suspenders; dinner, not supper; dinner jacket, not tuxedo; scent, not perfume; sofa, not couch; writing paper, not stationery; drawing room, not living room; and – my favourite because of its obvious rudeness – “What?” not “Pardon me?”
The last captures the essence of all snobbery: the rules of normal human civility do not apply to me because I’m better than you. This position might include, these days, whether or not you wear a mask in public, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence.
But distinction countermeasures soon emerge. These include: inverted snobbery (“college boy” and “tenured professor” as insults), humblebragging (“I just won some dumb prize”), prolier-than-thou signalling (“I crawled to school five miles over broken glass, uphill both ways”), and reverse titling (“Mister” over “Doctor” if you are an English surgeon). Related tropes include feigned ignorance (“I’m sorry, I don’t follow popular culture/sports/music/non-craft beer”) and deliberate vagueness (“I was at college in New Haven” – a phrase straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who went to Princeton).
Here’s a bottom line on status boasts: When we’re all winners, we’re also all losers. That’s what position does. There will forever be someone cooler, more elevated or more authentic than you. For myself: Yes, once a college boy, I’m now a tenured professor who went to grad school in New Haven, at a place called Yale, where some professors still, circa 1990, preferred “Mister” over the provincial “Doctor.” Who cares?
I know there are some undergraduates from that august seat of learning who would not grant that I had been there at all, being merely a grindy grad student on scholarship, but you know – let them eat sourdough. Meanwhile, I suggest we call being too snob-smug to wear a mask “pencing.” And cool kids don’t pence.
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