Monday, 11 December 2006

The Dark Heart of (Bourgeois) Table Manners

One of my office mates burst into the room today full of passion and righteous fury. She’d been on a jolly at some International Relations conference in Bloomsbury or something and found the whole experience an exercise in pretentiousness and snobbery.

Judging by her account of what transpired most of the presenters and panellists were very keen to display their post-structuralist credentials and elaborated their various analyses on the state of IR in the early 21st century. Though aghast at the (f)utility of treating sectarian bombings in Baghdad or Israeli assaults on Gaza as texts open to the infinite play of interpretation, it was in fact the events of that evening’s dinner that raised my friend’s ire.

Braving the no doubt scintillating level of dinner table conversation it came to the totting up of the bill. As this was Bloomsbury her glass of wine, slice of cheese and chocolate truffle came to £16, but as is apparently customary in these heady circles it was decided everyone should pay the same. Hence her bill was further inflated to 27 quid! Not being English she was imprudent enough to challenge this and say she couldn’t afford it.

There was uproar around the table! These post-structuralists, so keen to deny the efficacy of material struggles over material interests in the material world were horrified to learn that not only was one of their number out of pocket, but is a hard up PhD student who isn't wealthy in any way. This was too rude a reality check for these poor souls.

In his famous study Distinction, Bourdieu exposes the relationship between class and consumption, style and cultural habits. Though the empirical data’s a touch out of date (it was published in France in 1979) some of his observations remain spot on. For pretty much of what us Marxists would call bourgeois culture it is absolutely taboo to talk about money. It is as if the poor dears have been too busy extracting surplus value all day that the last thing they want to be reminded of in polite society is the money that sustains their luxurious lifestyles. Money is dirty and vulgar; hence the bourgeoisie spend so much of their time appearing to be motivated by anything but money. This aversion pervades bourgeois culture from the arts, philosophy, literature to everyday countenance and etiquette.

My friend's refusal to subsidise the more expensive meals of the well-renumerated professors exposes the squalid heart of bourgeois table manners. That they were keen to hide their stingey moves behind the democratic gesture of sharing the bill out equally, their attraction to post-structuralism comes as no surprise. Its faux ultra radicalism and attacks on the tyranny of "totalising" theories that actually try to make sense of the world is nothing but a sophisticated denial of bourgeois material interest.

PS In the end my friend struck a blow against bourgeois propriety and only paid what she owed. :)

1 comment:

Scott said...

Good on her. maybe she should have said that the "fair" thing to do would have been to pay the percentage of the bill equal to the percentage that they are paid.