This spread of sociological thinking has led to sociological living — ways of thinking and seeing that are constructed in order to carry out, yet somehow escape, the relentless demystification sociology requires. Seeing art as a product, mere stuff, rather than a work, has become a sign of a good liberal (as opposed to bad elitist) state of mind. This is why you must support upper-middlebrow Terrence Malick one day, and the next spuriously shock everyone with a loud defense of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Too often, being on the left tasks you with a vigilant daily quest to avoid being tagged with snobbery. In sociological living, we place value on those works or groups that seem most likely to force a reevaluation of an exclusive or oppressive order, or an order felt to be oppressive simply because exclusive. And yet despite this perpetual reevaluation of all values, the underlying social order seems unchanged; the sense of it all being a game not only persists, but hardens.
The initial demystifying shock of the sociology of culture in the academy partly accounts for its popularity. Thanks to the dead ends of certain kinds of European hermeneutics — the realization that repeated analyses of Balzac novellas might not shake the foundations of the subject, let alone those of capitalism — it became more promising to ask why certain classes of people might be interested (and other classes not interested) in Balzac at all. No more appeals to the inexplicable nature of genius. Seen from the longue durée of social change, individual authors or works were less important than collectives or status groups, cities or systems. Like latter-day Northrop Fryes, armed with data, the critic-sociologists converted writers back into “literature” as a system, and from there into refractions of codes, institutions, and classes.
The novel etc. as a sort of cypher for larger dialectical values seems somewhat true of my experiences as an English major. What seems to be the case, increasingly, is that it does not matter whether you are in the humanities or social sciences; you’re just looking at the same thing from different angles.
And the “demystifying shock” provides the thrill for so much laborious theory. Of course, it was often the case that such demystification occurred by flattening out our view of the social order to the point where it felt like we had conquered it, simply because there were so many blind spots that we weren’t attuned to.
It’s worth slowing down Guillory’s and Khan’s arguments to make explicit certain assumptions they share about the university and the culture it promotes: that its purpose is to train a professional-managerial class or a technocratic elite; that those who attend such schools do so with an intention, no matter how unconscious, of becoming members of either the professional-managerial middle class or the elite managers of those managers; and that such groups need distinguishing markers, the equivalent of secret handshakes, that allow them to recognize themselves as a class, and which, apart from their professional training, are provided by “culture,” which offers, at best, a way for people with shared interests to frame their lives to themselves, and for one another, in ways that are mostly flattering to their self-esteem.
The jaded view of “the arts” propagated by new cultural sociologists is not really different from what the sociologist of America’s first Gilded Age wrote in the 1890s: “The humanities . . . are pretty uniformly adapted to shape the character of the student in accordance with a traditional self-centred scheme of consumption.” Thus Veblen deplored what he called the “regime of status” in contrast to a more puritan and utilitarian “regime of productivity.” Post-Veblen, the contemporary sociologist’s idea of the university’s purpose does not really differ in kind from the neoliberal version: to provide training in a specific field so one may get a better job and have a better life than someone without such training. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether a degree’s additional symbolic value is provided by reading Shakespeare, pledging a fraternity, or DJing a radio show on the blues.
Again: the interchangeability of the humanities and social sciences. What mattered was less a sort of personal development via literature, philosophy, whatever than learning the rules of the game so that you can win.
I don’t want to say that this was all there was to my undergrad: there were plenty of more positive aspects as well; but the university is a strange chimera right now.