The May 8 Weekly Standard contains a summary of David Brooks’ recent best-seller Bobos in Paradise, an analysis of America’s “new upper class” of BOurgeois BOhemians. Brooks’ thesis is that the information economy has put an end to the “culture wars” that have characterized the entire history of market society, beginning in earnest, as Brooks accurately points out, in Paris in the 1830s. The battle between artiste and bourgeois has now been resolved by the absorption of the former into the latter. The bourgeois has always felt himself a bit artiste, and now, after something over a century and a half, the artiste has discovered that he is really a bourgeois.
Brooks describes our modern bourgeois as having acquired “bohemian” tastes without losing his capacity for hard work. “Bohemian” is a somewhat misleading term, because whatever the bobo lifestyle may have borrowed from the artistic, it is antipodal to the life recounted in Henri Mürger’s novelScènes de la vie de Bohème (a portion of which became Puccini’s La Bohème), whose central feature is poverty. However dubious the virtue of poverty as a sign that one has not sold out to the putative vulgarity of bourgeois taste, it was essential to a bohemian lifestyle which, given the usually bourgeois background of the painters and writers involved, reflected a sacrifice of wealth and status far more sharply marked than in our own time. Not that Brooks’ analogy between our IPO millionaires and Mürger’s garret-dwellers is without foundation. Poverty aside, the former as well as the latter are willing to abandon tradition for risky innovation and capable of forgoing immediate satisfactions in the pursuit of long-term goals.
In lifestyle terms, however, our bobos have more in common with Des Esseintes, the wealthy aristocratic esthete of J-K Huysmans’ A rebours, the bible of the French and English decadence but also a covert paean to the nascent consumer society. No shivering Mimis for Des Esseintes, who should be worshipped as the totemic ancestor of the yuppie. Although the accoutrements for which he is remembered–the orgue à bouche with a keyboard that emits chords of liqueurs, one room fitted out like a ship, another like a monk’s cell, the gold-encrusted tortoise, not to speak of his jewelry collection or his greenhouse of exotic plants–were designed by the hero himself, they were nearly all composed from commercially available materials. Des Esseintes was less a collector than a wise consumer who knew in which byways of the marketplace to find the articles he needed. A more immediately prophetic work is Georges Perec’s Les choses, published in 1965, which dissects the consumption-obsessed life of a yuppie couple twenty-odd years avant la lettre.
It is this talent for consumption that the modern bobo develops and applies so assiduously as a means to self-creation. As theorists of consumer society such as Jean Baudrillard pointed out long ago, the lifestyle values thus generated furnish a status not simply reducible to money. But neither can these values be reduced to the pure mimeticism of the snob. Brooks is well aware of the moralistic, even ascetic side of all this self-indulgence. The bobos build huge kitchens and stock them with overpriced paraphernalia in order to cook their own gourmet meals. They purchase expensive exercise equipment in order to work out strenuously. They lavish on their children not only obscene amounts of cash but a great deal of their own precious time. Whatever their real musical tastes, their patronage has given a new lease on life to classical music and opera.
The term yuppie caught on because it expresses a nice balance of smartness and derision; I can’t imagine that bobo (a French child’s word for a source of pain) ever will. But word-play aside, I have only admiration for Brooks’ analysis of information-age prosperity. What I especially admire is his own genuine admiration for the creativity that the marketplace unleashes in its participants. The artiste was unfair to the bourgeois he affected to despise. In his lucid moments, he knew all along that his work was nourished by bourgeois rather than aristocratic values: the aristocrat is, but the bourgeois does. Des Esseintes himself is more bourgeois than aristocrat, as Huysmans, a bureaucrat of modest extraction, well understood. That Charles Baudelaire, the most astute artiste as well as the greatest poet of his time, dedicated his 1846 Salon “Aux Bourgeois” seems today a prophetic gesture indeed.
Brooks’ incisive analysis suggests to me some further reflections on two points.
Assuming Brooks’ analysis to be correct, the first is the question of how the end of the “culture wars” should be understood in the overall context of market society and of social organization in general. Brooks explains plausibly that the new bourgeois of the information economy are particularly open to new ideas and experiences because they derive their income from creating new ideas and experiences for others. But this is too narrow an explanation for a development as consequential as the end of the conflict between the marketplace and its own culture.
The culture wars have indeed been endemic to bourgeois society. The French romantics made oppositional culture into a mass movement, but they were following British models, Byron and Beau Brummel, or their own Chateaubriand, who go back a generation to the earliest stages of what one could call the bourgeois era. The idea that market society today has finally become able to absorb this oppositional culture without simply evacuating it obliges us to revise our understanding of the cultural operations of the market system.
Why was this oppositional culture generated in the first place? In its early years, it was the work of aristocrats displaced by the French Revolution, but its real resonance was in the bourgeoisie itself. Romanticism was not merely an oppositional but a youth culture–a point perhaps not sufficiently insisted upon by Brooks. The mildly rebellious sons of the bourgeoisie played the same role in the romantic era as they later did in the rock’n’roll era. The cultural-oppositional stance operates to root the young bourgeois, beyond the mere mimeticism of the marketplace, in the “use-values” that are the ultimate objects of exchange. The romantics saw these “natural” human values as incompatible with the “unnatural” spirit of the exchange system, but naively thought this spirit could be changed without damaging the economic productivity of the system. After the sobering experience of 1848, this incompatibility was understood to be insuperable within the present exchange-system, requiring at least its profound modification and, for many, its “dialectical” destruction. It was generally agreed in the cultural world that the market system was hostile to the very human values whose exchange it facilitated.
In this context, art served to focus the attention of the participants in the system on the values it was accused of neglecting. Whether sentimental or decadent, bourgeois culture was almost always at least a bit anti-bourgeois. Throughout many decades of ever more sophisticated consumption, the role of culture remained that of rejecting “commercial” values for the sake of “natural” values that, magically and perversely, the commercial world increasingly made available. Today, if Brooks is to be believed, this is no longer the case.
Like the emergence of the information era itself, this transformation is indissoluble from the demise of socialism, which is not merely the death of political systems–first “National Socialism,” then Soviet socialism–but, more importantly, the death of a utopian dream within bourgeois society itself. The cultural integration of “capitalism” involves the dawning recognition that it is less a sphere with a center and a periphery than a network of exchange. In such a network, the resentments of a given person or group are not opposed to the “system” from without but to other resentments from within. The victimary movements of postmodern culture are still with us, in many ways more stridently than ever. But as these movements increasingly operate within the political system–for example, in the current judicial lynching of the tobacco companies–the old anti-establishment rhetoric comes to be limited to tenured radicals and fringe segments of the youth culture.
The end of socialist utopia, the information age–these designations point to but do not quite articulate the key transformation of our era, which is no longer “postmodern” in the original sense of the term. The human, from the perspective of the originary hypothesis, is defined by the exchange of signs rather than the exchange of things; the freedom and ease of the first can only indirectly and over time be transferred to the latter. The sea-change signaled by Brooks is that for the first time it is generally accepted that this transfer is possible and desirable; the Internet is the clearest emblem of this transformation. This does not mean that we are about to become immortal or that poverty is about to disappear, only that we generally acknowledge the acceleration of economic and intellectual exchange, rather than the construction of one or another zero-sum utopia, as our shared social goal, one whose implementation gives us real hope of improving human life.
My second point is related, although obliquely, to the first. If culture is essentially a means of deferring violence by preventing the accumulation of resentment, then the truce between artiste and bourgeois means that the bohemian lifestyle is no longer a valid means of discharging this resentment. A generation ago, a mother going back to college, a homosexual coming out, would be sufficient material for family dramas; in bobo circles today, women take up professions as a matter of course and even the most extreme sexual proclivities elicit little reaction. (Brooks begins his article by describing how respectful of bourgeois values the sado-masochistic community has become.) But however tolerant we are of other people’s sex lives, the one thing that grows not more but less tolerable along with our sophistication is violence. However blasé you may be about a transvestite with green hair and a tongue pierce, you react to someone shooting at you.
Violence clears a path to the outside of even the most inclusive system of human relations. Now that the network model has replaced the center-periphery model, the more traditional resentments have moved from without to within the system; the outsider-victim stance that was effective a decade ago is perceived as outdated. But the outside-inside model remains a recourse. For resentments that are too unproductive to function within the network, expulsion is the only alternative to indifference, and the surest way to prompt expulsion from the social network is through violence. Nothing closes down a marketplace faster than a few gunshots.
To claim that the news media magnify the intrinsic significance of incidents like last year’s Columbine massacre is to forget that the media are very soul of the information age in which the bobos flourish. A steady stream of “hate crimes” attests to the continued health of expulsion/publicity-provoking extremism. Within the fabric of American society itself, such incidents are unlikely to create more than local unpleasantness; but there is a world out there that resonates with resentment against the Western social order. The twenty-first century may well be dominated by the contest between the ever-more-inclusive global market network and those who obstinately and violently affirm their outsider status. In such an eventuality, we are fortunate to have the sons and daughters of the American bourgeoisie on our side.