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Shock of the new bourgeois reality

  • 28 November 2014

I am in the US for work, and I’m reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. His beautiful and vivid essays string together the material and immaterial in ways that are transcendental. They help explain how the material and immaterial are so densely and confusingly interwoven here in the US, which is a place of both immense creativity and great poverty.

In his powerful essay ‘Circles’, Emerson writes: ‘That which builds is better than that which is built … Better than that hand, and nimbler, was the invisible thought which wrought through it.’ 

For me, this points to the immaterial forces that drive historical change and creative transformation, while acknowledging the ways the contemporary moment is always held to be material, a-historical, and permanent. ‘Everything looks permanent until its secret is known,’ he says.

The San Francisco neighbourhood I’m staying in could best be described as the Prius capital of America, or possibly the neighbourhood with the highest instance of fresh paint jobs on Edwardian exteriors. Anyway, it’s a very nice neighbourhood, and by nice of course I mean comfortably middle-class. 

It used to be populated by artists and dilettantes, and now it is affluent. We are a block away from an organic grocer, and a dog park, and my neighbours shouted at my housemate for smoking a cigarette in a public area. Because everything seems permanent until its secret is known, middle class-ness looks obvious until the fact that it is predicated on order, authority, and materiality becomes known. 

The middle classes – and without irony I really mean the bourgeoisie – consume art and culture, perhaps in a similar manner in which they consume Priuses and house paint. These are modern-day versions of iron and grain. 

Artists need the bourgeoisie, then, because material things like health and safety and housing and nourishment require material upkeep. But artists are not middle class. They can’t be. They have to exist as Emerson’s ‘invisible thought’ that works through the material world, or else there is no possibility for transcendence or change. But then, I’m reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre, who writes that poets never ‘resemble the bourgeoisie more closely than when they attempt to set themselves apart from it.’ 

Nadine Gordimer distinguishes artists from the bourgeoisie by affirming the notions of ‘relevance and commitment’ that are central to an artist’s mode of being. Sartre writes that the bourgeoisie is ‘unable to ground its privileges in Being’ but rather ground it in moral