On Coates, Cultural Capital, and Remotism

I had taken this post down along with a bunch of others, and a colleague asked me to repost it. That’s why it’s at the top of my page now. Cheers!

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a new piece up at the Atlantic. Like most things Coates writes, it is beautifully written and urgently recommendable. Nominally, it’s about the time Coates spent this summer in a French-immersion program, but, being a Coates piece, it’s “about” many other things: what it’s like to be an autodidact; why narrow nationalism is sometimes a bridge, not a bar, to a generous and open-minded humanism; why brilliant people often hate school. It gives us a qualified defense of cosmopolitanism (the qualifications being just as necessary as the defense); a succinct explanation of barriers to class mobility among black people; a reminder, if any were needed, that oppressed minority groups are punished both for fitting into the surrounding culture and for not fitting into it; and a blessedly unexpected paean to the virtues of memorization. If we lived in a sane world, it would also end all argument as to whether accusations of “acting white” constitute the main barrier to black cultural achievement.

And yet, like a good French dish, this piece left one really foul taste in my mouth, and that taste came from Coates’s use of the metaphor “capital.” For example, he writes:

For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”

I certainly don’t disagree with Coates’s overall point in this paragraph; it’s an empirical point, and he’s empirically right. And I think I understand why “social capital” and “cultural capital” are helpful metaphors when making this point: knowing how to learn does tend to make you richer and happier. If people are kept from knowing how to learn, they are materially impoverished as a result. And so what might look to even well-meaning white people like a series of sins of omissionwe didn’t get around to making sure the black schools are as good as the white schools; we didn’t happen to build a library in this neighborhood; we just sort of committed white flight in a fit of absentmindednesscan be framed as a sin of commission. We didn’t fail, we plundered. We stole. We took away from some people something that everybody should have. And then we called the people we’d taken it away from “deficient.”

Metaphors of “cultural capital” and “social capital” are great and useful because they help make all that visible.

But the metaphor always jars me, and it especially jarred here, in an essay that contains passages like this:

At Middlebury, I spent as much time as I could with the master’s students, hovering right at the edge of overbearing. On average, I understood 30 percent of what was being said. This was, of course, the point. I wanted to be reminded of who I was. I wanted to be young again, to feel that old thrill of not knowing. … And I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more. Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.

…In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.

From a certain perspective, what Coates describes here is the process of acquiring cultural capital. Does that sound right to you? It’s … not wrong. Because Coates has gone through this experience, he will write and read more things; what he writes will be interesting in ways that he has not previously been interesting; the impact on his bottom line can only be good. Capital acquired! But I can’t be alone in feeling like that is an ugly, reductive way of describing what sounds a lot more like falling in love.

And that’s the problem with the “capital” metaphor. When you use the term “social capital,” you are using a metaphor that suggests human social relationships are best compared to money, or to stuff that helps you make money. When you use the term “cultural capital,” you are using a metaphor that suggests that learning a language, knowing how to use a library, falling in love with Balzacthese things are all best compared to money. Now Balzac, of all people, would have been last to deny that money plays a role in these things as in all things. But the metaphor of “capital” takes one aspect, one end result, and makes it the whole phenomenon. And human beings live by our metaphors. When we get in the habit of talking about our relationships with our neighbors as “social capital,” or our relationship with our minds as “cultural capital,” we start to treat people and learning more like tools. Think of the metaphor of the “selfish gene,” which Dawkins defenders will always tell you they know is a metaphor: well, tell it to Jeffrey Skilling. And I have to think that English professors’ deference to the metaphor of “cultural capital” is one reason why so much contemporary academic literary criticism doesn’t so much deny aesthetic experience as simply ignore it. It’s another version of what G.K. Chestertonanother great writer who often leaves bad, in fact far, far worse tastes, in my mouthbeautifully described as “remotism”:

There is one great evil in modern life for which nobody has found even approximately a tolerable description: I can only invent a word and call it “remotism.” It is the tendency to think first of things which, as a matter of fact, lie far away from the actual centre of human experience. … We may take, for the sake of argument, the case of what is called falling in love. The sincere realist, the man who believes in a certain finality in physical science, says, “You may, if you like, describe this thing as a divine and sacred and incredible vision; that is your sentimental theory about it. But what it is, is an animal and sexual instinct designed for certain natural purposes.” The man on the other side, the idealist, replies, with quite equal confidence, that this is the very reverse of the truth. I put it as it has always struck me; he replies, “Not at all. You may, if you like, describe this thing as an animal and sexual instinct, designed for certain natural purposes; that is your philosophical or zoölogical theory about it. What it is, beyond all doubt of any kind, is a divine and sacred and incredible vision.” The fact that it is an animal necessity only comes to the naturalistic philosopher after looking abroad, studying its origins and results, constructing an explanation of its existence, more or less natural and conclusive. The fact that it is a spiritual triumph comes to the first errand boy who happens to feel it. 

We describe things by their consequences, and we forget the thing. So the wealth and health that come to people who can namedrop Balzac gets mistaken for … knowing Balzac. And Balzac gets reduced to a tool. I’m not calling for a ban on the useful metaphor of “cultural capital,” but I wish people who use it would more often acknowledge that these are very serious limitations.

And the bad taste comes back at the end of Coates’s essay, where he uses another phrase you hear a lot when you hang out in English departments:

I came to Middlebury in the spirit of the autodidactic, of auto-liberation, of writing, of Douglass and Malcolm X. I came in ignorance, and found I was more ignorant than I knew. Even there, I was much more comfortable in the library, thumbing through random histories in French, than I was in the classroom. It was not enough. It will not be enough. Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.

Ah, yes. The master’s tools, master’s house, etc. I can’t do justice to the process by which Audre Lorde’s original quotation “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”the original context was that Lorde was understandably sick of being almost the only woman of color invited to speak at academic feminist panelsgot a) shorn of its negative (now it’s usually misquoted, to be about how sometimes you can so use the master’s tools) and b) turned into a shorthand way to defend the strategic value of reading canonical texts by dead white men. But that is usually how I hear it used: “God, you’re reading Moby-Dick? Why?” “Well, sometimes you’ve got to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” And, though I think that’s certainly good strategyyes, you can learn a lot about white peoples’ particular crazinesses by reading our classic books, or about sexism by reading Saul Bellowit always makes me sad. I think: Seriously, that’s all you got from all those books? You plodded all the way through Melville, and all you got from it was some insight into the Racist Hivemind? You never, in all those pages, thought, “Huh, that’s a beautiful sentence,” or “Bellow may be problematic, but he’s an interesting guy”? I hate the instrumentalism of this metaphor when it’s used in this way (I have no problem with the point Audre Lorde was originally making); I hate the idea of canonical texts as “tools.” Certainly the construct of a canon, itself, is a tool, but the books making it up aren’t tools. Moby-Dick isn’t an instrument, any more than my love for my wife is just a way for my genes to get out there and express themselves again.

But the end of Coates’s essay is such a strange place for this meme to appear, too, because he so obviously does not think of learning as a tool, the Master’s or otherwise. He certainly doesn’t seem to feel that way about French, which he writes about with something more like the loving exasperation of a pet owner: “French is a language that obeys its rules when it feels like it. There is no unwavering rule to tell you which nouns are masculine, or which verbs require a preposition. Memory is the only way through.” If, somehow, the knowledge of French helped Coates dismantle the Master’s housewhich, seriously, I still don’t get, because isn’t the problem the Master, and his asshole rules, and not the house? Are houses just bad now? Is this a subtle argument for geodesic domes?but even if it did, he wouldn’t throw it away, as you throw away a tool that has outlived its usefulness. He wants it around for its own sake. Because knowledge, for him, is an end in itself.

That’s what it is for me. And that’s what people are for me. And that’s why I love Coates’s writing. But it’s also why I wish we had more language that, unlike the metaphors of “social capital” and “cultural capital,” insisted that people and knowledge are more than their functions.


It’s about where folks go when they die. If that makes you think of a certain Meat Puppets song, you’re my kinda people.


Two things

One, please for God’s sake call your senators (202-224-3121) before they condemn you to an early death with a bill that:

1) causes 23 million families to lose their health insurance;
2) sends your premiums through the roof even if your insurance is through work;
3) kicks some old and disabled people off Medicaid.

Tell the operator where you live; they’ll transfer you. Say your piece, tell ’em thanks, and hang up. If you get an answering machine, leave a message.

When you’ve done that! Here is an essay on Elif Batuman’s wonderful novel The Idiot that I wrote for CommonwealVery honored to appear there; I do love me some lefty Catholics.

Reading this novel and writing this piece gave me a chance to clarify some things for myself about “where the novel is heading” (gag me, but I don’t have time to word that better) and I think the results of that thinking will be helpful for a lot more people than just me.

New-old piece on Edward Yang’s A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY

I wrote this for the Christian Courier a year ago; it was published last month, and, as always, they kindly allow me to repost it here, as it was paywalled. Please do consider subscribing to the Courier. They do good stuff


For some of us, there’s a season, a handful of months, on the cusp of young adulthood—around 16 or 17—when all the deepest failings and yearnings of your nature seem to announce themselves one after the other, like symphonic themes that the rest of your life will restate with far greater complexity, perhaps, but never again so pristinely. Adults view the struggles of teenagers as they pass through such times with pity, amusement, contempt: reactions that preserve our distance from our own memories of being so young, and so susceptible to the characteristic pain of this period, pain constituted, in large part, precisely by the absence of perspective. Every breakup, every lost fight, every death, every friendship lost to gossip or to moving trucks seems unsurvivable, precisely because you haven’t survived many such losses yet. You wonder, rightly, how it can possibly be done. (Really—how do we do it? And what does it say about us wise adults that we can repeatedly part with what is dearer than life? How coherent is a self that has grown used to losing, precisely, itself?). If adolescence lasted even six months longer than it did, it would certainly kill us all. And yet there is something admirable, even beautiful, about these storms of rage and sadness and fear, which recall the goddesses and gods of classical mythology, who also live outside the dulling and comforting repetitions of time.

Only an artist of extraordinary bravery even attempts to handle such radioactive material. (Most fiction aimed at the young doesn’t even glance at it.) And only an artist of extraordinary skill, perception, and wisdom could effectively evoke the feeling of those years from a viewer secure within the carapace of adulthood.

Edward Yang did it at least twice.

I say “at least” because Yang, the internationally acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker who died in 2007, is truly an unknown quantity for North American filmgoers. Until earlier this year, only one of his films was legally available in the US in any form. That one film, however, was Yi-Yi (2000)—which is sort of like being unknown except for the Sistine Chapel. A tragicomic study of a middle-class Taiwanese family, Yi-Yi is so quietly convincing in its observation of character, and so enveloping and thorough in its portrayal of people, that you finish the movie feeling as if you’ve just made and lost a circle of friends. The experience is of a deep and painful joy. There are many movies I watch more often, because they’re easier (The Big Lebowski; Cold Comfort Farm; Godzilla Vs. Megalon), but if anyone asks me what my favorite movie is, the answer is Yi-Yi. The answer will always be Yi-Yi.

For years I’ve heard whispers that Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991) is “even better.” This is silly. Is winning a legal victory against an evil corporation “even better” than holding your newborn niece? Is a mountain “better” than a flower? But now that Criterion has issued Brighter Summer Day in North America for, essentially, the first time (bar a few festival showings), I can certainly confirm that it, like Yi-Yi, achieves the kind of greatness that makes rankings impossible. Set in the years 1959-61, the film depicts the moral and social destruction of a thoroughly decent teenage boy, against a backdrop of Taiwanese youth gangs, Chinese refugee struggle, and US cultural incursion. If Yi-Yi is tragicomedy, Brighter Summer Day is tragedy, full stop: the self-destruction of a good person. The last hour in particular is crushing.

What unites the two films—and what accounts for the enormous emotional power of both—is the calm, honest gaze of Yang’s camera. Though there’s hardly a shot in Brighter Summer Day that isn’t exquisitely framed—it’s one of those movies where any given twenty-fourth-of-a-second could be mounted and shown in a gallery—the film never seems to be trying for an effect. Structural devices (similarly framed shots of characters in similar social positions; a flashlight that gets stolen early in the film and keeps reappearing) tie the film together and yet you only just register them; the characters, every now and then, make thematically important speeches, but they sound like they’re just talking. One of the teenage hoods in this film, during a period when he’s hiding out from the cops, reads War and Peace to stave off boredom. Yang is like Tolstoy in that, after you’ve spent some time with him, nearly every other artist seems mannered, straining for effect, while he is merely conveying life. This is, of course, the most difficult, and the greatest, artistic effect of all.


It’s been two months since my last podcast (the end of school is like that), but I talked to Mark Athitakis, one of the world’s leading experts on Midwestern literature, about David Foster Wallace’s tragically unfinished novel The Pale King.

This episode was going to be a discussion of Suzan-Lori Parks’s work with the coolest person I know, but the coolest person I know had to do some traveling and won’t be back till July.

You can read an excerpt from Mark’s excellent The New Midwest here, and you can buy the book here. It’s a much-needed corrective to the idea that Midwestern literature means only prairies and white people.

Some catching up

I wrote about Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the surreal costumed-criminal films of the silent era, the birth of modern policing, and other things in this post at the Hedgehog Review‘s blog. I also reviewed Mark D. Jordan’s Teaching Bodies, a fascinating exposition of Aquinas, for the Century, and explained why I love Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself for the Courier.

New piece on Han Kang’s HUMAN ACTS

I reviewed Han Kang’s important novel Human Acts for the Christian Century.