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 omission—we 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 absentmindedness—can 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.
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 Balzac—these 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. Chesterton—another great writer who often leaves bad, in fact far, far worse tastes, in my mouth—beautifully 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:
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 panels—got 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 strategy—yes, you can learn a lot about white peoples’ particular crazinesses by reading our classic books, or about sexism by reading Saul Bellow—it 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 house—which, 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.