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.

14 responses to “On Coates, Cultural Capital, and Remotism

  1. Thanks.

    Apologies if my understanding of your critique is inadequate.

    W/R/T capital, and concern about “tools,” Warren Mosler @wbmosler, other proponents of Modern Monetary Theory, talk about the post gold standard idea of “functional finance,” from Hyman Minsky http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyman_Minsky and others.

    Essentially their point is that Republicans are right about FEDERAL taxes.

    “(Federal) Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/warren-mosler/taxes-for-revenue-are-obs_b_542134.html

    Democrats are right about the need for more federal investment in health care, education and green infrastructure.

    We’re not borrowing dollars from China or our grand children. Federal government creates money through key strokes and printing. Since state and local governments can’t do that, the taxes they levy provide the revenue they need.

  2. Similar thoughts here from John Harvey in Forbes: “Four Reasons You Should Consider Washington’s Deficit As Your Surplus.”


    IMHO, these folks aren’t disagreeing with your concerns. They’re approaching it from the other end, the real “job creators,” are consumers with money to spend. Mosler strongly supports a federal job guarantee.

    “…The government could serve as the “employer of last resort” under a job guarantee program modeled on the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, in existence from 1935 to 1943 after being renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942). The program would offer a job to any American who was ready and willing to work at the federal minimum wage, plus legislated benefits. No time limits. No means testing. No minimum education or skill requirements….”


    A lot of other #MMT folks want that plus a Basic Income Guarantee.

    Mosler’s health care plan is basically a public option on steroids. Everyone gets a Medical debit card with $5,000.
    Every year they get an additional $5,000.

    They have to spend $1,000 on preventative measures. Whatever they don’t spend, of the remaining $4,000, they get to keep.


    Under such a program, no business in the US has to worry about worker health care costs.

    Other #MMT luminaries that I follow @stephaniekelton @interfluidity @asymptosis

    • Oops, forgot to mention, if my annual (non-preventative) medical expenses are north of $4,000 in a calendar year, that bills to Medicare. Universal Medicare coverage applies.

  3. IMHO, Americans will be much more willing to pay substantial reparations to the descendants of slaves, if they don’t think it will raise their federal taxes.

    The url below is to a very accessible 50-minute video from Dr. Kelton about why we shouldn’t be trying to “balance” the federal budget.


    What has to “balance,” are the three economic sectors private (domestic), foreign, and public. IMHO, Modern Monetary Theory is way forward especially on technology and labor saving devices. With a robust federal job guarantee, workers are more easily retrained to go back into the worker force at a higher skill level and for better pay.

    I don’t mean to imply that this will work if we let the oligarchs control each succeeding wave of technology. Capitalists unfortunately have forgotten their roots. Monopolies and oligopolies are the great enemies of new technologies and efficient markets.

  4. Just a note on Dawkins, and even though he is a twat; he has added in the foreword to The Selfish Gene that the emphasis should be on the word *gene*. It is about the necessity for a gene to be selfish (in order to survive) as opposed to the survival of a character trait as the *selfish* gene.

  5. I took “social capital” to mean the basic social structure of any relationship which is like “marriage” and which therefore requires, trust, security, and comfort in order to bond emotionally and when there is no trust, people feel unsafe and when they are not finding support or comfort in their primary relationships, and if this is prevalent for families, then all outer relationships (outside the family) such as our institutions also face that reflection of neglect or lack of social “capital”. Being that people are supposed to be sheltered by their governments (so to speak) access to education, access to analysis-thinking-comprehension, access to empathy, basic nutrition, clean water, healthcare, mobility not just possessions but yes networking, etc. requires teaching… which breaks down into tools… linguistically.
    I have yet to read the Coates article you refer to (my apologies) but I appreciate the link to read his perspectives. “Capital” seems to be the new word among sociologists and guests on Bill Moyers as well as the PBS News Hour. And I like Bill Moyers’ recommendations usually… so I have been accepting “capital” as a way of describing the social contract(s)… and not just as money and tools, so I will have to further consider your argument/case/sour taste. I’m glad for your clarification of quotes and their origins. Contexts seem to shift a lot through out history. Same thing happened the the song “Nothing But a Hound Dog” when Elvis Presley sang it. It was originally written for a black woman, Big Mama Thorton and had an entirely different intention. Which goes to the robbing of culture thing maybe, as Coates has written also about reparations I don’t how the fact that the song was written by two Jewish men, for a black woman’s perspective, factors in… but I think Big Mama probably got gypped. Perhaps “falling in love” is about access too, not that it’s about “tools”, but duration. I don’t know If I’m making sense on that last part so I’ll leave it alone.

  6. Okay I read the Coates article now and I see what you’re saying and I see what he’s saying at least somewhat (I think). I do think capital in terms of social and cultural definition includes the money-material component for mobility and access, but I think “social capital” includes an emotional bond. As in “Who can you talk to that you can trust?” If the “right people” who created the empire around you never see you as “right” how do you form the emotional bond to connect with the greater learning and compassion of that culture so that you have it for yourself and others… and If you are the second class citizen the learning of what “keeps you out” or “obstructs” acceptance or in-effect “Love” can turn the empire’s “tools” books, languages etc. into viable sources of deconstruction and revolution as much as creation.
    If I got any of your meaning(s) wrong, please don’t feel I’m arguing. I’m only interested in refining language and understanding.
    You wrote a good article.

    • That’s fine. Your fiction is funny and interesting, by the way.

      • katherinejlegry

        Hello Phil, if you aren’t going to be serious when you make a comment, don’t talk to me. Belittling my opinion won’t make yours stronger. If you have a point to make with facts that you can pin point and disagree with or if you don’t understand my point of view and need to ask questions, then do so. But batting at me with a caveman club via your backhanded compliments and sarcasm to put me in a place you deem appropriate, is hardly appropriate and is not worth either of our time.

      • katherinejlegry

        Um, excuse me Phil, If I took your meanings wrong… I apologize. I took your comment to mean that my comments regarding your post struck you as funny and interesting fiction… when maybe you intended to say you were fine with my loose definition of “social capital” and on a side note you think my actual fiction writing (some of which is included on my blog) is funny and interesting? In which case I should say thank you.
        It’s sort of funny as I’m trying to refine words and communication I am confused by our interaction. Anyhow… and regardless, I liked your post as it made me think and if I took your comments meaning wrong, please forgive my “caveman” remark. However, if you were in fact dissing me, you can let it stand. 🙂

      • I was referring to your actual fiction, which I happened to read after I saw your comment (I get curious about the people who are reading my stuff), not your comment here. When I want to insult people, I usually put more effort into it. And, frankly, I rarely want to insult people, especially if it seems to me that they’re thoughtfully engaging with what I’m saying.

      • katherinejlegry

        Thanks for clarifying. And for the compliment to my work. I’m late in receiving your reply as well, since my gravitar/wordpress stuff is out of synch. I’ve been taking a lot of my fiction posts down since… and go figure you were being nice about it. Oh well. Forgive my reading comprehension skills please. And your work is engaging btw, even if the comment section hasn’t served us very well. 🙂

  7. This word ‘capital’ seems to have significant meaning and symbolizes Western culture in this time period. We are clearly being driven to embrace all things ‘wealth-making,’ to see wealth and it’s accumulation and the engineering of society to that end as a national priority. It doesn’t surprise me that the means to the end of amassing capital in any form is regarded as a tool, rather than appreciated for its own intrinsic value. This is the way of capitalism, the ‘god’ of our idolatrous society.

  8. Pingback: Reading Material, Vol. II | Writing Through the Fog

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