Marxist theories of etiquette?

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at
Fri Mar 10 17:10:00 MST 1995

Recent events have made me wonder about the possibility of advancing
something like a marxist theory of etiquette--and, of course, a marxist
strategy of its subversion.  While other reach for their revolvers, I
tend to reach for my Bourdieu when I hear the word "manners."  In that
spirit, here are some notes toward such a theory:

While it is clear that the upper classes are distinguished by their
highly codified system of etiquette (from the correct use of silver
service to how to treat a debutante), it is also clear that there is a
space for licensed vulgarity even among such residual aristocratic
estates (or at least that is what I read in the papers, especially in
regard to said Debutantes).  Indeed, the antics of the younger British
royals are distinguished not so much by their breach of (marital or
other) etiquettes, but by their doing so in the public sphere--or of the
media's decreased tolerance of such privileged and traditionally
underreported activities.

Of course, etiquette has everything to do with the public/private
distinction, which has been the subject of Marxist analysis since at least
the _Communist Manifesto_, and which has particularly been the concern of
marxist-feminists.  At the same time it should be important to understand
both the distinction between and the complex interrelationship of
etiquette and morals.  Manners may *stand for* morals, but eating with
your mouth open (say) is not immoral in itself.

The middle classes have of course established their own systems of
etiquette and manners, from attempts to emulate what they perceive as
aristocratic "civility" to more mundane, "homely" proscriptions on
swearing, dirtiness, or whatever.  These may be justified with reference
to a religious ideology, but are clearly as much an attempt at
distantiation from the presumed attributes of the working classes--and of
manual labourers especially.

Anyhow, to suggest that i. vulgarity is somehow an attribute of the
working class or (even more so) that ii. vulgarity is therefore somehow
subversive would seem to grant both aristocratic pretensions and the
excesses of middle class status anxiety.  To deny manners to the working
class is clearly the not only the result of a lack of contact but also
has the same effect as denying the category of culture to the dominated
classes (as, in fact, Bourdieu seems to do in _Distinction_).  This would
seem to deny agency and grant only immediacy to those who are
internalized as wage labour into the process of production.

On the contrary however, not only has working class culture always
existed as a mode of survival and resistance to such impositions, but
working class manners have been defined both in reaction to and in
contradistinction to other systems of etiquette.  Moreover, the working
class and its representatives have always realized than in order for
their voices to be heard, they must learn and accede to at least some of
the conventions that so-called "public" discourse has beeen defined as
requiring.  Hence also the efforts of working class auto-didacts (very
much in the tradition of Marx, by the way) through organizations such as
public lending libraries, the working men's educational association (with
which Raymond Williams was involved) and so on, to maintain and argue for
the dignity of working class life, culture and demands, despite the
indignity of capitalist conditions of labour.

Historically, it would seem, those social movements which have relied on
"shock" tactics of indecorousness and failure of decency arise rather from
(or as attempts to appropriate) the space of aristocratic or upper middle
class licentiousness against middle class prissiness, than as expressions
of working class revolt.  In as much as these attempts (from Dada to
situationism to punk--and for this last it's enough to look at the social
background of, say, the Sex Pistols or the Clash) are thus made on behalf
of a declining or dominated class fraction of the dominant class, they
can, in fact, be seen as very much allied to the academic and canonical
artistic discourse which occupies much the same field in social space.
The "vulgarity" of student and bohemian behaviour has always, of course,
drawn the criticism of the working classes as much as it has that of the
middle class establishment.  The question, of course, is very much that of
the appropriate and material conditions of possibility for such disregard
of etiquette.

Finally, I'd suggest that the complicity between such *outre* behaviour
(and it should also been seen as symptomatic that we have such a battery
of French expressions for this--from *enfant terrible* to *epater le
bourgeois*) and the field of power can be seen in the formers very easy
appropriation by the latter, even in the best and most "spectacular" of
circumstances, as can be seen the museum's hagiography of dada or the
current commercialization of the dregs of punk (a commercialization that,
in fact, was very much a motivating factor in, say, the famous Grundy
show incident, in which Johnny Rotten said "fuck" on national TV).

I'd be pleased to receive any comments--in whatever form.

Take care


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at

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