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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 9: Printemps/Eté 2007
Article ©2007, Marina Van Zuylen

Marina Van Zuylen, Bard College


In the long history of writing about snobbery—from Stevenson to Proust, from Balzac to James, from Girard to Bourdieu—one thing is clear.  Neither democracy, vigilance, nor asceticism has ever done much to stop it.   I am a snob for hundreds of reasons and my snobbism wears different masks.  I loudly proclaim that I prefer Renoir’s early portraits to his late nudes; I proudly announce that I would eat MacDonald French Fries any day over those at the Ritz Hotel, and I am a snob because I confess that I would not be displeased if Judith Butler caught me reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit in the subwayrather than People magazine.  These examples of snobbery, you will agree, are rather mild.  What distinguishes them, though, from the great narratives of snobbery, those particularly relished by the likes of René Girard, is that they are not part of a larger narrative of good and evil, of ambition and renunciation.  Great snob stories, especially nineteenth-century ones, usually cast the snob within an Augustinian narrative of conversion and redemption, alienation and recognition.  We end up being inspired by the transformations of Stendhal’s Julien or Proust’s Marcel because they have gone from practices of deception and vanitas to sobering tales of disillusionment.  They have renounced idolatry for love and hypocrisy for lucidity.  On the other end of the spectrum, Bourdieu’s assorted readings of snobberies resist such cathartic deliverance; his theories of distinction, of art appreciation, of status anxiety, make snobbery the central and unmovable actor in an inescapably Hobbesian struggle for recognition.  Snobbery, the visceral, universal, hateful need to distinguish ourselves, to be distinguished from others, might just be what finally generates taste, ignites ambition, and is part of what makes us finally less platitudinous. To be a snob, at least willfully so, means to believe that there are standards of wealth, culture, and taste that are simply more desirable than others.  To be a snob is to enforce these standards by putting down those who do not meet them.  But don’t get me wrong.  This is not a defense of the snob.  Rather, what I would like to examine is the delicate zone that Proust calls the “travail intermédiaire,” that fatally missing step in our capacity to evaluate how the snob came to feel so superior, how the erstwhile dominated suddenly reemerged as the dominating.1  No better snob-sleuths than Flaubert, Proust, or Nathalie Sarraute to trip up these so-called arbiters of taste and status, to peel off the palimpsests of self-righteous posing.  Posing, in fact, is just what I did when I was first asked to give this keynote address on Snobismes.  When I was told on the phone that I seemed to be the perfect person to speak on snobbery, I laughed, agreed heartily, set the date for the lecture, but then had a sinking feeling--why me? Is it really because I’m not a snob that they asked? Or is it because I am one?  Like the word itself, the very concept of snobbery is a tremendous litmus test about the instability of selfhood.  From its original definition—sine nobilitas was placed in front of the names of the English university students who did not have their lettres de noblesse—to today’s inverted meaning—a snob is somebody who feels and acts superior--this changeable and slippery word reflects the fragile individual it describes.  The snob, indeed, is anything but solid, usually nervously projecting the distorted reflection of the power he or she tries to emulate.  Being a snob, and this applies even more pointedly to le snob intellectuel, suggests a rootless condition, one that is painfully aware of codes and expectations.  Such deep-seated sensitivity to l’opinion publique makes this social wannabe eternally “excluded, displaced, in disequilibrium, off-balance.”2  Perpetually at the mercy of others, the snob is rootless, perpetually circulating, in Régis Debray’s words, “through the world like money, with no idea of a homeland… in a word, he is Jewish… “3

The snob, the ultimate voyeur of other people’s luck, of their ease and fame, is violently embroiled in the judgment of others.  But who among us has completely overcome that desperate desire to captivate, to be accepted and acclaimed on the public scene?  “Il n' y a de place, » one critic notes, « pour qu'une seule conscience de soi, et nous devrons tous lutter pour savoir lequel d'entre nous parviendra à extorquer à l'autre la reconnaissance tant désirée--lequel sera le maître, lequel sera l'esclave. »4  Lacan alerts us to the fact that there is always somebody else lurking out there who is about to steal our place and rob our identity.  This ongoing fear of displacement, this paranoid insecurity regarding our own importance, this threat of having our sense of identity usurped, puts us at the mercy of the way we think others perceive us.  Every time we speak, we inevitably give away something of ourselves.  Handbooks have been written to help us watch our words.  But the masks we use are easily uncovered.  In her deliberately tongue-in-cheek Noblesse Oblige (1954), Nancy Mitford, the essayist and chronicler of the upper classes, does just that.  She takes a second look at the euphemisms people use to disguise or emphasize their origins.  Popularizing the famous “U” vs. “Non-U” distinction (upper-class vs. non upper-class),  Mitford argues that once a group has risen to the top, once it has become comfortably Upper-Class, then it can stop using the very euphemisms that had camouflaged its origins and concealed its status anxiety.  She notes that the arriviste says cycle and the arrivé saysbike, that the social-climber calls herself wealthy, while the aristocrat calls himself rich.  The book demonstrates how the snob plays a constant game of musical chairs with his or her past, covering up through euphemisms the prosaic attributes of his or her everyday life.   She contrasts this in turn with the informal and straightforward language used by established members of the upper classes.  One remembers the famous passage in Virginia Woolf’s The Years when Edward is mesmerized by his carefree dinner table companion.  She has just spilled half a bottle of red wine on her white dress and wipes it off as indifferently as if it were a crumb.  He comments that she is the type of person who would have no problem blowing her nose in her hand.  Mitford would have established this blitheness as a typical upper-class pose.  But such indifference to public opinion should have given her pause.  If the snob gets a bad rap for caring too much, then should the impassive not get one for caring too little?   

 The snob, and Emma Bovary will be our first case in point, lives in fear of being conflated with her original station.  So as not to be identified as a campagnarde, Emma lives in a perpetual state of self-reinvention, of reclassification.  Like Mitford’s models of snobbery, she too resorts to euphemisms in the hope of trumping Charles’ overly direct, embarrassingly plain speech patterns (his conversation is plat comme un trottoir).  Euphemizingthe prosaic, metaphorizing the world as she goes along, Emma tumbles into all of Mitford’s traps.  This is particularly clear when she needs to find a name for her daughter.  She is suddenly confronted with the ultimate test of status.  What name will best convey class?  Like personality for Proust, naming is inevitably  « la création de la pensée des autres. »  It can only signify by association.  Emma christens her child Berthe because she overhears the name at the Bal de Vaubyessard.  By association, Berthe ought magically to be endowed with the selfsame qualities of Emma’s coveted aristocrats.  The right name might be the ticket to a new persona; the wrong name, conversely, would reinforce the dreaded status quo.  Emma’s quest for the perfect name is rooted in the radical absence of a stable and confident social identity.  If she desires difference with such desperation it is because she wants, above all else, to be different from the self she is born into.  The less familiar the name, the stranger it will appears to Charles, the more alluring and legitimizing its ring. 

The snob often masterfully creates a double of him or herself to help dissolve the shameful familiarity of selfhood.  This double, as in Otto Rank’s redemptive Doppelgänger, is a second self who creates a powerful antidote to the moi haïssable. 5 Emma supplies this hopeful double of herself with all the possibilities of a higher self.   Naming, and this is why it is so crucial in the economy of snobbery, always entertains a dual relationship to the past.  While baptizing her daughter Berthe, Emma breaks with her own family genealogy, inserting herself in somebody else’s legacy.  The snob—whether we are speaking of the social climber or the intellectual snob--is a master of genealogical amnesia.  That is, he or she, the minute the desired rank has been achieved, instantly forgets the arduous path it took to get there.  Flaubert, typically, does not let Emma forget anything.  She continues, through her actual and metaphorical debts, to carry with her the burden of a past that clings to her with as much persistence as the araignée silencieuse preying on her soul.  Being a snob, a poseur, can only pan out if you end up believing in your own demonstration.  Whether Leon or Charles buy into Emma’s façade is immaterial if she has not fooled herself.

Forgetfulness is the privilege of the climber who has risen to the top.  This time it is Proust’s Gilberte, another victim of the imperfect science of naming, who tries to hide the unmistakably un-aristocratic ring of her father’s name:

C'est que Gilberte était devenue très snob. C' est ainsi qu' une jeune fille ayant un jour , soit méchamment , soit maladroitement , demandé quel était le nom de son père non pas adoptif , mais véritable , dans son trouble et pour dénaturer un peu ce qu' elle avait à dire , elle avait prononcé au lieu de Souann , Svann , changement qu' elle s' aperçut un peu après être péjoratif , puisque cela faisait de ce nom d' origine anglaise , un nom allemand .6

Unlike Emma who simply cannot get the codes straight, Gilberte knows all too well what the connotations of Swann’s name are.  Proust uses the verb dénaturer to indicate that for the snob, it is nature, not culture that should not be allowed to take its course.  Nature is too risky.  Artifice is safer.  What seems so classy to Emma, and so déclassé to Gilberte, lies entirely in a prehistory of words, of past histories, of subtle associations.  Emma would never be able to figure out, say, why some people called Monsieur de Bréauté a snob while others did not.  All she would notice is that he only socialized with “des altesses.,” mistaking  his circle for his soul .  To Madame de Guermantes, on the other hand, the reason he is not a snob is crystal clear.  When he is in the presence of these so-called royals, all he does is make fun of them, “et ne rêvait que d’être dans les musées.” Aussi Mme de Guermantes était-elle indignée quand on traitait M. de Bréauté de snob.”7  Mme de Guermantes is convinced that, like a medium, she has direct access to his inner motives, that she has pierced the “travail intermédiaire,” and found the secret space that separates Monsieur de Bréauté from the snobs.  The fact that the latter would rather be in a museum than hobnobbing with the rich gives him the status others lack.  At least this is how she perceives it.  Mme de Guermantes’s social needs, unlike Emma’s, are to believe herself outside of the norms that guide and infect society.  So to be courted by a man that prefers art to titles, museums to salons, is a direct reflection of her own artistic superiority.  By refusing to label him a snob she is automatically labeling herself an artist, a free spirit traveling above commonality.  It is their assumed indifference to class that reinforces their twin sense of superiority.  Proust takes us deep into the analysis of such hauteur.  Claiming not to want is the mark of a far greater investment than simply to want.  The deviousness of both parties’ camouflaged will to power is all the more impressive, that it leaves almost no traces.  Unvoiced desires are singularly harder to track than blatant envy.  Between Emma and Mme de Guermantes lie volumes of conveniently forgotten chapters of social codification.   Like Woolf’s character, seemingly oblivious to her wine-stained gown, M de Bréauté appears to have lost his will to impress.   The museum he clings to with such abandon becomes, in the eyes of others, the unmistakable sign of his immateriality. 

            From Bourdieu’s point of view, such are the gestures of concealment, displacement, and sublimation that betray a different, but no less damning, form of snobbery.  Snobs are brilliant at detecting hierarchies among themselves.  In another episode of La Recherche, Proust establishes even more blatantly the hide-and-seek game the snob plays with his or her own motives.  The Proustian character makes it a habit to proclaim social success the instant desire has flipped from the overt to the intangible.  At the least suspicion that even the faintest longing for palpable power can be detected, then the game is over.  To succeed, one has to believe in the asceticism of one’s own intentions.  When currying favor with the Duchesse de Guermantes, Legrandin manages to convince himself of the purity of his intentions.  Unlike les autres, the real snobs, who covet blatantly her title and prestige, he only cares about her « esprit » and her « vertu. »  The “infâmes snobs” as Legrandin calls them, would be far too vulgar to appreciate la Duchesse’s inner beauty:

[Legrandin] se rapprochait de la duchesse, s'estimant de céder à cet attrait de l'esprit et de la vertu qu' ignorent les infâmes snobs . Seuls les autres savaient qu'il en était un ; car grâce à l'incapacité où ils étaient de comprendre le travail intermédiaire de son imagination , ils voyaient en face l' une de l' autre l' activité mondaine de Legrandin et sa cause première.8

How is it that this so-called “travail intermédiaire,” the intermediary work that might help us understand the genealogy of social ambition, is so hard to pin down?  Proust’s genius is to reveal the palimpsest-like nature of our desires.  How fast we forget how fickle our likes and dislikes are and how overnight, the sycophant turns into a detractor.  Our old allegiances and tastes seem suddenly so gauche and embarrassing, while our current convictions so real and established.  Being a snob involves massive doses of amnesia. What makes it so arduous to confront the snob in ourselves is our inability to remember who we used to be.  Now that our memory has erased our former self, we no longer tolerate those we used to resemble. 

The relationship between selfhood and the judgment of taste bears heavily on questions of friendship and authenticity.  To understand the peregrinations of our tastes and their impact on our social interactions, let us turn to Yasmina Reda’s play Art.  Pitting one notion of the beautiful--free of usefulness, existing outside of our lowly desiring faculties—against another—beauty as a mere upwardly-social commodity--Reda sets in motion the travail intermédiaire that Proust mercilessly attaches to all our judgments of taste, especially those that end up becoming great sources of misunderstanding and conflict.  Reda’s play, incongruously, has fallen victim to its own brand of snobbery, one that links nicely to our remarks above.  Critics, indeed, have still been unable to situate the work within high art or low art—precisely the theme of the play.  A quick synopsis:  Serge has just bought an abstract painting.  It is white on white.  It costs 20,000 francs.  His old friend Marc (a dead ringer of Molière’s Alceste) is outraged.  He can only see Serge’s folie as a disastrous form of intellectual snobbery.  He rails against the purchase, accusing Serge of wanting to épater le bourgeois.  Marc feels that there is nothing to love, let alone to flaunt, in such a ridiculously monochromatic square. But to Serge, the painting is a reflection of his dearest, his most fundamental aesthetic “trajectory”—that lengthy apprenticeship that makes him able to distinguish between high and low art.  To begin with, he gets all prickly about Marc’s calling the painting white.  To the specialist, to the discerning eye, the painting is not white—it is an admixture of grey, yellow, ocher; besides, and more importantly, like a great wine, it is not really about itself at all, but about the hours it took to acquire the knowledge to recognize it for what it is.  Serge’s pride in his connoisseurship has become indistinguishable from his love for the painting.  Seen from Bourdieu’s perspective, the conflict between the two men is simple: even though Serge’s cultural and aesthetic apprenticeship has taken years to develop, now that he has achieved aesthetic confidence, his taste has become naturalized; it is a habit.  Evidently, he will reject such a reductive explanation, maintaining that his amour de l’art is innate, predestined rather than conditioned.

In the end, Bourdieu would claim that la culture denies itself as such; never casting itself as an acquisition, but as the embodiment of that which can never be purchased or vulgarly acquired.  Swann is the distillation of such a utopian dream.  He appears to have been born with perfect taste and manners.  Impossible to trace, they become his second skin, his true being.  This “simple gymnastique élémentaire de l’homme du monde […] avait fini par passer sans qu’il en fût conscient dans toute l’attitude sociale de Swann. »9  As it occurs for another of Proust’s characters, Monsieur de Bréauté, a figure who lives to impress others with his love of artwhile vampirizing salon culture at the same time, what starts out as the quest for prestige, morphs into the hunt  for a purified amour de l’art, to end up representing itself as amour tout court.  Best not to acknowledge the origins of one’s feelings, lest they be degraded by a genealogy that belongs to somebody else’s culture, somebody else’s patrimoine. The great paradox of culture is that we want our love of art to be the product of a sentimental education that owes nothing to real education. Bourdieu catches us denying adamantly the connection between education and art appreciation and ignoring our teachers so we can mastermind our own cultural destinies.

But to Marc, alias Alceste, the so-called moment intermédiaire is bogus.  Only the result matters.  He can only see a white canvas, he can only be horrified that people would pay money for nothingness.  The Anti-snob ends up becoming the amnesic’s superego, the aggressive occupant of a trou de mémoire.  In Réda’s play, Marc keeps reminding Serge that the painting has become the symbol of his bottomless status anxiety.  The fact that it is white allows him to project onto it his social desires.  Like the process of naming, always linked to a certain degree of status anxiety, once the name becomes attached to the person, its provenance goes by the wayside.  It simply is, and it goes, inexplicably and absolutely sans dire. The whiteness of the picture is the porous canvas on which Serge sheds his culture, his sophistication, his habitus.  So what appears as snobby from the outside, as a ridiculously disingenuous trou de mémoire, reflects, in effect, the whole person Serge has come to think of himself as. 

We find another example of culture’s destabilizing and uprooting impact in Annie Ernaux’s piercingly honest book La Place, a scathing commentary and auto-critique on the relationship between inherited and acquired culture.  Born to a very simple restaurateur, the narrator is preparing herself for a grand concours while undergoing a series of familial culture shocks.  Ernaux’s eponymous heroine describes how to her parents, her literary expertise is becoming an exclusionary code, one that robs her of her past, placing particularly devastating social barriers between her father and herself:

Tout ce que j’aimais me semble péquenot, Luis Mariano, les romans de Marie-Anne Desmarets, Daniel Gray, le rouge à lèvres et la poupée gagnée à la foire… Je lisais la « vraie » littérature, et je recopiais des phrases, des vers, qui, je croyais, exprimaient mon « âme », l’indicible de ma vie… Je pensais qu’il ne pouvait plus rien pour moi.  Ses mots et ses idées n’avaient pas cours dans les salles de français ou de philo… 10

  She cringes as she remembers her childhood readings, finding them embarrassing, without currency, steeped in the provincial world she wants to erase.11  She has graduated to “vraie” literature, the kind she conflates with her true self, her unduplicable soul.  Her father’s words “n’avaient pas cours dans les salles de français ou de philo,”12they are painfully obsolete, ghost-like reminders of the self she has renounced.   When her father finally dies, his absence brings a different kind of shame, one that causes her to acknowledge the duplicitous nature of a status-born-from-language.  Ernaux’s narrator has replaced the “langue du peuple” with an exclusive language, one she now tries to renounce by turning her back on what she has painstakingly acquired, going back, as Motte points out, to a minimalism, an understated writing that would pay homage to her father’s simplicity.   But culture, like any form of social status, is never simply acquired or abandoned.  Even if she has learned to separate what seems gauche from what is adroit, she is cursed by the very culture she tries to renounce.  It is enough for a Philippe Sollers novel to land on her lap to plunge her back into panic—intimidated, she does not dare to like it or dislike it.  

Musing on the blinders that accompany high art and its acquisition, Ernaux’s novel demonstrates that culture, like nostalgia, can never escape its own spells of displacement anxiety.  Many of us are familiar with such intermittent crises.  When did we first know off the bat which philosopher was in and what painter was out?  Just take the preliminary, now vastly unconscious work it took selecting the material for this talk: notice that my examples come from Bourdieu, not Alain de Botton.  Do my choices make me a snob?  Of course they do. 

Here we return to another facet of our social and cultural anxiety. As Bourdieu belabors book after book, we need to ask ourselves why we are so attached to our autonomy of judgment?  But is he right to relegate our cherished tastes to the realm of habitus, of reflexes that are not in the least independent or autonomous?  Does he answer the question as to why we are so intent on translating this alleged habitus into the idealized language of eternal beauty?  Yasmina Reda’s Serge would not be able to bear the fact that his tableau de predilection, the monochromatic square, is far from an autonomous object.  His painting exists as part of une économie de marché, circulating first as a commodity, bought and sold for large sums of money, inserting itself in a capitalistic system of give and take.  His friend Marc, although not putting it in Bourdieu’s terms, wants him to recognize that his painting, and by extension its supposedly pristine taste, functions just as any other signes extérieurs de richesse.  

Thinking about the cultural snob as somebody who desperately tries to present his taste as autonomous actually means rethinking our own potentially painful relationship to the impermanence of taste, the instability of judgment.  Bourdieu attacks most effectively the knee-jerk ça va sans dire reactions (I love this painting because I love it), explaining it asa sinister conspiracy fomented by the entire enterprise of art--painters, gallery-owners, buyers--all interested, for different reasons, in turning art into a sacred realm, with sacred stakes, sacred signatures (excluding the signature on the final check). 

[M]useums betray their true function, which is to reinforce for some the feeling of belonging and for others the feeling of exclusion… the world of art opposes itself to the word of the everyday life just as the sacred does to the profane.13

This same claim to disinterestedness applies to our own academic fields, also desperate to assert their independence, perhaps even, indifference to power, embracing instead an ideology of disinterested knowledge.  What we have seen earlier with Emma ‘s painstaking naming or with Nancy Mitford’s hypothesis that people who say false teeth rather than dentures actually are more legitimate, comes from this same terror that we might not have a permanent, legitimate, essential, and indestructible relationship to a system of values that transcends us. 

The collective belief in the game offers to agents a legitimate form of realizing their desires, based on a form of illusion… The collective belief in the game (illusio) and in the sacred value of its stakes is simultaneously the precondition and the product of the very functioning of the game… ; it is fundamental to the power of consecration, permitting consecrated artists to constitute certain products, by the miracle of their signature (or brand name), as sacred objects14

The snob strives to convince his or her audience (the snob always plays for an audience) that he or she is particularly sensitive to the very objects that are beyond the competence of the “profane.”  As one critic puts it, the snob is most drawn to “ce domaine trouble du jugement et du goût où ne règnent point seuls le jugement, la sensibilité logique ou la compétence technique”.15  The esoteric, the hard to understand, seems most attractive to the snob who instinctively knows how to capitalize on the rare and convert it into “a brevet de valeur spirituelle.”  Exclusion, then, is the foundation of snobbery.  

Seeking to exclude or to be deliberately obscure calls for more than a knee-jerk anti-snobbery reaction.  Let us look for a minute at the Social Text scandal, involving Allan Sokal’s hoax.  Sokal sent a fake “scientific” article to the editors of Social Text.  Once it was accepted, Sokal owned up to the hoax, creating one of the more complicated intellectual scandals in recent history.  What does this have to do with snobbery? Going back to Proust’s “travail intermédiaire,” that footwork that would have enabled us to ascertain whether one is a snob or not, Sokal was determined to make it impossible for the editors to detect the text’s genealogy.  He banked on what he viewed as the editors’ fake expertise in the domain of science, tricking them into accepting something because they did not understand it, rather than something they understood and liked.  The fear of appearing stupid, of being an outsider, is part of what caused this superb intellectual blunder.  The editors, by fretting about being mistaken for what they were, non- experts in the realm of scientific discourse, behaved as insecurely as the snob.  The story of Sokal’s hoax tells us as much about the instability of any field of knowledge, as it does about that terrifying intermediary zone that separates truths and half-truths, genius and idiocy.

Like the genre it is meant to satirize… my article is a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever…. But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class… my concern is explicitly political. To combat a currently fashionable postmodernist, poststructuralist, social-constructivist discourse16

Imagine the stress of the editors of Social Text, reading through an article that might be as shameful to accept as to reject.   I want to juxtapose this episode with Nathalie Sarraute’s piece from L’Usage de la parole, “Je ne comprends pas.”  Two people are having a conversation in a park.   One is speaking perfect gibberish.  The other one seems to be listening, seemingly mesmerized, when suddenly, he interrupts, admitting “je ne comprends pas.” Rather than taking offense, the gibberish-mongering-individual practically falls into his arms, thanking him for being the first person to expose his pretentious jargon.  Sarraute places us in front of a difficult problem, that of reflecting on the consequence of such a potential confession--admitting that we don’t understand, that we’re in over our heads.  The narrator, who is the witness to this scene, admits that he has never had the courage to do such a thing and admires “... the listener [who] has taken upon himself, on behalf of us all… the enormous risk of showing himself unworthy of the verbal pearls that the speaker was casting before him.”17 He has been able to make the distinction between “abus de la parole” and “usage de la parole.” 

Qui ose franchement ne pas comprendre et passer pour sot ?  De ce jeu combiné de l’amour propre et de l’inquiétude sur ses capacités naît le snob qui fait semblant de comprendre et se rassure, d’autant plus intransigeant désormais à l’égard du philistin qu’il pourrait être18

As I look around me, I see in the audience valiant colleagues who have helped me grasp Barthes and Benjamin; to them, the following scenario may not bring home any anxieties.  But even so: imagine for a minute that you are having lunch with a famous Lacanian.  You admire her work.  She tells you about the article she is writing.  You are not quite grasping her point.  In fact, you don’t grasp it at all.  But not once do you dare interrupt to say « je ne comprends pas. »  You then meet your colleague the Derridean.  You proudly tell him about the unforgettable hours you have just spent, omitting any mention of your repas-mystification-mortification. This little allegory of intellectual hide-and-seek or intellectual obsequiousness tells us a great deal about the commonplace workings of snobbery.  How risky would it have been to confess that you didn’t understand?  What is the worse that could happen?  And is there a way of avoiding this entrapment?   The last part of my talk will examine not reverse snobbery, but ways in which thinkers have tried to neutralize it, either like Barthes by undercutting the power game by devising a language without adjectives, or, like Proust’s narrator, who ends up substituting “la parole insignifiante” for “la parole substantielle.”   Both start with the desire for reconnaissance and conclude with a connaissance that ends up being about reciprocity and not ferocity.  

            In his last lectures at the College de France (1977-78) on Le Neutre, Barthes imagines a mode of acting, or rather, of non-acting, that would help us break out of our mimetic relationship with the other.  An acceptance of the neutral, le neutre, he claims, would render obsolete our constant desire to act for an audience, to impress and to dominate.  Banality, the snob’s worst enemy, that thing that reflects nothing at all, and certainly not distinction, could suddenly become an ally.  “Le neutre consisterait à se confier à la banalité qui est en nous,” Barthes writes.  Rather than resisting it, overloading our conversations with memorable and “original” opinions, with hierarchical ranking, iconoclastic pronouncements, we would allow ourselves, in Blanchot’s words, the benevolence of the pause (“the legitimate pause, the benevolent intelligent pause”), the “degree zero of predication.”  Barthes mocks the “verbal manias” that “make us affirm by a slight of syntax… that such and such… person is “le premier de tous:”

Cortot: “premier, ou plus grand pianiste du siècle”—et encore plus, cette inflation qui consiste à tourner “le premier” en “le seul”—ainsi, me dit-on, Lacan, citant quelqu’un, aurait dit à un séminaire: “L’Ecole freudienne est aujourd’hui en France, le seul lieu de recherche » 19

To such prises de position, Barthes prefers « dénégation, » the denial of all uniqueness:
L’unique choque en ce qu’il implique précisément une comparaison… l’originalité, c’est-à-dire des valeurs compétitives, agonistiques…20

Barthes leaves us with the optimistic, if slightly impractical faith that there are ways of deflecting the tyrannical structures that turn us all into occasional snobs.  His belief in the slowness of expression, the lazy relationship to our own syntax, would ideally wean us from harsh adjectives, exclusionary exclamation points, and produce a fluidity of judgment.  Barthes’ ethical politeness is not about wanting to win, but wanting to absorb what occurs when our will to power goes dormant.  He asks us to cast aside our habits of linguistic mastery and our slavish surrender to the taste of others.  Whether it is Flaubert’s Bouvard and his obsession with Wagner (whom he has never heard) or Madame de Cambremer who can only allow herself to give into Chopin’s melody once she learns that Debussy had praised it, Barthes ends up laughing at an exhausting system where time is spent second guessing who is in and who is out.   Boris Vian will tell you the same and he will have the last words:

J'suis snob... J'suis snob
J'suis ravagé par ce microbe

J'suis snob... J'suis snob
C'est une vie de galérien
J'vais au cinéma voir des films suédois
J'ai un ulcère, c'est moins banal et plus cher
J'ai des accidents en Jaguar
Je passe le mois d'août au plumard
C'est dans les p'tits détails comme ça
Que l'on est snob ou pas
J'suis snob... Encor plus snob que tout à l'heure
Et quand je serai mort
J'veux un suaire de chez Dior!


1 « Legrandin se rapprochait de la duchesse , s' estimant de céder à cet attrait de l' esprit et de la vertu qu' ignorent les infâmes snobs . Seuls les autres savaient qu' il en était un ; car grâce à l' incapacité où ils étaient de comprendre le travail intermédiaire de son imagination , ils voyaient en face l' une de l' autre l' activité mondaine de Legrandin et sa cause première . » Du Côté de chez Swann, 121.

2 “Que faire de la sociologie” Interview with Pierre Bourdieu” in Pierre Bourdieu and Bass, Jacques. « Que faire de la sociologie ? ».  CFDT aujourd'hui. - (100), March 1991 : 111-124.

3 R. Debray, Le Scribe (Paris: 1980), p.300. 

4 Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel.  Le Maître absolu (Paris: Flammarion, 1995), 112.

5 See Borch-Jacobsen, Le Maître absolu, 63.  He quotes Otto Rank’s analysis of the double : « primitivement, le double était une assurance contre la destruction du moi, un énergique démenti [de] la puissance de la mort. »

6 Albertine disparue (II), p.51.

7 Le côté de Guermantes (II),  p.128.

8 . Du côté de chez Swann, I, 121.

9 Swann, chapitre 3.

10 Pierre Bourdieu  The Field of Cultural Production, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p.255.  “What is forgotten in self-reflective analysis is the fact that although appearing a gift from nature, the eye of the twentieth-century art lover is a product of history… the pure gaze… is inseparable from the appearance of producers of art motivated by a pure autonomous artistic field capable of formulating and imposing its own ends against external demands… the pure gaze is associated with very specific conditions of acquisition, such as the early frequenting of museums and the prolonged exposure to schooling….”

11 Find page in La Place

12 Warren Motte describes her Copernican shock when she remembers her past readings, realizing that authors such as Daniel Gray or Anne Marie Desmarets  have lost all currency, now relegated as silly and provincial.   “Annie Ernaux’s Understatement” The French Review 69, (1), October 1995. page

13 Find Page

14 .[reference]

15 The Rules of Art.  Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Cambridge, UK, Polity Press, 1996), p.228.

16 Emilien Carassus, Le Snobisme et les lettres françaises de Paul Bourget à Marcel Proust 1884-1914 (Paris : Colin, 1966), pp.140-141.

17 Philosophy and Literature 20.2 (1996), p.338.

18 [reference]  

19 Carassus, Le Snobisme et les letters françaises , p.141.

20 [reference]

21 [reference]