Classed Cultural Ethics: Understanding Class Difference in the Contemporary US through Traditional Musical Performance and Radical Leftism

Flood, David, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bashkow, Ira, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

Based on over two years of research in and around Asheville, North Carolina, this dissertation is a comparative ethnography of class difference in the contemporary US, focused on three distinct groups: working-class musicians, middle-class revivalists, and anarchist ‘punks.’ Through fine-grained analysis of interactions and practices in the space of ‘traditional’ music-making, where regular cross-class interactions made class differences particularly salient for participants, I develop a theoretical conception of classed ethics. This approach to the ethnography of class improves on existing frameworks in its ability to account for striking contrasts between middle-class and working-class stances towards ethical sociality, which I show to be based on reflexive notions of ‘the good.’ This dissertation provides a comparative and relational account of these differing class-cultural ethics as they are brought to bear in practices associated with space, temporality, hierarchy, and social categorization.

Traditional music scenes around Asheville provided an unusually rich setting for the study of class in the contemporary US. In particular, a long history of white middle-class revivalism; the valorization and objectification of ‘local’ expressive culture; and a vital white working-class musical tradition all contributed to a social space where ideas about the everyday interaction of class and culture were explicit (even as race was largely absent from conscious reflection). The politics of class in Asheville music scenes were given clearer focus by the arrival in the mid-2000s of a large population of transitory musicians (‘punks’), committed to learning traditional music as a central practice in an anarchist project aimed at realizing an anti-capitalist and anti-hierarchical mode of sociality. As I describe, punks imagined the possibility of developing or acquiring ‘new’ everyday ethics—and the distinct kinds of sociality and collectivity they engender—as a utopic vision aimed at re-making middle-class selves in the mold of an imagined, politically virtuous, working-class subject. In effect, the familiar musical-aesthetic valorization of ‘working-class culture’ by middle-class revivalists, was thrown into stark relief by the political idealization of ‘working-class cultural ethics’ by punks, resulting in a situation where normative moral evaluations of class were inverted: where (aspects of) ‘working-class culture’ were imagined to be a space of ‘the good.’ As these three groups—middle-class revivalists, working-class musicians, and punk musicians—interacted, the deep entanglement of class and ethics of sociality came to the fore in the form of misunderstandings, differing evaluations, and revealing contradictions, which I explore in the dissertation.

Beyond an exploration of classed ethics in the particular space of music, this work develops two broader conclusions. The first is a reflexive critique of the subtle but pervasive universalization of middle-class cultural assumptions in academic theories of class. Interpretive frameworks that rely on registers like performance, tastes, competencies, or structural reproduction tend to import a middle-class version of selfhood or subjectivity as the default basis of how class ‘works,’ marginalizing working-class perspectives on what class ‘is.’ A deeper comparative understanding of the classed ethical stances of the academy can help to correct blind spots in class theory. The second conclusion is that ‘classed cultural ethics’ have a de facto politics: there are meaningfully different outcomes that result from particular classed ethical stances in realms like collectivity, solidarity, and sociality. An awareness of the politics of classed cultural ethics helps illuminate the assumptions, contradictions, and promises of radical leftism in the US.  

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Class , Activism and Inequality, Race and Whiteness, Music and Sound, Embodiment, Ethics, US South
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