Friday, 19 October 2012

Part X - On Bearing

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen.  His third chapter is on Conspicuous Leisure. 

In this day and age, Veblen’s use of the term ‘bearing’ seems out of date.  We talk about manners, and perhaps posture and poise (for women) or presence (usually for men).  One also reads about having the ‘the right attitude'.  Veblen's use of 'bearing' seems to encompass all of these and a bit more:  it's about 'knowing ones place' but also making sure others know theirs.  

I tend to think that Veblen's concept of ‘bearing’ is alive and well here in Britain and it’s not my favourite aspect of the culture.  I’ve whinged before about snooty shop (un-) assistants who frustrate me no end.  Instead of being annoyed with their social aspirations and ostensible refinements, I suppose I should just learn to laugh at it.  It is very often much like the caricatures seen in films, particularly British films.   The ones I occasionally encounter don't quite go the length of the exaggerated posh accent, however; that part of the charade has passed out of style.  On the other hand, I have seen customers so arrogant I'd not like to help them either.  I hope I'm more polite. 

Veblen says that one’s bearing towards menials and other ‘dependent inferiors’ is the bearing of the superior member in a relation of status, though its manifestation is greatly softened from the original expression of crude dominance.  In this book the inferior category includes all women.  I believe I experienced this attitude from most men when I lived in the US.  This might explain why I’m so sensitive when I meet it again here in Britain, though strangely I usually see it in women here.  The men don’t seem to need it, not the ones I know anyhow.   

“Similarly, our bearing towards superiors, and in great measure towards equals, expresses a more or less conventionalised attitude of subservience.  Witness the masterful presence of the high-minded gentleman or lady, which testifies to so much of dominance and independence of economic circumstances, and which at the same time appeals with such convincing force to our sense of what is right and gracious.”

I've seen Bill doff his imaginary cap and do a Cockney rendition of 'Bless you, govna' as a backwards form of 'kiss my XXX' (because he would never say the latter words).  Strange to think that the working classes felt they needed to use similar saluations because of their 'sense of what is right and gracious'.  I wonder if they were thinking more like Bill than Veblen back then? 

Veblen says it is the highest leisure class, with no superiors and few peers, that ‘decorum’ finds its fullest expression.  More applicable, it is the behaviour of this highest class which serves as a canon of conduct for the classes beneath.

“A divine assurance and an imperious complaisance, as of one habituated to require subservience and to take no thought for the morrow, is the birthright and the criterion of the gentleman at his best."   

This demeanour is accepted as in intrinsic attribute of superior worth.  I wonder if this might explain in part why people live far beyond their means in order to convince others they have more money than they have:  to feel they have superior worth.   

In the next post I’ll relate some of Veblen’s ideas about well bred wives and servants.


Susan Partlan said...

So interesting. I'm particularly enjoying your observations on the differences between US and UK culture, a topic of unending fascination for me.

Your Bill sounds like quite a character.

Shelley said...

Susan - I'm honoured by your visit here and the many comments you left. They are like opening 8 presents at once! I know you're v. busy with school just now, but hope you'll find time to write more on your own blog.

Terri said...

I have no "real" concept of how class manifests differently here than there, though I trust your sense of it. I had to laugh at what i initially thought this post would be about from the title--I thought it might have to do with "bearing" children, an act that in some ways must upset the social order.

I have a bad tendency to be subservient with so-called superiors. It is so odd too. For example, the President of my college was hired the same year I was and is of a similar age. Our children attended schools in the same district and in spite of 20 years of working together, I am still deferrent to him. Is it position? Maleness? He is not at all arrogant or snooty...

Carolyn said...

Hmmm. Very interesting, I am looking forward to the well-bred wives post...
Thank you for your comment Shelley, yes I have heard of Martha Stewart although her TV shows are not shown here. I saw them when I was living in the US though :)
I am saddened by your comment that some women look for reasons to hate their bodies, especially over something as silly as batwing arms? I'm just glad that I have a strong healthy body which has borne three children who are my joy, and that enables me to be active. Dressing ourselves up is the fun and frivolous part, and we can all enjoy it!

Shelley said...

Terri - I didn't think much about class one way or the other when living in the States. There, on the surface at least, it's about money. But then if you read Lisa's blog, Privilege, or Susan Partlan's old blog linking to some very illuminating articles, it becomes a bit more obvious. Class issues are very subtle in the US, at least for those of us somewhere in the middle, and becoming moreso here in Britain.

I've lived an almost terminally subserviant life, looking back on it. I was raised to be 'nice' and 'accepting' and 'tolerant'. I feel I'm still learning how to take up my own space. Fortunately, getting older seems to free up a bit of that instinct, to say when someone is being v. annoying. They might not change what they're doing, but at least I made my opinion known.

Shelley said...

Carolyn - As I typed that comment I was remembering my Grandma, who wore sleeveless dresses in summer for as long as I knew her. Yes, her arms were different to others' but no one gave it a second thought. She was always careful in her appearance but so far as I can tell, never felt she need to apologize for growing old. I've noticed this on beaches and at swimming pools in Europe. Must write about that some time.

Gam Kau said...

Recently I have had to go to a private hospital for tests and it was shocking to me how stratified it was by class. The accents, the clothing, the reading material, the deferential staff...I told my son it was like a caricature, but it wasn't.
Class is so interesting in the UK. I've run into a lot of very snobby middle class aspiring folks and it befuddles the American me.