A discrete search for the bourgeoisie

Being only sporadically and idiosyncratically educated, I’d never read or seen anything by Henrik Ibsen before last week, when I went to see Hedda Gabler at BAM at the invitation of some Internet friends.

When I arrived at the theater I discovered that this production was in German. I panicked a little (even though there were supertitles) and read the synopsis and little essay in the playbill before the show started, afraid I’d miss something important. Mistake. I was instantly confounded by this little bit of commentary:

In this work, first performed in Munich in 1891, Ibsen displays his insider’s attack on the bourgeoisie — which is hardly recognizable today as a cohesive social class with common values. Rather, the bourgeois longings and fears, which have guided and ruined many a life story since the 19th century, are now diffused across all socio-economic strata of society.

Like I said, I’m only sporadically and idiosyncratically educated, and one of the concepts I’ve never quite gotten my head around is the idea of the bourgeoisie. Or rather, I more or less can fake it when it comes to calling things or people bourgeois these days in ordinary conversation, but I don’t really understand the force and meaning of the term in the 19th century, when it came into its own as a central concern of European social and political thought.

So I spent the whole play trying to figure out Ibsen’s “insider’s attack on the bourgeoisie.” Was the attack directed against Hedda, the young, striving wife who doesn’t believe in love, doesn’t want children, manipulates her husband into going into debt for a fabulous house that she doesn’t much care for, and coolly abets the self-destruction of Løvborg, her husband’s rival for an important professorship (also her ex-boyfriend)? Or does Ibsen mean us to despise Hedda’s husband, Tesman, who toils away just to keep hold of Hedda — a desirable object he has luckily acquired — and who wants children and a respectable life to please the aunt who brought him up? Or the other characters, each with their own constrained desires and constrained means of fulfilling them?

The production itself mixed me up even more. Director Thomas Ostermeier set the play in the present, turning the crucial book manuscript into a laptop computer and altering some lines to make the play fit his own interpretation of Hedda as a modern woman. (The set was a fabulous Modernist interior/exterior, and songs from Pet Sounds played to uncanny effect during scene changes.) But if the bourgeoisie was a fairly well-defined and powerful concept in the late 19th century that has infused all levels of our current society, can a contemporary setting for Hedda Gabler retain its bite?

Earlier last week I saw Our Daily Bread, a documentary by Nikolaus Geyrhalter. There’s no narration, just a succession of beautifully composed shots of industrial agriculture in Europe: piglets being tagged and castrated, fish being literally vacuumed from a fjord and then gutted by robots, olives being shaken from a tree by a giant claw-tractor. One reaction I had was, I will never eat anything ever again. And there’s a case to be made for veganism on the basis of what’s shown — the animals lead bizarre lives tailored to efficient production rather than humane treatment or a natural course of life. More broadly, the film was a commentary on the seeming unsustainability of our current way of feeding ourselves. The processes are so energy intensive and require so much technological intervention that it is easy to imagine their collapse.

But another aspect of industrial agriculture that the film highlighted is nicely summed up by the perfect apples. A system of waterworks sorted apples by size, and the biggest ones were deposited six to a tray for wrapping and sale at upscale supermarkets. Women stood at a conveyor belt and turned all the apples to sit the same way so they’d look nice for buyers, at the same time discarding the occasional apple with a blemish. That particular shot lasted for a couple of minutes, and I quickly learned to see what the women were looking for. She’s going to replace that apple right there, I though to myself, and a few seconds later she did. Never mind that apples grown normally turn out to be various sizes with various blemishes and still taste perfectly fine (if not better): These giant, perfect apples would appeal to a certain kind of shopper. I believe that shopper is properly called bourgeois.

My dad was in town yesterday, and at dinner I discovered that despite his impeccable credentials as a conservative Republican he carries a deep hatred of Wal-Mart. He told me about a case he’d had several years ago involving a guy who distributed Lil’ Debbie snack cakes to Wal-Mart stores. Wal-mart had the displays right up next to the checkout aisles and made the distributor sign a contract that they could never get more than 25 percent empty, no matter how many times a day he had to fill them and no matter whether the restocking had to be done during peak shopping periods when the crowds of shoppers made restocking unsafe. (This contractual requirement led, in a somewhat complicated way that was compounded by other actions on Wal-Mart’s part, to the distributor’s bankruptcy.)

In light of Our Daily Bread, Wal-Mart’s 25-percent policy makes sense. We don’t just want to have enough food to eat, we want to see an overabundance of it. A Lil’ Debbie display that gets 30 percent empty, or 50 percent empty (50 percent full?), is a display that might possibly run out, which would mean shoppers might be forced to begin to imagine a future without Devil Squares and Zebra Cakes, at least until the delivery guy came back. It’s as unappealing as a blemished apple.

Is being bourgeois, then, a matter of attaching to things? Certainly in this holiday season, with Christmas music piped in to every retail space reminding us to shop! shop! shop! to show our love, it’s tempting to think so. But I think that answer is only partway there.

Consider my favorite text of the contemporary bourgeois: Friends. Many episodes are the usual desultory sitcom goings-on: hilarious misunderstandings, celebrity guest stars, homophobic jokes about Joey and Chandler. But the backbone of Friends is the idealized life narrative of the middle-class young adult. And milestones in this narrative are treated with great reverence within the show. Jobs are relatively easy to come by, but finding the right job is hard, so we are happy for Monica as she advances as a chef and for Rachel when she advances in the fashion/shopping industry. But the biggie, of course, is marriage. The most important Friends episodes are the proposals and the weddings, and these events are enacted on a grand scale with no irony whatsoever. Births follow weddings in importance, but they too are a matter of course — so necessary that Phoebe even carries her brother’s triplets so he can be a daddy.

If Friends is too singular a data point for you (though, really, it’s a whole 10 seasons of data points), consider American Pie, which deals in a very similar way with the idealized life narrative of the middle-class teenager, whose major events must include graduating from high school, falling in love, and getting laid, preferably not in that order. The film’s sequels cover the same territory as Friends, really.

What’s so striking to me about Friends and the American Pie franchise is the way the characters have certain very definite goals: losing their virginity, getting married, having kids; and the way these goals are completely understood and shared by every other character in the fictional universe. Nobody ever suggests to Monica that she might be happier having a demanding career and a series of increasingly younger lovers, or to the American Pie boys that sex is fun but they’ll get there soon enough, even if they’re still virgins when they start college. Life within these fictions is defined entirely by a limited and unselfconscious set of social expectations. It is entirely conventional, even in its pseudo-transgressive moments.

That’s not to say that the desire for things has nothing to do with the bourgeois spirit. On the contrary, another thing that Friends, American Pie, and nearly every romantic comedy have in common is a disconcertingly upper-middle-class setting in which everyone has enormous apartments or houses and perfect teeth. The characters are free to worry about finding the right guy to marry (in a $100,000 wedding) because they don’t have to worry about going hungry or getting evicted or even going without the latest styles from Banana Republic.

These fictions start to make sense when you think of them not as mirrors of bourgeois life but as talismans to ward off bourgeois fears — as wish-fulfillments of a fevered dreamer. They present a world of perfect security: financial comfort, a settled life-path, and the means to live out that life-path. The link between the bourgeois hunger for material well-being (the 25-percent rule) and the equally bourgeois demand that Monica’s wedding be absolutely perfect is that both are a protection against ruin. Having enough money and following the rules of respectable society are really equally necessary conditions of the devil’s pact: a comfortable life in exchange for your soul.

None of this has to do with the 19th century, of course. But I think it might have something to do with Hedda Gabler. Most of the characters in the play (everyone but Hedda and Løvborg) are textbook bourgeoisie, living their lives according to the scripts laid out for them by society and focused on obtaining the means necessary to support their status. Hedda is all of this, too, but with a hole in the center: she goes through the motions but realizes that there’s no reason for it other than convention. She also realizes the boredom and banality of bourgeois life, which is why she’s enthralled by Løvborg (first when he’s a dissolute drug user, later when he’s cleaned up and turned into a brilliant intellect, and finally when he takes action, takes her gun and apparently kills himself). And in the end, Hedda doesn’t accept the terms of bourgeois life, while the rest of the characters carry on. (In this staging, Hedda’s corpse slouches behind a concrete wall while the other characters circulate in the next room, always almost discovering her but continuing on their rounds, oblivious.)

To get the 19th-century version of the bourgeoisie, then, you can just compress our version of it: imagine it’s limited to a relatively small percentage of the population (five percent? ten?) and is relatively new. The aristocrats think (rightly) that it’s ignoble, and the peasants and proletariat think (rightly) that it’s fucking pathetic that suddenly all these people are concerned about propriety and the fashionable cut of their clothes when millions are starving or working shit jobs just to survive.

Of course we’re nearly all bourgeois now, in our aspirations and sensibility. A friend of a roommate of mine picked up some half-baked Marxism in college and applies the term to people with clean bathrooms, among other enemies of the people. This allows him to avoid believing that he, too, is bourgeois, with his expensive college degree but despite his underemployment. There’s still petit-bourgeois and haut-bourgeois, of course, and as many other intra-bourgeois divisions as you care to make. The difference, though, seems to be mainly one of who eats better cheese and drinks better coffee more often, who buys the finer apples, and whose weddings most closely approximate Monica’s.

10 responses to “A discrete search for the bourgeoisie”

  1. Lane says:

    Great. Just great. It is facinating to think how the American entertainment complex is really a giant social mechanism to supress the anxiety created by the promised, and potentially unfullfilled, dream of “American Abundance.”

  2. Tim Wager says:


    Great post! In my sleep this morning I half-heard on NPR that someone somewhere has determined that 2% of the world’s people control half of the world’s wealth. Of course, my first thought was how deeply fucked up that is. My second was, “How do *I* become part of that 2%?” And of course, in my fantasy when I’m a 2-percenter I’ll re-distribute my wealth and work for social justice. Oh, and have a villa in Tuscany and a pre-war co-op in NYC, a small, unassuming house in Silverlake, nothing fancy, you know, just a place to call home . . .

    Fantasies like this are held out for us every day to indulge in and we use them to escape the humdrum of work. The dream of the bourgeois life, the definition of which is itself elusive – is it to be a member of the ruling class, an owner of the means of production, or what? – infuses much of what we do. It has been melted down and distributed throughout, residual in perfect apples at Whole Foods and ring dings at WalMart alike.

    While many of us would like to be impervious, I’m afraid that we’re all susceptible to it (okay, I’ll try not to speak for everyone here, *I’m* susceptible to it). But, as the factoid I heard on NPR points out, shoppers like us have no chance whatsoever of entering the class of _real_ wealth. We have access to bits and pieces of the trappings of it, in photo layouts in the Times and Dwell, in produce and other consumables, but that’s about it.

    Have a nice day.

  3. dave — i loved your post, everything about it.

    two quick thoughts re: books you’d like on the subject of the bourgeois mindset & its impact on or relation to contemporary middleclass American culture. i’m assuming you already have passing familiarity w/ Veblen, but you would really like an intellectual/cultural history called _the bard of savagery_ by john p. diggins. at least i think you would. a great book on veblen and cultural/political theory before and after.

    the other is a collection of essays from the early 80s on consumer culture — _the culture of consumption_, edited by lears and fox. they gave me the phrase “therapeutic consumption,” which i use to describe not only the shop-to-show-your-love mindset but the shop-to-make-yourself-feel-better one. i fall into both mindsets far too often.

    thanks again for stringing together your recent experiences in such a thought-provoking way. b

  4. Scott Godfrey says:

    As so many of your posts do, this one’s inspired a lot of thought.

    The classic Marxist model with the neat division of the proletariat and bourgeoisie doesn’t apply to the contemporary US, primarily because we don’t live in a manufacturing economy like 19th C. Germany or Great Britain, we live in a service economy, something Marx didn’t really foresee or account for.

    Because of this, we are all (on a very low level) interchangeably working and capitalist class. An example is paying for a haircut (something Jeremy refuses to do): while you are getting the shampoo, scalp massage etc, you are the owner of someone else’s production, the barber’s (not to be confused with the Barber’s), and are therefore a member of the capitalist class. After you get your haircut and proceed to work, assuming you work for someone else, you are selling your production and are therefore in proletariat mode.

    Another thing Marx didn’t foresee was the intelligence of the big boy-capitalist-class in their ability to quell any discontent by giving us a stake in their capitalist economy through popular investment in 401Ks and other mutual fund type devices. This was a purely ingenious way to get Joe Sixpack directly involved in protecting the system that keeps him from ever entering into the 2%, that Wager will wager you will never enter.

  5. MarleyFan says:

    Wow! What a strong post. We had a rich mother of a client who came into the juvenile department yesterday, with her private attorney and nice shoes, demanding that we not notify her son’s private school of his recent drug arrest. She was clearly used to being “in-charge”. Part of me wanted to tell her to go jump in a lake, just to watch how she would react. Great Post. It definitely gives new meaning to “how do you like them apples”…

  6. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Dave, you gave me a lot to think about. Thanks. Great title too.

    I was worried about myself when I started thinking about how old Iggy Pop really is…60 next year.

    I too get wound up in the consumer/materialist culture and think you really are onto something when you talk about things being talismans to ward off more unpleasant realities.

    What riles me is my place on the hamster wheel. I sneer at the guy with the Hummer but covet a Volvo SUV, etc. I am convinced that I am somehow fighting the man, a real 21st century Billy Jack because I can too easily hold in contempt (my fellow?) Americans living in their mini-mansions, vaguely worried about people darker than them, and sparing a moment from their celebrity gossip to wonder exactly when they too will assume their rightful place at the top of the percentage pyramid. Just because I think my taste is better, more TGW, let’s say, than NASCAR, I give myself an out when I furiously want as many goods and services (albeit classier and more eco-friendly, right?) as my red state countrymen.

    I read that while the number of Americans who are middle class has fallen a greater percentage of people consider themselves to be at least one station higher on the ladder than they really are.

    I also get bogged down in the specific political implications. I get it on one level when (Bill) Clinton says “to live like a Republican, you need to vote Democrat” but what the hell does that really mean and do I want to sign on to all the implications therein? I mean, I want to talk about why we lost Kansas all day long but it’s got to be about more than just replacing (truly evil-props to your dad) Wal-Marts with Costcos.

    One book rec-Peter Gay’s Schnitzler’s Century-may be helpful for teasing out what the word may have meant to Ibsen.

    Lastly, re: Ibsen-a recent production of A Doll’s House out here featured actresses who averaged 6 feet and actors who averaged around 4 feet in height. Anybody see it?

  7. so — my favorite comparison of the evening:

    more TGW, let’s say, than NASCAR.

    then again, my favorite movie of the summer was the ballad of ricky bobby …

  8. Stella says:

    Loved, loved this.

    I harbor the fantasy that there’s also an innate/deper impulse that draws us to stuff. Most of us feel better/happier when we acquire things — and certainly that’s informed by reinforcing our status on the social scale and feeling that we’re empowered to participate in our bourgeois world. But I’d also like to think that there is some creative and intellectual impulse buried beneath the shopping gene that draws us to objects. One of the ways in which we are defined in the animal kingdom is the production and use of tools, and we’re all fascinated by objects of one type or another, so I do think that acquisition impulse is not purely because we’re trapped in a cycle of earning and shopping.

    I think the interesting thing about current TV dramas such as Desperate Housewives and Weeds is the exploration of the failure of bourgeois life. Suburban life is acknowledged to be less than functional and yet still too comfortable too forsake.

  9. PB says:

    I am feeling a bit sheepish right now. I was traveling again this week, writing my post on scraps of paper, no connected computer to check the internet. I came home from the airport last night late and posted my entry without having read anyone else’s contributions. Shame on me! How ironic that I would write so pollyanna about my “stuff” job when the questions you pose cast my entire career in suspect, in a good way. I think had I read your post, I might have framed my thoughts differently. The strength of a great post is always to pique, you are the master.

    I spend every day selling things that no one really needs or what they do need they can buy cheaper elsewhere (like WalMart!). I used to hang myself on a rack for this–but as I have gotten older I think there is a mix of consumer that buys pretty, unnecessary objects. Some are after status and substance, trying to pad their environment with a weight that their character or contributions to the world can’t match. They are truly as you speak, mostly women who, although privledged beyond belief, want to be someone else, someone who they consider more like their celebrity or media ideal. There is always a part of me that rolls my eyes and wonders what would happen at the slightest real crisis, one that entailed more than a runner that falls a bit short of the end of the table.

    But as I have gotten older and perhaps more kind, I believe there is a contingency that fall more to Stella’s observations — some deep collective desire for beauty and order and comfort. A creative nesting instinct that seems quite earthy rather than artificial. If I have to eat on a plate, why should it not be lovely? Why would I not make my home, enjoyed by multiple people, as inviting as possible rather than spending money on myself exclusively? Should people go without by choice simply because others go without by fate? And if situations were shifted, wouldn’t any person desire to define themselves with material totems? I don’t know how I feel about any of this, but I am becoming either less judgemental or more bourgeois myself.

    It is true that I like pretty things. And I live in suburbia. But I drive a crap car and feel guilty about the state of the world. Does that make me more enlightened than Hedda? I fear not.

  10. Dave says:

    I loved reading all these responses. Thanks, among other things, for the reading recommendations.

    PB: I did think of your post in connection to mine when I read it Friday morning. a couple of thoughts: First, I agree we have fairly basic human desires for acquiring things, making our situation more comfortable, and having more than our neighbors. These desires in and of themselves are not bourgeois — they’ve been around much longer than “the bourgeoisie” was even possible. Rather, there’s a historical situation in which these desires are expressed as bourgeois activity. Or better, the term “bourgeois” is a sometimes-useful shorthand for talking about the complex economic, social, and symbolic forces that shape the lives of so many of us who are more or less prosperous, safe, and educated but not overly so.

    Second, I hope my post made clear that I don’t think any of us is immune. As Stella points out, the alternatives to bourgeois life are just so unattractive. And we’re somewhat free to define our relationships with the historical situation in which we find ourselves. If the terrible part of being bourgeois has something to do with being stuck following the script outlined by “Friends,” et al., maybe we can find ways of deviating…