Never let Never Let Me Go go

We covered a lot of ground in our Ishiguro session, and I don’t feel a need to tie up any of the loose ends we left in interpreting the novel. Is it a humanist novel in some sense? What judgment or attitude are we supposed to form towards Kathy H.? I think the novel is very clearly designed to make these hard questions to answer; Ishiguro’s literariness is visible above all in a total commitment to ethical and aesthetic ambiguity, manufactured by means of every narratological trick in the book. I certainly recommend both Walkowitz and Robbins on the novel as surprising readings that suggest how Ishiguro inverts the classic realist tradition he appears to belong to (to e.g. the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy).

Omnivorousness, and the readings on it, needed more time than we had, so the rest of this post provides some glosses and commentary. Peterson and Kern’s article gives a sense for why the concept was introduced in the first place: the empirical falsification of the “snob” or “highbrow/lowbrow” model of cultural stratification, which expects that high-socioeconomic-status people like high-status cultural objects and low-status people like low-status objects. From the neoliberal era on, high-status people rarely or never profess an exclusive taste for legitimate or “high” arts and culture. But class distinction in cultural preferences didn’t end; instead, the difference is between those who have wide taste and those who are narrow. In particular, high-status people increasingly express preferences for formerly low-status arts and culture. In literary studies this transformation is visible, in just the same era, in the increasing academic interest in “popular culture” and formerly despised genres—including SF. Academia, however, tends to lag cultural trends, which is why there is plenty of highbrow literary taste for genres like detective fiction and SF well before there are college courses or a body of scholarly articles on them—and why such genres are much less central to the English curriculum than they are to the reading habits of most avid readers today.

I imagine some of you had to set Lizardo and Skiles aside last week, but their essay is well worth your time. It’s important to see how sociological theory proceeds, if only to clarify to yourself how another discipline does Theory differently. It’s easy to bounce off the surface; the sociological convention of highly impersonal and abstracted writing, which works in that discipline as a sign of objectivity and rigor, will disappoint your expectations for style. But persist. The essay is very good of its kind, and it does things literary theory never does: it confronts its every proposition with the available empirical studies, and it tries to produce further empirical tests for itself. Also, because sociologists have much less investment in the value of the aesthetic, they are free of the defensiveness which tends to get in the way of literary theory on this subject.

Lizardo and Skiles’s core claim, they tell us, is that “omnivorousness emerges as an empirical manifestation of the operation of the aesthetic disposition under contemporary macro-level conditions” (269). This responds to the widespread belief in the sociological literature that the omnivore phenomenon rendered outdated Bourdieu’s account of the aesthetic in Distinction. For many in the social sciences, Bourdieu was (incorrectly) understood to have put forward a “highbrow/lowbrow” model for explaining the aesthetic disposition. Lizardo and Skiles are concerned to recuperate Bourdieu’s theory of the aesthetic in relation to the emergence of the omnivore. The omnivore is an aesthete who can be aesthetic about many things. They propose that this capacity is rooted in the early acquisition of the disposition: “We advocate for a conception of omnivorousness as a phenomenon generated by the iterative application of a habitual disposition by members of those class fractions most likely to have developed and perfected it as a skill” (266). The omnivore is opposed both to the resolute lowbrow and the narrow highbrow, both of whom betray their lack of fluency in appreciating things aesthetically.

Lizardo and Skiles go into some detail on how hierarchies of legitimacy in the arts interact with the omnivorous disposition. The emergence of omnivorousness by no means does away either with hierarchies within the arts of with the tendency of cultural processes to reinforce social status. What may be harder to take on board is our own implication in this theory. It’s easy to deny that I am a cultural snob: I like all kinds of stuff and I don’t look down on people who like yet other kinds of stuff too. That feels like an unimpeachably democratic sentiment, but the theory of omnivorousness holds that it is no such thing, that it is rather produced and reproduced by the current dynamics of our class society. In our society, the capacity to appreciate widely—in literature, in media, in food, in music, and so on…—is unmistakably a cultural status marker. It pales in importance next to economic status, but it is still a form of status. Most provocatively, even the cultural taste for racial, ethnic, and national diversity could be understood not as a kind of democratization or even as pluralism but as a manifestation of omnivorousness. (I think we could add to Lizardo and Skiles that one way omnivorousness functions as a status signal is when it is seen as an ethically worthy from of inclusiveness.) Consider Ishiguro’s own conflation, in his Nobel lecture, of generic diversity in literature with other, demographic kinds of diversity (“we must become more diverse”).

Do not make the mistake of thinking that these remarks reduce manifestations of omnivorousness to mere attempts to “one-up” other people aesthetically. A careful reading of Lizardo and Skiles (or Bourdieu) will correct this error. I don’t think Ishiguro has a snobbish bone in his textual body. But as a literary writer, his craft, and his achievement, are predicated on a disposition to appropriate objects of popular culture in a particular way: aesthetically. This disposition, and its interaction with the circuits of publication, are what differentiate his use of the SF genre from the uses made by the other writers we have so far considered.

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

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