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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 12-42

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"Work Has the Smell of Vinegar": Sensing Class in John Berger's Trilogy

Peter Hitchcock

One of the ways that we measure class is by investigating the processes of its formation. Proletarianization, for instance, is extremely important in understanding the logic and substance of working-class identification, yet, curiously, much criticism of working-class culture begins from the perspective that the working class is always already formed, and that the forming somehow ultimately detracts from the identification of working-class existence itself. This, I believe, is a mistake, not just in understanding class, but in analyzing the experience of class that is vital in cultural expression. The assumption that the proletariat is, that it has being, is belied by the process of being that attends it. This does not mean that proletarian being is therefore only performative, unless one reduces class to praxis, or action based on being. What is performed in class exceeds the principle of performativity itself, even as it is certainly connected to theories of identity and identity politics. This philosophical knot is particularly acute in terms of proletarian being, a process that leads both to self-identity and to its annulment in the same instant. In the main, the performativity of proletarian being is best understood in the moment of passing, a topic I have discussed elsewhere, 1 but the process of class formation does not give up its meanings so neatly to [End Page 12] culturalist reaccentuation. To decenter the is of proletarian being, either the assumption that class unproblematically maintains subjecthood or the triumph of thingness over relationality (if Marx offers a rule of class, it is that class is a relation, not a thing: it is a social process, not a cultural artefact), we might usefully attend to the fictive constituents of the process of class being. This immediately invites the handy interpretive chiasmus in the "fictions of class" and "class fictions" gambit. For those of us interested in theorizing working-class fiction, the consonance of fictive being-in-class with literary fiction only seems to confirm the incommensurability of socioeconomic paradigms with creative writing. But, if the disjunction in disparate discourses must always be acknowledged, this does not imply that imaginative work cannot speak powerfully to our understanding of class, precisely because imaginaries are at stake in class relationality. On the one hand, I will attempt in what follows to clarify the theoretical underpinnings of proletarian and peasant being as abstractions and as processes; on the other, I want to provide an exegesis of John Berger's fiction in order to elaborate the difference between thinking the process of proletarian being and assuming that class is there, identifiable, and is (or was), according to the ideologies of the hour. Reading class in literature in order to fathom the process of class formation is not a shortcut or substitute for political economy; neither is it a noble expression of what is derisively called a sociology of literature: it is, rather, a means to come to terms with the affective nature of social being, to comprehend imaginatively the dynamics of class subjectivity which is a narrative about becoming, not presence.

Marx's Capital crucially attends to the processes of proletarianization rather than to critiques of proletarian being. Lest we think that this is some reflection on the particular stage of proletarian class formation against the class attributes of the bourgeoisie, one should add that the being of the bourgeoisie is also conspicuously absent from Marx's most celebrated text. The closest that Marx comes to identifying the bourgeoisie as a class is through a form of personification, either in footnotes about various economists, or in the paradoxically abstract individualism of the "capitalist." It is as if the class attributes of the capitalist are coterminous with capital itself and therefore need no social differentiation. Meanwhile, the class character of the proletariat is never named as such in Capital (most tellingly in volume 1); indeed, as √Čtienne Balibar has [End Page 13] pointed...


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