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John Kirk Crossing the Border: Class and the Narrative of Transition Almost every working-class boy who has gone through the process offurther education ...finds himselfchafing against his environment during his adolescence. He is at thefriction point oftwo cultures. (Hoggart 292) What does it mean to be "at the friction point of two cultures," and how is this liminal space negotiated from the perspective of class? What occurs when—through what gets called educational mobility—a person is decamped out of the class into which she or he was born? More pertinently, perhaps, what response is called for when one has mounted the social ladder only to discover the experience that few rungs higher all too chafing— dwelling in a different place, characterised in a range of significant ways by a sense of alienation? I will consider these questions, and others, both from the perspective of my own experiences as a working-class scholar on the margins of academia, and from the standpoints offered by others within the realm of the academy and beyond. Class has a particular resonance in the British context from which I write. As historian David Cannadine points out, there exists a wide belief "that the British are obsessed with class in the way that other nations are obsessed with food or race or sex or drugs or alcohol" (ix). The comment, of course, articulates class as primarily a cultural category, and thus performs the task of disguising the realities of class as much as it illuminates them. Displacing class as an economic category, a fundamental structural feature of a capitalist society, mightbe seen as away ofde-politicising the question, rendering it safe by reducing it to talk about accents, attitudes, tastes and behaviours. This is an emphasis the English, in particular, are more than comfortable with. Yet, Cannadine's comment disguises another development , too. It is the case, in recent times, that the very notion of class has become a non-issue. In academic and political discourse, class is no longer seen as greatly significant to people's lives operating now, as we are repeatedly told we do, on the ontologically fluid terrain of the postmodern condition . Moreover, the politics of possibility that class once promised shifted quite decisively in the 1980s onto new social movements, to other cultural identities, and these were seen—oddly enough—as essentially incompatible with the discourse or reality of class. Erstwhile emancipatory projects associated with the working class—especially in Marxist perspectives— were translated to formations of gender, race/ethnicity and sexuality. So Andrew Milner, in his recent critique of this move, can point to a radical decentering of social class "by an increasing preoccupation with the cultural effects of other kinds of cultural difference—gender, race, ethnicity, sexual- 136 the minnesota review ity" (2) whereclass thenbecomes quite quickly the forgottenidentity ofnew identity politics. The purported disappearance of the working class is no new phenomenon in British cultural and political argument, however. It became a very powerful and persuasive position in the 1950s and 1960s, in the face of perceived post-war affluence and the erosion of class boundaries and identifications . Both the Left and the Right in the 1980s reached consensus on the decline of class, a perspective triggered largely by the radical change in work patterns and employment trends following waves of de-industrialisation , and a renewed and increasingly insistent emphasis on the importance —indeed the alleged centrality—of consumerism, or the subject as consumer, and the concomitant effects of this. Both responses are misguided , or at best partial. Two things need be said here: as long as capitalism exists so will a working class. It will take different forms in different historical periods, transmuting as the dynamism of capitalism demands. This flags the importance of class as a polito-economie reality, and relates, among other things, to the fact of exploitation. Then there is the issue of how class gets talked about and represented, and how it is lived in the everyday . This corresponds mainly to the cultural aspects of class referred to earlier, and the more central focus in this essay. Being on the cusp of two cultures—as a man or woman educated out...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 135-147
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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