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  • 中流 Chūryū/Middling
  • Jordan Sand (bio)

The “middle class” is a cultural formation manifesting economic conditions but not tied to them in any fixed way. This makes it inherently impossible to pin down. The word “bourgeois” in Marxist language is more easily anchored theoretically, yet it too can be made to float when treated as a cultural category. We can trace the lives of these two keywords, “bourgeois” and “middle class,” in two registers: the vernacular and the language of political economy.

Marx’s “bourgeoisie” is part of a theoretically tidy dyad defined in objective terms: either one owns the means of production or one does not. The Anglo-American liberal alternative to Marx’s dyad of bourgeoisie and proletariat posits three classes, and thereby makes the objective rooting of class in the means of production impossible. Social scientists have tried repeatedly to devise objective criteria for quantifying middle-class membership, but the criteria differ with each study. All are plainly porous. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, “Social class does not exist….What exists is a social space, a space of differences, in which classes exist in some sense in a state of virtuality, not as something given but as something to be done.”1

The fact should be noted (obvious as it is) that Marx did not coin the word “bourgeoisie.” When he chose to use it rather than “capitalists” or some other locution, he could rely on immediate recognition among his European intellectual audience. In vernacular language, both “middle class” and “bourgeois” are slippery terms, because both function as cultural signifiers for bundles of habits and appearances. While the influence of Marx has often given “bourgeois” undesirable nuances, capitalist society makes middlingness inherently desirable. Where social status is believed to be something that properly must be achieved rather than inherited, to be “middle class” sets one apart from the failed lower orders as well as from the hereditarily privileged (and thus potentially undeserving) upper class, making it the preferred location to claim. Whoever [End Page 67] can claim this position then takes on the task of fleshing it out with a set of manifest traits. But “bourgeois” too as a cultural category calls forth a broad field of connotations. Cultural historian Peter Gay, for example, was able to write his five volumes on “the bourgeois experience” because he could draw upon a rich array of nineteenth-century people’s narratives of their own bourgeoisdom—self-identifications, contemporary stereotypes and normative claims—as well as on other historians’ retrospective categorizations. He could thus analyze bourgeois people and their lifestyles without being compelled to denote precisely who was in and who was out on the basis of direct, literal ownership of the means of material production. Nineteenth-century Europeans spoke of what it meant to be bourgeois (or burger, etc.) in diverse ways without reference to Marx.2 Marx himself, a consummate stylist (in contrast to the “scientific Marxists” among his heirs), read his audience with a canny sense of how they would read him.

Middlingness emerged in late nineteenth century Japanese popular discourse under the name chūryū (also chūtō shakai, chūkyūmin). It was most of all a normative moral term. Advocates frequently stressed that the middle was the backbone (chūken) of society. The middle class was described as the productive class.3 As a cultural category, chūryū is found particularly in women’s magazines. To be chūryū in the Meiji period (1868-1912) was to be a Westernizing progressive. Yet dominant class legitimacy and broader chūryū respectability relied equally on appropriation and reinterpretation of native cultural practices. The critical thing was mastery, demonstrating knowledge of both the native and the Western, rather than merely emulating Westerners. The middle-class home (chūryū katei) was managed by a mistress whose secondary education had taught her a vocation devoted to imported disciplines of hygiene and efficiency, and to the education of her children. In material terms, many of the lifestyles shown as “middling” in women’s magazines like Jogaku sekai (Women’s Education World) and Fujin gahō (Ladies’ Graphic) actually belonged to people who would have to be judged upper class in...


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pp. 67-77
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