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Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities

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Abstract

Although the classed dimensions of ‘taste’ have, following Bourdieu, been widely discussed, expressions of disgust at perceived violations of taste have been less frequently considered in relation to class. This paper considers various expressions of disgust at white working-class existence and explores what they might tell us about middle-class identities and identifications. I argue that the narratives of decline and of lack present in such representations can be seen in terms of a long-standing middle-class project of distinguishing itself. Drawing on Bourdieu's critique of Kantian aesthetics, I argue that the ownership of ‘taste’ is understood as reflecting true humanity, and as conferring uniqueness. Ironically, however, this uniqueness is only achieved through an incorporation of collective, classed understandings. The paper calls for a problematization of a normative and normalized middle-class location that is, I argue, given added legitimacy by a perceived decline in the significance of class itself.

[A]n account of class, rank or social hierarchy must be thin indeed unless accompanied by an account of the passions and sentiments that sustain it (William Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust, p. 245).

Social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat (Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 479).

What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect (Beverley Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture, p. 118).

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