Rhonda Levine argues in “Social Class and Stratification” that “to be successful we must see to it that each American is given his chance to move in the social scale. (73)” Levine’s reading of the social scale rehashes the all too familiar narrative of American success recycled repeatedly in film and popular culture. But how much can individuals rely on such reference narratives in the contemporary economy, where we witness a crisis in neoliberalism across the board and are forced to re-evaluate our position as subjects as well as our ethics within global economies? Indeed, individuals of “merit” or “talent” lose out to those who know how to properly navigate the social order and play the game – those who can play what Gladwell calls the art of battling giants. We are faced with questions of attrition. Levine’s commentary begs the question of individuals who exist marginally within the social order and are forced to overcome adversity (read: uneducated parents, low on the developmental chain, of meager income, education, and culture). When Marx first articulated theories concerning social class and inequality, he referred most immediately to “market or exchange relations” (3) that govern, direct, and influence the individual’s capability for upward mobility in capitalism. For contemporary queer subjectivities, such realities of oppression are particularly resonant and immediately forceful. Consider the experience of walking through a department store; showers of beauty, products, designer clothes. These can all be good things insofar as they make individuals feel empowered. Beauty products make people feel good, especially gay men such as myself who work in entertainment and run in literary circles. When I walk into a department store, I feel everything and see commodities as sources of empowerment. Whether it be a Tom Ford advertisement of a man covered in water like Apollo or a Baudelaire perfume, the seizure of the commodity can be an act both of iconoclasm and self-empowerment. While the commodity enacts a fantasy of class rise, it also enables the individual to seize capital in liquid form.
But what happens when the spill of capital moves into what Frank O’Hara calls the “enormous bliss of American death?” When queer men are thrown by chance into undeveloped housing, with little access to basic commodities, let alone higher education. For Marx, “the process of exploitation not only is what defines capitalism but also is the root of basic inequality in capitalist society” (Levine 3). According to Max Weber, “stratification results from more than unequal property relations” (6). Medical authorities, the nuclear family, and other forces of power and hegemony continue to repress the voices of immigrant populations, as well as ethnic minorities and individuals constrained by limitations of race, class, gender, and sexuality. I for one experience this first hand. I come from a middle-class family with no appreciation for the experience of aesthetics or investment in my career. In my industry, I need to fight hard to ensure that I work with the right stylists, have the right makeup (remember, beauty is important) and celebrate the free rhythms of the self as they evolve in time, space, and seasons. That is to say, liquidity is a political part of who I am and what I do. I need to ensure that my voice is liquid through the seasons, so that I can empower myself as well as my audience.
I recently completed the production of my first record, which was produced by Tim Gowdy (Stars, Barr Brothers). Tim and I worked on the project for the duration of two seasons, until the early hours of the morning. Things sped up pretty quickly after that point. Before I knew it I was working with management, styling teams, and outfitting myself in poses. I began to FEEL GOOD ABOUT MYSELF. While my voice is in the public sphere, I am faced with real limitations – among which are the poverty of the middle-class, the lack of respect and admiration for works of culture, and the systemic abuse that comes along with such relations of power. Nevertheless, the struggle of the individual in the global market cannot be attributed to petty family or money relations that obstruct the development of the artist. Rather, the artist must persevere to break down walls and emerge anew, like the poet blazing. To see like Ashbery is to see the mirrors of everyday life, to sing amongst the dead. This takes a great deal of perseverance, drive, as well as perspective. A professor of mine once said of graduate school that it was like a game at which point you could be cancelled out at each juncture. Such is the world we live in.
The voices of many individuals, including myself, are oppressed on an everyday basis by capital, by the bourgeois family (read: patriarchy, the intellectual poverty of the middle-class), and by various other forces of repression in culture and society at large. Each day I see individuals like myself, with headphones in their ears, thinking of better futures, fighting against forces of oppression and containment. The distinction lies in the perseverance of the individual. Persevere, kids. I promise there are colors out there in the ether.