Cultural Capital and Critical Space

This started off as a comment on TT’s thread, the Cultural Critic as Apologist; but as it grew in length I figured I should probably start a new post altogether. In TT’s thread he raises the issue of creating space for the cultural critic. This critic is “faithful” in the sense that s/he desires to remain within the community of saints and make it a better place where “the ideals of Zion can be realized”. In this post I want to employ an alternative mode of analysis to look at a kind of space that may potentially serve as a space for the cultural critic.

Cultural capital is one of the terms made famous by Bourdieu in his essay “The Forms of Capital” (originally published in the 80’s).  In this post I’m going to use it in a slightly different sense. For the sake of this post cultural capital is the ability to mobilize LDSs toward a common goal by utilizing various kinds of accumulated knowledge that LDS find relevant (this may include intellectual expertise in a particular topic, experiential knowledge in a certain field, an athletic ability, blood-relations to a particular individual, etc.). This is significantly different from “economic capital,” where one could mobilize LDSs by paying them to perform certain services (e.g., a business that happens to be primarily run by Mormons), or “institutional capital,” where an institution such as the Church (or a Church owned institution such as BYU) mobilizes LDSs. 

IMO there are a number of LDSs who have accumulated large amounts of cultural capital. Many of these people have appeal beyond Mormondom (which may add even more cultural capital within Mormondom); and tend to have an even more special place within LDSs circles. While some of them may have stronger forms of economic or institutional capital at their disposal, I’m going to pay more attention to their cultural capital (although this naturally raises the question of whether cultural capital is predicated on one of these others).

On this list I would include people such as:

LaVell EdwardsJon Huntsman, Sr.Richard BushmanOrson Scott CardStephen R. CoveyHarry Reid, and Mitt Romney. This list could certainly go on. For potentially longer list see here.

What I think most of these people have in common (among other things) are high levels of cultural capital (although I’m sure there are pockets of LDSs who would perhaps find many of these individuals less appealing). Can any of these individuals be considered cultural critics?

IMO, one way to enable the voice of the cultural critic is to leverage cultural capital. How many Mormons, for instance, would show up with pen and paper in hand to hear Covey speak on an LDS-related topic, even if the lecture was not held at a church building?

Now, I’m not sure this is the best space available for the cultural critic. As a matter of fact, for many which may see themselves as a cultural critic it is most likely not the most appealing way of creating space. In essence one would have to establish him or herself as a leading figure in a field perhaps not directly related to the kind of criticisms he or she would like to make. Indeed, one could not be a full time cultural critic (then again, who would want to be?). The reality of LDS culture, and this isn’t unique to it, is that any kind of criticism has to be treated as medicine that needs some sugar to help it go down. One’s cultural capital, in this sense, works as that sugar. Mitt Romney, of course, wouldn’t lead us astray, but try suggesting to members in your ward that you are subject to no one religion–only the common cause of the people you represent, and see what kind of reaction occurs.

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  • Wm Morris

    An examination of how Orson Scott Card has attempted to leverage his cultural capital ~ 1990 – 2009 would be very interesting. Of the group, he has done the most to try to influence/speak to both active LDS, those on the edges of Mormonism, and the broader (mainly American) general public on a variety of soci-religio-political topics.

  • TT

    Excellent post. Thanks for pushing this idea to be further refined. I have a bunch of random reactions:

    One thing that I’d like to challenge is the idea that cultural capital among Mormons translates into cultural capital on Mormonism. While we may respect greatly Orson Scott Card’s literary achievement as a Mormon using Mormon themes, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one will respect his view of Mormonism. I think that your idea of “leverage” is very useful, but in an over-leveraged economy, as we’ve seen, this leverage can backfire.

    While the figures that you list have cultural capital, I actually think that it may better be described as a mixture of cultural and extra-cultural capital that mix in a mutually interdependent relationship. Just as Mormonism straddles its own culture with its cultural environment, so these figures are able to translate their extra-cultural capital into Mormon cultural capital.

    I think that the exploring the contours of how cultural capital is acquired and exercised is a crucial piece to understanding the efficacy of the cultural critic. Though you’re right that cultural capital is different from economic capital, it may be spent in such a way as to increase its principal, or may be frittered away.

    Further, “culture” itself is not monolithic, and the acquisition of one kind of cultural capital (scholarly expertise, for instance), may have currency with some subgroups of a culture, but not with others, perhaps even being seen as a sign of anti-cultural capital.

    In a way, it may be said that one way that one acquires cultural capital is by not being critical, or at least not appearing to be critical. One excellent example of this was Mitt Romney’s much publicized attack (during commercial break) of his radio host who was trying to say that Mormons were required by their church to be pro-life. Romney, who was pro-life at the time, insisted that this was not a requirement at all, defending pro-choice Mormons. Here, Romney was able to open up a critical space for Mormons to be pro-choice, while simultaneously holding a pro-life position.

    One other think that I’d like to address is that with my original post, I wanted to distinguish between famous, influential critics who have access to power, such as many of those you listed above, and regular old critics. I suppose that the way of reframing it in terms of cultural capital would be to consider how the cultural critic may acquire a certain kind of cultural capital within Mormonism without recourse to extra-cultural capital.

  • smallaxe

    One thing that I’d like to challenge is the idea that cultural capital among Mormons translates into cultural capital on Mormonism.

    Sure, although I think I’d phrase it slightly differently. Perhaps a more directly related question is, “Does the accumulation of cultural capital necessarily create room for criticism?” In other words it seems clear that cultural capital is not a sufficient factor for criticism (one can have tons of cultural capital, but be a horrible critic); but whether it’s necessary or not for effective criticism seems to be more pertinent.

    In a way, it may be said that one way that one acquires cultural capital is by not being critical, or at least not appearing to be critical.

    Right. I suppose one response to this is to say “no”; cultural capital, by definition, entails not being critical; and so the critic will have to look for other means by which to create space. On the other hand, and I think this is more worth exploring, one could say “yes”; cultural capital facilitates effective criticism. One could then go on to ask whether or not it is the skill set of gaining cultural capital (e.g., being diplomatic, charismatic, etc.) that allows one to be an effective critic. And/or whether cultural capital acts in such a way that one expends it in proportion to how critical one is. My sense is that it’s some of both. These individuals are good at PR (i.e., they have the skill set); and sometimes get a free pass for being critical because they’ve established their Mo-cred.

  • TT

    Since we are also talking about Nibley, I think that he is an interesting example of a cultural critic. I admit that my orignal categories are too simplistic, but he is a great example of a cultural critic who has acheived the status of respected figure, more in the las few decades than in the height of his career, I’m sure. So how did he produce the kind of capital that would make his criticism acceptable and effective?
    Now, take Orson Scott Card, per WM’s suggestion. Why has his capital faded among intellectuals? One can’t say that it is simply because they’ve been the objects of his criticism, since theybwere for Nibley too, and all great cultural critics. His failure, and Nibleys success, need to be analyzed.

  • Wm Morris

    A major difference between OSC and Nibley is the forms their criticism took. Nibley continued to use academic discourse and personal essay — both forms that are generally respected by intellectuals.

    OSC has used the column form (with Vigor, Meridian Magazine, the Rhino Times/his Ornery website/forums, and now Mormon Times) and adopted much of the discourse of talk radio and the op-ed pages. This has alienated many of his mainstream American fans, esp. those of the geeky-liberatarian sort.

    Even more damning, he has adjusted his writing style and focus. His fiction of the past 15 years or so is markedly less literary and more transparently ideologically motivated than it was previously. His disdain for psychology and for intellectuals, for example, comes through more strongly in his later work. In addition, he has seriously toned down the “deviance” in his work.

    This change can be tracked best, imo, by reading all of the Alvin Maker novels. The first three are quite different from the latter three.

  • Clark

    The first three are amazingly better also. (Well, the third one is much weaker than the first two but heads and shoulders above the latter ones)

    I think Nibley kept his capital though because of two things.

    1. he was counterculture. That is he attacked the same things intellectuals love to attack. That he also attacked intellectuals was mitigated by intellectuals being able to say, because of how he did it, that they weren’t the sort of intellectuals Nibley was really attacking.

    2. he was mysterious. Nibley was hard to read and brings in all sorts of ideas. Contrast this with Card who tends to appeal to a kind of common sensism in his writings, especially his political ones. There’s little in his writings to cause one to think a lot to figure it out. Thus they aren’t a challenge to intellectuals who thereby find them less interesting.