Notes on: Hey, V. (2006) '" Getting over it?" Reflections on the melancholia of reclassified identities'.  Gender and Education, 18 (3): 295-308.

Dave Harris

Can we get over hidden injuries of class and gender?  This is a suggestion made to one of her recent presentations, and it links with debates about the 'confessional voice'(295).  Steedman is the classic text here.  Talking about class raises anxiety, especially in  'theorised class analysis', but the broader issue is what personal accounts actually produce, especially for feminism.  Academic texts themselves 'inscribe complex class and gender positions' (296).

Some feminists have had a working class background, the first to go to university and to enter caring professions.  Welfare institutions continue to engage them, and it is there that they discovered 'the awkward solidarities of feminism', including solidarity with other former working class women.  Steedman and Walkerdine raised the issue of the feminine dimensions of class subordination, and subsequent autobiographical pieces ensued.  Class is seen as a form of embodiment, a '"persistent ontological subjective embrace"'[citing Kuhn], whatever the objective circumstances.  Why should this be?

Class has been experienced as a daily dimension of social exchange, for the dominant as well as the subordinate.  The last subjectivity often turns on 'every day denials'[of goods and services] (297).  This is routine humiliation and suffering, focused especially on families, and the dilemmas of leaving them to become educated.  The process involves 'perpetual self disciplined attention to vocabulary and accent…  clothes' and style.  There is also 'incessant watchfulness'.  In this way, class is never overcome.  Working in the university provides a public opportunity to address the issues and raise the political implications, sometimes producing  a 'recriminating and angry class voice', and this is what produced by common about getting over it.

Childers identified '"the pit bull voice"' in these statements.  Steedman has also demonstrated anger at remembering her mother's humiliation at the hands of a female social worker.  Her mother particularly received scrutiny as an example of 'a feminine form of class subjugation'.  However, Childers sees these as too traumatic to permit solidarity with those with other identities.  It is one thing to clarify a sense of difference, but the danger is in exposing other women, to preserve wounded identity and constant insecurity. She sees these as signs of 'cumulative trauma'(298), and this can distort memory and understanding, and develop commitment to nourish that trauma rather than letting it go.

Skeggs has addressed autobiography as far from an innocent project, but one that draws legitimacy from other forms such as confession: Foucault reminds us of the links with power.  Sometimes public voices arise from some kind of compulsion, so it is important to examine the framework that produces them.  Some women, for example, use the old distinction between deserving of respectable poor and others, as 'the regulatory fictions of their bourgeois "betters"'(299).  Here the voice is complicit.  Sometimes feminist work requires personal implications, and Skeggs is uneasy that this might be a form of asset stripping of the resources of working class women.  However, Skeggs has later recognized a new way of developing 'self authorization', avoiding self deprecation, becoming an authoritative subject, as a result of escaping to university and deliberately exceeding family experiences.

It is difficult to avoid 'a class tirade' (300), since this is often the only way to challenge symbolic violence, through anger, as Barbelet [sic] argues.  It might not be a matter of ressentiment, as Skeggs suggests, but a more agentic revenge.  It can be seen as a more positive 'turning to difficult emotions', not just pathology or victimization, becoming a collective witness. This can form a 'defensive aggressive melancholic feminist formation'reviving what's been lost [shades of Ngai valorizing negative emotions].

Class is both psychological and social, material and cultural.  It is a matter of structural exclusion, and various 'discourses of disrespect and moral disdain', both public and personal, offering entire 'psychic and cultural landscapes'.  No wonder this can entangle subjects in the past, despite massive ideological efforts to get people to erase their 'material and moral hurt'.  This helps us understand the power and processes of class theoretically.  Habitus might be useful as a concept, although what is interesting is the refusal to forget history, and to see how this is done empirically in experience, as people encounter hybridity or ambivalence (301).

Freud might be used by considering subjectivity as a matter of  'filmic superimpositions', as new experiences are layered on top of former identifications.  As class mobility ensues, new selves have to be made, but there is the 'fiction of unitary identity required by the neoliberal social order', and some upwardly mobile subjects continue to feel shame, but also a sense of investment and resistance, 'the emotional politics of class subjectivity'.  This needs to be added to explain the actual operations of the habitus.

Steedman's book is generation specific, and challenged dominant views, the 'public male-centric narratives about the epic revolutionary class'.  She focuses on painful entanglements and relations, the role of class contempt which affects everyone, the importance of recognition and respect.  She offers ' a vicarious politics of class desire', (302) offering the possibility of no longer being abject, while expressing solidarity with parents.  She uses academic analysis as part of a 'myth of revengeful deliverance', reversing class relations, shaming the perpetrator.  This operates at the ideological level as 'a class fiction', fuelled by symbolic capital.  At the same time, this is not a position open to 'the majority of working class women', Skeggs points out.  [No, but you can help them in specific circumstances?].

Freud on mourning and melancholia can also help.  It says there are successful kinds of mourning, where egos gradually sever attachment, and distorted kinds - melancholia, a loss of interest in the world, an inability to find another object of desire, 'a manic need to communicate, and especially a severe self hatred'.  Vera Brittain is seen as demonstrating such melancholia, unable to console herself because she has not been able to stop people dying, while not wanting to move on because that would be a betrayal.  We see these trends in some working class voices.  Melancholia risks 'the triumphs of the class which these authors are destined to join' (303).

We can analyze specific psychic elements as the result of 'historically specific subject and social positions'.  Some events are hybrid, with elements from both past and present investments, and they can 'carry both personal longings and political convictions'.  They have produced defences of the welfare state, for example, a political dimension to individual grief.  However, is this nostalgia for the past and therefore melancholia, 'grief for the lost class...  and the lost politics of hope'?  However, they may also conceal a great desire to succeed, even though this will destroy the old working class self - this is 'the central contradiction' that haunts accounts of working class selves and their frequent accounts of  'umbrage'.  There is a need to stay invested in the past to assuage guilt and hold out hope, but any mobility must be aggressive towards those left behind.  These feelings can only be partly projected: it is no good blaming 'the culpable middle class other' because this also inevitably implicates ourselves.

A certain psychological capital is necessary 'for living a hyphenated position' (304).  The 'passionate testimony' of others in the same position is a useful resource, and also helps us to think about material dimensions, and structural reasons for escape.  The 'old logic of rebellion' is no longer adequate, since escape always involves compliance as well.  Bourdieu and Freud can help assert 'the emotional politics of class'.  Nostalgia can be seen as part of personal resistance to bourgeois identification, as part of 'a melancholic feminist class formation'.  It is also 'a refusal to let go of alternative memories'.  Narratives like Steedman's are clearly 'inherently contradictory' in this sense.  Subjectivity is never finally achieved, but should be seen more as a film with layers, and expressions show the affects of particular historical and political settings.  It is hard to attach these necessarily to conventional political projects, given the success of neo liberalism.  Such texts and to suggest the class is not natural binary or intrinsic, but that it takes place in 'an affective habitus of hyphenated "becoming"'.

These accounts can show us something about the phenomenology of power, and point towards a new feminist materialism, focusing on resources to produce 'psychic and social embodiment in line with or against the logics of individualization' (305).  We need both a multidimensional and motivated account of class, especially as class antagonism becomes increasingly feminized.  For example recent work by McRobbie notes the class contempt in media texts demonizing female chavs.  Autobiographies and other stories can show how it is possible to seek resources to oppose this personal class disdain.  It is necessary not to let go as we confront the academy and dominant others.

Although class identities can be experienced as 'an irritating gritty tendency', they do motivate us to 'worry away at the system', which is both valued and 'still hated'. Not getting over it also means that is not just the fully abject who have these feelings: the point now is to explain how class relations affect everybody adversely even 'participants and beneficiaries'.

It helps us realize that identity is not just a binary difference in language, but a matter of the regulation of the other that helps us define ourselves.  There is a limit to the amount of manoeuvrability on offer, because '(class) symbolic orders always pre-exist their occupants', but they are also always renewed.  Is equally interesting to ask how the privileged 'absorb a dominant and corrosive awareness of their power' (306), and how some of them also deny identify with their privilege, and refuse '"resentment and disgust"' [quoting Childers].  This requires an encounter with the wounds of class, and an examination of 'different rationalisations and resistances', some of which will be revealed in working class autobiography.

[Childers, M.  (2002) '"The parrot or the pit bull": trying to explain working class life'.  Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28 (1): 201-20.
Mahoney, P and Zmroczek, C.  (eds) Class matters "working class" women's perspectives on social class.  London: Taylor and Francis.
Reay, D.  (2005) 'Beyond consciousness?  The psychic landscape of social class'.  Sociology, 39 (5): 911-28.]

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