Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Look Back in Perpexity

Photo of Hanif Kureishi: Brett Weinstein
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was one of the greatest plays ever written about class and it developed directly out of the particularities of language that defined British society in a way that was notorious and sometimes clichéd. The genius of the play is not only to create a character like the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle but to embellish the contrast by making her Pygmalion not only upper crust, but a student of language itself. Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady set it all to music. Language is of course what plays are made of, but it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were inhabitants of London who found a deeper explanation for class division. Das Kapital was Marx’s analysis of the workings of the capitalist economy. Later on Ralf Dahrendorf, a sociologist who was a member of both the German parliament and the House of Lords, would offer an post-Marxist understanding of society in Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. And the legacy of colonialism evidenced in a movie like Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette, written by Hanif Kureishi, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, might better speak to class division than the facile linguistic dichotomies put forth by Shaw at the turn of the last century. But here comes Fiona Devine, a sociologist from Manchester University hired by the BBC to create The Great British Class Survey. According to the Times (“Multiplying the Old Divisions of Class in Britain,” NYT 4/3/13), the results of the survey responded to by 161,000 people were that “in today’s complicated world, there are now seven different social classes…These range from the ‘elite’ at the top, distinguished by money, connections and rarefied cultural interests, to the ‘precariat’ at the bottom, characterized by lack of money, lack of connections and unrarefied cultural interests.” The in- between categories that the study describes as quoted by the Times include “the ‘technical middle class,’ a group that has a lot of money but few superior social connections,” “’the emergent service workers,’ a young urban group that has li little money but a high amount of social and cultural capital” and “the ‘new affluent workers,’ who score high on social and cultural activity, but have only a middling amount of money.” Sounds like it’s no longer the mythological character of Pygmalion, but Pandora or Proteus, that the up and coming generation of British playwrights will turn to when they try to deal with the changing complexion of English Society at the Royal Court.

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