On Wounds of Class

In Wounds of Class, the late Mark Fisher recounts a memory of visiting a tea room with his sister and mother, specifically noting the discomfort level of his mother, who was not “half clambered out” of her class, as Fisher and his sister had become. For Fisher’s mother and father, taking up space alongside the middle-class occupants of an award-winning tea room equated to an existential crisis:

Stalked by fear and shame in such places, their sense of not belonging there, of being intruders, of being implicitly judged and watched and the anxiety that somehow they will be exposed is ever-present.

Though Fisher did not feel threatened by the tea-room, he did remember having felt the same way going to University, and equated it to his sister’s social anxiety and his own inability to “do anything” with his novels because of a need to engage with them. The underlying theme is an unrelenting feeling that no matter what you accomplish, you’ll never be good enough:

These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people. That for some obscure reason despite all your work and care, being a good parent, educating your children, paying your taxes and scrimping and saving you should be ashamed, not of what you have done or failed to do but of what you are.

In the second half of the essay, Fisher contrasts the “wounds of class” with the “balm of class”, recognizing the benefit of the belongingness his mother earned from a lifetime of being part of the working class:

 In a sense, living there for so many years, the repetitions, the routines, the small talk and the familiar faces, growing up an old in the shadow of that shipyard, in this provincial, working-class world that seemed to us as kids, encouraged to think about a life beyond it, sterile, grey and joyless, was the daily work, the daily investment that is being returned and repaid to her now by the whole town and it has helped immeasurably with her grief.

British educator and blogger Rich Will reflected on Fisher’s essay in his post, Some thoughts on language, education, and class, expanding on these two primary aspects:

The wounds of class run deep, but then, as both Lynsey Hanley and Helen Mort have articulated brilliantly, the sense of discomfort at being stranded between classes, particularly at being a working class person in the more rarified echelons of higher education, can also be uncomfortable.

It is in Will’s essay that I found myself, akin to Russell Brand ( who was a subject of Will’s piece and of Fisher’s admiration), as an autodidactic imposter in the academic world. Here I sit, reading, as Owen Hatherley put it, “writing of a sort that wasn’t supposed to exist anymore”, developing a presentation for a session of Methodologies of Artistic Practice Now, a seminar at The New Centre for Research & Practice, as a certificate student in the school’s Art & Curatorial Practice Program.

How did I manage to sneak in here?

I graduated high school on the good graces of my teachers, since I was too burnt out to attend most of my senior year. I left college for the US Army Infantry after less than a year, with no credits and a string of incomplete classes. A veteran of the first Gulf War, I left the military after 5 years with no transferrable skills and a “General Under Honorable Conditions” discharge (meaning I retained all my benefits except my educational benefits). At the age of 24, I was back to living with my parents in eastern Kentucky, seemingly doomed to a working-class life with no hopes of paying for a higher education.

However, like Fisher and his sister, I somehow managed to “half clamber” out of my class by moving to Seattle, teaching myself how to code, and stumbling into the tech world. Two decades later, sans academic credentials, I work at the University of Washington, holding a position that would require of any other candidate a degree that I don’t have. Of course, I know intellectually that there is no school on the planet teaching the unique set of skills I bring to work every day, but there are still times I feel, emotionally, the imposter.

The old familiar imposter syndrome is even stronger as I consider presenting these thoughts to my peers, an inner voice that sounds like Jeremy Paxman questioning Russell Brand, the drift being, as Fisher wrote:

What gives this working class person the authority to speak?

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