Recently in my Anthropology 100 class we’ve been learning about the concept of cultural capital. A brief definition of cultural capital is that it is the knowledge, habits, and tastes learned from parents and family that individuals can use to gain access to scarce and valuable resources of society, such as a social organization, important position (such as a Supreme Court Judge) and other social arenas. In many cases, the “culture” in cultural capital is the culture of old, wealthy, white, Western, cis, heterosexual men. This theory was developed by Pierre Bourdieu, an intellectual who came from a French farming town and felt looked down upon by the Parisian elite, who made fun of him for his rural accent. He realized that in order to be respected and gain access to those Parisian intellectual circles, he had to change his accent to match the Parisian’s, and his theory of cultural capital came from that experience. Bourdieu migrated to Paris from Denguin, and his struggle with language after his journey is similar to Herd’s speaker in “Through”, who wrestles with the ambivalence of both governmental, informational texts and aesthetic texts. Their struggle with language links them together.
Some aspects of cultural capital include allusions, often learned through a culture that supports reading works from the canon. Greek mythology, something that has been referenced in the canon for hundreds of years, is a example of an allusion that I would consider cultural capital. References to philosophers, obscure bands, and other specialized knowledge is another form of cultural capital. The use of allusions in Herd’s “Through” is intriguing because cultural capital is often the last hurdle between a life marked as fully “other” for reasons of race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, religion, or background, and a life with some semblance of tolerance and opportunity not otherwise discovered. An allusion is a border between those who know them and those who don’t. Or, to push the argument further, an allusion is caught on by those who have benefitted from a lot of cultural capital, and not picked up by those who have not had those same advantages.
I wondered whether it is possible to write a poem where there is no need for cultural capital, but then I realized that it is impossible to write a universal poem. Culture and language rear their twin heads from the moment we are born, and stay with us no matter what milestones, challenges, triumphs, and borders we cross. Reckoning with the ramifications of cultural capital is something that Bourdieu has a tidy explanation for, but in the postmodern times, in the contentious political climate where immigration is a hot topic, and in the immigration detention centers and surrounding towns in the United Kingdom, Herd does not offer a tidy explanation. Many think pieces in our media-saturated era have. But I’ve changed my mind on my previous conclusion. If poetry cannot be universal, it can help tease out the unexplainable, the untidy, the ambivalent.
I understand that this may be a lot to consider. My lens through which I am analyzing both Herd’s and Bourdieu’s work is limiting, and I don’t claim to be an expert by any means. Let me know if anything is unclear in the comments!