Delving into questions properly described as “class consciousness” in the West soon yields a bountiful harvest of confusion and imbecility…
|1.||characterized by or showing servile complaisance or deference; fawning: an obsequious bow.|
|2.||servilely compliant or deferential: obsequious servants.|
THERE WAS A TELLING LITTLE PIECE this week by Tanya Gold, in The Guardian. Now, Ms Gold is not a op-ed columnist, but mostly a human interest sort of writer. In any event, the article in question is titled *I’ve had it With Posh Hotels, the People who work in them hate you*.
It’s a pretty insightful little piece, but hardly revelatory. What IS, however, revelatory, are the comments. I would say the ratio is about 80% negative, attacking Ms Gold for being a spoilsport and a poseur (huh?). Now, since I was a boy I have never understood how anyone could be comfortable with having other people do things for them…..carry luggage, wait tables, cut their grass, etc. Honestly, if I can do it myself, then somehow I thought I should do it myself. In addition, I’ve always felt uncomfortable knowing that these service sector workers hated me. When I worked in Hollywood, I was put up on a number of occasions at very high end hotels. I finally came to ask my agent to have them put me up in a Holiday Inn or somewhere. At least the issue was minimized there. But as Ms Gold says, people going to luxury hotels in foreign countries go there to be able to NOT see the country visited. They go to these places because it is a concrete and conspicuous reinforcement of their privilege. As one commenter from the thread put it:
“I’ve had wonderful service in luxury hotels. I’ve never been sneered at in Claridge’s – at least, not that I noticed – and the few times I have had bad service, I’ve assumed it was their problem, not mine. It’s one thing to have an awareness of how social inequalities exist – yes, it is ridiculous that people from developing countries with law degrees should work in Dubai hotels – but it’s not enough to paralyse me with liberal hand-wringing guilt.”
and another simply said:
“I believe that your observation of them hating guests is accurate, but I don’t get it – why the hell do you care? I think the deal is that you not notice them, their overall faces and movements, and you even get into their psychology! Who cares! If they knew something worthwhile, they wouldn’t be cleaning toilets for a living, degree or no degree. They should hate you – you’re from a different world, you have the stuff they want, but don’t know how to get. I’d be worried if they didn’t hate me, it would mean we’re the same.”
Now, one might wonder if the second comment isn’t parody, but I sort of doubt it.
A lack of class awareness is a bedrock feature of Western concsiousness. Either it’s the liberal above who refuses to delve too deeply into social inequality, or the rabid fascist who readily admits to being better than those serving him or her.
Now, if one were to look at the treatment of workers, or especially service workers, in film and TV over the last half century, one would see a decided shift. A Preston Sturgis or even a John Ford was acutely aware of class and often portrayed waiters or servants as human beings, who might additionally be suffering. Today this is ever harder to find, and when we do see it, it’s usually tricked out in a liberal guilt assuaging tale of social mobility. I can count the exceptions on one hand.
Examine television and how blue collar work is portrayed. First, it’s rarely portrayed, and if it is, it comes firmly entrenched in a belief in the system that creates such inequality. Often, you see workers in comedy shows as representatives of the happy poor. From the days of Archie Bunker onward. Or in the case of a show like Friends, the living conditions are closer to what one might expect from a Rockefeller apartment than a shared student flat. The reality of financial anxiety is never examined in a factual context. The way that slave labor eats the soul and deadens the sense of self is rarely a topic. Busboys and waiters are foils for the *special* patron, the protagonist, of most films and TV. Waitresses can also serve as sex toys for the male star. And again, *if* a film depicts a waitress or waiter, it’s almost always about that character’s ascent to a better class. To a place, where in triumph, they can now be served as once they had to serve.
The real question is about why anyone is content to let others do their work for them. More than that is the reality that it’s not the work that is being paid for, it’s the obedience. It’s not an accident to have staff at hotels or restaurants wear demeaning little uniforms — often with name tags. It’s a sign of inferior status. It’s a request for condescending familiarity. “Hey there….Tom is it? Can you freshen up this mai tai please…….good lad”.
These are gratuitous positions. They are class emblems, they are symbolic slaves who work as real slaves.
A culture of tips. Service workers are the organ grinder’s monkeys, the obsiqueous men in starched collars behind the bar, or carrying your bags, waiting diffidently for the guest to dig into his pocket for a coin or two. The question of snobbery is raised here, too. The snotty head waiter or girl at an exclusive clothes store. Such is the dialectical sado masochistic dynamic of privledge.
And sadistic it is. The exchange value of humiliation. When one stays at a five-star or four-star hotel, or resort, one is buying into an almost sexual relationship that is about domination. It’s an almost dumb play that stands in for the larger societal forces of domination. The hatred is not just directed one way, from the bellboy to guest, but from guest to bellboy and from guest to him or herself. It’s a constant doubling down on self loathing.
See, if you stay at a cheap hotel, there may indeed be a *boy* to carry your bags or help you with something…. but the spectre of class receeds a bit at a two-star dive. I recall being in Bangkok and having to meet someone at the famed Oriental hotel. I wasnt allowed in because i was wearing shorts. This sort of policy is clearly a relic of colonial times. But you can find less obvious examples of these bygone Imperialist policies at *any* posh hotel in the world. Today’s 21st century tourist industry has made travel into a commodity …. not just the hotel, not just the things one buys, but the event itself. Its knowing one can have people bow to you for a bit of money. Its the fact of being somewhere *else* while maintaing my usual status.
The clients at four star hotels want to be protected from actual human contact. They can buy agreement from the staff, and they can buy distance from the sordid and dirty masses. The very nature of targeted experience for rich travellers is itself worth a doctoral dissertation. Every second spent at a four-star hotel is a reminder how special you are. *You* are not carrying bags…..*he* is.
I think this article seemed so telling in part because the US and the west in general are in the midst of a serious economic free fall. More and more people who had previously accepted the PR of neo liberalism, are waking up to find themselves homeless or at least jobless. Perhaps a reminder about this symbolism of privilege — the exclusive club, the grand Hotel, the posh resort …..perhaps it’s time to remember the underside of these places. The basic psychology of resentment, of the defended psyche, helps to obscure the essential insight here ….that western man has lost all touch with compassion. Privilege as it’s acted out at an exclusive and insanely expensive hotel, is an obsessive recreating of relations that are tinged at their birth with self hatred. With a profound insecurity. With almost a morbid need to look down on someone. Or on many. The conquest and domination of the *other* must constantly be acted out the better to keep it obscured. Demanding a worker grovel is the perfect expression of a twisted sexual tension. It’s the only safe expression left, on an intimate level, of the colonial relationship.
Althusser’s take on Lacan included this;
“…desire is determined in its ambiguous being (manque a etre) by the structure of the Order that imposes its mark on it and destines it for a placeless existence, the existence of repression, for its resources as well as its dissapointments”-
The most essential truth of the best resorts or hotels is that the genuine desire that floats through the halls is one of rage … that of a sexual and emotional predator. Sexual tension is the glue of oppression as its acted out on this stage. To not feel the discomfort of this unwholesome and obscene dynamic, is to be asleep. The historical specificity of desire is not about an organic or genetic or biological anything, it’s today the culmination of a period of advanced capital that has almost totally atomized humans, and made our connection to each other — in large measure — one of reductive symbols and jargon. From the contradictions inherent in these extreme manifestations of privilege comes aggression. An aggression that on the larger stage includes bombing wedding parties from 10,000 ft in the air, and on a small stage by not really seeing the maid as she turns down your bed cover. Abu Graib is not so far from Club Med-
So, yes, Tanya Gold stumbled on something. The responses suggest the insights, however slight, have great resonance. They have this resonsance because they are attacking a basic premise of the west. It’s all linked, privilege, racism, sexism, and ultimately, wage labor.
Playwright and film professor John Steppling is a Senior Editor at Cyrano’s Journal Online. He currently resides in Norway.