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Vertical Pressure

By James Gurtowsky

A response paper written for HIS 4900: In Search of History. Nominated by Professor Vincent DiGirolamo:

“There is probably no more common writing assignment in college than the response paper. James Gurtowski’s ‘Vertical Pressure’ is a model of the form. It succeeds spectacularly on a number of levels. First, it is the work of someone grappling with ideas of real concern to him, not just fulfilling an assignment. Second, it clearly and concisely explicates three difficult texts in a way that renders them coherent and compelling, even to readers who are not familiar with the material. Third, it offers a fresh idea—“vertical pressure”—to explore a common but far from obvious theme of the readings: the reciprocal influence of dominant and subordinate groups in society. Most impressive, perhaps, is the ease with which Gurtowski crosses disciplines, synthesizing the thoughts of an art critic (John Berger), an historian (Robert Darnton), and a literary theorist (Raymond Williams) to come up with his own theory about cultural power.

“I assigned the essay in week five of His. 4900, In Search of History, my department’s capstone course for minors. The eighteen students had read and discussed about a dozen essays in seminar fashion up to that point. They prepared for the discussions by answering study questions, explicating key words, and presenting sections of the readings. We began some sessions with writing exercises. But the week five assignment, due two weeks later, was the first formal essay that asked students to consider more than one reading. I offered a choice of seven essay questions. Here is the one James responded to:

‘If history is the study of power, then what business do historians have focusing on various forms of popular culture?  One answer proposed by several of our authors is that many of the cultural practices of lower class people implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—challenge the authority of the dominant class….Choose three of the essays we’ve read and evaluate their treatment of the concept and deployment of power.’

“James not only placed three important writers in conversation with each other, but also contributed his own stimulating ideas and assured voice to the mix.”


Popular culture, on the surface, seems as lucid a concept as mathematics. By novice definition, the word “popular” can be interpreted as the accepted norms of the majority. The word “culture” in the same fashion can be defined simply as the ideas, beliefs, values and countless other phenomena that constitute a social consciousness. If one can imagine a society as a collection of people with a cumulative conscience well-defined by the majority of its citizens’ cultural beliefs, then it is reasonable to assume that popular culture and society are closely linked ideas. If one blindly binds these two words “popular” and “culture,” he or she may inadvertently be led to conclude that they merely describe the beliefs, values and ideas of a particular society. But scores of literary critics from around the globe suggest otherwise. Countless writers have proposed that popular culture is far more complex than just the combination of its component words. Relationships between power, hegemony, status, affluence, resistance and class are all examples, in one way or another, of the complex forces that are constantly shaping social environments. The forces listed do not act randomly, however. Instead, they all seem to work in a general vertical orientation in which one class, culture or belief has an impact on the people above or below its origination on the social ladder. It is for this reason that these forces have been accumulated under the title of “vertical pressure.” But their existence is not interesting because of the outright, direct influence they have on culture, but instead it is the subtle, indirect pressure they exert on people, institutions and fields of study that make them truly fascinating.

Perhaps the most explicit example of vertical pressure comes from John Berger’s“The Suit and the Photograph,”in which he clearly describes the effects of a hegemonic power on culture. To him, the fact that the suit has been assimilated into working-class culture is a clear example of upper-class dominance—in his words, a “class costume to idealise purely sedentary power” (Berger 430). He goes on to argue that “sedentary power” is of course out of the reach of most of the working-class population, but the suits that idealized this power are not. People want to climb the economic ladder in any way they can, and in some way or another suits have become their vehicle. What makes this situation interesting is that no one explicitly told the nineteenth-century working classes (or people today for that matter) to dress in a specific fashion. Instead, they have chosen for themselves, by their own free will, the dress they desire. But is this truly the case? For Berger, this illusion of free will “is exactly why the suit might become the classic and easily taught example of class hegemony” (430), for what looks like freedom is actually the cunning elite forcing the naïve masses unknowingly into subservience. Berger goes on to explain that the turn-of-the-century working class, “conforming to these norms which had nothing to do with either their inheritance or their daily experience, condemned them, within the system of those standards, to being always and recognizably to the classes above them, second-rate [and this] indeed is to succumb to a cultural hegemony” (430-31). Hegemony’s power seems to rest in its indirect nature. If people recognize change or manipulation, they immediately resist it; but if it is deeply layered within social relationships, it remains undetectable by the average citizen. It creeps into the minds of the lower classes, removes freedom of choice, and supplants its own ideas, the ideas of the dominant elite.

To say the elite hold all the power, however, would be to claim that vertical pressure is a unidirectional force. This is simply not the case. Hegemony is one aspect of vertical pressure that tends to work in a downward direction, but there are other pressures that work contrary to it. Part of this vertical pressure rests in the hands of the working class. This pressure takes form in their ability to revolt against the upper-class dominance. The working class’s leverage rests in its numbers; a small elite can only control an unhappy majority for so long before a revolution is formed. Sometimes a revolt does not even have to be an outright bodily assault, such as the French Revolution or Boston Tea Party. Instead it can be a subtler uprising that serves to rally the masses under a uniform mindset. The workers from Robert Darnton‘s “The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin” were not afraid to showcase their power of revolt when working conditions in the eighteenth-century Paris printing shops became unbearable. They even went so far as to kill the gleaming symbol of aristocratic dominance, their master’s cat.

Eighteenth-century France had little room for pets among the working class. People were barely paid enough to eat. The small wage they earned was not easy to come by either. Many workers were required to slave for inhumane hours just to put food on the table. The rich, on the other hand, had plenty of spare time and money, which allowed them to begin adopting cats as pets. It came to a point where wealthy aristocrats would feed their pets better food than their workers could afford. One worker recalls how the masters pampered their cats: “He had their portraits painted and fed them on roast fowl” (qtd. in Darnton 97). This injustice sparked a deep hatred for cats among much of the working class. These animals somehow surpassed the working people and secured a position just below the masters’ in society. To the workers, cats eventually came to symbolize the actions and injustice inflicted upon them by their masters. It was as if the cats were the overindulged, adopted offspring of the rich, which made them prime targets for working-class reprisal. When the workers could brave injustice no longer and the time for action had come, they reacted in a sly and cunning manner. Instead of attacking head-on and attempting to overthrow the rich—which, if they had, would have certainly meant their demise—they went for the next best thing, the cats.

The aristocracy at the turn of the eighteenth century was far too powerful for any direct attack. The entire printing economy in Paris was controlled by only a few firms. Should a man revolt, it was unlikely he would ever gain a job again. At this time in history, becoming an unemployed worker was a frightening prospect because it meant that basic survival needs would not be met. If employed workers had difficulty surviving, an unemployed man had little hope. As far as an organized revolt, the masters had countless eager people looking for work who could be called upon at a moment’s notice to replace insubordinate laborers. Any organized revolt would have ended in the loss of jobs for every man in the shop. It is for this reason that any outright retaliatory action made by the workers would have been suicidal, both economically and perhaps physically.

It became obvious that a more indirect attack was required, and thus the Great Cat Massacre was born. It commenced in public secrecy under the front of an alley cat extermination. Although many alley cats were killed, it is no coincidence that the master’s cat was the first to be slaughtered. The slaying of the master’s cat can be symbolic in numerous ways, but the fact that the workers had the power to kill the cat showed that these men were not as helpless as previously believed. In fact, if they possessed the power to kill an animal that was protected by the master’s family, it is thus reasonable to assume that they also had the power to destroy the master and madame.

The ability of the lower classes to resist upper-class rule is a clear demonstration of the fact that vertical pressure is a bi-directional phenomenon. The working class may seem helpless in a strict deterministic view of hegemony and vertical pressure, but in reality it seems that both the elite and the masses can affect each other in varying ways. This bi-directionality also does not seem to be exclusive to any particular society or economic system. Raymond Williams, in his “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” takes on many of the classic Marxist issues and attempts to shed light on the complex relationships that comprise a modern society. He carefully dissects Marxist theory and attempts to show that a total, deterministic interpretation can never explain something as complex as the human interactions in society. He disagrees with Marx’s ideas of totality and determinism and says that people’s intentions have as much to do with society as any other underlying force, economic or social (Williams 411-12). He goes on to tackle the idea of hegemony and places it within the context of Marxist theoretical thought. He realizes that hegemony not only acts as a blanket thrown by the elite to cover and control the masses but it takes input from the masses to reshape and rebuild itself into new forms. This can be seen daily when revolts such as the civil rights movement in the United States can reshape a society and its class structure. His analysis is important to the discussion of vertical pressure because it shows a modern reader that no society can be described in totality. Blanket stereotypes such as the “ruling elite” and the “subordinate working class” are far too simple to describe the complex relationships that hold a society together. These entities require flexibility to survive. Williams even acknowledges the idea that all classes, structures and hierarchies in society must continuously adapt to the changing pressures each exert on one another. Should a particular entity refuse to adapt, it will certainly cease to exist.

The duality of vertical pressure coincides well with Williams’ outlook on society. It is not a rigid singularity that performs in exactly the same fashion regardless of context. Nor does it merely shuttle pressure from one socio-economic arena to another. It is a fluid construct that can be molded just like the society that surrounds it. Vertical pressure is the will of the upper class, the determination of the people, and the collision of the two packaged into a single entity. This concept of vertical pressure is not new, however; it has existed for a long time and many social and literary critics have picked up on its presence. Those mentioned—Berger, Darnton, and Williams—are only a select few who have clearly described its effects. In the end, it is the very existence of their works that suggests vertical pressure’s importance in society as a whole.


Works Cited

Berger, John. “The Suit and the Photograph.” Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies. Ed. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 424-431.

Darnton, Robert. “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of Rue Saint-Severin.” Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies. Ed. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 97-120.

Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies. Ed. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 407-423.

One Response to “Vertical Pressure”

  1. […] an example, from James Gurtowski’s excellent paper on the cultural interplay of American social classes, of how this might […]