Penetralia ~ O{pen}ion ~ Are Fountain Pens Bougie? Part 1

Would you buy this fountain pen for US$1.3 million? | South China Morning Post (scmp.com)

In the UK, getting your “pen license” is part of the curriculum in Primary School. It’s like a right of passage from child to grown up enough that “I can use a pen now.” It’s a symbol that says, “my handwriting is nice” and “I don’t make mistakes when I write, unlike you kids!” It’s something all British adults remember as a moment growing up.

I’m a 90’s child so, this was the case at least when I was a kid — who knows, getting De Quervain Tenosynovitisis from phone use is probably a more valued skill than actual writing nowadays? I guess fountain pen use was so normalised to me as a child, the “snobbery” of fountain pens was never discussed. A good friend uses them too (he’s probably the one who re-infected me with the fountain pen virus)! and I don’t see him as bougie, so the concept never came into my consciousness until I listened to a podcast where the topic was being discussed. I was honestly shocked. Is that a sign that I’m already bougie? Maybe…

So, now I’m left asking myself; Is the fountain pen hobby inherently bougie? What do people see from the outside? What does bougie mean? Is a hobby bougie or is it the person in the hobby? And so what if it is bougie? What’s wrong with bougie in the first place? Why does this slang have negative connotations? These questions lead me down a rabbit hole of reading which I will now present, all in the hope of answering the question: Is the fountain hobby bougie?

What is Bougie? Where does this term come from? What are the components of bougie-ness?

Bougie, as is probably obvious to anyone, comes from the “bourgeois.” This is a term that was used to describe a group of people in Middle Ages France, who lived inside the city walls but were not of noble class. These were professionals who essentially serviced nobility e.g. Doctors, manufacturers, lawyers etc, people who could read and write. It’s thought that in about the 18th century these people began to demand rights for themselves and the services they provided and are thus known today as the “middle class.” Based on their economic status, you imagine these people got fairly wealthy with time.

So, the quest for understanding Bougie is a quest for understanding the middle class and therefore the philosophies, principles and attributes associated with the middle class. So, let’s start here.

The Middle Class

I have to warn on the outset, a lot of what I found wasn’t pleasant to read. I found it utterly fascinating, hence my journey down the rabbit warren, but unless you have a old-fashioned students’ approach I can imagine this is going to upset many people.

So who are the middle class? This is an ambiguous term as it is defined by so many, in so many different ways. Economists define it one way but philosophers, politicians may define it another and colloquially the people may self-identify (or not) as middle class too. For our purposes I’m going to define the middle class loosely based on Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s 1977 definition as being the class of people with the “means of purchase” but not major “production”, as being less than the millionaire class but above those who rely on the state for funding.

Now, here is where things start to get ugly, but fascinating from a philosophical perspective. Stop reading if you’re of the faint hearted. Naturally, any one of the following terms actually has a whole study of philosophy behind it, my presentation of these terms doesn’t mean I understand them fully. I had a very specific question I wanted to answer and so tried to stay focused on that, I understood as much as was practicable and necessary to move my quest forward without needing to become a philosopher in each topic. References below.

A combination of ideals are attached to the bourgeois. So, lets explore these first briefly to get an understanding of the middle class and the philosophies/attributes attached to them.

Firstly, Idealism. Bourgeois philosophy puts absolutes in places where subjectivity and grey/relativism should exist. For example; going green IS good, ALWAYS be true to yourself and EVERYONE should go to university. This kind of idealism fails to recognise that these ideals are in fact “yard sticks” of aspirations set out by the bourgeois for themselves, rather than any real beliefs that can be actually adhered to. For example, proper packaging on food may actually make them last longer, reducing food waste; One can never always be true to oneself, just think of a time you disagreed with your boss and kept quiet for sake of maintaining job security/satisfaction; And, going to university to study something with no job prospects thereafter may be a waste of time and doing any trade apprenticeship is often far more spiritually rewarding. Idealism is said to be fostered by virtue of class and national privilege offered to the bourgeois.

Secondly, individualism. The bourgeois consider the individual as the unit of power and importance and should be protected paramount. This philosophy fails to consider many evils, for example, it promotes the idea that “bad” in the world is the work of individuals e.g. A politician or a doctor or a media person. It fails to recognise that we all exist in an ecosystem arising from the relationships we form with each other and the world around us. It fails to recognise intra-group relations. It forgets that institutions or entities collectively may make decisions rather the individuals in them alone. Furthermore, system errors are not taken into account here. Pieces of information not received, crashing computers, the culture in an office etc. Most disturbingly, individualism allows bourgeois philosophers to stay insulated from world events and considerations. Individualism relies only on “self-policing” of ideas which in turn may promote a false notion that my ideas are universal or ideal (see previous paragraph).

Thirdly, an uncritical engagement with liberalism. To be “liberal” and “progressive” becomes superior to understanding or engaging with other cultural or philosophical view points. For example, traditional gender roles or cultural variations in child rearing — the progressive way is pushed as “right” whilst mother’s being proud of their homes and home life isn’t discussed. Liberal principles cannot be questioned for fear of the social cost and engagement in dialogue is discouraged leading to (self)censorship from alternate views which may be valid.

Fourthly, a sort of “first world chauvinism”. These are a collection of ideologies designed to justify and reinforce 1st world economic expansion. This may include patriotism for one’s nation, anti-globalisation, prioritising nationals over aliens, ignoring multinationals (such as tech giants or retailers — online or otherwise) based on principles centred around “convenience based living” and an indifference to the use of 1st world military might elsewhere. This leads to an “us and them” mentality. Whether one believes “they” need to be helped, or ignored is not the point, the point is one exhibits an exceptionalism towards 1st world nations.

Again, any one of the terms above can be expanded on, however, for our purposes we can now see why “bougie” or “bourgeois” is a negative term.

He who is self-interested and unprincipled, tries to be but misses the mark again and again, but doesn’t care about keeping it that way.

Anyone, including myself would think, “wait, that’s not me! How offensive!” And to be honest when I was reading this, I felt the same at times, but when I really questioned my beliefs I found many truths and similarities. Whether these are wrapped up with a notion of helping others or the world or an unabashed acceptance of one’s bourgeois nature, there are areas in life where the middle class exhibit these features. For Example, We should be fighting terrorists abroad, we should be fighting for equal opportunities, what’s wrong with individualism? I am important and should be the most important to you (a point of contention in most relationships and customer service situations), and what’s wrong about being an idealist? I’m reducing my plastic waste, I went to university and got a job, so others should too and I give to charity to do my bit in ending world poverty. Yet, these are all bourgeois principles.

Let’s think pens for a second.

Bourgeois philosophy is about property. More specifically, it’s acquisition. Property in this sense can be material or knowledge (or self-knowledge). We understand this as collectors but I’ll explore the “collectors’ psychology” in part 4, for now let’s explore acquisition. So, why do the bourgeois want to acquire? Because acquisition is linked to aspiration and freedom. Aspiration for what? self-governance. How? by replacing the ruling or noble class.

Orwell discussed this in his book 1984, within the fictitious book “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” written by the character Emmanuel Goldstein (principle bogyman of the state).

“Throughout recorded time… there have been three kinds of people. The High, Middle and the Low… The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High…”

Now, whether you believe the aim of the Middle is to join or replace the High is irrelevant for our essay — just note that aspiration is a key feature of bourgeois philosophy i.e. an inferiority complex about one’s position in the world. We may look to Youtubers more famous than us, or want more knowledge of pens, we might want our podcast to top the charts or get most upvotes on Reddit. We might want the latest and rarest limited editions or be an authority on nibs. Maybe just to help out fellow collectors or those starting out, have no malice attached but the truth about aspiration still exists there without negative or positive connotations attached to it.

What about freedom? The tussle for freedom, is the tussle for self-governance. To feel like, or to actually be, in direct control of one’s own life. Everyone wants to feel like they are in control of their own lives, a rational and reflective individual should be able to act “as though” they are free, right?

This is true, however, these principles require self-knowledge and a sense of self-identity. This internal frustration is inherit in bourgeois philosophy. The bourgeois harbour a skepticism of the outside world so how can one gain self-knowledge or self-realisation? Knowledge comes from the interaction with the subjectivity of the outside world, and objective self-realisation comes from the exclusion of this. Immanuel Kant said that humans are merely “sense making machines”, there is therefore an inseparability between the mind and world. So, how can anyone be unique by claim to true self-knowledge as their version of themselves is tarnished by outside influence at all times. This explains why bourgeois philosophy is so destructive and why self-deceit creeps into it.

Example: I want to make a unique pen, so I’m going to use this rare acrylic, when actually everyone is using something similar but different. I use a Bock or Jowo nib, again like every other custom nib maker and produce a pen which in the end looks no different (bar its colours and a few dimentions) to all the other hand turned acrylic pens all set up in a line. Yes, your pen is unique but it fits nicely within the “acrylic hand-turned pen” category. Does this add value to your pen? Probably not. Is the “acrylic hand-turned pen” category a valuable and interesting category? Definitely, yes.

So, what freedom did you really exhibit?

Bourgeois living is, “labelled with sins of conformism, consumerist materialism, pompous self-satisfaction, self-deceit and hypocrisy as a whole way of life.”

“Self-deceived, hypocritical, disguised egoism, selfishness and a complacent satisfaction with low minded, uninspired vulgar ends or goals or both. A free life is actually just well organised selfishness, producing a lowest common denominator level of cultural cruelty”

— Prof. Robert B Pippin

The bourgeois is held in contempt because he cannot act freely like the nobleman but instead paradoxically acts “free in majestic indifference to what others think of what he does.” One has to be honest, this is exactly the whole concept behind, “you-do-you”. Everything from Friends to Super Hero movies to the products we purchase are in pursuit of this idealism and individualism.

Yet, one has to feel pity for the bourgeois. Firstly, the world continues to reward cautious and reputation-preserving conduct. Secondly, on one hand the bourgeois has altruistic humanism whilst on the other consumerism — this pendulum swings both ways and in my personal opinion it is “convenience based living” which guides which decision is made which way and when (when it’s convenient of course). In reality, bourgeois existence is a complex world of interdependence yet, true “independence from this would be both economic and social suicide.”

In fact, even by the 17th century this insult was well established. Many literary works were already describing the bourgeois as “as a person without merit, a social climber, vulgar, craven, philistine with the means to enjoy finer things but no clue how to, for example snoring through Wagner. Being anti-porn but having a giant supply in the basement.”

Final points and conclusion to this section

It is noted that when the bourgeois become the ruling class, there is almost always a tie to “aristocratic nostalgia” and “self-congratulation” involved with the win. A harken to the past, which in fact the person themselves was never a member of as a ruling class person. This often comes with pronouncements that others are bourgeois, as a virtue signal demonstrating that one is not.

More recently, a class of petite bourgeois is identified to sub-categorise the ever growing middle class. Where the Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s 1977 definition stated that the middle class have no means of production, my version of this definition included the word “major”. This was to highlight this petite bourgeois category, who are normally semi-autonomous, small-scale merchants who aspire to the higher bourgeois categories and ultimately to “major” (millionaire level) production. These include “minor stake holders in companies, small to medium businesses, private GP practices (this is me), small law firms, franchise owners and car dealerships.” Naturally, custom build pen makers, (bricks-and-mortar or online) retail stores, nib grinders and artisans on Etsy and the like, would be in this category too.

We live in the most advanced society that humankind has ever created. Today there is both complexity of thought at well as actions, and affiliations with social groups and classes. One person may hold a variety of roles and counterintuitive co-existing believes. Perhaps, a new more updated version bourgeois philosophy is also needed. Naturally, a lot that has already been said still holds true today, but perhaps some of the animosity doesn’t. Maybe it is the very disenchanted nature, the atomistic self-characterisation and self-understanding and skepticism that is required for a updated bourgeois philosophy to emerge.

I want to end by sharing the thoughts of the German intellectual Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). He postulated it is the sitting room which is the centre of the bourgeois culture. A homage to the person’s prestige and consumption. In the early 19th century he recognises that the sitting room went from displaying items of beauty AND utility (such as hand painted porclains and machines papers etc) to items which displayed only wealth with NO utility. “The bourgeois transported the wares of the store wondows to their sitting rooms.”

Think about your sitting room. What is on display there, are your pens displayed here or do you have a man-cave equivalent or proxy sitting room? Now think about the online store front, the ease at which purchases and deliveries happen today, the limited editions or custom builds everyone is after. I found this a profound exercise to do and I hope you do too.

Thanks so much for reading and remember no matter who you are, “first, do no harm.”

References:

Robert B. Pippin — Cambridge Uni Press — The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath — Introduction: What is Bourgeois Philosophy 052184858Xbook.pdf (cambridge.org)

bourgeoisie | Definition, History, & Facts | Britannica

Wikipedia — petite bourgeois, middle class, bourgeois,

bourgeoisphilosophy.wordpress

1984 — George Orwell

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An Australian GP with a love for fountain pens, writing, gaming and gardening, throwing in an occasional rant along the way!

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GP_Gen

An Australian GP with a love for fountain pens, writing, gaming and gardening, throwing in an occasional rant along the way!

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