Every semester my students execute a deviance project in my “Introduction to Religion” course. I lecture on Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory and the concept of “habitus,” and we talk at length about how social codes are linked with social positions. They all fill out a worksheet on which they identify 3 or 4 communities in which they serve as members, the implicit or explicit social hierarchies in those communities, and the social codes and related behaviors linked to the identities within the social structure. For the deviance project, they have to choose some sort of behavior or code assigned to an identity not their own, and act on it for a day.
Some of these projects have produced great data for analysis in class: one time a student—who was a manager at a construction company—dressed like a laborer for a day and was treated dramatically differently by customers; another time a student called all of her professors by their first names, as peers but not “subordinates” do, and got into a good bit of trouble for her efforts. Many students have difficulty identifying differential social behaviors within their communities and fall back on the most obvious ones: they choose a gender code assigned to the “opposite sex”—girls will wear boxers and sagging sweat pants, or boys will get a manicure with french tips. One young man planned to wear a dress for a day but then “chickened out” and wrote an insightful paper on how deeply he had internalized arbitrary social norms.
This semester I joined the students for this deviance project; I’ve built up a cache of social capital at my institution; I knew I had some I could burn. So this semester I wore nail polish for about a week. I wore pink nail polish on one day, decided it was not my color, and switched to blue for several more days.
I drew a lot of attention from students, faculty, and staff—and, perhaps not surprisingly, from my wife. Very little of the attention was overtly positive; only a few people took a glance and said “I love your nails!” with what appeared to be genuine sincerity. Similarly, very little of the attention was overtly negative. My wife, a proud feminist (although perhaps of the first wave variety), was the only one who made it explicitly clear that she did not like it. “Not all social norms are bad,” she insisted, “it’s okay that I’ve been socialized to dislike it.”
Most responses were in the middle, what I would consider implicitly negative feedback, usually in the form of questions delivered with raised eyebrows: “what’s up with your nails?” One faculty member started with “oh, your nails are cute!” but, minutes later, blurted out “so, really, who did this to you?,” as if I clearly would not have done it to myself. One student practically shouted, upon the very moment I arrived in the classroom, “your nails! Is that for your class project?” Apparently such behavior is appropriate only if it is executed for a class project.
These negative and implicitly negative responses—perhaps we might call them microaggressions—were, let me be clear, by definition sexist: if I were publicly identified as a “woman” in my community, my painted nails would have been of little interest.
Because I’m identified as white, male, and heterosexual by my peers at my college, I’ve got a good deal of unearned social privilege. In addition, as I noted above, I’ve built up a good bit of social capital in my college community. One colleague suggested that I could get away with all of this in part because I have a good publication record—publication records are social capital!—the implication being that she could not get away with such deviant behaviors because she has fewer publications.
Because of my privilege and social capital I’m a fairly confident person, yet I was still abashed and uncomfortable in my deviance. At first I was uncomfortable as the result of the anticipation of negative feedback. Then, of course, there was negative feedback, which circularly produced more anxious anticipation. As a result of this feedback loop, I often found myself hiding my hands in my pockets. In fact, in a meeting with the college president I hid my hands under the table the entire time.
Of course it is unlikely that there will be an overt institutional response to what I’ve done. Just as it would probably count as sexual harassment if my chair told a woman to wear nail polish, it could arguably be construed as sexual harassment if my chair told a man not to wear nail polish. But! More than once the question of it being “unprofessional” was raised (by both students and faculty)—in which case my quick (prepared) retort was something like “would it be ‘unprofessional’ for a woman to wear nail polish? Because if not, then it’s sexist to say that it’s unprofessional for a man to wear nail polish.” What is perhaps more interesting than my argument, however, was the vehemence with which the retort was delivered—my agitation with the very question was probably relatively evident to anyone with minimal ability to read social cues.
I am left to wonder, if someone with so much privilege and social capital is so easily rattled by standing out, what of minorities with little privilege and little social capital? I wonder about the young, female, brown-skinned, Muslim students on campus who wear veils, who chose to gain social capital in their subculture at the expense of social capital in the dominant culture. When challenged because of their visible distance from dress codes that have been normalized, what can they do? How can they navigate the consequences of deviance, without being able to fall back on the sort of privilege and capital I can access?
What interests me most about all of this, however, is what will have become the nachtraglichkeit effect in relationship to the production of my very own desire. Let me explain.
The question almost everyone asked was: “Why? This is for your class project, right?” When asked this question, I hesitated to answer for two reasons. First, it spoils the project to answer in the affirmative. “I’m doing this for a class project” publicly legitimates temporarily a behavior that otherwise would be unacceptable. Were I to say, “I’m doing it for a project,” then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing—I’m gathering data like a good academic—and therefore I’m no longer deviating from the regnant social norms. Second, I hesitated to answer because I did not yet know if there were an alternate motivation. What if—God forbid—I actually desired to paint my nails because I thought it was pretty?
Desires rarely if ever simply appear or manifest themselves. I didn’t enjoy beer the first time I tried it, but I very much enjoy it now. Sometimes we as humans have to try things out, develop a habit, and then the desire (either previously latent or perhaps even nonexistent) is fermented and then cemented.
I did not enjoy wearing pink nail polish. But when I took the pink polish off and switched to blue, I did so because I was willing to press my tastes and see if I could give it a go. (The fact that I was willing to give “blue” rather than “pink” a chance is obviously related to internalized social norms.) I was like a child sipping coffee for the first time—not sure if I liked it, but there was something nice about it and I thought I could develop a taste for it.
So when people asked, “are you doing this for class?,” the implied assumption was “you couldn’t possibly be doing this for any other reason.” As a result of the negative feedback, the answer—after the fact—will have been “yes, I was doing it for a class.” Because of the response I received, I will not have been able to develop a taste for wearing nail polish. This is nachtraglichkeit in process: I am now starting to know, retroactively, that I did not in fact desire to wear nail polish.
Tastes could have developed otherwise.