File spoon-archives/bourdieu.archive/bourdieu_2002/bourdieu.0202, message 9


Subject: Pierre Bourdieu, 1930-2002 (The Nation)
Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2002 17:16:49 +0800


Pierre Bourdieu, 1930-2002
The Nation; New York; Feb 18, 2002; Katha Pollitt;

Volume:  274
Issue:  6
Start Page:  10
ISSN:  00278378

Full Text:
Copyright Nation Company L.P. Feb 18, 2002

The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre
Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math
in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline-an
unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list
ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned
up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages
crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this
farcical protect, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1),
Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because
they are leading the life of the mind-why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one
wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of
celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu's gloomy
predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from
scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward
journalism and entertainment.

Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring
their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and
political issues, something he suspected couldn't be done on a talk show.
His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers,
undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against
neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of
research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples
as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in
everything from amateur photography to posture. It's hard to think of a
comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky's academic work has no
connection with his political activities, and it's been decades since his
byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One
friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.

Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself "to the left of the
left"-that is, to the left of the ossified French leftwing parties and also
to the left of the academic postmodernists a ka antifoundationalists, about
whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a
disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of
habitus-the formation and expression of self around an internalized and
usually accurate sense of social destiny-tends to make ameliorative projects
seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, "discovers necessity, social
constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is
that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such
despair." Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high
culture readily available-in free museums and local performances-is all that
is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today's America, this fond hope
marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of
de Gaulle's minister of culture, Andre Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu
painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way
class shapes cultural preferences or "taste," there is nothing automatic or
natural about the ability to "appreciate"-curious word-a Rothko or even a
Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel
comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the
educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and
unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of
the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. Typically, though, Bourdieu
used this discouraging insight to call for more, not. less, effort to make
culture genuinely accessible to all: Schools could help give working-class
kids the cultural capital-another key Bourdieusian concept-that middle-class
kids get from their families. One could extend that insight to the American
context and argue that depriving working-class kids of the "frills"-art,
music, trips-- in the name of "the basics" is not just stingy or philistine,
it's a way of maintaining class privilege.

Although Bourdieu has been criticized as too deterministic-- a few years ago
The New Yorker characterized his views, absurdly, as leading "inexorably to
Leninism"-he retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence,
including much gathered by himself, a faith in people's capacities for
transformation. He spent much of his life studying the part played by the
French education system in reifying class and gender divisions and in
selecting and shaping the academic, technocratic and political elite-the
"state nobility"-that runs France, but he believed in education; he railed
against the popularization and vulgarization of difficult ideas, but he
believed in popular movements and took part in several. In one of his last
books, Masculine Domination, he comes close to arguing that male chauvinism
is a cultural universal that structures all society and all thought; he is
that rare man who chastises feminists for not going far enough-but the book
closes with a paean to love.

Bourdieu's twenty-five books and countless articles represent probably the
most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts
in our era. Nonetheless, he is less influential on the American academic
left than the (to my mind, not to mention his!) obscurantist and, at bottom,
conservative French deconstructionists and antifoundationalists. Perhaps it
is not irrelevant that Bourdieu made academia and intellectuals a major
subject of withering critique: You can't read him and believe, for example,
that professors (or "public intellectuals," or writers, or artists) stand
outside the class system in some sort of unmediated relation to society and
truth. The ground most difficult to see is always the patch one is standing
on, and the position of the intellectuals, the class that thinks it is
free-floating, is the most mystified of all. It was not the least of
Bourdieu's achievements that he offered his colleagues the means of
self-awareness, and it's not surprising either that many decline the offer.
His odd and original metaphor of the task of sociology holds both a message
and a warning: "Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their
spotlight on our blinkers."


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