File spoon-archives/bourdieu.archive/bourdieu_2003/bourdieu.0307, message 15

Date: Fri, 04 Jul 2003 17:37:19 +1000
Subject: [BOU:] Where's the agency in agent?

Apologies about the lack of brevity, the billiard balls of ideas in my 
mind kept on ricocheting for hours.

Let me get this straight. The problem of "lack of a place for agency" 
or the mystery of where the "capacity for dissent" is located, is the 
problem of HOW the complicity of the agent/habitus with their 
field/structures/worlds IS NOT straight determinism?

The habitus' structured and structuring structures affect dispositions, 
producing representations, strategies and actions without strictly 
determining them. What comes out of the ontological complicity of 
social space & the habitus are regularities, dispositions and 
tendencies -  but /never/ determination.

Bourdieu writes "the passage from the highest probability to absolute 
certainty is a qualitative leap which is not proportionate to the 
numerical gap" (Outline of a Theory of Practice, p9). It is in the gap 
between highly-probable actions and what the agents actually do that 
agency is or can or should be found.

Of course, the question is nearly, as Hiro wrote, "[w]hether actors 
have a capacity to seize this opportunity to challenge what has been 
hitherto hegemonic" ... but I disagree that this is 'an "empirical 
question" alone. It is very much a question to be asked of Bourdieu's 
Theory of Practice itself, in the mode of Bryan's initial query. There 
is a place for agency in Bourideu's theories, and I think that 
considering it ineffable, stubbornly mysterious or absent is unfair. 

FIRSTLY: The fallacy of determination...

Certainly, there is plenty of scope to experience life or to analyse a 
life as being determined by the habitus and the field...

"What we are justified in describing as a /mechanism/, in the interests 
of making a point, is sometimes experienced as a kind of /infernal 
engine/ (we often speak of the 'hell of success'), as though agents 
were no more than tragic cogs in a machine that is exterior and 
superior to them all." (Practical Reason, Bourdieu, p26)

...but this is a kind of 'bad faith' which uses hindsight to intepret 
actions as directed towards particular goals, whereas "[e]ven when they 
look like the realization of explicits ends, the strategies produced by 
the habitus and enabling to cope with unforseen and constantly changing 
situations are only apparently determined by the future." ('Stucture, 
Habitus, Practice', p61)

There's a near circularity to habitus apprehending the world as it 
wants it to be, so it can propose the same strategies as before, so the 
world will continue being as it wants it to be (ie, homologous to the 
world in which the habitus was produced). 

But if we try to close this circle out and say that the structures of 
the habitus and its field DETERMINE the agents behaviour we approach 
the fallacy of saying that by sheer will alone the agents (or the 
dominant agents of a field) can make the world just the way they want 
it to be. Just because you treat the world as "an infinite market for 
blockbuster movies" does nothing to ensure that it will behave like 
one. More to the point, just because the world behaved like "an 
infinite market for blockbuster movies" YESTERDAY doesn't mean that it 
will behave like one tomorrow. 

Certainly, in the centre of Bourdieu's theory is the idea that the 
habitus apprehends a present that resembles the past and effectively 
reproduces further circumstances of the same kind in the future. The 
dominant agents in a field with a certain degree of power and a certain 
degree of success can pull of this conservative strategy a lot. But 
never perfectly.

Bourdieu writes "the near circular relationship of near perfect 
reproduction... is completely valid only when the conditions of 
production of the habitus and the conditions of its functioning are 
identical of homethetic" (SHP,p63)

Objectively, there is always more to the world than the structures of 
the various habitus and fields we are entwined with, and although we 
can't see that "objectively" the world is really there and will really 
change which opportunities & strategies are both available and 'best' 
for the agents. 

The world - as material reality & as intersecting social spaces - is 
something that NO structure can totally encompass, and the agent must 
negotiate that gap between the habitus' best guess of the situation 
being faced and the reality of what's there, as well as between the 
habitus' best guess of what to do & what is acutally done.

SECONDLY: Where can you see that agency really being taken up?

(1) AS SCIENCE/KNOWLEDGE/WISDOM: As described by Peter King, 'we' have 
the capacity to render CONSCIOUS the structures that so profoundly, and 
usually unconsciously, render the world around us and inform our 
practices. With this awareness we can critique & manipulate the 
structures around us and the behaviours they inspire. 

There's a power-thing to be considered here about how successfully 
anyone can change the world around them... and also a finitude thing: 
The deal with rendering unconscious structures conscious is that 
unconscious structures inform that behaviour. Science & Philosophy have 
(apparently) become increasingly aware of the finitude of their 
understandings, and the inability to transcend the situatedness of 
human being, and the effect of this for relying on knowledge of 
structures to facilitate effective agency is that an agents will tend 
only to know what they're 'supposed' to know, given the structure 
around them.

(2) INTERSECTION OF FIELDS: As described by Hiro "one field is said to 
be always coterminous, overlapped, and intersected with other fields." 
So, agents within one field with its ways of seing and ways of being, 
receive interference from the agents and insitutions of other fields. 
Encountering this, agency is exercised is choosing how to deal with 
other ways of seeing the world - and those choices may reinforce, 
amend, augment or substitute the habitus/field/capital in which the has 
been entwined.

Here, again power and finitude come into the mix, habitus & fields have 
their particular ways of dealing with the intrusions of aliens 
(Distinction!!).  The interference of fields fits together with the 
making structures conscious - thinking of Bakhtin "a culture exists 
only on the border of other cultures" or Mikhail Epstein's transculture 

(3) HYSTERESIS: Things change, life is flux etc, something about 'can't 
step in the same river twice'  etc. The embodied history of the 
habitus, and the institutionalised history of the fields work hard to 
perpetuate themsleves... but in Hiro's words they "can never achieve 
total saturation." As things in the world change the AGENT must CHOOSE 
how much attention to pay to the 'fact' that the present differs from 
the past the habitus will want it to resemble. At some point, 
continuing to do things as they have always been done (the habitus is 
embodied history FORGOTTEN as history) isn't the best strategy 

Bourdieu notes that the habitus, as an embodied history communicating 
with objectified history (the field), is susceptible to an hysteresis 
effect that can result in the actions it calls into existence achieving 
the kinds of negative sanctions it always intends to avoid "because the 
environment they actually encounter is too different from the one to 
which they are objectively adjusted" (SHP, Bourdieu, p62).

(4)CREATIVE/ARTISTIC: To me, the most interesting exercise of agency is 
the ARTIST. As suggested by George Free, there is something about the 
fields of cultural production & social transformation. In general, 
there are two strategies available for retaining/gaining symbollic 
capital: the first is to play the current game well, and the other to 
move to a novel (sub) field with its own rules. For the artist, this 
issue comes out in the Schools of Art, or "fashions" - the artist must 
choose whether to continue the tradition of which s/he is a part, or 
else go against the fashion, and defy the prevailing conventions. 
Neither the choice to defy convention nor the practices coming out of 
that defiance can be wholly determined by the structures (including the 
habitus) of that field. 

So, even though the artistic habitus may propose the strategy of 
defying the conventions as an opportunity to gain advantage in the 
artistic field, the habitus cannot provide the conventional way to defy 
artistic conventions - here is the space for the agency.

Likewise, the habitus may provide the strategy of "adjusting to the new 
world after some time has passed" to keep some advantage but the 
habitus cannot provide the answer on exactly what adjustments need to 
be made - here is the space for some agency. (ie 3)

In the same manner, the habitus will propose strategies of what to do 
when other habitus and other fields interfere with an agent's world, 
but the habitus can't provide the answer on whether the new ways of 
seeing & being are to be rejected, adopted or modified or whatever 
because a habitus (from the past) intrinsically doesn't understand 
things in the novel way of another  - here is the space for agency. (ie 

As for the human sciences, the habitus may instruct an agent to develop 
an understanding of the structures of the field and the habitus around 
it, or those of others - but the knoweldge that is thus gained is 
intrinsically unknown to the habitus, so the strategy of what to do 
with that knowledge and what it means can't come from the habitus - 
here is the space for agency. (ie 1)

* * * 


"you will never understand how it feels to live your life with no 
meaning or control" - Common People, PULP


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