Monday, October 19, 2009

Pierre Bourdieu and Henry Higgins

One of the first scenes of the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion goes something like this (start at about the 7:00 mark):

Higgins shows off by being able to reveal anyone's personal history by means of precise phonetic analysis. This is at first judged with some suspicion, and then is taken as a sort of amusement, a parlor trick.

Higgins reduces his listeners to a bald set of major influences—in some cases (notably the lower class speakers), a single point, their place of birth; in others, a brief string: "Cheltenham-Harrow-Cambridge-India" (around the 8:30 mark). It is sort of fun, but also, as Clara says, "impertinent."

Pierre Bourdieu, it seems, is often also assumed to be impertinent—amusing perhaps, in the sense that it seems like fun to talk about how other people's tastes reveal the structures and institutions which have produced them, but nevertheless impertinent. No one likes the thought that they too can be reduced to a "Cheltenham-Harrow-Cambridge-India," that they can be read as easily as that. Partly, I think it's a resistance to the idea that we may actually be fairly simple people, that the unruly tangle of our thoughts and passions, rationales and rationalities can be hammered out into a straight dull line. Partly, it's a fear that our "accents" give us away too easily, that we are wearing our inner motivations too nakedly, that we cannot even tell how markedly visible they are. Do I really have a strong accent and I just can't hear it?

In the new n+1, Nicholas Dames reviews three works which he reads as post-"Bordelian"1: two works by Jacques Rancière (The Politics of Aesthetics and The Future of the Image) and Carl Wilson's Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. The manner by which Dames introduces Bourdieu is notable:
Those of us in commodity-rich, artistically saturated, more or less urbanized Western countries, at the start of the 21st century, know all too well how these games [of semiotics and society] are played. We know it instinctively, so well that the kind of confession of musical taste offered above has become a drearily familiar part of everyday life. We also know it because we know "Bourdieu," whether we've read the man or not. Pierre Bourdieu's most easily translatable idea—that aesthetic taste, or judgment, is always a move in the cultural game of "distinction," whereby we disaffiliate ourselves from social inferiors—progressed with astonishing speed from a daring argument against Kant's third Critique to conventional wisdom…
Bourdieu, Dames later says, is "responsible for the ironic knowingness of our present aesthetic discourse." In other words, despite writing Distinction at the end of the 70s, Bourdieu is the spirit of this moment, or at the very least of the moment that has just elapsed and still largely coats the immediate present. This I find questionable, not so much because of the stretched chronology (which is possible if not rigorously plausible) but because I would think that there might have been some developments since then which might more accurately account for the "ironic knowingness" of our present state of affairs—aesthetic or general. Like, say, television, or, more exactly, advertising. Maybe ad execs are big Bourdieu fans, or maybe (as Mad Men might suggest) there is a longer durée to ironic knowingness in advertising, much less in society at large.

More consequentially, Dames doesn't exactly protest that Bourdieu's known-without-being-read status is at all detrimental—to him or to the person who invokes him. In fact, Dames's treatment of Bourdieu strongly suggests he thinks that there really isn't anything more to Bourdieu than what has already been absorbed into a more general stance of "ironic knowingness," that we wouldn't get anything more out of Bourdieu by reading him than we would by osmosis, from hanging out with other people who haven't read him either but refer to him and generally cop the pose which evidently emanates from his work.

Dames, no doubt, has read a great deal more Bourdieu than I have, but I do feel that, based on what I have read, the above is not true; we would benefit from returning to the text in the same way we acknowledge it is vital to return to the texts of Foucault or Derrida or Marx to get their ideas right, or at least to try to get some more ideas out of them that we didn't pick up the first time. Moreover, the correspondence Dames leaves unquestioned between what Bourdieu's project was and the posture it supposedly produced might be broken up a bit.

This post has already gotten a little long, so I'm not going to be able to dig too far into the text yet. I do want to direct you to the Introduction, which is mostly available on Google Books. Unfortunately, page 3 is not, and that's the one that's pretty crucial, but first we need to deal with something on page 2.

A large part of Bourdieu's larger argument is figured at the very top of the page: "The manner in which culture has been acquired lives on in the manner of using it: the importance attached to manners can be understood once it is seen that it is these imponderables of practice which distinguish the different—and ranked—modes of culture acquisition, early or late, domestic or scholastic, and the classes of individuals which they characterize (such as 'pedants' and mondains)." This division of modes—the scholastic/pedant and the domestic/mondain is elaborated: Bourdieu first takes the scholastic theory of consumption as "reading." He finishes this brief description by concluding that, for the scholastic, "the encounter with a work of art is not 'love at first sight' as generally supposed, and the act of empathy… which is the art-lover's pleasure, presupposes an act of cognition, a decoding operation, which implies the implementation of a cognitive acquirement, a cultural code" (3).

All well and good perhaps—the scholar/pedant's emphasis on codes/decodings and sharply defined "acquirements" seems like the perfect ground for sociological analysis, practically ready to be pinned to a graph or sent through the tight mesh of a filtering survey. But then we turn to the art-lover herself:
The typical intellectualist theory of artistic perception directly contradicts the experience of the art-lovers closest to the legitimate definition; acquisition of legitimate culture by insensible familiarization within the family circle tends to favor an enchanted experience of culture which implies forgetting the acquisition.
This complicates things. Whereas the pedant is basically aiding the sociologist through her emphasis on nearly quantifiable status markers (what codes one can decode, what "acquirements" one has, what "cultural competences" one finds ways to demonstrate), the mondain seems to resist not only this particular kind of self-evaluation but also the very idea that the cultural competences she possesses are acquired at all, that the codes she implements are conscious at all. Or, as Bourdieu says later in the book,
The ideology of natural taste owes its plausibility and its efficacy to the fact that, like all the ideological strategies generated in the everyday class struggle, it naturalizes real differences, converting differences in the mode of acquisition [e.g. between learning about culture at home vs. at school] into differences of nature; it only recognizes as legitimate the relation to culture (or language) which least bears the visible marks of its genesis, which has nothing 'academic,' 'scholastic,' 'bookish,' 'affected' or 'studied' about it, but manifests by its ease and naturalness that true culture is nature—a new mystery of immaculate conception.
Although Bourdieu can, as with that last remark, be a bit snippy toward the ideology of "natural" taste, it is this basic structural asymmetry between the aesthete and the pedant, I think, which creates the perception of the Bourdieusian sociologist as a Henry Higgins-like disposition, impertinently fond of telling you that you are, in fact, quite easy to see through and quite easily reducible to a scant string of major influences—"Cheltenham-Harrow-Cambridge-India," or maybe in this case something like, "lower-upper-middle class parents, public high school, private liberal arts college, state-university medical school." Ah yes, so that's why you like Ian McEwan!

Essentially, the fact that the "aesthete" or art-lover (or mondain) is constructed as inherently resistant to the type of analysis Bourdieu employs (she is, instead, "enchanted" and eager to forget the less ethereal realities of cultural acquisition) requires the sociologist to pay a different kind of attention—what comes to look like a more sharply critical and "disenchanting" form of attention—to the aesthete, and to exert more effort to "de-naturalize" the idea of taste to the extent that the additional effort comes to seem like an excess, like either supercilious reductionism or coolly calculated meta-gaming. This excess causes the Bourdieusian sociologist to look like someone who is trying to "outdo" everyone at a game of status that he insists we're all playing.

But this perception depends tremendously on whether we agree or not that something like an ideology of "natural taste" exists—if it doesn't, then the extra effort required to de-naturalize it does become unnecessary and even crippling to the Bourdieusian standpoint. I am fairly certain such an ideology does exist, if for no other reason that on some bad days of my early collegiate career I tried very hard to put it into practice (not to mention that I seem to run into it in other people with considerable frequency). But at any rate, this, I think, is the place to stage a debate—does something like an ideology of natural taste exist as Bourdieu describes it? Does it exist in a strong enough form and with enough frequency that it merits the extra effort to de-naturalize it? Is the U.S. case different from the (arguably much more overtly class-stratified) French one (with which Bourdieu is dealing) to the extent that it substantially alters the dynamic of the pedant/aesthete conflict?

Looking over what I have written, I probably have not given enough of Bourdieu's argument for an adequate appraisal of the claims he makes. I will try to post some more on Distinction at the very least (unless this is completely uninteresting to everyone). Maybe I can get to some of his other work—there are a couple of essays in this book which might be useful to this discussion as well.

At any rate, I hope that I've at least made the start of a case for the value of actually returning to the text and not simply resting on what we "know" about Bourdieu, or about the cult of "ironic knowingness" which is unfortunately too synonymous with him.

1Evidently there is a discrepancy regarding the adjectivization of "Bourdieu"—Garth had "Boudieuvian," the sociologists I've heard use "Bourdieusian," and now here's the dark horse candidate "Bordelian." The Google Test awards the honors to "Bourdieusian"—there are "about 12,000 results for that, and just 677 for "Bordelian" and 694 for "Bourdieuvian."


Rob Horning said...

Eagleton's book The Ideology of the Aesthetic is pretty exhaustive when it comes to the historical uses of the ideology of "natural taste" -- definitely worth reading alongside Bourdieu.

Ray Davis said...

You might enjoy Michele Lamonts's research on the difference between "distinction" in France and in the United States. To crudely summarize, in the USA "cultural class" matters comparatively little. Which certainly matches my own cross-class experiences -- fashion and language use can betray or block mobility, particularly if racially weighted, but aesthetic preferences are considered a personal matter. We're more Higgins than Bourdieu.

Ray Davis said...

... but most of all we're about the money.