Saturday, July 22, 2017

Class Warfare Redux, or, Pierre Bourdieu on Trial


In a recent editorial (New York Times, July 18, 2017), columnist David Brooks makes use of the theories of French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu (pictured above) in an effort to explain the Trump phenomenon. He describes Bourdieu as “the world’s most influential sociologist within the academy, and largely unknown outside of it.”

This remark in itself tells us something about the insular nature of academic sociology, and perhaps proves Bourdieu’s major point, which is that groups of people (that’s what sociologists study...but also what they are) develop a “habitus” or an “intuitive feel” for the social game, and such a habitus consequently shapes their habits, tastes, and values. To me this sounds like a circular description of what a social group is. Your environment and history shape your social habits, and your social habits shape your environment and history. If you don’t accept this commonplace notion, then sociology itself is bunk.


Dueling grillmasters - seeds of revolution
Brooks writes: “Your habitus is what enables you to decode cultural artifacts, to feel comfortable in one setting but maybe not in another. Taste overlaps with social position; taste classifies the classifier.”

Thus, Bourdieu “discovered” (by means of questionnaires, I presume)  that manual laborers are likely to enjoy listening to Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” but not Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Among academics the situation was reversed.

Even this simple example begins to suggest how limited and uncomprehending the sociological approach tends to be. People like a particular piece of music, not because their friends like it, but because it speaks to them personally. Academics tend to like Bach for the same reasons they became academics—it tickles their intellect. Hence the correlation. Working-class Joe’s like country music because they like “real songs about real people with real problems.” But some academics like rap, and some ore boat workers like Beethoven. Musical tastes are born largely from within. To take an extreme example, Bob Dylan loved black music from an early age and was convinced he’d been born into the wrong family.

Warfare within the habitus
Some of my friends like Greg Brown, others like Barry White. Some never tire of Irish music, while others cannot get enough of Balkan vocal dissonance. Some of my friends like musicals but steer clear of opera. With me the situation is reversed. We respect one another’s enthusiasms and devote some energy to expanding our own, but no one feels the need to conform to the habitus of the group.

But it appears that Bourdieu wasn’t all that interested in the subject of our multivarious habitae, except in so far as they can be exploited in the quest for personal and political power.  He argued (according to Brooks) that we make use of the cultural signs we receive from our habitus in an endless quest for personal prestige, with the ultimate objective of developing the power to “define for society what is right, what is ‘natural,’ what is ‘best.’ “

As Brooks describes the theory: “Every minute or hour, in ways we’re not even conscious of, we as individuals and members of our class are competing for dominance and respect. (emphasis added) We seek to topple those who have higher standing than us and we seek to wall off those who are down below. Or, we seek to take one form of capital, say linguistic ability, and convert it into another kind of capital, a good job.”

Once again, I find such an argument jejune, the reflection of a deprave and misanthropic intellectual who has never participated much in genuine social life. But let me hasten to add that there is a grain of truth in the theory. We have all found ourselves at one time or another in a social milieu that made us feel uncomfortable because its constituents were drawing from an unfamiliar set of signs and references. Usually the underlying factor is relative wealth. To reduce the situation to a couple of bald-faced stereotypes, the poor have bad taste ... but so do the rich. Only my own friends set the right balance between marble-topped kitchen counters and water in the basement, between Prairie Home Companion and Liquid Music, between the delights of the international film fest and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Competition is rife
And it occurs to me immediately to add that among this group, neither competition nor ostentatious displays of wealth have ever been part of the social equation. Some of my friends live very comfortably, while others might well be struggling with a mountain of debt, but I couldn’t tell you for sure which is which, and I wouldn't want to know.  

Pursuing the nuances of the situation further, I must admit that when I have occasion to socialize within a group that's obviously wealthier and more well-connected than I am, I'm often struck by the lack of pretension, the desire to extend hospitality rather than establish any type of superiority or dominance. (Perhaps this is because I am so obviously so far outside my limits of my own habitus that no social purpose would be served by "scoring point" off of me.)  

Bourdieu coined a famous phrase “symbolic violence” to describe the vicious power grabs executed within and between social groups making use of a host of “signs” including cultural references, acquisitions, clothing, and vocabulary. It’s a bad phrase, in so far as symbols are merely indicators or shadows of real things. By definition, real violence is worse than symbolic violence. More generally speaking, this theory fails to account for the deep and obvious interest of the occupants of many habitae to nurture their conviviality, extend their blessings, share their wealth, and develop a better understanding of tastes and values different from their own.

We call these people Democrats.

Perhaps Bourdieu, scrambling to maintain his dominance with his peculiar academic niche, had no experience with such a habitus. Protean and multifarious, it eludes the attention of both the statistician and the social climber, and it also challenges the ingenuity of campaign strategists to exploit with negative advertising.



But back to the subject at hand. Brooks writes: “Bourdieu helps you understand what Donald Trump is all about.” And yet, stripped of their high-flung terminology and pretensions, Bourdieu’s theories add nothing to our understanding of the current political situation. All Brooks (through Bourdieu) is saying is that when a boor is in the White House, it emboldens others to assert their own bigoted values and ideas. 

The underlying notion—that both “left” and “right” are playing the same harsh and violent game, making use of two different sets of propaganda that are morally indistinguishable—is simply not very discerning. It also vitiates the value of political opinion pieces, which, ipso facto, are stripped of their theoretical content and become nothing more than fusillades of a competitive and conniving class neither different from, nor wiser than, any other.  

I don’t believe this ... and neither, I think, does David Brooks.  

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