Come Together (Bourdieu)

Economists rely on metaphors. Graphs, diagrams, the visual logic of geometry: these are especially favored among neoclassical economists for their explanatory power, even as neoclassical economics has been increasingly critiqued (see, for example, the post-autistic economics movement) for the ways in which these metaphors seem to be better at explaining themselves in a sort of idealized hermetic circle than they are at actually explaining the real workings of the world. Bourdieu, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, follows the lead of the economists with his graphs, diagrams, and curves (see, especially, pages 17 and 81 for figures that seem to explain more than they truly do): geometry, after all, has a rigor and a logic, and what sociologist would not want to borrow some of that power?

Much of conventional microeconomics, after all, rests on Pareto indifference curves, even though any good Econ 101 textbook admits that the model implied by the curves is not terribly realistic and leaves much unexplained (see, for example, Mankiw’s popular Principles of Economics, 4th edition, page 487). In fact, Bourdieu makes considerable use of economic rhetoric for its explanatory power, as when he argues in his preface that “the mode of expression characteristic of a cultural production always depends on the laws of the market in which it is offered” (xiii), implying that cultural production is somehow performed in the instrumental service of market-based and commodified cultural exchange, as if — to use a suitably reductive example — the consumption of two glasses of Montrachet Grand Cru is, in cultural terms, exchangeable for the consumption of seven tall boys of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The depersonalized market logic of Bourdieu’s terminology of “cultural capital” and “economic capital” is what seems least useful to me about his work.

Early in Distinction, even as I found myself agreeing with the overall thrust of his contention that “Hidden behind the statistical relationships between educational capital or social origin and this or that type of knowledge or way of applying it, there are relationships between groups maintaining different, and even antagonistic, relations to culture, depending on the conditions in which they acquired their cultural capital and the markets in which they can derive most profit from it,” I found myself again stumbling over his metaphors of money and exchange, so it was helpful a couple sentences later when he acknowledged that “There is no way out of the game of culture; and one’s only chance of objectifying the true nature of the game is to objectify as fully as possible the very operations which one is obliged to use in order to achieve that objectification. De te fabula narratur” (12). The last remark, quoted from Horace, can be understood as a comment on the necessity, in making use of these economic metaphors, for a reflexive and personal understanding: “the story’s about you.” The personal is not non-economic or outside the systems of culture, and one’s position still makes use of systemic logic. Bourdieu’s working in the mass economy’s dominant market-based logic and rhetoric, even as he’s urging us to be aware of our own intellectual predilections. For my part, I guess I’m a product of the logic of the emergent post-Fordist individuated economy, and I’m sure there are trends coming out of newer cultural and economic directions that my position blinds me to, and to which I’ll likely be even more in another twenty years. (Class theory in composition needs not only Mariolina Salvatori’s reflexive reading, not only Dave Sheridan’s reflexive digital rhetoric, but a self-aware and reflexive economics.)

Bourdieu goes on to assert that manners “are the visible traces of a mode of acquisition (domestic or scholastic),” and that they lend “the recognized possessors of the legitimate manner [within a certain class] an absolute, arbitrary power to recognize and exclude” (95). Furthermore, “the recognized holders of the legitimate manner [. . .] have the privilege of indifference to their own manner (so they never have to put on a manner). By contrast, the ‘parvenus’ who presume to join the group of legitimate, i.e., hereditary possessors of the legitimate manner, without being the product of the same social conditions, are trapped, whatever they do, in a choice between [. . .] the conformity of an ‘assumed’ behaviour whose very correctness or hyper-correctness betrays an imitation, or the ostentations assertion of difference which is bound to appear as an admission of inability to identify” (95). As identity, class is simultaneously performed and naturalized as the “of course” of social structures of difference in education, occupation, wealth, values, and so on. This is the way in which class becomes the structural made personal — but, as Bourdieu later demonstrates, the structures in which it is performed and naturalized are themselves highly diverse.

Perhaps most usefully demonstrative of this structural and relational diversity is the diagram (128-129) he uses to map the overlapping spaces of social positions (occupations, family composition, income, education) and lifestyles (types of music, sports, hobbies, arts and literature), with the diagram’s Y axis being greater or lesser volume of capital, and the diagram’s X axis moving from greater cultural capital and less economic capital to less cultural capital and greater economic capital. Bourdieu’s preceding explanation (126-127) argues that the overlap of positions and lifestyles is also structured by a third dimension — time and change — and this overlap is lived over time as particular and idiosyncratic experience, which itself is sensed as the difference between one’s individual self and collectives of massed, classed others. The factor I see complicating Bourdieu’s analysis is that, in some sense, many of us are now (perhaps incompletely) aware of the workings of this complicated phenomenon, and that awareness — I think — is a symptom (and possibly a cause, as well?) of the ongoing and increasing individuation of economy and culture.

This stuff — trying to draw together rhetorical metaphor, economics, class, culture, individuality, experience, and structural diversity — is incredibly tough going for me, and I’m sure my opaque attempts at explanation are even less easy on you, dear reader. Still, it’s rewarding for me, precisely because of the fact that all this stuff, finally, is starting to come together. I’m really excited about this chapter.

Come Together (Bourdieu)
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