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Gender Unbender | The Nation

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Gender Unbender

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Pierre Bourdieu's newsworthiness has become news. The profile of him in the New York Times deals more with how bright his star is than with its substance, and quite a bit of the attention Bourdieu receives from the French press has to do with the attention he receives from the French press. What set this cycle into motion? In France, where academics play a much larger role in public life than they do here, academic visibility is neither rare nor strange. So why did Bourdieu's particular brand of it become a media spectacle?

There are a number of reasons, some of which are obvious--for example, volume. Bourdieu gives televised addresses on the ills of television. He speaks about charged political issues, such as labor and immigration laws, at large demonstrations. He writes incendiary Op-Ed essays in major newspapers. Of course, in order to be taken seriously as a scholar while you do much more than your colleagues in the public arena, much more volubly, you must also maintain enormous intellectual credibility. Bourdieu does. He is professor of sociology at the Collège de France, the apex of French academe, as well as director of studies at the prestigious École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. And Bourdieu very clearly worked his way to the top. In roughly forty years he has produced approximately thirty books, many of which are regarded by sociologists as major accomplishments. Indeed, the International Sociological Association put his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) on its list of the ten most important works of sociology written in the twentieth century.

The book examines how aesthetic taste builds and reinforces social hierarchies. It is a typical theme for Bourdieu, who seeks in all his research to lay bare hidden mechanisms of power. When he writes bestselling essays in an activist key, Bourdieu can claim to be drawing directly on his expertise. In this regard, as is often pointed out, he stands in close proximity to another postwar maître penseur, Sartre.

Bourdieu belongs to a different generation, of course, but not necessarily his own. In the early 1960s--before Foucault and Derrida--Bourdieu reoriented structuralism, which was then fashionable among French social scientists, and created a kind of poststructuralist theory. Bourdieu still uses structuralist code-cracking techniques; he sees culture as a series of "fields," each of which is organized according to its own deep grammar. But he dismisses the structuralist principle that you can explain the internal logic of a social system--language, for example--without reference to external factors. Throughout his career, Bourdieu's goal has been to trace shifts in the most autonomous fields, such as the evolution of aesthetic taste and the intensifying opacity of academic discourse, back to the struggle for social or "symbolic" power.

This mode of cultural analysis is quite unlike the other great French poststructuralisms, even the one to which it is most similar, Foucault's. Bourdieu may be interested in something he calls symbolic power; Foucault may have written a history of the prison. Yet the operations of power are much more concrete for Bourdieu than they are for Foucault, who often seems primarily concerned with highly abstract "discursive regimes" that have us by the seat of our subjecthood. And so Bourdieu sees more possibility for getting his hands on, and altering, the power structure: "We must work to universalize the conditions of access to the universal." You will not find a sentence like that in Foucault's writings.

At the same time, Bourdieu hardly exudes optimism. His worldview is dark, but not quite in the way critics generally make it out to be. What they tend to find most striking is the ubiquity of competition--how, for him, the grubby struggle to get ahead, to accumulate "symbolic capital," pervades all areas of culture, even the most refined. Yet something else weighs more heavily on Bourdieu: the unconscious complicity of the oppressed. Bourdieu's world is Kafkaesque rather than Brechtian. For hidden, complicated reasons, those who are "dominated" cede authority to an "established order" that is manifestly absurd. This, Bourdieu claims, is the great "paradox of doxa." Its prime example is masculine domination.

Bourdieu, accordingly, takes up the topic of gender inequality in most of his studies on symbolic power. In fact, his earliest research--on familial organization in North Africa's Kabyle society--figures prominently in his new book, as do ideas worked out in The Logic of Practice (1990). But Masculine Domination is neither a rehashing of old material nor a collection of thematically cohesive essays. Rather, it is itself an essay, the form of which may have been influenced by Virginia Woolf, whom Bourdieu repeatedly invokes as the guiding spirit of his project. For although he states that his deepest affinities are with To the Lighthouse, and not with Woolf's "endlessly quoted" feminist essays, Masculine Domination bears similarities to them in structure (its pointed argument is sustained over about 100 pages and divided into three sections), if not in style.

Following Woolf, Bourdieu wants to "suspend...'the hypnotic power of domination.'" With him, as with her, this means challenging readers to take a new approach to the problem, which in turn means exposing the inadequacy of existing approaches. Bourdieu believes that we produce gender identity. It is a function of our worldview, not a simple anatomical fact around which we form our worldview. For this reason he attacks "differentialist" feminists. By celebrating certain patterns of behavior as natural female strengths, they bolster the false consciousness on which masculine domination relies: the fallacy that what we consider to be male and female characteristics are essential properties. Bourdieu's attitude toward the most dynamic alternative to this feminism, constructivist gender theory, is more complex. He agrees with its main premise: that gender identity is a linguistic construct, right down to its most intimate parts. But he questions its practical value and argues that while constructivism probes forcefully, it does not probe far enough. It is insufficiently radical.

Here Bourdieu's position is refreshingly counterintuitive. For constructivist gender theory, which has been influential in France and the United States since the late 1980s and is itself refreshingly counterintuitive, appears to be nothing if not radical. Indeed, Monique Wittig, a well-known French constructivist, avers that she has no vagina. This claim may sound strange. But its basis is a rational response to a series of reasonable questions: What is the real significance of the term "vagina"? What is its referent? And what is its social function? The point is that "vagina" is not a neutral, innocent label that we give to a self-evidently discrete body part. Rather, as for Bourdieu, it is a concept that imposes an artificial order on the body and regulates our perception of it. When such concepts feel natural to us, when we see what they refer to as organic objects, we are confusing linguistic objects, objects we construct by "inscribing" names and borders onto the world, with diffuse physical reality.

Most of us accept as organically given a vast matrix of constructs, starting with our own bodies. According to critics like Wittig and Bourdieu, this leaves us blind to a very important fact: Power interests always guide our articulation of the world. Concepts not only designate objects, they carry meanings, meanings that generally will be advantageous to some of us. For example, the word "vagina" does not simply refer to a female anatomical feature. In our culture it connotes the defining feature of the female body, the locus of gender identity. And classifying people according to their reproductive organs reflects and institutionalizes a heterosexual bias.

One implication of all this is that when we use everyday language we reinforce meanings and structures of perception that support our gender norms, even where our utterances contain annihilating invectives against our gender norms. Since these meanings and structures depend on reinforcement from the very people who suffer under them, refusing to acknowledge words like "vagina," or playing with them subversively, counts, at least for some constructivists, as resistance. So does constructing identities that openly challenge "normal," heterosexual assumptions about the stability of gender and the natural function of certain body parts.

Bourdieu thinks otherwise. In his preface he declines, rather peremptorily, even to consider the idea that "parodic performances" of identity might loosen masculine domination. He calls instead for "political mobilization, which would open for women the possibility of a collective action of resistance." And in the body of his book Bourdieu writes, "Symbolic power cannot be exercised without the contribution of those who undergo it and who only undergo it because they construct it as such. But instead of stopping at this statement (as constructivism in its idealist, ethnomethodological or other forms does) one has also to take note of and explain the social construction of the cognitive structures which organize acts of construction of the world and its powers." In order to deconstruct patriarchy, it is not enough to speak in abstract terms about how gender identity is constructed. You need to know, in some detail, how gender identity has been constructed historically.

This is not exactly a novel proposition. Much research has been done over the past two decades on the historical construction of gender identity. In fact, Bourdieu draws freely on this research in his own book. What such works--he cites the second volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality as an example--have not done is grab the problem of masculine domination by its roots. They may go back to the ancient Greeks, as is the case with Foucault, but they discuss only famous interpretations of gender constructs (for instance, Plato's), not the ur-constructs that continue to undergird "masculine sociodicy." For Bourdieu it is crucial to penetrate to this level. If we do not, we will go on thinking in circles, laying down a Faustian injunction that is oppressive to both men and women: Become what you already are. Or, as Bourdieu puts it, "The particular strength of the masculine sociodicy comes from the fact that it combines and condenses two operations: it legitimates a relationship of domination by embedding it in a biological nature that is itself a naturalized social construction." Gender identity starts as a social construction, only to become biological. Because "it is brought about and culminates in profound and durable transformations of bodies (and minds)," masculine domination is its own justification. A relationship of domination produces the very biological differences that, when treated as ahistorical and organic, legitimize that relationship.

The way to break out of such "circular causality" is to "reconstruct the history of the labour of dehistoricization." And the way to do this is, again, to begin at the beginning, at the very beginning: with an archetype. In Kabyle society in North Africa there exists, according to Bourdieu, "a paradigmatic form of the 'phallonarcissistic' vision and the androcentric cosmology which are common to all Mediterranean societies." We can see, in Kabyle society, the foundation of Western patriarchal ideology being poured. By bringing to light similarities between it and us, Bourdieu hopes to show us that our most basic premises about gender rest upon an originary, arbitrary social construction and, therefore, cannot be timeless or natural.

Bourdieu analyzes Kabyle society for a second reason. He often asserts that symbolic power works only when the dominated come to see the world from the perspective of the dominant. The process through which this happens, "symbolic violence," is "gentle," "invisible" and "unconscious." It creates cognitive structures so deep and so durable that superficial enlightenment as to the constructedness of gender norms does not suffice to dismantle their coercive power. For as we all know, people who know better behave in accordance with pejorative gender norms, "despite themselves," all the time. More is necessary to break the hypnotic spell of masculine domination: the shock of seeing yourself, or a "paradigmatic" version of yourself, under hypnosis, and eerily unaware of it. Bourdieu thinks that by confronting us with gender relations in Kabyle society he will present us with our own "cultural unconscious," making visible the invisible workings of symbolic violence.

And so he takes us on a "detour through an exotic tradition" in his attempt to develop a forcefully historicizing, psychologically plausible and, therefore, practically effective gender theory. This plan is very compelling. Unfortunately, the detour turns out to be little more than a bleak frontage road. For Bourdieu simply points out a series of damning parallels between modern and Kabyle gender discrimination. He does not go into the latter in detail; the invisible process of symbolic violence never becomes visible--a visible target for critical analysis. Thus his argument does not quite reach its goal. Yet this small book contains many original insights and therefore great promise. Indeed, if Bourdieu decides to write a more comprehensive study of masculine domination, a study on the scale of The Logic of Practice or Distinction, he will produce a theoretical breakthrough in an important field. And that, of course, would be big news.

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